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Remote work-for-the-dole scheme has 'devastating' impact on Indigenous people, say participants




Janita Ulah had been out of town to attend a funeral when she returned home to some worrying news.

The Centrelink payments the 22-year-old relied on for basic necessities like food had been cut off.

Ms Ulah, who lives in the remote Aboriginal community of Warburton, Western Australia, had been away without a mobile phone and had missed activities required under the remote work-for-the-dole scheme.

She is one of 148 people in her community of 500 — and 33,000 nationally — taking part in the Federal Government's Community Development Programme (CDP), almost all of whom are Indigenous.
"My payments got stopped because I was unable to attend my appointment because I was in another community," she said.

"I came for a funeral but I didn't let them know. I had no phone to call them, that's why.

"It makes me feel a bit worried for what I will [be able to] eat or drink without my payments."

While Ms Ulah was able to resolve the issue and restore her payments with the help of her local Centrelink agent, she was left confused by the experience.

The scheme was designed to reduce unemployment and welfare dependency in remote areas of the country, and issues fines and other penalties to participants who do not comply with it.

But participants and advocates say that with little understanding of how the scheme works, the scheme's penalty regime had pushed local Aboriginal people further into poverty.
'They just don't know what to do'

Penalties for missing work-for-the-dole activities or not complying with the scheme's rules can range from one day's payment withheld, up to being cut off for eight weeks.

Data released under freedom of information by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet show 215,485 penalties were issued to people on the scheme across Australia in 2017.

The Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, who is responsible for the program, said through a spokesperson that penalties were "only applied as a last resort" under the CDP.

"These protections ensure that job seekers do not suffer unnecessary financial hardship," the spokesperson said.

But in Warburton, where there are next to no available full-time jobs, locals said penalties enforced under the scheme had left people confused and unable to afford food or other day-to-day expenses.

Like in many remote communities, English in Warburton is not widely spoken as a first language and the cost of living is significantly higher than in metropolitan areas.

According to the DPMC data, in 2017 4,334 penalties were issued across the Ngaanyatjarra Lands — which includes the Warburton community.

Joylene Frazer, who has lived in Warburton all her life, said the scheme was hurting young Indigenous people.

"Some young people don't understand and they find it hard, and they just give up ringing Centrelink," Ms Frazer said.

Indigenous people living in remote areas also faced significantly worse health outcomes than non-Indigenous people in other parts of the country.
Funerals were common, and people could travel great distances to attend them.

"When [young people] go away for funerals and that, and they miss their appointments, and some of them get cut off for eight weeks," Ms Frazer said.

"When they get cut off, they just don't know what to do. It makes them feel like they've got no money for food. It makes them worried."
Entire program a 'debacle'

The scheme required participants to complete community activities and regularly report to their job services provider in order to continue receiving payments.

Participants can be fined roughly $50 per day or have their payments halted entirely for eight weeks if they did not meet certain requirements.
This year's Federal Budget saw an announcement to change the program, after a damning Senate inquiry last year whose final report recommended the compliance and penalty system be replaced.

Senator Scullion's spokesperson said the Government would continue to "tailor these processes in a remote context specific to CDP participants".

"From February, remote job seekers will have access to an improved assessment process that will identify barriers to participation and ensure they are placed in activities most suited to their circumstances and skills," the spokesperson said.

"Some will also have reduced mandatory reporting requirements, simplifying their interactions with Centrelink and reducing the likelihood of being penalised."

Ngaanyatjarraku Shire president Damian McLean said he spent a lot of time working at the Warburton community office helping locals with their payment problems.

He said the scheme was a disaster and had pushed Aboriginal people living in his community further in to poverty.
"This program has just been a debacle. The Government won't walk away from it and they won't embrace a wider understanding of Aboriginal affairs," Mr McLean said. "And it's having a devastating effect on these communities.

"Very poor people were made a lot poorer. The community administrations were basically defunded so we are really struggling to keep our heads above water. It is very difficult for us.

"If you belt somebody for non-compliance, that's questionable at best. But if you keep belting them if somebody's demonstrated they don't have the capacity to comply, that's so much worse."
'We're going back to the ration days'

According to Mr McLean, there was little understanding among people in the community of how the scheme even worked and what was required of them.

"In fact, on the ground the participants themselves only have a very slender understanding what all these requirements are because most of it is heavily bureaucratised, particularly in the language," he said.
A previous arrangement that operated in Warburton for decades allowed the community to manage its own wages and payments.

But under the present scheme, local Warburton man Dereck Harris said people in his community have had their financial independence stripped from them.

"To most Aboriginal people I know, they say we're going back to the ration days where our old people in the [19]20s, 30s had to come to ration depots to get food," Mr Harris said.

"Well, some Aboriginal people are thinking it's the same thing that our grandparents were under, and we're going back to that same system, just with a different name."

"I got a front seat view of this orchestra, and Centrelink seems to be the conductor of this orchestra. And it's not turning out well. It's well orchestrated and working for them, [but] not for the people out here."
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