Caught up in CDP’s punitive web: what remote women have to win (or lose) on May 18


Few Australians experience more pain from government policy than Indigenous populations, and too often it is Indigenous women who bear the brunt. In today’s federal election piece, Zoe Staines (@Zoettes) of The University of Queensland places a gender lens over the troubling Welfare to Work remote community incarnation known as the Community Development Programme, and explains how it differentially disadvantages women.

As we race towards the federal election, there are arguably fewer areas where the two major parties’ policy platforms are more distinct than in Indigenous Affairs. An example of this chasm can be seen in the Coalition and Labor parties’ positions on Australia’s remote workfare program, the Community Development Programme (CDP), which involves about 80% Indigenous participation. CDP has the overt objective of moving its participants away from welfare and into work. Requirements vary, but can involve up to 20 hours of “work-like activities”, typically referred to as work for the dole. The programme has been criticised for failing to move people into employment and for being overly punitive. CDP participants have received financial penalties at higher rates than ever before and growing numbers are disengaging from the income support system altogether. CDP has been condemned by some for perpetuating modern slavery and breaching human rights. For Indigenous people, this caps a long history of harmful government intervention in post-colonial Australia.

There is general consensus that the CDP does not respect Indigenous autonomy or way of life. Due to caring duties, it is particularly harmful to women.  Photo credit: ‘You are on Aboriginal Land’ poster by Marie McMahon, Jessie Street National Women’s Library.

There is general consensus that the CDP does not respect Indigenous autonomy or way of life. Due to caring duties, it is particularly harmful to women. Photo credit: ‘You are on Aboriginal Land’ poster by Marie McMahon, Jessie Street National Women’s Library.

The Coalition has committed to path dependency on CDP. Rather than heed calls by Indigenous leaders and communities across Australia to remove the punitive programme, the Coalition Government has instead been tinkering around the edges of the policy, recently implementing incremental reforms that largely stay the course. These reforms do not address or reverse the programme’s many failures.[i] In contrast, Labor has committed to ending the CDP, though the details of a replacement programme are unclear.

On these grounds alone, the election will have a profound impact on the lives and futures of remote Indigenous Australians. This will be particularly the case for Indigenous women, whose experiences under CDP are distinct.

In 2016, about 44% of the (then) approximately 28,971 CDP participants were women. Participants are required to undertake work for the dole activities. If they fail to comply, their welfare income can be suspended or stopped.  

According to a recent evaluation report, CDP activities are not always suitable for women; the government-commissioned report stated, “…young women were intimidated by a gender imbalance in the activity or ‘unsafe’ or ‘culturally inappropriate’ workspaces for women at the CDP.” For instance, it is culturally inappropriate for some young women to be in the vicinity of men, particularly where this includes men from beyond their families and/or when there is a background of familial conflict. Of a survey sample of 314 CDP participants, women were less likely than men to say they felt ‘good’ in CDP activities (26% versus 39%, respectively). However, the choice not to attend can result in penalties and lost income.

Experiences of domestic violence may also create further barriers to women’s attendance. Women experiencing domestic violence may, for instance, not be permitted by an abuser to attend activities, may be too injured, or may feel too ashamed to attend. This is reflected in another study, which discussed the case of a female participant who was only able to fulfil her CDP obligations after her abusive spouse was incarcerated for violence committed against her. Before that time, her physical injuries were often a cause of non-attendance.

Women’s caregiving responsibilities can also play a role. In general, Australian Indigenous women undertake caring responsibilities (e.g. for children and adults with illness and disabilities) at even higher rates than their non-Indigenous counterparts. For instance, in 2011, about 19% of Indigenous women were carers for a person with a disability compared with 15% of non-Indigenous women. (Male carers accounted for about 13% of Indigenous men and 10% of non-Indigenous men.) This is attributable at least in part to higher rates of disability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which are approximately double what they are for the non-Indigenous population.

Participants under CDP who are the primary carer for a child can have their mutual obligation requirements removed (when the child is aged 0 to 5) or reduced (when the child is aged 6–16 years). However, other caregiving responsibilities that are supposed to be taken into account in the ‘personal factor’ section of the Job Seeker Classification Instrument (JSCI) are sometimes overlooked. This may occur for a number of reasons. For example, participants’ circumstances may change without being reassessed by Centrelink, and/or language and other barriers may mean that the assessment does not appropriately reflect their situation. When this occurs, women are essentially punished for choosing to fulfil caring roles over participating in work for the dole.

In a recent study, a female CDP participant providing care to disabled family members and children had received multiple penalties for non-attendance at activities, as well as a ‘serious’ penalty period of eight weeks without pay.[ii] She eventually had her caregiving responsibilities recognised, but not until after she had experienced loss of income. Other caregivers captured in the study were not afforded the same leeway. A recent Senate Inquiry into CDP also reported accounts of pregnant and parenting women who had their payments suspended for not fulfilling their activity obligations.[iii] Some of these women had turned to emergency relief funding to provide food and rent for their families.

Caregiving carries immense social benefit. In remote Indigenous communities, caring is woven into social custom. However, it is still overwhelmingly rendered invisible in binary conceptions of ‘work’. If work is unpaid and occurs beyond the market, it is not valued.[iv]

A previous policy approach — the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) scheme — did a better job at recognising different facets of community work, and also empowering remote Indigenous communities to make local decisions about the types of work they valued. However, under CDP, decisions about appropriate activities are made by a faraway bureaucracy. Often, they do not resonate with the lives and needs of remote participants.

Women get caught up in CDP’s punitive web in a number of distinct ways. Against a backdrop of incredibly underwhelming employment outcomes, we must continue to question the motives for this programme (along with broader punitive workfare policies). Policies that do more harm than good and exacerbate rather than alleviate poverty should not be tolerated. The election outcome will determine whether CDP will continue, or finally be abandoned.    

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens, and this piece is part of our Federal Election series 2019. Photo credit for the voter’s box in our logo: Flaticon. View our other policy analysis pieces here and follow us on Twitter @PolicyforWomen


[i] For instance, see: Altman, J. 2016. A most egregious transition: CDEP to CDP, in Jordan, K. and Fowkes, L. (Eds.) Job creation and income support in remote Indigenous Australia: moving forward with a better system, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) Topical Issue 2/2016, CAEPR: Canberra.  

[ii] Staines, Z. 2018. Ground-level impacts of remote employment policy: social disadvantage under the Community Development Programme. Journal of Australian Political Economy, (82): 107-132.

[iii] See Senate Standing Committee on Public Finance and Administration (SSCPFA). 2017. Inquiry into the appropriateness and effectiveness of the objectives, design, implementation and evaluation of the Community Development Programme. Parliament of Australia: Canberra, p. 44.

[iv] Neysmith, S. and Reitsma-Street, M. 2005. ‘Provisioning’: conceptualizing the work of women for 21st century social policy. Women’s Studies International Forum, 28: 381-391.