Workfare in Australia: Indigenous Work for the Dole Policies

Following on from our post last week, below Jon Altman offers his thoughts on Indigenous Work for the Dole policies. Jon Altman is an emeritus professor of the Australian National University based at the Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet), College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU. From 1990–2010 he was foundation director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.


It is becoming increasingly common for the Australian governments to announce unpopular Indigenous policy reform on a Friday or Saturday with a judicious ‘exclusive’ pre-release to The Australian newspaper. And so it was on December 6 last year when proposals to radically reform the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP) from 1 July 2015 were announced: ‘Remote dole rules [to be] twice as tough’ screamed the page 1 headline picking up the key element, a tough new regime, in Minister Scullion’s media release benignly titled ‘More opportunities for job seekers in remote communities’.

The ministerial release predictably critiqued Labor’s version of RJCP that had been launched with much fanfare on 1 July 2013 that targeted 30,000, mainly Indigenous, unemployed people in 60 remote regions for training and employment using a complex system to reward providers for exiting the unemployed into job outcomes or training completions. Scullion asserted that RJCP:

‘failed local communities because it wasn't geared to the unique social and labour market conditions of remote Australia. Labor simply put the urban model of employment services into remote Australia. The result was widespread disconnection and a return to passive welfare. The Forrest Review – Creating Parity, highlighted that idleness is again entrenched in many remote communities, significantly contributing to the erosion of social norms’.

The diagnosis is arguably correct but the draconian suite of measures proposed as a cure is deeply flawed: work for the dole is to be undertaken for 5 hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year; training is only to be provided if linked to a real job or work for the dole activity; funding for new enterprises will provide jobs and work experience opportunities; and grandfathered CDEP wages guaranteed to 30 June 2017 will now wind down early so that all job seekers can be treated in the same way.

Senator Scullion explains the tougher work for the dole requirements, more hours a week, more weeks per year as deliberate because ‘there are a lot less available jobs in remote communities’. And so in the absence of jobs, his flawed logic suggests, people need to be engaged in activities that reflect real ‘work-like tasks’: ground maintenance, cleaning, market gardens. But remunerations will be limited to Newstart and so people will be required to work for far less than award wages, an approach reminiscent of the pre-award 1960s and discriminatory training allowances.

New enterprises envisioned include hair salons, butchers, bakeries and clothes shops, but there seems to be little attention given to whether such businesses already exist or are desired or are commercially viable. And people on Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) wages are to be treated like the unemployed in the name of equity, limited to earning welfare rather than more lucrative wages.

The proposed reforms are referred to as the first policy response to the Forrest Review of Indigenous employment and training programs, but there are no such dire recommendations among the nearly 200 in the deeply flawed and unfocused The Forrest Review – Creating Parity.

As revealed by parliamentary secretary Alan Tudge—co-reviewer with Andrew Forrest, former employee of Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute and current colleague of Minister Scullion—in a subsequent piece in The Australian on 9 December 2014 these proposed changes are about ending what he describes as ‘community passivity and associated dysfunction’ by providing meaningful activity every day. His neoliberal assumption is that if the state disciplines Indigenous labor then work and real prospects will magically flow to remote Indigenous communities. And if people do not turn up for work they will be punished by a strictly enforced ‘no show, no pay’ rule’. On the same day in the same newspaper Andrew Forrest is reported as extoling the virtue of these proposed changes ‘as a first step towards Creating Parity’.

These proposals will do no such thing and should be vigorously opposed by influential civil society organisations like St Vincent de Paul. They are regressive and arguably discriminatory, they are reminiscent of pre-award ‘training allowances’ paid to Indigenous Australians in the 1960s and they will result in poverty not parity by punishing the poor, the different and now those who choose to live remotely, on or near their ancestral lands.

What is needed is some realistic assessment of what meaningful activity is available for Indigenous people in remote Australia where they enjoy comparative advantage and how livelihoods might be improved. Instead we see proposals based on imagined and utopian market capitalism driven by state intervention.

What is needed is state support to empower Indigenous people and communities. There was a program once, the Community Development Employment Projects scheme that in its heyday combined employment creation, income support and social and commercial enterprise development. It was administered by 260 community-based organisations with 35,000 voluntary participants. Its relative merits according to much cost/benefit calculation from evidence-based research were greatly superior to the RJCP and flawed proposals currently being promoted.

The Abbott government has shown itself adept at backflips; here is an occasion where such gymnastics are urgently needed before we see more deeply entrenched poverty and anomie among vulnerable Indigenous people living in remote Australia.