Eighteen-year-old Mel Inkamala is strolling around the Santa Teresa community garden with his left hand tucked inside a grey vest.
He is holding a cordless phone, occasionally bringing it to his ear, checking he is still on hold.
“Just waiting … I’m on participation,” he says, referring to Centrelink’s hotline for people breached under the Community Development Programme (CDP).
The young Aboriginal man has missed a CDP work-for-the-dole activity, which means he is being fined a day’s welfare payment.
CDP participants must do 25 hours of tasks each week, which is up to three-times longer than other welfare recipients.
For a person on Newstart, which is generally under $300 a week, penalties are about $50 per breach.
Mel puts the call on loudspeaker.
A quick glance at the phone’s display shows that generic, classical on-hold music has been playing for almost 50 minutes.
“Just missed one day … and fixing that up again,” he says.
Someone in a Centrelink call centre picks up after a few more minutes.
But wait times can be much longer.
Kathrine O’Donoghue works for a Central Australian CDP service provider and says people are too often “waiting on the phone for sometimes three or four hours”.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion admits there is a problem.
“I have heard of those reports and I understand that they’re valid. That has been for some time,” he said.
“While the numbers are low, Centrelink is doing their best to deal with that matter.”
Santa Teresa is a former Catholic mission, and its religious history lives on.
After one hour’s drive from Alice Springs, a huge cross on the ridge above the community comes into view.
At the end of the town’s main street is a diminutive church glowing white under a cloudless sky.
Inside, the building’s walls are adorned with paintings of Aboriginal biblical figures.
Last year’s Census says the town’s population of about 600 people is 84 per cent Catholic, making it possibly the most Catholic place in Australia.
Divine intervention or prayer time, however, should not be needed to deal with Centrelink.
That’s because Santa Teresa has a Centrelink office.
The grandly-named Australian Government Business Complex is a small, beige demountable with a tin roof.
There is a misplaced shopping trolley sitting in the dead grass out the front.
It is one minute’s walk (including sidestepping a local dog) from the local CDP provider, CatholicCareNT.
But Centrelink’s shopfronts do not deal with CDP penalties.
Instead, Mel Inkamala and others are phoning the agency “every day basically,” says CatholicCareNT’s Dylan McKinley.
“If they miss one day, there’s still that obligation that they need to talk to Centrelink,” Mr McKinley said.
Between about 15,000 and 20,000 people nationally are required to work for welfare payments under CDP.
In two years, at least 300,000 fines have been imposed, mostly on Aboriginal people.
The Men’s shed making a difference
In Santa Teresa, participants can choose between five different activities.
One involves tending to the community garden. Another is cooking as part of the Terrific Tucker program.
And on the outskirts of town, beyond its 100 or so houses, an old power station has been converted into a men’s shed.
“This would be one of our better attended activities, and it’s about 70 per cent attendance,” Mr McKinley said.
“They can work at their own pace, and they can develop their own projects that they want to do.”
Some of those here are barely beyond their teens. Others wear silver beards on weathered faces.
Near the front gate, a few of the men are carving into used car tyres, turning the rubber into leaves for palm tree sculptures.
At the back of the building, Donovan Huddleston is quietly working alone under a shade cloth.
He is applying the last coats of lacquer to second-hand wooden pallets that he is transforming into a bench.
“It’s the first one, first one I did,” he says. “It came out nice.”
He has been on work-for-the-dole for three years and enjoys the men’s shed.
“[It’s] alright … [I] talk to the fellas … they help you out … Yeah, it’s pretty good here.”
Not all activities are built equal
The remote work-for-the-dole scheme covers three quarters of Australia’s landmass.
Of the dozens of activities undertaken, not all are popular or worthwhile.
Last year, the ABC revealed one involved teaching “women about personal grooming and hygiene“, while another is “Plastic Fantastic 3D printing training”.
Not wanting to endure hours of low-value tasks, or navigate Centrelink’s labyrinthine systems, some people are dropping off Centrelink altogether.
Mr McKinley says those withdrawing frequently are young people.
“Often it puts pressure on the family … mum and dad would be expected to provide.
“[The parents] might just be getting a Centrelink payment as well, so then that’s a portion of their money that has to go to help support the person who’s not getting paid.”
This observation is supported by another CDP provider, Alice Spring’s Tangentyere Council Aboriginal Corporation.
Its submission to the Senate inquiry cites Government research showing 47 per cent of Aboriginal people in very remote areas are unemployed and not on Centrelink.
“There’s a component of that figure who are maybe young adults who aren’t receiving income support,” Tangentyere’s Michael Klerck said.
Asked about the issue, Senator Scullion says “there’s no evidence to demonstrate that”.
“I’ve looked into every single allegation … from people are going hungry … that the amount of money [spent at] each store has depressed,” he said.
“All of the ones that have been provided to me we’ve investigated, and there’s no basis to them.”
Two independent investigations are underway into the scheme.
The Senate committee and Australian National Audit Office will no doubt propose a raft of reforms.
Until changes are adopted, Mel Inkamala and thousands of other Aboriginal people will keep getting fined, and will be kept on hold, waiting for a better system.
Reported by Dan Conifer – ABC
Source: ABC News
Controversial work-for-the-dole scheme taking a toll on young Indigenous people – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)