Indigenous communities slapped with more fines under Government work-for-the-dole scheme


Data shows Exclusive by political reporter Dan Conifer, Andrew Kesper and FOI editor Michael McKinnon

Disturbing new data reveals the impact Australia’s flagship remote employment program is having on Indigenous people across the country, prompting claims it is worsening poverty in communities.

Key points:

  • CDP work-for-the-dole program compulsory for unemployed people in remote areas, and they can be fined $50 a day for missing activities
  • Places with more Indigenous participants issued with more fines last year
  • Participants in one Aboriginal community fined estimated average 15 times last year

Unemployed people in remote areas must take part in the troubled Community Development Program (CDP) to receive welfare payments and can be docked about $50 per day for missing activities.

Region-by-region penalty statistics show places with higher levels of Indigenous participants were issued with more penalties, prompting claims the $275-million-a-year scheme is “racist”.

Work-for-the-dole participants in one Aboriginal community were slapped with infringements an estimated 15 times last year on average, worth at least $650 per person, or 6 per cent of their annual income, according to data obtained by the ABC.

Explore our interactive map to see which regions are being issued with the most fines;


Jawoyn man Jamie Ahfat said being on CDP at Barunga in the Northern Territory was like being a “slave” after being breached up to three times a week and once being cut off payments for eight weeks.

A man wearing a brown cap and shirt plays the didgeridoo.

PHOTO: Jamie Ahfat said being on CDP at Barunga in the Northern Territory was like being a “slave”. (ABC News)

“I couldn’t pay for the rent, I didn’t have money to buy food the whole time during the whole eight weeks,” Mr Ahfat said.

“I felt really terrible and down because, you know, the program was not set up to fail, it’s supposed to be set up to gain employment.

“It was terrible. I had to ask my family, I had to humbug my elders [for money], and they only get [a] pension just to survive.”

Mr Ahfat said he was issued the fines on days when he attended activities and he suggested there were communication problems between the CDP provider and Centrelink.

The ABC obtained 2017 penalty data under Freedom of Information laws and compared the data to participant numbers from 2015.

Last year, CDP workers received an estimated:

  • 15 penalties per person on average in the Milingimbi/Ramingining region of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory
  • 12 penalties each on average in the Halls Creek/Tjurabalan region in the East Kimberley in Western Australia
  • 11 penalties each on average in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) region of South Australia

More than 98 per cent of CDP participants in each of the three regions are Indigenous, according to the 2015 data.

Most participants in the Federal Government’s mainstream work-for-the-dole scheme, Jobactive, were not slapped with penalties last financial year.

Australian National University researcher Lisa Fowkes described CDP as a “very” racist scheme that is “impoverishing Aboriginal communities”.

“This is part of a perfect storm of issues that are making life harder, more challenging, and also robbing people of a future in remote communities,” she said.

In the Central West region of Queensland, where just a quarter of participants are Indigenous, participants were issued fines an estimated 0.33 times each on average last year.

Remote unemployed issued more fines than other jobseekers

Centrelink strips people of their payments if they miss work-for-the-dole activities, costing someone on Newstart about $50 per day.

CDP has 60 regions covering most of Australia’s land mass, and participants were issued penalties an estimated six times each on average last year.

Many communities are among the most disadvantaged in Australia where employment opportunities are very limited.

In Milingimbi, east of Darwin, the latest census data showed only 18 per cent of the town’s 1,225 residents were employed.

More than 80 per cent of CDP participants nationwide are Indigenous.

Indigenous communities on hold

Work-for-the-dole participants are enduring half-a-day call wait times with Centrelink to avoid crippling penalties.

The Arnhem Land Progress Association (ALPA) is an Aboriginal organisation that runs CDP activities in the Milingimbi/Ramingining region and acknowledges “there are too many penalties”.

“In Arnhem Land, cultural practices and traditional lifestyle are maintained at a very high level, which don’t necessarily align with the rigidity of the current CDP,” ALPA’s Liam Flanagan told a recent Senate hearing.

But the Federal Government describes CDP as a “resounding success” that allows people to participate in activities that “promote the maintenance of culture”.

“The vast majority of Australians, including the residents of remote communities, support the notion that all job-seekers, no matter where they live, should be required to fulfil activity requirements in return for receiving welfare,” |a spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said.

People who repeatedly miss activities — tasks such as furniture making and training including hygiene classes — can be cut off from welfare payments for eight weeks.

Participants in the Milingimbi/Ramingining region were hit with a two-month payment freeze an estimated 2.5 times each on average during 2017.

In 20 other regions — where at least nine out of 10 CDP workers are Indigenous — it is estimated participants were handed eight-week penalties once each on average.

Most eight-week penalties are fully or partly waived, and many one-day penalties are waived, but the data does not show the number of penalties imposed.

In May, the Coalition announced 6,000 subsidised award-wage jobs as part of the program, along with reducing the maximum workload from 25 hours per week to 20 hours.

“These are important reforms that communities have asked for,” the spokesman said.

Senator Scullion’s office said it was disappointing to see community organisations spreading, “baseless and inaccurate claims about the CDP”.

Northern Territory CDP participants worst hit

In the Northern Territory, about a quarter of its Indigenous population takes part in CDP.

Territorian participants were breached an estimated 7.5 times on average in 2017, receiving about three more penalties than CDP participants elsewhere in the country.

Mr Ahfat said his experience with CDP had improved since moving from Barunga to Katherine earlier this year because of the volume of CDP penalties he was receiving in his home community.

Barunga is part of the Central Arnhem region, where participants were issued fines an average of 11 times each during 2017.

“When I look at CDP overall, it don’t work … I see a lot of people suffering, not just the participants, all family members, all Indigenous people, we’re all at the bottom of the ladder,” Mr Ahfat said.

The ABC has calculated the average fine level per person based on penalty data from throughout 2017and work-for-the-dole participant data from January 5, 2015.

The ABC repeatedly asked the Prime Minister’s Department, which is responsible for Indigenous affairs, for participant data that covered the whole of 2017, but it was not provided.

The number of CDP participants nationally has declined from nearly 37,000 in January 2015 to about 33,000 during the entire 2016-17 financial year, and participant numbers have not significantly increased in any individual region.

Participant numbers have dropped by 25 per cent or more in nine regions: Yaaliku, Karratha, East Kimberley, Gulf, Upper Darling, West Isa/Alpurrurulam, Palm Island, Northern Peninsula Area, Torres Strait Islands.

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