One of the greatest opportunities ever offered for Aboriginal empowerment and advancement was the Community Development Employment Program. CDEP was created by the Frazer Coalition Govt in 1977, for remote community members:
- as an alternative to entrenched unemployment;
- as a means of achieving community development;
- as a means of enhancing the economic status of participants
- as a means of receiving on-the-job work experience.
And was promoted to communities as follows, for example:
- You can use CDEP to improve your community by fixing things or building new things.
- CDEP can give your community or group the chance to do what you have decided is important.
- You can bring money into your community by selling things or getting people to pay for things you do (contracted labour).
- CDEP can help you to learn new skills and to do things better.
- CDEP gives individuals and communities a sense of pride and confidence in what they have done.
CDEP began in 7 remote communities in 1977. By 1990/91, around when ATSIC was created, the program had grown to fund around 18,000 participants in 170 organisations or communities. And by 1994/95, there were over 27,000 participants in over 250 organisations or communities.
Administrative Tasks and Financial Commitments
The organisations responsibilities were to create a work scheme employing the number of participants that they were funded for. This required the organisation to:
- develop, each year in advance, work plans and budgets for the project;
- recruit, employ and maintain the requisite number of participants;
- form the participants into a work force of specific activity-orientated work groups, and appoint supervisors;
- develop a pay structure to accommodate differing ages and responsibilities;
- Record and pay participants for hours worked, on a weekly basis;
- deduct income tax from each employee, and remit as group tax at the end of each month;
- pay worker’s compensation and all insurances pertaining to the project;
- pay superannuation for all full-time staff;
- purchase budgeted materials and equipment as needed throughout the year to enable each work group to carry out its planned activities;
- revise work plans and budgets during the year, whenever changes arise in the project’s planning or expenditure, or funding to the CDEP is altered;
- keep auditable account of all expenditure;
To ensure continued funding, each CDEP had to provide:
- an application, containing budget and work plan, to account for all intended expenditure. This must be lodged some seven months in advance of the following financial year.
- a quarterly list of participants. This must be provided to ATSIC one month in advance of the beginning of each quarter.
- quarterly financial statements for each grant, including expenditure against budget, list of capital purchases, debtors and creditors and bank statements. These must be provided within two months after the end of each quarter.
- revised budgets and workplans for all variations in expenditure, including any revisions to funding from ATSIC.
- a full set of audited accounts for the year, to be provided annually, within three months after the end of each financial year.
Running Costs in Remote Communities
CDEP paid participants approximately the equivalent of the unemployment benefit as wages. Materials, tools, insurance, administration and overheads were funded in total at around 40-45% of this amount, making it an exceptionally inexpensive work-scheme. CDEP was ATSIC’s largest program, accounting for around 40% of their total budget.
In its basic application, CDEP was a compact, and elegant scheme that easily led to significant community improvements, at least in the earlier years.
One remote FNQ community operated a beer canteen that was a cause of impoverishment and considered by many residents to be the greatest source of community difficulties. After a CDEP had started in the settlement, drinking gradually diminished, with many participants not drinking after work during the week. The canteen atmosphere, which had been very raucous, quietened down and improved until eventually, patrons would discuss the next week’s activities with the coordinator over a quiet beer on Friday evenings after the pays were given out. Mid-week drinking dramatically reduced. Much of the beer canteen takings now were spent in the community store, to the improved health and wellbeing of the community. They decided to take their football seriously that year, and won the local championship
Demise of CDEP
Coordinators Not Funded
Even though CDEP has always been a high-powered work scheme that required intense, pro-active driving, funding had never been made available to manage, co-ordinate or administer it for more than the first 20 years of its existence. On communities, it was simply added to the already over-loaded CEOs tasks.
One large, remote CDEP employing over 300 participants had around 70% on sit-down, while a large number of imported, non-Aboriginal staff were employed to do non-specialised work that could easily have been carried out by participants. The scheme did not employ any supervising person to ensure that work was organised for participants, or that their aspirations were being catered for.
Merged and Muddled with Urban CDEPs
Urban CDEPs, when they eventually started up, needed to be an independent design specifically for urban needs. Imposing the remote model in urban settings did not meet their needs, and became too easily dysfunctional and applying urban band-aids compromised remote CDEPS good functioning. The recent changes to urban CDEPs to reflect urban needs points out this dysfunction.
No Detailed Instruction Manual Supplied
Although ATSIC produced a comprehensive CDEP manual for POs and FOs, they did not provide a copies to communities. Extending the ATSIC top-down approach into communities, some FOs kept the CDEP manual to themselves, presenting themselves like all knowing superiors, who could advise their clients what they could or could not do, rather than enable an informed constituency to develop a functional understanding of how things were supposed to work, and make competent decisions. ATSIC had become terrified of being blamed by communities for giving bad advice, and maintained a very distant and detached, patronising approach to communities as the unquestionable authority.
Exorbitant Compulsory Overheads
As the scheme became more structured, and under the scrutiny of mainstream institutions, compulsory insurance, superannuation and worker’s compensation alone accounted for more than 70% of the recurrent budget of a 50 person CDEP, and around 55% of the recurrent budget of a 100 person CDEP, dramatically reducing availability of funds for CDEP activities.
Could Not be Augmented with Other Work and Training Schemes
CDEP participants were prevented by policy from embracing and using many useful workplace training schemes for the unemployed or low-income recipients, unless they left the CDEP scheme altogether, creating a disconnect between CDEP and training schemes, affectively cutting CDEP off from all established training schemes, and cutting trainees off from applying their skills under CDEP. This meant that CDEPs would be filled by unskilled workers, who were required to do the real work, but without prior or concurrent training.
The paper jungle was never streamlined to develop a tight, taut, lean and mean reporting system, to nail down the money, while encouraging outcomes. As patches were added, what began as a simple, homely work scheme, became a paper jungle of reporting, most of which were irrelevant to the communities own, self-feedback needs of managing and improving itself.
Some reporting deadlines would require multiple reports to be submitted. For instance the November 30/December 1 reporting deadline required CDEP organisations to submit at one time:
- 1st Qtr financial returns,
- 3rd Qtr participant schedules,
- CDEP grant applications, including work plans and budgets for next financial year,
- Any other grant applications for the next financial year.
This created extreme burdens on individual CDEPs. If they failed to meet compulsory reporting deadlines, it would result in breaches and a disqualified grant application. Concentrating on avoiding breaches meant less attention to grant applications, many of which were not submitted, or were submitted incomplete or done perfunctorily, which would not be likely to get prioritised.
To create savings, funding cuts were made to Capital budgets of CDEPs of over 150 participants, reducing it by 60%, to a level that below that of CDEPs with less than 100 people, seriously restricting their Capital expenditure. Some CDEPs voluntarily capped their participants at 149, to avoid being deprived of needed funds.
Annual Acquittals Prevented Long-Term Planning and Continuous Operations
ATSIC required that CDEP budgets be fully expended and acquitted each year, preventing long-term projects from occurring. On one occasion, the new financial year funding was 2 months late, throwing many CDEPs into crisis, after being required to fully expend annual funds, only a few weeks before.
Capping Participant Numbers
By the mid 1990s, what should have become a smooth, highly functional work scheme, had instead become overly complicated, internally dysfunctional, and was burdened by too many clumsy band-aids, making it difficult for CDEP organisations to run well. “Ghostings”, or fictitious participants had crept into a few CDEPs, suggesting a need to tighten audit trails. From ATSIC’s perspective, it had simply become too big to manage. Already disenchanted, they had previously attempted to foist the wages section of CDEP onto the predecessor of Centrelink.
Creating Passive Welfare
Instead of streamlining the program to reduce baggage and internal conflicts, overall participant numbers were capped at 28,000, no new CDEPs were allowed to start, non-remote CDEPs were restricted to existing numbers, and remote CDEPs were restricted to only natural population increases in numbers between 16 and 25 years old. This reintroduced the concept of unemployment into remote communities, where some worked and others did not, whereas previously, all eligible persons were on CDEP. Now the unemployed could sit around and watch CDEP workers toil for no more money. It created the disincentive to work, and began the reintroduction of passive welfare to remote communities, and began the downhill slide of many CDEPs and the settlements to which they were associated. This marked the beginning of the demise of CDEP, with the disincentive to work now hard-wired into the program.
The Senate was fairly hostile about the underperformance of ATSIC and of CDEP in particular. Reviews were to be conducted every 6 months and submitted to the senate. For many regional offices, CDEP reviews became an exercise in counting heads and submitting data etc, without revealing the underperformance of the CDEP as a whole, or its contribution or lack of to community improvement. Reviews did not focus on management of CDEP, and did not assess effectiveness of outcomes. Many CDEPS were able to keep gradually degenerating, until falling into a hole.
Cancellation of All Funding for Training the Management of CDEP
Co-ordination of CDEP had never been funded, but was tacked onto the CEO’s already too many tasks. Eventually, some CDEPs were able to have CDEP coordination funded indirectly, from elsewhere, usually as a Trainer, which did not acknowledge the mass of other work being done in the position. Then, following a 10% cut in the ATSIC budget by the Federal Govt in 1996, ATSIC axed all Community Training Programs and all Community Youth Support programs, effectively ending any and all alternative programs being used for makeshift funding of Coordinators, Assistants and Trainees to all CDEPs.
This left ATSIC without any program by which it would be able to fund CDEP coordination and administrative training. Many CDEPs went into rapid decline. Some CDEPs had to merge into larger groups to survive, some were closed down, their assets disposed of, and the funds returned to ATSIC. There was no consultation with CDEPs about the wisdom of this exercise, which led to the collapse of a significant number of CDEPs.
CDEP is an inherently excellent program, and there are plenty of showcase successes to prove the point. Representatives from many countries visit to learn about it. New Zealand, as a leader in innovative social programs, has no comparable scheme. It is intelligently conceived, wide open to creative possibilities, and is a far better program and much cheaper to run than comparable work-for-the-dole schemes. In the early days, a dedicated and competent co-ordinator could get outstanding results, but it was always vulnerable to being ripped off, or let fall in a heap, and ATSIC had little clear understanding of how to fix leaks, short of myriad bandaids, and excessive paperwork, which added to the problem.
The scheme that promised so much for self-determination, community development, empowerment and upliftment for remote communities, failed to deliver in too many instances, and for too many reasons. The program was always under-funded and was never given a proper go. ATSIC had neither the understanding nor the competencies to make it a success, and never sought elsewhere for those skills. Any projects that did succeed were despite many obstacles.
CDEP suffered the sour grapes of failed examples being used to prove the general case that CDEP is an unworkable scheme. One successful CDEP demonstrates that the basic CDEP model can work. The more-successful CDEPs should have been held up as proof positive that it can work, and those CDEPs should have been consulted as to how it is done well, and how the scheme might be improved to work better. After all, they are the people who have overcome massive obstacles to get pro-active results.
Any community with any substance abuse problem should look to see how well the CDEP is running. The best way to solve substance abuse, in its various forms and guises, is for people to have something far more interesting, relevant, worthwhile and fulfilling to do. Unless we are able to offer something that people will prefer over ingesting substances, then all attempts to curb these and other forms of self-harm, will be an unpleasant, uphill struggle, and liable to failure.
CDEP has become one of the greatest lost opportunities and failed responsibilities in recent Aboriginal history, and in that failure, it has become one of the most maligned programs. It has been denigrated by people at every level, from highest levels of mainstream politics and bureaucracy, through to all levels of Aboriginal organisations, including governing councils, management, supervisors, participants, regional councillors and commissioners, who had only seen and experienced failed examples.
CDEP is a wonderful scheme that has suffered much abuse, neglect, mismanagement and incompetence. It needs rejuvenating intelligently and compassionately, so that it works well by inclination, and is not an uphill battle to get the least result. It needs to be designed to succeed.