The CDEP: the need to link work, culture and health

With its recent attack on the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), the federal government continues in its efforts to destroy Aboriginal culture. The Labor Party's Chris Evans (link here

also sideswipes the CDEP by simplistically endorsing the idea that getting people off the CDEP is a good thing.

As a health economist, to me the key question surrounding the CDEP is this: Do health benefits in Aboriginal culture arise from being ‘workful' (in the sense of spending one's time on useful activities in a community or cultural context), or only from being employed in the sense of having a job (i.e. being gainfully employed in the labour market)?

I believe there is a case for solid investment in the CDEP, especially in remote communities. The continuing high unemployment (or ‘unworkfulness' or ‘worklessness' which may be a better way to identify the relevant phenomenon) of Aboriginal people generally is a serious problem. However, it is resolvable. The way to start is by rejecting the neoclassical concept of ‘jobs' which is both unhelpful in this context and alien to Aboriginal culture. There is also a need for substantial investment in Aboriginal training and in ‘workfulness' both of which are important social determinants of health.

Certainly it is clear that Aboriginal unemployment in remote areas is higher than in non-remote areas (link here). Yet self-assessed health status is overall better in remote communities, and in remote areas people are much more likely to be involved in cultural events.

Hughes and Warin (link here) of the right wing Centre for Independent Studies, write that the review of the CDEP ‘is a major step toward a decent life for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.' They imply that the existing CDEP is a threat to ‘a decent life' in remote communities. That is not supported by statistics from Hunter (link here). Hughes and Warin suggest that a ‘real' job – i.e. market employment – is the only way forward to a decent life for Aboriginal people in remote communities. The idea that the CDEP might create other benefits, such as community development which could contribute to the wellbeing of Aboriginal people, is lost on such neo-classical economists.

The problem here is that these authors apply a neo-liberal western perspective to a non neo-liberal, non-western culture. As far as they are concerned, market employment is good for people. End of story. But there are other models. (See for example Houston – ref below) Recognising that different cultures may have different constructs of ‘employment' and ‘work' is a crucial starting point in any assessment of the CDEP.

The CDEP ‘work for the dole' scheme has existed for nearly 30 years. It pays individuals' unemployment benefits to their Aboriginal communities who then ‘employ' these same individuals on various tasks. Additional government funds are made available for capital and administrative costs. These tasks may be ‘jobs' in the conventional market sense but may also be contributions to ‘community development': hence the name of the scheme. It arose when remote Aboriginal communities sought government support to assist them in building jobs and community activities. The scheme is no longer restricted to remote areas but projects are primarily still based there. It also recognises that employment in the formal market sense is difficult to build in many Aboriginal communities especially in remote areas. While the CDEP does not use the term ‘workfulness,' that is what it is about.

Changes now being made to the CDEP (link here) will make the scheme much less friendly to Aboriginal cultures. The community development aspects have been whittled away and market employment features strengthened. It is more and more a market job scheme with rewards and incentives being framed accordingly. This will inevitably result in more and more pressure on Aboriginal people to move to metropolitan Australia for jobs. While the denuding of rural and remote Australia of Aboriginal people — Senator Vanstone's ‘cultural museums' (link here) – has to be a concern at a social and health level, the arrival of yet more Aboriginal people in our cities to face explicit market unemployment is also a worry. The impact of such movement may be positive in terms of employment; but negative in terms of culture, stigma and explicit racism. For health there would probably be both positives and negatives, with uncertainty about the overall impact.

There are two problems in the plan for the future of the CDEP. First the emphasis in the reformed CDEP will be almost totally on market based jobs. The ‘new' CDEP is aimed at getting people off welfare and into the market. As the Discussion Paper (link here) states, disapprovingly, about the CDEP: it 'has become a destination rather than a stepping stone towards jobs'.

Second, there is a question mark over whether the proposed changes to the CDEP are likely to prove to be the most efficient and successful in getting Aboriginal people into market jobs.

Altman and Gray (link here) have examined the CDEP scheme in detail, concentrating on remote and very remote Australia. In comparison to the government's narrow view of the CDEP as simply a road to a real job, they take a much wider view of its goals and potential benefits, including customary and cultural benefits. They suggest that there is evidence that ‘at the national level most indicators show that there has been steady although not spectacular improvement in outcomes between 1971 and 2001…. This finding is somewhat at odds with the common perception of the ‘failure' of Indigenous policy'.

Altman and Gray suggest that 'what is needed is greater investment in what is working'. They indicate that ‘CDEP participants in remote and very remote regions have higher average incomes than do the unemployed and those not in the labour force… almost all [case studies of CDEP organisations] have come to the conclusion that the program has positive effects on individual participants' wellbeing and on community development'. Importantly they find that ‘the CDEP employed are more likely to participate in customary activities than are the mainstream employed'.

What is striking in examining the links between Aboriginal employment and health is that there is so little investigation to inform the judgment of the impact of employment or ‘workfulness' on Aboriginal health. The CDEP has existed for nearly three decades but it has never been evaluated in any sort of comprehensive way.

We need a better sense of what ‘being employed' or ‘being workful' means to Aboriginal people. There can be little doubt that, for Aboriginal people, the communitarian values that underpin their culture (see ref below) result in ‘employment/workfulness' not only being valued differently but being a different construct.

In the meantime, with at least some evidence that the CDEP is ‘working', destroying the original intent of the CDEP is not the way to go. There is no research evidence to support that; just blind faith on the part of Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, that having a 'real' job is a good thing and better than being workful.

Kevin Andrews (link here) continues to support the market solution. He writes (very much in line with the CIS neo classical dogma): ‘More Indigenous Australians must be given hope and opportunities to participate in the market and economy. To gain a job, to own property, to build their own wealth for the next generation, are prerequisites for Indigenous economic independence. If practical reconciliation means anything, it means this.' The government and non Aboriginal Australia increasingly see wealth in purely market terms. The kinds of social wealth and common-wealth that matter to Aboriginal people are ignored.

Labor's Chris Evans states (link here)that ‘the whole problem of Indigenous employment needs sophisticated responses to the economic and social realities based on real evidence'. It is a pity that neither he nor Kevin Andrews heeds these words in their policy utterances on the CDEP. We have some limited evidence, which both government and opposition ignore, about what to do. The CDEP can and does foster a sense of belonging, of self-esteem, of social cohesion, of community development, all of which are important social determinants of health. Putting the ‘CD' back into the CDEP is what is needed. Recognising the worth of culture not just for its own sake but also for the positive impact it can have on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people is the base on which to build.

It remains the case however that, yes, we do need more evidence of the value of the CDEP; and that is needed before destroying the CDEP and putting yet another nail in the coffin of Aboriginal culture.

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