By 2001, the total number of CDEP participants had grown to 35,400 – roughly 25 percent of the total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce. There were almost 300 organisations delivering the program, the overwhelming majority of them local Aboriginal community groups.
In Toomelah, as in many Aboriginal communities, there was no shortage of people looking for work. They too embraced CDEP. Local participants provided most of the civil services that local, state and federal governments should provide Aboriginal communities, but rarely do.
By 2009, Toomelah’s CDEP workers ran the local shop through the Toomelah Co-op. CDEP crews kept the streets clean, mowed the parks and gardens and the footy oval, drove the community bus, and repaired and maintained local housing and infrastructure.
In short, CDEP kept the town alive, and all levels of government were only too willing to watch it happen – it was, after all, a dirt cheap way of providing basic services to Aboriginal communities, without having to dip seriously into the pockets of Australian taxpayers.
Rene Adams, who ran the program through the Co-op, says under CDEP Toomelah was a different town.
“It was thriving, it really was,” says Ms Adams. “The community was clean. We had a cemetery crew that looked after the graves. We ran a night patrol, with shifts. They’d watch the school, the Co-op, the (health) clinic, the pre-school, the land council office. And you could have eaten off the roads, they maintained things that well.”
The local community-owned shop employed 26 workers through CDEP, and workers grew hemp to provide pulp for a local paper factory. All up, around 130 local residents in a town of less than 400 accessed employment through the CDEP. So successful was the Co-op’s operation that in 2000 it won the ‘Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Community Partnerships’.
Over the next half decade, the Co-op went from strength to strength, and took over the administration of CDEPs in outlying towns, with more than 175 participants across three communities. And then, with the abolition of ATSIC in the mid-2000s, things began to unravel.
The Howard government’s Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, and Minister for Employment, Joe Hockey decided that CDEP had become a “destination” rather than a path to “real employment”.
They made the mistake that many white bureaucrats have made, believing that CDEP was created by Aboriginal people as a path to mainstream employment. In fact, CDEP was created as a way for Aboriginal people to work in their communities, and to provide basic services in the absence of government doing its job, albeit at a greatly discounted rate.
Regardless, Brough and Hockey scaled back CDEP in urban, regional and remote centres. No thought was given to the reality that in many places – particularly those like regional NSW – CDEP was the only source of employment for Aboriginal people.
Labor went to the 2007 federal election promising to re-invigorate CDEP – in the Northern Territory for example, it was being axed as part of the NT intervention. But having won office, the Rudd government simply continued the “reforms” started by Brough and Hockey.
By 2009, three decades after it began, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin announced CDEP would be abolished in “non-remote areas with established economies”.
One of the ironies is that Macklin won office in 2007 claiming, repeatedly, that the biggest problem with the Liberals’ policies in Aboriginal affairs is they adopted a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Her CDEP policy is at best a ‘one size fits most’. It was based on nothing more than lines on a map.
The small community of Mungindi, for example, is just 150 kilometres from Toomelah. It has kept its CDEP. But Toomelah falls within 30 kilometres of a major centre – Goondiwindi – where, says Macklin, there are “local job opportunities”.
It’s the sort of policy that could only come from someone not only with no clue of the region, but no understanding of its history.
Had Macklin – or one of her advisers – read the Einfeld report then they would have realized that it was sparked by a massive riot in Goondiwindi in 1986, led by more than 100 Toomelah residents in protest against appalling levels of racial discrimination and, notably, their inability to secure employment.
And had she bothered to ask Rene Adams about the work history of the region, she would have discovered that in the 20-year history of the program in Toomelah, no single CDEP participant had ever left the program after securing a job in Goondiwindi.
“Goondiwindi is a lot better than what it was, but it’s still a racist town,” says Ms Adams.
Many local residents, no doubt, disagree. Residents like Amy Makim, the former Toomelah bureaucrat, who also serves as the president of the Goondiwindi and District Community Garden, which pitches itself as an organisation that promotes “community harmony” and where “everyone of all ages, stages, creeds, colours and persuasions” is welcome.
Even presumably, the ‘black blood mixed with white trash’ Aboriginals from Toomelah.
Ms Adam’s view is backed by Elaine Edwards, deputy chair of the Toomelah-Boggabilla Local Aboriginal Land Council, who along with other senior elders, met with Tracker in Goondiwindi recently.
They all agreed that Aboriginal people still struggle to find employment in Goondiwindi because of the colour of their skin.
And it’s not like Ms Adams didn’t try to warn the Minister personally. In 2009, prior to the abolition of CDEP, she phoned into a live interview Macklin was conducting on ABC Radio in Tamworth, ambushing her on the air.
She did it again in 2010, and 2011, and also wrote to the Department of Employment and Workplace relations on the likely impact on the community.
“We had to do reports for (the government). We predicted it would be bad, but we never predicted it would be this bad. It’s five or six times worse than we thought,” says Ms Adams.
And she wasn’t alone in warning Macklin of the impending disaster. Numerous submissions to a parliamentary inquiry into the legislation abolishing CDEP warned Macklin of the dangers of her policy, including a combined submission from Professor Jon Altman and Dr Kirrily Jordan from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR).
“Rather than the stated aim of shifting CDEP participants into so-called ‘real jobs’, the likely result is shifting people out of active work through the CDEP scheme and onto long-term income support,” they wrote. That is precisely what has occurred.
In late 2009, Ms Jordan completed a second report, this time specifically into the CDEP operations in the APY Lands in South Australia. Unlike Toomelah, the APY Lands was not considered close enough to ‘real economies’ to lose CDEP altogether, but it was slated for reform. Ms Jordan noted: “This preliminary analysis concludes that although some of the measures introduced in July 2009 have had positive impacts, the changes to the scheme itself are tending to undermine the productive capacity of CDEP and induce a return to ‘sit down money’.
“This is ostensibly what the government seeks to curtail and indeed what the CDEP scheme itself was designed to minimise.”
And the warnings to Macklin kept coming. Back in Toomelah, Darren Coyne from the Koori Mail filed a major story in February 2010, highlighting the rapid decay of the town.
“Toomelah is an Aboriginal community facing meltdown. Residents fear the closure of their CDEP may be the final nail in the community’s coffin,” Coyne reported.
“Since the CDEP shut nine months ago, the community on the NSW/Queensland border has begun to unravel. There has been a deterioration of facilities and services, an increase in crime and suicide attempts, and widespread disintegration in living conditions….”