The federal government’s beleaguered Community Development Plan (CDP) has been labelled a “policy disaster” that exacerbates poverty and continues intergenerational trauma. 

The program, which has been widely criticised for its punitive system of fines and payment cut-offs since its introduction three years ago, overwhelmingly affects Indigenous people in remote areas, who make up about 80 per cent of its participants. The compliance requirements for the program were tightened in July this year.

Bibbulmun Yorga woman Corina Abraham-Howard, a former social worker and community advocate, told Red Flag, “Working up north in Kununurra, I saw the impacts. It’s basically slave labour”.

“It makes the issues in our community far worse”, she continued. “What’s happening now in places like Halls Creek, Kununurra, they just can’t survive. It’s been a top-down approach with no consultation. There’s not enough jobs in those communities for people to be in paid employment or to better themselves. It doesn't help them professionally, or help them learn. There’s even elderly on the CDP … It sets our people up to fail.”

Introduced by the Liberal government in 2015, the CDP has roughly 33,000 people registered, all of whom are required to participate in 25 hours a week of jobs and activities to receive the Newstart allowance. It exists in every state except Victoria and Tasmania. CDP workers earn about $11.20 per hour, and must complete activities for 46 weeks of the year. By contrast, their urban and regional counterparts in Jobactive are required to do activity for only six months of the year. 

CDP workers do not receive superannuation or workers’ compensation and are not party to federal occupational health and safety laws.

Participants who “default” — fail to attend activities or check in with Centrelink — can be docked up to $50 per day or have their payments cancelled for up to four weeks, and must reapply to continue receiving payments. 

For those in remote areas with no phone or internet connection, no public transport, and the nearest Centrelink offices up to 1,000 kilometres away, fulfilling these requirements is next to impossible. Add to this already dire poverty and, for many, English being a second language, and the effects are devastating.

“People are starving”, according to Abraham-Howard. “They’re depressed, going without the essentials, can’t buy hygiene products or medical needs. There’s homelessness. They’re staying with an auntie or uncle and a number of people are surviving on just one person’s payments.

“It’s the remoteness of not being able to actually go into a Centrelink building. You’re struggling to get phone credit, you can’t understand what people are saying, you’ve got to wait for hours, sometimes they can’t deal with your problem, sometimes people get frustrated, and Centrelink just hang up on you.

“If you can’t afford the utilities, people will do crime if they have no food or power. [It continues] the intergenerational trauma that’s impacted on our people.”

In December 2016, the Australian National University published a report describing the CDP as a “policy disaster”. Co-author and researcher Dr Inge Kral told the ABC, “They’re now without money, they’re on an eight week no-payment penalty, they haven’t eaten for three days, they’ve got no money coming in and they can’t effectively engage with Centrelink by themselves”. 

A June 2017 Senate committee submission by peak group Jobs Australia described the CDP as causing “unnecessary financial hardship, exacerbating poverty, creating disengagement and doing more harm than good in remote Australia”.

Information obtained by the ABC under freedom of information provisions shows communities with high numbers of Indigenous participants copped significantly more penalties. 

In 2017, participants from the Milingimbi/Ramingining region of Arnhem Land and Halls Creek/Tjurabalan region in the East Kimberley, where more than 98 percent of participants are Indigenous, received 15 and 12 penalties per year respectively. At around $650 per person per year, this amounts to about 6 per cent of annual income — a significant blow to those already well below the poverty line. 

By contrast, in the Queensland central west region, where only a quarter of participants are Indigenous, participants were fined only about 0.33 times each on average. The trend appears again and again in the government’s own data.

In some remote communities, unemployment rates are as high as 51 percent. A 2018 report by the Australia Institute showed that fewer than 10 percent of CDP workers stayed in paid employment for six months.

“How can you put [people] through a work ready program when there will never be any work for them?”, asks Abraham-Howard. “And it’s the impact of being bullshitted to all the time — how many times do you believe them?”

CDP participants are required to attend activities to claim payments. One such activity, according to a document prepared by the Prime Minister’s Department for the ABC in 2016, is 3D printing classes, to make, among other things, “glow in the dark totem bike spoke clips; jewellery; and fabric stamps to decorate clothes” – an absurd activity given that many remote communities do not have hospitals, let alone 3D printing businesses. 

Another is the downright humiliating and racist women’s hygiene classes, designed to “[teach] women about personal grooming and hygiene to avoid becoming ill and spreading disease”.

Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion has repeatedly denied any problems with the CDP, a 14 June press release asserting “CDP is yielding great results”.

Scullion was one of the Coalition members to vote in favour of One Nation senator Pauline Hanson’s “It’s OK to be white” motion in the Senate last week. The Coalition’s support for the motion was later dubbed an “administrative error” by prime minister Scott Morrison in an appeal for understanding. Yet understanding is something rarely extended to Indigenous welfare recipients.

When asked about the minister’s claim of CDP success, Abraham-Howard is blunt: “Nigel Scullion, you need to go on CDP yourself and then tell us about success. You need to come down to our level in community. We’re not on missions or reserves or concentration camps any more, we’re on the CDP”.