Koori History Newspaper Archive

Aborigines trapped by work-for-dole scheme: Langton

Sydney Morning Herald - 5th October 2002
Author: Debra Jopson

The Aboriginal "work-for-the-dole" scheme is widely regarded by indigenous leaders as the principal poverty trap for their families and communities, leading anthropologist and activist Marcia Langton said last night.

Speaking in Sydney last night, Professor Langton said the scheme, known as the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), was a "statistical sleight of hand" which reduced indigenous joblessness figures by removing participating Aborigines from the unemployment statistics, "disguising the extent of the problem".

It was a form of "labour apartheid" when it was introduced in the 1970s. With 268 communities and 30,133 individuals participating by 1997, it had since entrenched passive welfare, she told her audience at the Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration at Sydney University.

"I urge that comprehensive changes to the CDEP scheme, linked to large-scale, long-term capital injection to the Aboriginal sector, be considered so that there is an end in sight to the old Australian habit of indentured labour for blacks," she said.

She said a new deal was needed to tackle the impending socio-economic crisis in indigenous communities caused by a predicted Aboriginal population boom and inadequate government responses.

The CDEP required "radical transformation into a genuine labour market strategy that brings Aboriginal people into the workforce in sufficient numbers to enable them to escape the poverty trap".

A generous investment "at least several times the annual budget in Aboriginal affairs, targeted towards industry research and development, genuine labour market strategies, employment, education and training initiatives and infrastructure development" would transform that trap, she said.

Committed capitalists like the Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, "ought to be thinking about injecting capital into the incipient entrepreneurship in the Aboriginal community".

The "hard Right", which argued that capital flows should not be channelled away from the market into artificially sustained enterprise, "should explain the extraordinary level of subsidy to Australian agriculture and the present influx of financial assistance" to the drought-stricken bush.

"While the farmer's plight and complaint is heard with sympathy and subsidies, the Aboriginal grievance and protest is held in contempt. This double standard is usually called racism," she said.

Professor Langton praised Mr Abbott, who in a recent speech said that "too much Aboriginal employment has an element of `make work"'.

"It's too common to find very high unemployment in remote Aboriginal communities even when there's a mine with high staff turnover just down the road," she quoted Mr Abbott as saying.

"He also admits that in many remote areas, the challenge is to create an economy rather than place Aboriginal people on existing jobs," she said.

"Despite the breakthrough he has achieved, Abbott insists on old Right dogma and targets Aboriginal demons much as he always has in public life, with statements such as `Aboriginal communities are still largely socialist enclaves in a free society'.

"Far from being `socialist enclaves', Aboriginal communities are post-colonial prisons where the incarcerated would surely enjoy a famous Kafka novel. Free the prisoners!" she said.