Government introduces CDEP
The Fraser Government introduced the Community Development Employment Program in 1977 to address Aboriginal unemployment and reduce the number of people applying for Unemployment Benefit.
... are such people still entitled to unemployment benefit? ... If they are not, it appears to me to be a denial of rights to Aboriginals … I think it would be a big step backwards ...
The government announced the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) in 1977. While CDEP aimed to address Aboriginal unemployment, an underlying reason to do so was to reduce reliance on Unemployment Benefit as the government held a belief that the payment was detrimental to Aboriginal communities.
These Hansard excerpts capture conversations about CDEP in the House of Representatives in May and October 1977.
Creating job opportunities in remote communities
In May, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ian Viner, outlined CDEP to government representatives. He said the program would address unemployment by creating jobs in remote communities where there weren’t many opportunities. He said more Aboriginal people were applying for Unemployment Benefit and that ‘unemployment is undermining gains made since the 1967 referendum’.
Viner said Aboriginal councils would work with the government to decide on projects. The government would fund CDEP communities and people involved in projects would be paid the same amount as Unemployment Benefit. He also said communities had asked for programs like this instead of individualised Unemployment Benefit payments.
CDEP was a recommendation of the report by the Intergovernmental Working Party on Aboriginal Employment (IWP). The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was to be responsible for administering the payments at a community level.
Reducing applications for Unemployment Benefit
At the time, some government representatives expressed strong views that Unemployment Benefit was detrimental to Aboriginal people.
In an October discussion about CDEP, Northern Territory Country-Liberal representative, Sam Calder, said he thought Unemployment Benefit was worse for Aboriginal people than white people. He said white people knew if they were ‘bludging’. He also said that ‘for most Aborigines, the payment of ... sit down money is not in their best interests and they know it’. He said work opportunities would be more helpful for the people in his area than payments.
Viner agreed with Calder that Aboriginal people didn’t want ‘sit down money’. He said government payments led to social issues and that CDEP would provide ‘work for those who want to work’.
Denying rights to Aboriginal people
In response to Calder, Member of the Opposition, Laurie Wallis, raised concerns about CDEP. He wanted to know whether Aboriginal people living in communities with CDEP projects but not employed by them would be able to get Unemployment Benefit. He said there was a potential for ‘a denial of rights to Aboriginals’ under the program.
Viner said people would still be eligible. However, in these discussions and ones from earlier in 1977, Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, had raised concerns about the government’s denial of Unemployment Benefit to Aboriginal people based on unfair grounds. These questions had remained unanswered.
Future evidence and ongoing delivery of CDEP
Later reports, such as the influential Miller report, not only found the IWP’s report to be lacking, but also found there was no evidence for claims that Aboriginal people didn’t want government payments. There was also no concrete proof that individual payments such as Unemployment Benefit caused social issues.
The Miller report did, however, recommend the continuation of CDEP as a useful program as long as it remained managed by communities. It continued in this form until the early 2000s.
CDEP changed names over time. It was called the Community Development Employment Projects Scheme early on, but was also referred to as the Community Development Employment Program.
Australian House of Representatives (26 May 1977) Debates, HR21:1920–1927.
Australian House of Representatives (12 October 1977) Debates, HR41:1933–1942.