The head of the organisation tasked with delivering a controversial work-for-the-dole program in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley has spoken out about serious problems plaguing the system.
The Aboriginal organisation East Kimberley Job Pathways (EKJB) administers the Community Development Program (CDP) in Halls Creek, 2,856km north of Perth, and nearby Aboriginal communities.
In a rare public admission, EKJB chief executive Shaun Fowler said unrealistic benchmarks and a blunt approach to mental health problems were causing participants in the program more pain.
Mr Fowler said the program was failing in communities where meaningful work was hard to find.
“You can’t just paint rocks a different colour every day, so to speak,” he said.
“I tear my hair out constantly trying to come up with some really innovative activities.”
CDP participants are required to engage in work or training to receive their welfare payments — or face penalties.
EKJB’s remit covers communities where workers received 12 penalties per person on average last year — one of the highest rates in the country.
The scheme requires participants to undertake 25 hours a week in activities, and those who do not comply may be docked about $50 a day from their welfare payments.
Lack of meaningful opportunities driving further problems
Mr Fowler said while there were many examples of the CDP making a positive difference there were major flaws.
CDP participants are required to engage in work or training to receive their welfare payments. (Supplied: Roper Gulf Regional Council)
“The program itself and the way it’s currently established is really what drives the penalties,” he said.
The key problem, he said, was a lack of worthwhile employment opportunities.
“When we’re talking large numbers of unemployed people, particularly in the smaller communities, it can be really difficult to have that engagement sustained across 48 weeks of the year,” Mr Fowler said.
Shire of Halls Creek president Malcolm Edwards believed grim job prospects were a major factor behind the low participation rates in his region.
“It must be very hard if you are working for the dole and it looks like there’s no opportunity of a job,” he said.
“That would be a bit demoralising, to know some places there just aren’t enough jobs to go around, and Halls Creek is a bit that way.”
Almost one third of people should not be there
In Mr Fowler’s opinion, many participants who were dealing with trauma from alcohol and drug abuse or mental illness were being unfairly caught up in the scheme.
“It’s always been my strong belief that there is a cohort of participants — potentially 30 per cent — who really don’t belong in that program,” he said.
“They really belong in a much more personal support program that gets to the heart of their concerns as opposed to a work-first 25 hours a week type regime.
“If someone does present with some severe mental health issues you can’t rightfully expect that person to fulfil the same obligations.”
Push for change from within
It appears there have been efforts from within the program to convince the Government that changes are needed.
Halls Creek is a small town in the central Kimberley with a largely Aboriginal population. (ABC Kimberley: Hilary Smale)
Mr Fowler said CDP providers had been lobbying for reforms for some time but to no effect.
“I’m working with peak bodies and providers around the country to really look at the policy and the legislation around this to try and get the government to understand some of the difficulties people encounter in remote regions,” he said.
There were concerns that slated changes to social security legislation relating to the CDP could make things worse.
“If that’s passed by the Senate, we personally believe that this is going to lead to our participants incurring far more severe and substantial penalties including penalties that can’t be waived if they’re suffering extreme hardship,” Mr Fowler said.
Despite mounting calls from those enforcing and participating in the scheme, the Federal Government has continued to laud the CDP as a success.
Last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the program by claiming more than 90 per cent of fines were waived.
While acknowledging this was true, Mr Fowler said there was still harm being done.
“In a concerning number of instances it just leads to further hardship in those communities,” he said.
In response to reports by the ABC last week, Senator Scullion’s office said it was disappointing to see community organisations spreading “baseless and inaccurate claims about the CDP”.
Senator Scullion has been contacted for comment.