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Movement at the Station

Everyone whose been north of the tropic of Capricorn knows that the big issue with Aboriginal Australia is the disconnect between the so-called “traditional lifestyle” and the work ethic that underpins the functioning of western democracies.

While welfare for the frail and incapacitated is one thing, an endless stream of welfare for the able-bodied sticks in the craw of the rest of Australia’s working classes.

I spent last week not far from the WA/NT border checking out a new initiative put together by the East Kimberley Community Development Employment Program (EK CDEP). It was interesting on a few different levels, not the least because if the rest of Australia knows anything at all about CDEPs, it’s that they’re seriously endangered.

The CDEPs copped a mention in Mal Brough’s Intervention in the context of income management and corruption. Brough wanted them scrapped completely.

They proved to be problematic, though, when it came to light that CDEP money couldn’t be paid as food vouchers, conditional upon children’s school attendance, because it was technically wages and not benefits.

As Paul Toohey put it in his recent Quarterly Essay, Brough’s war on CDEP prompted people to question his real agenda: “Did he want to shut down remote communities entirely? Brough’s view was that if a town had no self-sustainability, then it had no reason to exist. His people insisted that it was never their plan to shut down the communities ... but if people gained skills and education they would eventually decide to abandon the bush, and the government would welcome such decisions.”

The Rudd Government’s take on it was defensive at first. Labor went into the 2007 election declaring it was unhappy with the way the Intervention had abolished CDEP in the territory.

But a recent discussion paper signed off by Julia Gillard, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and Minister for Employment Participation Brendan O’Connor called Increasing Indigenous Economic Opportunity made no bones about the fact that it was “focusing on how [not if] two existing employment and work-readiness programs can be reformed.” The two programs the paper takes aim at are CDEP and the Indigenous Employment Program.

The call for submissions on the paper closed on June 20, and no official statement or decision arising from the paper/submissions consultation process has been made yet.

Meanwhile it’s business as usual in the tidy little donga with a majestic view of Kununurra’s sweeping fields of green veggies and rocky red hills that is the current office of the East Kimberley CDEP.

This is where the next layer of interestingness kicks in. The work they’re doing is pretty darn unusual.

For years government office workers and well meaning education specialists across the top end and red centre have been banging their heads against the problem of how to get unemployed Aborigines out of bed in the morning and into the workforce. Pretty much to no avail. According to the discussion paper there are 80,000 of them on the active caseload of the Job Network.

John Vos, general manager of the EK and Halls Creek CDEPs, has worked in many of these different welfare-to-work programs, as well as in indigenous communities and he figured that the main problem was that the participants kept on falling between the cracks between the many different sources of assistance.

His solution has been to stitch together a tight package of relevant offerings. EK CDEP’s new Training for the Future program involves: local trainers with real outback work experience; TAFE to provide accreditation; the local Job Networks who offer wage assistance; station owners and other employers who are crying out for labour; and the boys in their late teens and early-20s easily found moseying around the communities and urban centres.

It’s not rocket science but the program has chalked up 38 ‘job outcomes’ in the past two months. An impressive hit rate given that the three iterations of the program’s station worker training course that have run so far have involved only 34 participants. (The extras are people who have simply been inspired by the fact that the course is running to get back into the workforce.)

So why is it working when so many other attempts have failed?

Vos says it’s because it takes kids out of town and camps them in swags on station land, which circumvents the usual problem of rounding them up in the morning (and seriously this can take half the day).

It also gives them swags and boots (the gear they need to start working on a station) and doesn’t give them the opportunity to lose these things back in town between finishing the course and starting in their first job. The jobs are lined up before they start their 10 day training, and according to Vos, the guarantee of a job is a big drawcard for a training course.

He said 10 days is just long enough to make someone useful on a station. In that time they learn how to saddle up and ride, how to tell the difference between a dry cow and a polled steer, and they’re introduced to the art of drafting cattle through a stockyard.

Vos has a series of courses planned that will dovetail with the seasonal ebb and flow of station work, and if all goes well, gradually skill up a new generation of indigenous station workers in horse breaking, cattle handling and yard building skills. Beyond that his sights are set on other industries in need of local labour.

Ronnie Atkins, site manager of the Halls Creek CDEP, said that what’s surprised her most about the program, is that in many cases its parents or older relatives who are bringing the young fellas in.

She said: “They know about station work, they know it’s part of life up here, and understand it - so they’re bringing them in and saying this is good, and really encouraging them to give it a shot.”

So how will Macklin/O’Connor’s decision about the future of CDEP impact on this program?

Vos is philosophical. “They’ll change the name and shuffle things around. We’ll get new letterhead but the kids are still there and the work still needs to be done so there’s not much point in worrying about it.”

The burning question the success of this program raises is: why is it unusual for someone to have found a way of interlocking the various sources of abundant assistance and to actually be making headway into the problem?

Surely, this is what Macklin and O’Connor should be looking at.

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