Work and the Basic Cards in the Northern Territory

The launch of Twiggy Forrest Generation One last year has sparked much media noise around Indigenous Employment. Aspirational targets were set, stats produced, ministers brought out, and questions were asked in estimate committees. The wheels were well and truly set in motion. And whilst all this attention is more than welcome, there remain large areas that have been overlooked by this glossy Generation One vehicle.

Take the changes to the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) in the Northern Territory: scrapped under the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) by the Howard Government in 2007 it was ‘reinstated’, albeit in a form that looked nothing like its predecessor, by the Rudd Government and replicated by the Gillard Government.

The changes to the CDEP in remote areas amount to the following: those who were on the CDEP prior to 1 July 2009 continue to receive standard CDEP wages of $514 per fortnight for 16 hours work per week. This will cease completely in June 2011.

Dagarugu, another community near Kalkaringi, is now a ghost town.

Anyone who joined the CDEP from 1 July 2009 is still required to work 16 hours per week. However, they will only receive the Newstart allowance of $462 per fortnight through Centrelink, rather than being paid wages by their employer. In the NT half of these Centrelink payments are quarantined onto a BasicsCard, meaning that workers are paid half in wages and half in ration cards. For example, 16 hours work will earn a worker $231, with the rest going onto the BasicsCard. Top up money is still available for the hours.

However, the devastation of the CDEP changes will be felt beyond the hip pocket. The CDEP used to provide crucial blocks of funding to Aboriginal organisations and community councils, which both serviced the community and provided political representation.

Take for example the community of Kalkaringi, 500km west of Katherine. John Leemans,  the Victoria Daly Shire CDEP Coordinator estimates that in 2007 before the Intervention there were between 200-250 people, out of a population of 800, working on the CDEP. They were participating in programs like plumbing, bakery, truck driving, brick making and welding, and kitchen work.

In short the CDEP paid for a lot of the day-to-day operations of the community. With the Intervention all these jobs were scrapped as residents were placed onto income management.

Dagarugu, another community near Kalkaringi, is now a ghost town. The aged care facility, the health clinic, and the brickworks have all been closed. Dagarugu even had a CDEP housing maintenance team that would go around the community fixing damaged houses. All of this on top of the garbage collection and other general community maintanence. In July 2011 the little of the CDEP that remains at Dagaragu will cease to continue. Who knows what that means for the continual future of the community.

Promises were made to create real jobs but as it stands at the moment those real jobs have yet to amount to anything much.

The stories from Kalkaringi and Dagaragu are not isolated ones either. Visiting Ampilatwatchj earlier this year members of the community told me about being informed that there were no jobs for at least a year and that the CDEP would be paid half in BasicCards, half in cash. Signs were put up around the community store threatening to withhold payments if they didn’t turn up to CDEP work, work that they were now being paid at a lower rate to do. To illustrate how little the Barkly Shire seemed to want to employ locals, the shire had brought someone in from Tennant Creek to do the whippersnipping.

In Alice Springs the changes are having the same effect. In November 2010 Paddy Gibson wrote on Crikey of people working on the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) program being paid on the BasicCards. He interviewed Sheldon Stuart from Amoonguna, a community about 20 km east of Alice Springs. Sheldon was employed in June 2010 to work on maintenance and repairs. His job was to fix and paint walls. The work started at 8 and they would knock off around 3.30. This lasted for around 3-4 months.

“There’s no way that you would have a white fella getting paid on a BasicsCard working on a $672 million construction program.”

As Sheldon explained, “When we first got paid, there was $300 on top of our Centrelink every fortnight. Then the top-up just started going down and down and then went out completely. It was just working for the dole. I was on the BasicsCard too. It was a complete rip off.” In other words Sheldon was working the equivalent of a full time job to be paid $115 a week in cash and $115 on Basic Cards. Or in more precise terms as outlined on Crikey: “For the weeks Sheldon was receiving $300 top-up… his pay works out to $8.15 cash an hour. For the weeks he received no top-up, the hourly cash rate was $3.50.”

The use of BasicCards payments by SIHIP is reiterated by Scott McConnell who is the general manager of Ingkerreke, an Aboriginal-run outstation resource organisation based in Alice Springs, which contracts for SIHIP through its commercial arm. In the same Crikey article Scott McConnell explained how CDEP workers were used by SIHIP at Santa Teresa, another community in the Macdonnell region: “When we started working at Santa Teresa, we were asked to attend some workforce development meetings with New Future Alliance and Community Enterprises Australia (CEA).

“We immediately became very uncomfortable. They wanted us to pay people who were CDEP participants. To pay them top up. So someone would be working on a site with a CDEP participant on some CDEP rate and then, once they’d done their 16 hours through that little arrangement, then they’d work for Ingkerreke on a top up arrangement.

“We disengaged and said this is an absolute no go for us. But they went ahead and did it anyway. These guys ended up working on the sites for CDEP, then any extra hours were paid directly by New Future Alliance.”

As Scott McConnell went onto explain, the flexible arrangements meant people weren’t getting paid properly and therefore didn’t take it as a real job. If done without CDEP the people working on the buildings would be getting $25 an hour, up to 10 hours a day, 13 days in a fortnight.

As he told Crikey: “There’s no way that you would have a white fella getting paid on a BasicsCard working on a $672 million construction program.”

Written October 2010, revised April 2011.

Scott Foyster is the co-creator and editor of Wai, a free quarterly human rights, social justice and environmental newspaper. It can be downloaded from He is currently living in Mpartnwe/ Alice Springs helping campaigns to rollback the Intervention and to stop the proposed Angela Pamela Uranium mine.