THE federal government’s changes to the remote jobs program, announced last weekend, are the first major antidote to the poison that has inflicted remote communities for decades: welfare passivity.
Since the early 1970s, when widespread welfare was introduced, people in remote communities have had few, if any, requirements placed on them in exchange for welfare payments.
In major towns, job search requirements cause people to seek opportunities and take work within 90 minutes of home. If they don’t take the job, they lose payments. In remote towns, however, this 90-minute requirement frequently renders job search rules meaningless.
Generations have grown up in settlements with no job prospects and no need to get out of bed to continue to receive food, shelter and cash. Never before in the tens of thousands of years of indigenous history have people not had to work for sustenance.
Worse, government housing policies reward people for immobility: stay in the jobless remote town and get a free house that will be known as yours; leave for a job in a larger town and pay the expensive housing rental market.
Passivity caused by welfare was first identified as the primary cause of modern remote community dysfunction by Noel Pearson more than a decade ago.
But veteran land rights campaigner Galarrwuy Yunupingu has been the strongest critic. He argues passive welfare kills, such is its all-powerful ability to reduce incentive and motivation: “Government handouts are a one-way ticket that lead us nowhere.”
This is not an indigenous problem. Any community where the vast majority of people are idle and welfare-dependent will suffer dysfunction. Indeed, there is no society in the world that is healthy and functional in the absence of work for its people.
The problem in the remote Australian communities is there are so few jobs and, in many cases, no prospects for jobs even if land tenure were reformed to enable private ownership and more infrastructure built. Only 16 per cent of 17 to 24-year-old remote indigenous Australians are fully engaged in work or training. The generation that should be future leaders typically have worse education and less capacity for work than their grandparents.
The government has announced three fundamental changes that will be introduced progressively, region by region, during the next year or so.
First, the introduction of 25 hours a week of work-for-the-dole activities for 12 months a year. Every able-bodied person in receipt of unemployment benefits will be required to participate.
The objective is to ensure that adults are provided with meaningful activity every day to build their skills, contribute to the community and end community passivity.
The new remote work-for-the-dole scheme will have a no-show, no-pay policy. Fail to turn up one day, then the person’s payment for that week will be 20 per cent lower. Strict rules are constantly requested by community leaders. We will deliver.
The second element is the improved enabling and empowering features of the program. Training for training’s sake in certificate I and II courses that don’t lead to a job will be replaced by training that leads to a real job. There will be $25 million for the development of real local businesses in remote communities, the kind of businesses that you find in every small town such as clothes shops, butchers and hair salons.
There can be more local indigenous builders and construction companies that can do some of the infrastructure and construction work that is presently performed by non-indigenous businesses from the cities, depriving remote regions of income and development opportunities.
Finally, incentives will be put in place to encourage people to take jobs outside of their home community. It’s not the government’s job to tell people where to live but the policy incentives should be geared towards people taking a job wherever it may be located.
Already we have introduced up to $6000 in mobility assistance for individuals and $9000 for a family. Requiring full-time work-for-the-dole is a powerful motivator to get a real job if one is available. It is also vital to building work skills.
The reform package announced on the weekend also creates strong incentives for employers to hire jobseekers from remote areas, and bonus payments for work-for-the-dole providers to get people into real jobs.
Further policy reform is still required by state and territory governments to ensure housing does not trap people in uneconomic locations.
None of the changes announced are straightforward. We know that change will not happen overnight and that some locations will be more challenging than others. A large community such as Palm Island, for example, has 800 able-bodied adults, but last time I was there only about 80 were engaged in any capacity and only 30 jobs were identified. Creating meaningful work-like activities for all 800 will be a monumental effort.
This new reform represents a major policy shift with a single focused objective: to end passivity. Our firm commitment is to ensure kids are in school, adults are working and communities are safe.
The government’s changes are an important step towards achieving this goal and a vital step towards ending state sponsored disengagement.
Alan Tudge is a parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister.