Federal government to pay $ 2 million for CDP anti-racism complaint, not refund penalties


The federal government will provide communities in central Western Australia $ 2 million to address alleged harm caused by its controversial Community Development Program (CDP).

A class action group from Ngaanyatjarra Lands, near the Gibson Desert, argued that the program violated racial discrimination law by disproportionately penalizing remote indigenous peoples.

The CDP, or cash-for-work program, penalized welfare recipients who failed to meet commitment requirements by securing their payments.

About 80 percent of participants during the application period were Aboriginal.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2019, local elder Derek Harris told the ABC the program reminded him of how his great-grandparents were treated in the 1920s.

CDP “did more harm than good”

Ngaanyatjarraku County President Damian McLean worked on the mediation process, which concluded last week after a year of negotiations.

He said a key issue was that the CDP was designed without considering the realities of life at a distance.

Damian McLean says the program was doing more harm than good.(ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)

While the program’s rules have since been relaxed due to the pandemic, McLean said he disproportionately punishes people in remote Indigenous communities.

“It was designed to channel people through a gateway to a set of behaviors and responses that the government was looking for, and it was doing it through very coercive measures,” he said.

“The result of this was a level of penalties for people who were very disproportionately severe compared to the rest of the community.”

Mr McLean said the $ 2 million would go towards new equipment for community programs across Ngaanyatjarra lands.

A shipping container painted with 'Warburton CDP Shed'
The money will be spent to update equipment for community programs.(ABC Goldfields: Sean Tarek Goodwin)

Penalties will not be refunded

A spokesperson for Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt said the Commonwealth denied the program was racist.

When asked if other communities would be compensated as well, the spokesperson said this case only concerned the lands of Ngaanyatjarra.

But the spokesperson said the government no longer penalizes welfare recipients in the same way.

“Following various public reviews and regular feedback from communities and CDP providers, the government has changed its approach to involving CDP job seekers in compliance-to-engagement activities,” a statement read.

They said the government would not seek to offset the penalties deducted from those of the plan.

The Federal Court judgment also indicated that the plaintiffs would waive the recovery of these penalties.

An estimated $ 530,000 was withheld from CDP participants in the Ngaanyatjarra lands during the period, which would equate to an average of $ 790 per person.

A brief from counsel for the advocacy group also said that was not the goal.

“It would do nothing to address the problems that communities (including group members) have with the CDP and the vision they have for something that better meets the needs of the Ngaanyatjarra people,” the submission said.

Map of Central Australia showing Warburton
Warburton is the largest community in the lands of Ngaanyatjarra, one of the least populated areas in the country. (Provided: Google Earth)

The government has changed its approach

Mr McLean said he was convinced the government’s approach had since become more consultative.

“We were able to make representations to the Commonwealth which actually showed that this program was doing a lot more harm than good,” he said.

“He looked at it and came forward and said that we accept the fact that there are significant issues within the program as it is, and we want to tackle some of the worst effects of that where You are.”

The lands of Ngaanyatjarra will be one of the five zones to pilot the system which will replace the CDP.

The remote engagement program will reward participants in work-type programs with additional payments instead of penalizing non-compliance.

“It is only in its infancy at the moment, but everything indicates that the Commonwealth is very serious about what it describes as a co-design process with significant community input,” said Mr. McLean.


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