The Federal Government will pay two million dollars in compensation over the impact of the Community Development Program (CDP) on hundreds of Aboriginal people.

While all “work for the dole” recipients are subject to onerous requirements, the class action involving 680 people across 10 Western Australian communities argued that Aboriginal people in remote areas had been particularly disadvantaged by CDP.

Western Australia’s Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku and the Ngaanyatjarra council launched the action in 2019 on behalf of the CDP participants.

After one year of confidential mediation, orders issued this month by Justice Richard White approved the settlement, revealing the government will pay $2million to the Ngaanyatjarra council.

The Federal Court said the council “represents the interests of around 2,000 Ngaanyatjarra, Pintupi and Pitjantjatjara Traditional Owners (Yarnangu) who reside in the Ngaanyatjarra Communities”. It said it intended to use the money for an infrastructure program and an arts project at Warburton.

The Federal Government refused to admit it was at fault, but reached settlement terms.

Critics of the scheme said a number of people had battled to survive after having their payments cut off for not meeting stringent conditions.

Residents living in poorly resourced and isolated communities were expected to jump through hoops to retain their payments, despite having limited access to telephone, internet and transport services as well as often facing language, cultural, education and health barriers.

Critics have said the Program, introduced in 2015, was racist because it set rules even more severe than other welfare schemes, and 80% of participants are Indigenous.

Accordingly, the law suit argued the scheme breached anti-discrimination laws.

Damien McLean, president of the Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku, said locals had to travel 1,000km to the nearest town centres of Alice Springs or Kalgoorlie to represent themselves in person at a welfare office to ensure their payments continued.

A study by the Australian National University found participants in the Program were 25 times more likely to face penalties.

The Federal Court of Australia found people in the lawsuit had lost about $1,800 each on average, due to the Program’s conditions.

Critics have previously described the scheme as “modern-day slavery”, and people were typically paid just $10 an hour – half the legal adult minimum wage.

The Program has been criticised by civil society groups, Indigenous groups, academics and even police, with allegations that its penalty system is punitive, entrenching poverty, causing housing stress and hunger.

In 2018, the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Association reported that fresh food sales at its stores declined by almost 10% per year under the first two years of the Program’s operation.

Earlier this year, the Federal Government announced it would abolish the CDP and introduce a new one by 2023.

by Giovanni Torre