Senate committee recommends ‘troubling’ reforms to dole

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote areas will be thrown into deeper poverty by amendments to the work-for-the-dole scheme which have been given the go-ahead by a Senate committee, a Northern Territory Aboriginal legal service has warned.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) said the amendments would subject remote work-for-the-dole participants to a framework that would see them suspended from Centrelink payments for one or two weeks and then completely cut off from at least four weeks if they were having difficulty complying with the work program.

It said Aboriginal people in remote NT faced many barriers to complying with the type of work programs involved in the scheme.

These included language considerations, lack of accessible Centrelink agents, excessive wait times on the phone, limited to no access to mobile reception and internet, high rates of illness and disability and difficulties accessing even basic healthcare.

“NAAJA is disappointed and concerned that the Senate Committee did not take into account the grave issues raised by multiple organisations and experts with direct experience with remote work for the dole schemes,” NAAJA chief executive officer Priscilla Atkins said.

“When the reforms take effect, Indigenous Australians living in remote areas will be thrown deeper into poverty as the number of people suffering penalties and disengaging from Centrelink altogether will only increase. This will have a significant impact on participants, whose Centrelink payments are a lifeline and not substantial income.”

The Senate committee recommended Friday that the changes to the work-for-the-dole scheme be passed, over protests from Labor senators.

The bill proposes a new compliance system in remote communities that will remove penalties for one-off breaches and focus instead on “people who are persistently and wilfully non-compliant”.

More than 80 percent of community development program participants are Indigenous. As a condition of income support, remote area participants must engage in up to 25 hours of work for the dole, five days a week.

Labor senators Pat Dodson, Sue Lines, Malarndirri McCarthy, Murray Watt and Lisa Singh said they were “troubled” by the government’s failure to address serious concerns identified in the plan.

By Wendy Caccetta

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