Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) have called for an urgent rethink of the Federal Government's Community Development Programme (CDP), a work-for-the-dole style initiative for remote areas, after a report found it is causing major problems.
The CDP was introduced in July 2015 and includes around 34,000 people of whom 84 per cent are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The program replaced the Remote Jobs and Communities Programme (RJCP) and the earlier Community Development Employment Program (CDEP).
Report editor Dr Kirrily Jordan, from the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, said the program has significant ramifications for Australia's remote communities.
"We're getting reports of people going hungry and not able to feed their kids," Dr Jordan said.
"In some places there are reduced store sales, a big increase in those falling behind in rent, people are unable to pay back fines which puts them at risk of imprisonment, and we're hearing about increased tensions in communities because of conflicts about money."
The new scheme increased the number of hours required for most people to receive unemployment benefits from 15 hours a week in CDEP to 25 hours a week, for at least 46 weeks per year.
In contrast participants in jobactive, the equivalent program in regional and urban areas, generally have much less onerous work for the dole requirements, and only for six months of the year.
Dr Jordan said the changes had resulted in a number of serious issues for people living in remote communities.
"In a lot of these places people don't have reasonable access to Centrelink. There's often very limited internet and phone coverage, so people who want to contact Centrelink are sometimes having to use the one or two community phones, often lining up for days on end to try to talk to someone," Dr Jordan said.
"Even once they do get through they often can't understand each other, so people are being penalised unfairly.
"Being required to do 25 hours per week is a lot tougher than unemployment schemes for people in urban and regional areas.
"That means there is a much higher likelihood of penalties, just because the obligations are so much higher."
The report found under CDP 146,000 financial penalties have been applied in 2015-16 to 34,000 participants, compared to 104,000 penalties applied to around 750,000 jobactive participants.
The report's authors believe there needs to be an urgent rethink of the CDP policy.
"We're saying here that a number of experienced academics and representatives of Aboriginal organisations feel the scheme is a policy disaster and an affront to human rights," Dr Jordan said.
"People living in remote Aboriginal communities often get characterised as living 'dysfunctional' lives, when CDP is a clear example of people trying their best and being undermined by dysfunctional government policy."
"Work needs to start on designing a whole new program. It's so flawed and broken that they need to go back to basics and this time collaborate properly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations and design a scheme that will work in a remote context."
The report, 'Job creation and income support in remote Indigenous Australia: moving forward with a better system', has been prepared by researchers at the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Deakin University, The University of Melbourne, and the CEOs of the Northern Land Council and Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory.