Community leaders across the State told us the economic viability of their community was key to its success and longevity. This subject was addressed in 86 per cent of community meetings, with discussion ranging from bemoaning missed opportunities to barriers imposed by governments. Land tenure issues and opportunities were raised in 52 per cent of community meetings. The shortcomings of Centrelink and the Community Development Programme (CDP), and the related issue of a failure to utilise local, skilled people and create local job opportunities, were both raised in three-quarters of community meetings.
As described in the roadmap, the forms of land tenure that are common in remote communities are not common in regional towns, and are a major contributor to unusual legal and service delivery arrangements in communities. A majority of communities sit on Crown reserve held by a single statutory authority, the Aboriginal Lands Trust (ALT). Any tenure change must comply with Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) processes.
Complex land tenure arrangements in communities were often stated in consultations to be a barrier to community development and aspirations, with community members telling us they are legally unable to pursue private home ownership or investment in infrastructure and economic development opportunities.
A number expressed exasperation at how difficult and complex the processes are for changing tenure. Communities that have sought changes in tenure told us that the process itself can have a highly negative impact on relationships within the community, leading to fractured communities and disagreements within family groups.
Given the unavoidable role of native title processes in tenure change, there was a difference in views between those who are, and those who are not, traditional owners. Those who are traditional owners often saw opportunity in the potential for tenure change, while those who are not were apprehensive about what their future opportunities might be.
Jobs and employment opportunities
The remote areas in which communities are located are typically, though not always, characterised by low levels of private sector economic activity. The jobs that are available are very often tied to government expenditure on infrastructure and human services.
Many communities and their leaders were clear about the need to generate employment opportunities in and around communities in order to sustain their communities into the future. In that vein, community leaders across the State encouraged government to think differently about local jobs and employment opportunities for residents in community. While some remote Aboriginal communities are close to regional centres and residents can access a regional job market, the more remote Aboriginal communities cannot.
Community members from those more remote Aboriginal communities told us about some of the missed community-based employment opportunities, including in remote community schools, essential and municipal service delivery, community stores, environmental health monitoring, office administration, tenancy and property maintenance, and CDP providers.
For example, community leaders in a community of 100 residents told us, if all ‘non-skilled’ work was filled by local residents it would equate to eight full-time positions. Instead, there are currently only two part-time positions, with the rest of the roles filled by people brought into community or by those travelling in and out of the community. Community leaders were clear that their preference was for community jobs to go to local residents first, and said that government and/or its contractors need to be more innovative and culturally appropriate in how they recruit and fill positions.
Community members were very supportive of ranger groups across the State and spoke with a real sense of pride that rangers were able to practice culture and protect the environment in an employed position.
Those communities with art centres observed that those centres not only provided economic opportunity but were also an important piece of community infrastructure for social and cultural wellbeing.
Enterprise and business opportunities
With limited employment opportunities in remote Western Australia, many community leaders spoke to us about how business and enterprises could help sustain their community.
Some communities explained business enterprises they were now involved in and the potential this creates for employment. Others mentioned potential opportunities, but noted large barriers to capitalising on those opportunities, including current land tenure arrangements as well as a lack of start-up funding and business development skills.
Community leaders told us that their communities are under-resourced, and to fund new initiatives or capital works, they rely on grants, funding rounds or sponsorship opportunities. Many community members expressed their frustration in seeking funding.
Community leaders told as that applications are typically written by volunteers within the community, who are competing with professional grant writers. Often, applications are not successful, with little or no feedback given to community. Community members said that they needed help and support from government to develop their skills in this area, if they are to compete with big organisations for funding.
Community Development Programme
CDP is a Commonwealth Government remote employment and community development programme. It is intended to support job seekers in remote Australia to build skills and contribute to their communities through a range of flexible activities, focused on local decision-making and local solutions. The programme has strict rules around work hours (25 hours per week), with financial penalties when total hours are not worked.
Aboriginal communities across the State told us that since the transition from past Commonwealth programs to CDP, there has been a lack of funding for community projects and an overall reduction in community influence on CDP priorities.
Community leaders explained the important functions that ‘work for the dole’ programs fulfil in an under resourced community. They told us that current government funding is not enough to deliver the services communities need and that shortfall can be partly addressed by innovative use of CDP activities. Participants are then seen as making a valuable contribution to the community. Many leaders noted that the roles participants carry out would be classified as ‘real jobs’ in a conventional town structure.
The application of financial penalties was frequently highlighted by participants as creating major problems within their community. Community leaders explained that when residents had their Centrelink payments suspended, the flow on impact on families meant people simply had less money to buy basic items such as food and power cards, exacerbating already high costs of living.
Many told us about how difficult it was for suspended participants to navigate the Centrelink system via long telephone calls to get re-connected, meaning that a suspension often resulted in an extended disconnection from the program.
Community leaders also said CDP lacked real training pathways and opportunities for participants to gain employment. They highlighted that if the CDP provider is not based in their community, there is little accountability or transparency for provider decisions, and no support for individual participants.
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