Australia welfare scheme lawsuit

Australia government settle lawsuit with the Aboriginal community, with a pay out of £1.1 million, after welfare scheme was branded ‘modern day slavery’

Photo by Millenius on Shutterstock.

Camilla Foster

The Australian government program ‘Work for the Dole’, which was first implemented in 1998, is a form of work-based welfare that has recently come under increasing scrutiny. The scheme requires people in remote outback communities to work up to 25 hours a week to receive income benefits. Approximately 30,000 job seekers participate in this program and are paid £5.39 daily, under half the national minimum wage. 80% of these workers come from the Aboriginal community. Many critics have shared their concerns over the strict requirements that have isolated many vulnerable individuals back into an inescapable cycle of poverty. Ngaanyatjarra communities have struggled to meet its tough obligations due to uncontrollable factors such as remoteness, low levels of education and socio-economic status.

In particular, the Community Development Programme (CDP) has faced criticism for its harsh rules and welfare penalties. Analysis showed an 740% increase in financial penalties comparable to preceding remote job and communities’ programs. In 2018, Chansey Paech, a Northern Territory Labor MP, condemned the scheme as “modern day slavery”. A government review found 36% of participants said their communities were worse off under the scheme.  

The Ngaanyatjarra Council and 680 people, from 10 communities from western Australia’s Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku, came together and sued the Australian government on grounds that the scheme breached anti-discrimination laws. Allegedly, the CDP breaches sections 9, 10 and 13 of the Racial Discrimination Act. The court concluded in the Aboriginal community’s favour, demanding the government to pay a settlement of £1.1 million. The court stated that people within the program have lost out on an average of £970 each due to the programme’s discriminative conditions. The Australian government are yet to make any admission of legal liability but did agree to redesign the CDP scheme. 

This conclusion has been a long time coming for the Aboriginal communities, who initially raised concerns about to the program to the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2016 but were dismissed. The settlement is a big triumph for the Aboriginal community and a big step into reasserting their human rights within modern day society, that have been stripped from them for so long. Although the welfare scheme stemmed from honourable intentions, this court case has highlighted embedded racism and cultural differences within Australia’s existing welfare system which has allowed many vulnerable people to fall through the cracks.

The native community attains a glimmer of hope that the CDP will be scrapped and replaced with a more “positive Aboriginal- led model”. Having a more bottom-up approach to social policy and creating a two-way conversation with impacted communities would be a positive step in eliminating inequalities and unforeseen consequences of future policies. The publicity that this case has attracted demonstrates how the Aboriginal communities’ voices are beginning to be listened to and may grow in influence on future policy changes.