Fred Chaney, the former deputy Liberal leader and Indigenous affairs minister in the Fraser government, has launched a scathing attack on the government’s controversial remote work for the dole scheme, calling it a “national disgrace” that is causing real suffering in remote Aboriginal communities.
Chaney, who was also minister for social security, told Guardian Australia the Community Development Program (CDP) was a “scandalous failure of policy” based on “a denial of the facts”.
Chaney’s comments came as the Senate voted on Tuesday to demand the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, release a long-withheld review of the CDP scheme.
Chaney would not comment on Scullion’s endorsement on Monday of Pauline Hanson’s “It’s OK to be white” motion, saying he was more concerned about the devastating impacts of the “punitive CDP”.
Chaney said there was a “total carelessness shown for the hardship inflicted on remote Aboriginal people and the damage being done by this denial of the facts.
“In my view, this policy is a national disgrace. It is a reversion to the attitudes of the past.
“It’s another assimilationist, bureaucratic, irrelevant approach that will inflict more hardship, hunger and dysfunction on Aboriginal people.
“It’s not community building, it’s the reverse. The more I see of it, the more I think we are reverting to the habits of the 1940s and 1950s.”
There are about 35,000 CDP participants in Australia and 83% 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.
Scullion has proposed changes to the legislation, which the Greens and Labor both say they will vote against.
Under the changes, CDP participants would be subject to the same compliance measures as any other jobseekers “regardless of where they live or which government program they participate in”, Scullion has said.
Last week, the changes were given the go-ahead by a Senate committee, despite every submission to its inquiry being opposed to the bill.
“Aboriginal people in remote Northern Territory face many barriers to complying with the type of work programs involved in the scheme,” the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency said. “These barriers include 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.
“These barriers cannot be overstated. They are so significant that Naaja sees people remaining cut off from the Centrelink system after facing penalties. They are receiving no payments at all.
“Food sales in communities are dropping. Penalised people cannot afford basic essentials.”
Speaking about the Hanson motion, Scullion told the ABC on Tuesday he was “sorry for any suggestion that either I, my colleagues or the government supports any form of racism”.
The motion was put to a second vote on Tuesday after the government said its initial support was the result of an “administrative error”. Government members voted against the motion during this second vote, with the Liberal senator Mathias Cormann admitting the whole affair had been “embarrassing”.
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