Community Participation Agreements: A model for welfare reform from community-based research

Author/editor: Smith, D
Year published: 2001
Issue no.: 223

Abstract

In its June 2001 budget, the Federal Government announced a new framework for welfare reform, Australians Working Together. One component of the framework is the proposed development of Community Participation Agreements in remote Indigenous communities, to deal with welfare income payments, mutual obligation and related service delivery. This paper presents the results of community consideration and the author's field research between March and August 2001 at Mutitjulu, Central Australia, regarding what such an Agreement might look like on the ground.
Mutitjulu presents a microcosm of many of the issues currently affecting remote Indigenous communities. As Mutitjulu residents struggle daily to come to terms with substantial economic and social difficulties, they find their culturally-based forms of social and cultural capital are being undermined by external factors seemingly beyond their immediate control. These include:

  • the continuing failure of governments to develop a comprehensive approach to planning and service delivery, reflected in a band-aid approach to addressing welfare dependence;
  • the debilitating impacts of inter-generational dependence on welfare income; and
  • the multiplicity of local corporate structures and institutions with ill-defined roles and poor accountability to the Mutitjulu community.

The failure to adequately address welfare dependence and major community problems of substance abuse, family breakdown, domestic violence, and low levels of education is viewed by Anangu (local Aboriginal people) as directly contributing to a noticeable deterioration in the wellbeing of individuals, their families and the community at large. There is growing frustration over the failure, at all levels, to deal effectively with these matters. The Mutitjulu Community Council has formally decided to proceed with the development of a Community Participation and Partnership Agreement (the 'Mutitjulu Agreement'), in partnership with government and other stakeholders, as one means to begin addressing these matters. The development of practical partnerships with key government departments and local agencies will be a critical factor in the overall success of the proposed Mutitjulu Agreement. It is for this reason that the name of the proposed Agreement has been expanded to include the strategy of 'partnership' and well as 'participation'.

The paper begins with an overview of the background to the community-based research, terms of reference and research methodology. The proposed Mutitjulu Agreement is then placed in its national policy context to identify the factors that have generated this particular initiative. The paper goes on to describe the community context for the Agreement, including the nature of the local welfare economy, and Anangu views about the impacts of the welfare system. Consideration is given to the nature of contemporary Anangu social and economic relations, and how the term 'participation' might be most relevantly defined for the purposes of a community agreement about participation.

The key components, principles and objectives of the model proposed for the Mutitjulu Agreement are described. The optimal model proposed for participation-one that is overwhelmingly recommended by Anangu themselves-is based on an inclusive 'All in' model that would cover all social security recipients resident at Mutitjulu, under a dual strategy of providing active participation and/or tailored assistance to different categories of participants.

The model is based on an integrated package that aims to address welfare dependence in its real-life community context. Its proposed key components are described in detail. These are:

  • a community gateway for participation and administration;
  • a delegation under the Social Security Act 1999;
  • a consolidated block funding and acquittal package;
  • a Community Participation Program;
  • Individual Participation Agreements;
  • a menu of participation activities;
  • individualised intensive assistance and support;
  • coordinated training and supervision;
  • enforcement and appeals procedures-partnering with Centrelink;
  • community financial advice and banking services;
  • a Community Transaction Centre and networked information technology;
  • reformed community governance and targeted capacity-building;
  • the forging of local participation partnerships;
  • national coordination; and
  • an ongoing evaluation process.

The paper argues that, while Indigenous communities display important economic and cultural differences which will require the development of a local content for each Community Participation Agreement, every community will have to address the same broad issues in respect to reforming welfare at the local level. The key component goals considered at Mutitjulu will therefore have relevance in other communities.
There are significant factors at the community level which may impede the establishment of the Mutitjulu Agreement. There may also be resistance from institutions with vested program and service-delivery interests, who may argue against entering a credible partnership that requires devolving genuine decision-making responsibilities to the community level. However, there are important community and corporate strengths that, if realistically built upon, may assist the process of implementing the Agreement. These various internal and external factors are considered.

The proposed Mutitjulu Agreement represents a demonstration project for government's new welfare policy-a litmus test for its ability to provide a comprehensive approach to delivering the necessary funding and program support for a community-managed model, and for its willingness to establish a practical partnership with the community. Development and implementation of the Agreement will be a complex matter. It has taken many decades for welfare dependence to become entrenched in Indigenous communities, and the issues will not be addressed overnight. They will require a sustained 5 to 10 year period of commitment by all the parties.

The paper concludes by discussing the key policy and program challenges, and some old recurring lessons, that have arisen during the course of the research. These matters will have to be addressed if a sustainable community-managed Agreement is to be developed. They are relevant not only to implementation of an Agreement at Mutitjulu, but to the possible extension of this new initiative to other remote Indigenous communities.

ISBN: 0 7315 2658 9

ISSN:1036 1774

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