Decentralisation, population mobility and the CDEP scheme in central Cape York Peninsula

Author/editor: Smith, B
Year published: 2002
Issue no.: 238


This paper presents a case study of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme in the Coen region of Cape York Peninsula from January 1996 to May 1997, prior to implementation of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and Spicer Reports on CDEP. During this time the inter-relationship between contemporary patterns of population mobility, Aboriginal aspirations, and the CDEP scheme provided a foundation for local social and economic development.

Since 1993, the Coen Regional Aboriginal Corporation (CRAC) has run a CDEP scheme in the township of Coen and at a number of outstations across the region, which were serviced from the township. The local CDEP scheme has been a key factor in the establishment and development of these outstations and has facilitated the decentralisation associated with them. However, rather than marking a return to a 'traditional lifestyle', the region's outstation movement has been closely tied to local Aboriginal aspirations for development and a more productive engagement with the contemporary 'hybrid' economy.

At the time of the case study, although the local CDEP scheme had facilitated regional decentralisation and aided the resumption of high levels of Aboriginal population mobility (which previously characterised both 'pre-contact' and colonial Aboriginal lifestyles before a period of sedentarisation associated with the granting of award wages and the resulting decline of Aboriginal employment in the region's pastoral industry), CDEP's relationship to contemporary patterns of population mobility was ambiguous. The development of outstations, access to vehicles and the CDEP scheme supported 'circular' mobility within the administrative region. However CRAC's administrators and the implementation of the local CDEP scheme acted to restrict other forms of population mobility, particularly mobility between administrative regions on Cape York Peninsula.

Whilst CRAC successfully designed employment projects to cope with seasonal shifts in the location of the region's Aboriginal population in the period with which this study is concerned, it followed earlier forms of colonial administration in viewing forms of mobility incompatible with the regulation of work programs as undesirable. By implementing a 'no work, no pay' policy and only limited flexibility where CDEP participants moved inter-regionally, the corporation sought to exclude 'undesirable' workers and encourage productivity among those who remained on the scheme. This inclination of CRAC's administrators was apparent in their design of a traineeship scheme which sought to shift CDEP workers from outstations, where work was not seen as properly supervised and regulated, to white-run pastoral leases.

It is suggested that, despite its successes, the administration of the CDEP scheme in the Coen region in 1996 and 1997 often tended towards 'welfare colonialism'. It met with resistance from younger participants and suspicion from more senior Aboriginal people in its limited successes in producing meaningful employment opportunities, in supporting local Aboriginal aspirations and in creating a more motivated and skilled younger population which might better meet the challenges facing the region's Aboriginal people. The concurrent successes of CDEP administration in the Coen region during this period lay in:

  • the provision of foundations for greater self-determination and appropriate governance structures;


  • having non-Aboriginal administrators aware of and responsive to the particularities of the social and cultural context of CDEP schemes;


  • possessing the flexibility to deal with regional population mobility and attempting, albeit with limited success, to produce projects that met the development needs of the regional economy, that is the need for improved human capital among the local Aboriginal population; and


  • the requirement that these be founded in socially and economically sustainable projects which could retain the support of Aboriginal participants.

ISBN: 0 7315 5613 5

ISSN:1036 1774

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