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Issue #1443      17 February 2010

Border community in grip of despair

Toomelah rocked by closure of CDEP

Toomelah is an Aboriginal community facing meltdown. Residents fear the closure of their Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program may be the final nail in the community’s coffin.

The Toomelah War Memorial, opened in February last year, was built using the labour of CDEP workers. That scheme no longer exists.

Since the CDEP shut nine months ago, the community on the NSW/Queensland border has begun to unravel.

There has been a deterioration of facilities and services, an increase in crime and suicide attempts, and widespread disintegration in living conditions in the 600-strong centre.

Fed up, the Toomelah Community Council recently held a community meeting in an attempt to stop the rot, and has called for urgent help from local federal MP Mark Coulton and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin.

Toomelah Co-operative manager Rene Adams said more than 80 people on CDEP had lost their jobs, and were now aimless.

“It was the CDEP workers that built the homes, provided the services, and fixed the roads and the park. Everyone had a role, but now there’s nothing,” Ms Adams said.

“We’ve lobbied every state and federal minister since 2008 and only now they’re seeing what the fallout from scrapping CDEP is. There were 85 people on CDEP and 80 of those are now back on Centrelink payments.”

Ms Adams said the Toomelah CDEP was the first established in NSW as a result of the Human Rights Report led by Justice Marcus Einfeld in 1988.

Einfeld reportedly wept as he walked the streets of Toomelah, taking in the poverty and deprivation. His report exposed third world living conditions, 

high unemployment rates, and racism from the nearby regional centre of Goondiwindi.

With the help of CDEP the community rebuilt itself, so when news filtered though that the government was going to shut the program, the community led by Toomelah Co-operative fought hard to save it.

They were unsuccessful.

“The federal government’s response to our submissions was that Toomelah was situated in a 100 kilometre radius of a growth centre, being Goondiwindi,” Ms Adams told The Koori Mail newspaper.

However, in the 21 years of the Toomelah CDEP being operational, not one Aboriginal person on CDEP had been employed in Goondiwindi from either Toomelah or nearby Boggabilla, she said.

“That’s why they don’t think they’ll have much luck now ... in fact many have already given up hope.”

Ms Adams said that since the closure of the CDEP program, there had been 14 suicide attempts by former participants, an increase in mental health issues, and a rise in the number of people being jailed.

“They (the federal government) have killed off the community’s spirit. They’ve spent millions over the years and now they’ve taken it all away,” she said.

“All they (Toomelah residents) want is employment in their own community. We know there’s a lot of Toomelahs around, but we are fighting for us.”

Federal MP Mark Coulton (National Party) has also taken up the fight.

After visiting the community in recent months, Mr Coulton has written to Ms Macklin asking that Toomelah be considered a special case, worthy of its own employment program.

“The thrust of my letter is that since CDEP was scrapped the morale of the community has gone and the level of lawlessness has increased,” he said. “Toomelah is a special case that needs help. They’re crying out for understanding and having been out there I agree with them.”

Govt response

A spokesperson for Ms Macklin said the government was aware of concerns by the Toomelah community regarding the withdrawal of CDEP, and senior officials had attended the public meeting.

“Additional support has been provided to assist Toomelah in managing the transition out of CDEP through the Indigenous Employment Program,” she said.

“The government has also provided funding to the Toomelah Cooperative to deliver a Community Support Service in Toomelah, Boggabilla and Goondiwindi over three years to help link Indigenous people with support services.”

She said officers from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs would conduct a review with the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations to identify any service gaps that needed to be addressed.

“This will include a further meeting with community representatives to discuss their concerns,” she said.

“Additional support has been provided to assist Toomelah in managing the transition out of CDEP through the Indigenous Employment Program.”

She said the government had also provided funding to the Toomelah Cooperative to deliver a Community Support Service in Toomelah, Boggabilla and Goondiwindi over three years to help link Indigenous people with support services.

The Koori Mail 

Next article –  Editorial – A dangerous, fast buck program

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