Wanting change: Malcolm Peckham. Photo: Tamara Dean
Asked how many people in Toomelah have permanent jobs, Malcolm Peckham holds up his fingers to count them off - the numbers are seemingly that few.
Unemployment is not the only serious problem afflicting his small Aboriginal community, which lies at the end of a hot sealed road in far northern NSW, just shy of the Queensland border. The town's incidence of drug use, alcoholism, violence and child sexual abuse have been widely reported. But the lack of meaningful paid work underpins and exacerbates many of these issues.
There are minimal opportunities for jobs in the community of about 300, where the few winding streets are punctuated with graffitied homes and burnt-out cars. The building that housed the only shop is boarded up and shut, the community hall is in ruins. Some public works were completed after former Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld famously wept while walking the sewage-strewn streets in 1987 but poverty persists.
Malcolm Peckham in the graveyard at Toomelah, where names were washed off headstones in the last big flood. Photo: Tamara Dean
The employment crisis is the reason Peckham, a long-time resident of Toomelah, is cautiously welcoming of an unlikely plan to make his home one of the early sites for the Abbott government's ''green army''. The project, a key election promise, involves recruiting 15,000 young and unemployed people around the country on a training wage in a corps dedicated to tasks such as land regeneration and cleaning waterways.
Two teams of 10 people from Toomelah and neighbouring Boggabilla are due to begin work in six-month stints from June, in projects supervised by Moree Plains Shire Council.
Asked about his hopes for the program, Peckham, a heavyset former local rugby league star with a rare government job, is blunt.
Rene Adams runs the Toomelah co-op. Photo: Tamara Dean
''Give the boys employment, something to do,'' he says. ''If it's working on the land, they'll work on the land. If it's working in communities, they'll work in communities. Hopefully it'll motivate them and the green army will skill them up and market them out again.''
No one is under any illusion the tiny green army program will be a panacea for Toomelah's employment woes. Rather, its arrival has sparked calls for a larger, permanent government employment program to be reinstated, one that will offer more than just temporary jobs for a handful of people and allow people to work in their own community.
In 2009, the Rudd government cancelled Toomelah's Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), which was managed by the community and employed scores of people in various roles for little more than they now receive in unemployment payments. Rene Adams, who runs the Toomelah co-op, wants it to be brought back.
''[CDEP workers] maintained the roads, parks, cemetery, the whole community,'' Adams says. ''They had housing repairs and maintenance programs, where they fixed everything … They owned a store that provided food.
''People never seen it as working for the dole, they seen it as a real important job in their community.''
The cancellation has contributed to drug and alcohol abuse and suicide, locals say.
''Not only did it take employment away but it took other things - motivation, self-confidence, community pride,'' Peckham says.
''Now they call Centrelink sit-down money. They get the same money for sitting down."
The local National Party MP, Mark Coulton, agrees the CDEP, while flawed, was ''better than nothing'' and saw an opportunity in the green army for residents to get some work and training.
''I was just going for anything that I thought would provide some jobs,'' he says. ''I don't see the green army as the answer, I see it as a starting point.''
There is at least some work that needs doing. One project Peckham cites as ripe for attention would be works on the local cemetery, formerly cared for by the CDEP.
On approach, the small graveyard that lies at the edge of the community is like any other - a cluster of gravestones dotingly tendered, adorned in colourful plastic flowers.
But these are graves without names, the script washed off by the flood that passed through the community in January 2011, which also sunk several graves.
Coulton is hopeful the green army will give some people a chance to learn skills, which could lead to jobs on farms in the otherwise wealthy rural district.
''I really would like to see an opportunity for the Aboriginal people to upskill but also to encourage the farmers to step up as well and include some of these people or at least give them some opportunity for employment,'' he says.
It is getting people into the broader local economy that Warren Mundine, chairman of the government's Indigenous Advisory Council, says is the only way forward for Toomelah.
Mundine shares none of the halcyon views of the CDEP and pours water on any suggestion of another similar scheme.
''It's not an answer, it's not even on my agenda, to be quite frank,'' he said. ''In the 30 years we had CDEP, we didn't lift indigenous communities out of poverty. What we did do was marginalise them from the main economy."
''We want to get people out of poverty and into real jobs that are sustainable, not government-subsidised or working for the dole.''
Peckham, who works with an employment service, says jobs on local farms or in towns like nearby Goondiwindi have, in the past, proved near impossible to secure for Aboriginal people from Toomelah.
Transport is a major issue but so too are attitudes.
''Goondiwindi is sort of like a family-run town,'' Peckham says. ''Like a lot of country towns, the hardware stores run by family, builders are run by family … We might get one every now and then, if you know someone. But if you put in an application form, you probably wouldn't even get looked at.''
But Mundine is uncompromising in his belief that jobs outside communities, whether in mining, farming or elsewhere, are the answer.
''They have to do that, otherwise they will do one of two things: one is they will live in abject poverty and the breakdown of their society will get worse, or they will move,'' he says. ''If they want Toomelah to survive, they have to do these jobs.''
At best, the green army program will help just a handful of people make that transition.
''I just don't want this to be six months of an activity that's just going to come to an end,'' Coulton says.
"Because if you want to put people into complete despair, that’s what you do."