Speech by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Launch of Journey to Social Inclusion evaluation, Melbourne

Location: Melbourne

It’s great to be here. Can I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, pay my respects to their elders both past and present, formally acknowledge Cathy Humphrey, CEO of Sacred Heart Mission, Mary Bartlett, the general manager, Sue Grigg, and of course others that are here from Sacred Heart.

I should also of course acknowledge Richard Wynne, Cath Bowtell the Labor Candidate for Melbourne, the Deputy Mayor of the City of Port Phillip, other distinguished guests.

As I say it’s fantastic to be back. The last time I was involved or working with the Sacred Heart Mission I had the opportunity to visit the Queen Street location, where I met some magnificent people. Not only did I engage with those from the Mission who do such good work, but most importantly – to me at least – I met so many important people who are being helped by the Mission, and I had a great opportunity which really underlines for me about what governments can do and what not for profit sector can do to help people.

I had a great opportunity to see the art that was on display at that location.  That was an expression of those clients that were being assisted by the Mission. And some of the artwork was truly remarkable, which really to me underlined that if you provide opportunities for people who have been in some cases excluded from society, from access to education, access to work, and a lack of engagement generally, if you provide that opportunity, it’s extraordinary what you can see, and the potential that is within those people.

So I had the good fortune to find time to do that in September. When I was asked then to come and launch this second report that has been authored by Dr Guy Johnson who I also formally acknowledge today, I wanted to take that opportunity to do so. Because what you are doing is firstly, noticed by the Federal Government.

It’s something that will inform future decisions of our government. And it should also inform State and Territory Governments’ work because, at the heart of your research, it to me says that if we intervene early, if we dedicate resources at the right time in the right way, we can prevent things happening to many many Australians. And what this report says to me is that if we are able to find the resources and find the manner in which those resources are dedicated in a way that can help people, we will prevent much heartache.

Not only will we prevent much heartache and much dislocation socially, but we will also see some long-term benefits for those individuals, and for their families, and for the community generally, and for our economy. So on every level in every way it is critical that as governments, partnered by the not-for-profit sector, and indeed the private sector, we do better to help people in Australia that find themselves in trouble, that find themselves without sustainable accommodation, that find themselves without decent access to services that can actually make their lives better.

So I have had an opportunity to look at this second report. It really does evidentially underline my instinct about the evidence we need to inform future government decisions.

We currently have an agreement with States and Territories that expires this financial year. That was an historic agreement. It was certainly an increased level of investment by governments to attend to some of our most disadvantaged citizens, and we have to make sure that we have in place very soon an investment beyond that agreement.

At the last Ministerial Council for Housing and Homelessness, I made an offer to States and Territories for guaranteed funding for the next year, beyond this year, and to sit down with them to determine a long-term agreement with all States and Territories so that we can provide the appropriate levels of support for homeless Australians.

I have yet to receive an authorised response from any of those Ministers. In principle they support that approach. And I will be speaking publicly from now until Christmas to ensure we get an agreement in place so that the people who work in this field, but most importantly their clients feel some certainty about what happens from 1 July of next year.

Now as a Government we are quite proud of the work we’ve done in the area of housing and homelessness. We’ve invested since the election in 2007 $20 billion in the area of housing and homelessness. We for example have a $5 billion investment in homeless services – which is unprecedented at the Commonwealth level.

We’ve invested over $6 billion in social housing, building 21,000 social housing homes. Ten thousand people who were defined as homeless before we built those dwellings now live in those homes.

We have 11,000 homes that have been constructed under the National Rental Affordability Scheme. Now that may not, some might argue, attend to homeless Australians but it does  – because we know it’s not only people that are sleeping rough, but there are many, many people in this country that, one day, could not contemplate that they would find themselves needing to access homeless services, and the next day they are.

I’ve met people who tell me that they’ve had quite ordinary lives, happy and ordinary lives, and because of the number of things that happened to them, they have found themselves in need of help.

I spoke to a woman who told me that she was, she and her husband and her two daughters, their two daughters, were living a happy life. He was diagnosed with cancer. He had to stop work. She had to stop work to assist him. He died. She found herself with her two daughters out on the street.

Now she could not contemplate that happening to her a year before. Not in her wildest dreams or nightmares did she ever contemplate she would find herself on the street with her daughters accessing homeless services.

So the stereotype or the way in which some people depict homeless people of course is not quite right.

There is a view that there is some basis for people being homeless and it’s a very singular cause. Of course you in this room know that’s not the case.

There are multiple reasons why people find themselves either at risk of being homeless or homeless themselves.

And that is why governments have to attend to these things across the spectrum. We need to firstly ensure, wherever possible, we prevent homelessness, and that’s why I pointed to the Gillard Government’s record on investment in housing, social housing and the like.

Now, you might recall it was when we were confronted by the global financial crisis that that investment was determined. I sometimes joke internally – I shouldn’t joke too often publicly – it was one of the best things that happened with the global financial crisis because what it allowed us to do was to say we need to support jobs, we need to invest to do so, but the values decision, the social decision as to where we spend that money was very important. We could have spent it in many areas, but, of course, we chose to spend it in the areas of education and social housing. Now, that meant we kept literally small businesses and workers employed and engaged across the sector.

But what it meant, I think, for this country in the area of social housing was for the first time in a very, very long time, we saw the Federal Government taking the lead, working closely with State and Territory governments to actually build the infrastructure required for people who are in need of affordable accommodation.

And so, we are very proud of that record, but, of course, there is more to be done. I want to pay tribute to Richard Wynne, who when he was Minister was engaged very, very closely with my predecessor and indeed with the Federal Government in ensuring that that housing was built across this state. And he’s not there on occasion to cut all the ribbons that are being cut, but the bulk of the work that happened in this state, in partnership with the Federal Government, was indeed undertaken by Richard, and by Martin Foley, who tried to sneak into the room just then.

If you look at Martin’s role as the local state Member for Albert Park, he and other really active members of the then government were very much involved in realising the objectives of the Federal Government, working closely with the Victorian Government.

And we will certainly continue to work with this State Government. We do require, however, a formal response by this and all other State and Territory Governments to our offer to embark on a new agreement from 1 July next year. And so that is a very important thing. And I will be banging on about that right up until Christmas because I think it is absolutely critical for the thousands and thousands of workers in this sector and more importantly, if I can say that, for the tens of thousands of people that rely upon those services, that we have some certainty before we go in to Christmas. I think that is really, really critical. So I am calling upon the Baillieu Government to stump up and respond to the offer that I have made.

I just want to return now, if I can, to why we are here – this second report on this very important project. I think it has taken a lot of courage and a lot of leadership by Sacred Heart to engage in this area. I know how much you have to do with so little. There is a reason why governments like to provide money to organisations like yours. It is because you do so much with the money that is provided.

But this is not government money. This is money that has been found by the organisation to embark on a journey, to make comparisons about the way in which we dedicate resources and provide support to people in a way that we should be operating, compared with, perhaps, the conventional approach. And this report is already showing the great results that have occurred as a result of that effort. And I probably should go some of those because I think it is very important.

And can I say, have invested $11 million in research at the Federal Government level, which is again unprecedented because if you don’t know what is needed and how money should be spent, how can you possibly do the best job for homeless Australians? And so that has been important.

But I also look to this report, and reports like it, that should be informing the way in which State and Territory governments, with the Commonwealth, dedicate themselves in the future.

It is not just about how much money we invest. It is about how we invest it, how it is spent, how do we save money because of the sheer waste that goes on because we have not helped people early enough and we have not helped people in the appropriate way.

And so I always say to people, and I say this internally within government, I say there is a social imperative, but there is also a strong, economic, compelling argument as to why we should take this particular approach.

Now, the J2SI project has made a real difference to people’s lives. I am pleased to see the evaluation is showing some encouraging results. The 24 month report, this report, shows that nearly half of the 40 participants were either employed in training or were actively looking for work. We also know 31 people assisted by the project were in independent housing and their housing situation was much more stable.

The research has also shown that the people in the program were now less stressed or anxious than those using existing homelessness services. And they were less likely to use costly health services. Their use of emergency psychiatric care had dropped significantly, and the length of time they spent in hospital had actually halved, which I think is remarkable, not only remarkable for – and certainly preferable, insofar as these people are concerned, but what it means for governments.

If this can’t tell State Governments that they would save a lot more money, and we would look after people more efficiently, more effectively, more decently and in a more dignified way, then I don’t know what would actually inform governments.

So I pay tribute to the author for your good work, I pay tribute for their hosts today, for their leadership, for investing in this area. And I know how hard it is to find the money, you know, from the not-for-profit sector to invest into research. So I say well done on that because I think if we are to make the right decisions as governments, including, of course, the not-for-profit sector, but also the corporate sector, who I think is increasingly interested in getting involved in this area of social policy.

This national challenge, as I remind people, it is not a government challenge alone. This is a national challenge to reduce the rate of homelessness by half by 2020, by making sure that every rough sleeper gets an opportunity to find accommodation.

People tell me that that goal is too difficult, too ambitious and we are too naive. I would disagree with that. I disagree with that absolutely. I think if governments in this country, all nine of them at the federal, state and territory level, partnering with local government, partnering with the not-for-profit sector, and we see a bigger lift from the corporate sector, that goal is entirely achievable, those two goals, if you like, are entirely realisable, and I would happily talk down those naysayers who suggest otherwise.

So I’ve probably said a bit too much, I had a speech, but I didn’t get to it really [laughter], I find it rather boring having to read a speech.

But what’s more important is that this work will help inform governments in the future, when we’re looking to negotiate, as I say, if we can get the first 12 months of the next agreement guaranteed, that the funding is guaranteed by the Victorian Government, and all other State and Territory Governments. I’ll be sitting around a table negotiating the longer term agreement, which is what we want, which is also currently agreed in principle. It’s this type of work, and other work that the Federal Government’s doing, that I will be looking to talk about how that agreement should be structured, how we should spend the money, and how we should be treating people who deserve that respect and dignity of having a decent life.

So without any further comments from me, I formally launch this report. Thanks very much.