Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Australian Financial Counselling and Credit Reform Association (AFCCRA) Conference, Melbourne

Location: Melbourne

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Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land we are meeting on.

I also want to take this opportunity with all of you here to pay tribute to Jan Pentland – to remember her great warmth, her amazing abilities and her passionate pursuit of all she believed in. As we remember, we also celebrate Jan’s remarkable contribution. Her hard work, her dedication and the great difference she made through a life devoted to supporting people in need. Jan has left a gap in our lives; it is a loss shared by many. Again I offer my condolences to Jan’s partner David who I understand is here today, her children and extended family, her friends and her colleagues.

I would also like to acknowledge the large contingent of money management workers here today – whose patch covers hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of remote Australia.

In the last six months of last year, money management workers helped more than 4,000 Indigenous Australians – across the Northern Territory, in Western Australia and far north Queensland.

A few weeks ago I met some of you at Kalano outside Katherine when I was there to launch the roll-out of MoneyMob Talkabout – an innovative program reaching out to people on their own turf in 70 Northern Territory communities. Working one on one, you help with the day to day challenges like getting family budgets back on track, managing debt, credit and banking. At the same time opening up new possibilities with long-term goals like home ownership, investments and superannuation.

I think all of us would agree that if want to achieve real and lasting change in people’s lives we have to look beyond only managing the immediate crisis and deal with the underlying issues. Crisis relief will always be an integral part of our support. But if we are to break the cycle of crisis we must give people the skills and capabilities to build financial security. This is why this Government supports services that stretches from quick, targeted emergency relief to long-term social and financial recovery. So when people are obviously struggling – when they can’t pay the rent, can’t buy food or pay the bills – they get immediate help, but are also connected to the services they need to get back on their feet – for the long term.

Financial counsellors are at the heart of that broader response, working together with housing, employment services, mental health and family support. This was our approach when the global economic crisis threatened Australians.

We moved quickly using all the levers at our disposal. We doubled the funding for emergency relief over two years.

And because we realise how critical it is to build a continuum of services for families under pressure, we put $12 million of this into financial counselling. This funding put 66 new, full-time equivalent financial counsellors on the ground in communities of high need right across the country.

This financial year we are investing $108 million in financial management services – to support emergency relief, commonwealth financial counseling, and money management information and education services. Over the next financial year this increases to $124 million.

Next year we will spend $13.5 million on financial counseling a year – compared to $2.5 million in the year before we came to Government. We currently fund 90 organisations to provide the equivalent of 123 full-time financial counselling positions.

In the last six months of 2009, financial counsellors helped around 13,000 people. Among them the husband and wife operators of a mechanical business in a drought affected rural area – struggling to pay their bills because they were owed money by local farmers. After a community organisation stepped in with food vouchers and help to pay the bills they sat down with a financial counsellor. After 40 hours of ongoing financial counselling they improved their accounting processes and accessed a Small Business Income Payment and are now back on track.

Financial counselling also made the difference for a single mum of twin boys who’d been retrenched from her job, was under extreme financial stress and was suffering from depression.

Her financial counsellor contacted her psychologist, and Barnardo’s, who arranged care for her children for a week so she had some space and time to recover and plan ahead. She’s now found a job, is paying back her rental debt and has new optimism about the future. She says summoning up the courage to see a financial counsellor was the happiest day of her life.

We also supported the extension of existing telephone counselling services in Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and the ACT. In the last six months of last year, around 4,000 clients received Commonwealth Financial Counselling services via telephone hotlines. To maximise the reach of telephone financial counselling and reduce confusion about which number to call, the Government has been working closely with AFCCRA to establish a national telephone hotline. Today I can announce that from I July this year there will be one single, phone number for people to call when they need financial counselling services. (1800 007 007)

This number will ‘switch through’ to existing state and territory financial counselling hotlines providing the caller with one national entry point. This is a very simple idea, but it’s a very practical way that we can help people to access the services that are available.

Every day financial counsellors hear and respond to stories of struggle and distress, as well as hope and recovery.

You are at the frontline. You have the grassroots connections and experience that no government can match.

I saw this in action a few months ago when I was with Maxine McKew in her electorate of Bennelong meeting staff and clients at the Northern Area Tenants’ Service.

Along with other services, they were getting advice from financial counsellors. Help to balance the family budget, to mange the costs of children at school, clothes, groceries and energy bills.

For these new arrivals, this practical advice is helping bridge the gap between their old life and their new life here.

This kind of assistance requires a professional, highly skilled workforce. That’s why, as well as funding extra financial counselling services, we are also developing professional career pathways for financial counsellors and money management workers on the ground.

Since we came into government, we have funded training for 100 new financial counsellors, provided financial literacy training for 500 emergency relief workers. Thirty-two money management workers completed their certificate 3 in financial services and over 100 others have received accredited training.

We are also supporting AFCCRA to update the financial counselling units of the Diploma of Community Services as well as supporting AFCCRA’s role as the national peak body, for the first time. We’re funding Legal Aid New South Wales to develop a Consumer Credit Caseworker Manual to outline how new credit laws which will affect financial counsellors and community lawyers. And supporting more regional financial counsellors to participate in the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC’s) Consumer Credit Training Roadshow.

Looking ahead we will continue to work in partnership with you.

We won’t always agree. At times, leadership demands difficult decisions. And robust policy measures that may not be popular.

I know that some of you have been critical of the Government’s welfare reforms to extend income management to all communities across the Northern Territory and, over time, to disadvantaged regions across the country. Issues like income management are controversial but they are aimed at delivering on the most fundamental obligation of government.

As Minister, my obligation is to protect those who are defenceless, vulnerable and at risk – in particular children – from violence, neglect and abuse.

Central to this is restoring personal responsibility to build positive social norms that strengthen families and communities.

Underpinned by a welfare system based on the principles of engagement, participation and responsibility.

As part of these welfare reforms we are investing $51 million in financial counselling and money management over four years.

Once the legislation passes and we begin implementing reforms, I look forward to working with in partnership with you.

As we deliver this significant investment in financial management services for some of our most vulnerable Australians.