The Power of Community – Communities in Control Conference, Melbourne
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I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land where we are meeting – the Wurundjeri people – and pay my respects to their Elders, both past and present.
It is great to be back with you. As always – and this is the third year running – I feel very much at home. I look around and see many old friends and familiar faces. You’ve asked me to speak to you today about the power of community – something I have been passionate about for a very long time. I think all of us here know that when you harness the power of community, you harness a remarkable force to drive positive change. In this job, I see it all the time. In the suburbs, the inner-city, regional towns, small country towns and in remote Indigenous communities.
People who see things that need to be changed, things that need to be fixed – and without fanfare, get on with it. People working together to achieve the most remarkable things – very often doing it on a shoe string. I know I don’t have to tell you about running on the smell of an oily rag. The initiative and ingenuity of community organisations to make every cent work for them – is legendry. I see this again and again. Earlier this year, in the Perth suburb of Belmont, I was at Jacaranda Community Centre. Jacaranda operates from a nondescript little house on a busy street, but in these very modest premises big things happen.
Emergency relief services, financial counselling, outreach, services for people with disability, classes for parents, computer skills, the administration of a no interest loans scheme. Around 80 per cent of the people using these services are Indigenous Australians. On the day I was there, in one of the converted bedrooms in this little house, they were running an art class for people recovering from trauma and grief. The conversation, the laughter, the didgeridoo playing, the warmth in that room as paint was enthusiastically applied to paper is something I won’t forget. In that small house in a very disadvantaged suburb, the power of community is at hard at work changing lives.
As I said earlier this is the third time, as Minister, you’ve invited me to speak at your conference. The first time I spoke here as a new Minister, there was excitement that social policy was once again back in business in Australia. People spoke to me about how their relief at finally having a government that “gets” social policy. Excited and relieved that the fundamental values of fairness and equality were once again the currency of our country’s future.
I’m sure many of you remember that one of the very first orders of business as a new government was to lift the previous government’s gag clause from Government contracts. Because we don’t believe in shutting down debate. Because we want to hear your views, we want you to robustly make your case – even if we don’t always agree. Removing the gag was integral to building a new working partnership with the community sector to help drive our reform agenda. It reflected the relationship we want with the non-government sector – a respectful, productive relationship acknowledging what we can accomplish together.
And within months, we followed up with our swift and immediate action to protect not-for-profit employees from harmful Howard Government fringe benefit tax changes. After being sidelined and ignored for more than a decade, the vital role of the community sector and the importance of a strong, positive relationship was back at the heart of our reform agenda.
This new relationship contributed to the delivery of one of my most important priorities – taking national leadership on the development of a national framework to protect Australia’s children. This was an important election commitment and the community sector was central to its development. Because you work on the frontline. You confront and deal with the tragedy of child abuse and neglect. often, you are our early warning system.
This was why I was determined to harness the non government sector’s knowledge and skills to develop the Framework. We worked closely with the Coalition of Organisations Committed to the Safety and Wellbeing of Australia’s Children – a 100 strong network of community organisations that provide on the ground services to children, young people and families across Australia, as well as key children’s advocates and researchers – in the development the national framework. This delivered first hand experience to the heart of policy making. And now – in our shared implementation task – your expertise on the joint implementation working group is critical.
Our goal is to bring together the resources of the Commonwealth to better support the state child protection systems. And to make our policy levers – among them the social security and family assistance systems – work in concert to support the states in this important and difficult area of policy. As you know, a big focus for our Government is driving a national effort to tackle the unacceptable levels of homelessness that see 105,000 Australians homeless on any given night – more than 16,000 sleeping rough. Nearly half of them are under the age of 25 and 12,000 of them are children.
Again this is something you know only too well – because you deal with it every day, every night. This is why when we developed the Government’s White Paper on Homelessness: The Road Home, the community sector was critical in driving the process. A steering group headed up by Tony Nicholson from the Brotherhood of St Laurence advised the Government on the policy approach and Tony now leads the Prime Minister’s Council on Homelessness.
Homelessness demands a concerted effort. A national effort. The Government has set ambitious targets. We are there for the long haul – with a 12 year reform plan.
We are spending $4.9 billion over four years to address homelessness and provide more affordable housing. We are increasing spending on homelessness services and increasing the supply of affordable homes by 80,000 in the period to 2012, through the National Rental Affordability Scheme and social housing. Across our housing programs we are funding 41 specialist homelessness projects for more 1680 new units of accommodation.
When I spoke to you at last year’s conference it was at the height of the global economic crisis. Again community organisations were on the frontline to meet the challenge of the rising demand for emergency relief services. You saw the human toll of the economic downturn and the changing profile of people asking for help – families under pressure to make mortgage payments, older people whose retirement savings had plummeted in value because other nations had fallen into recession. The Government moved quickly and decisively using all the levers at our disposal to cushion the blow.
The experience and expertise of the community sector was part of our armoury. We set up the Community Response Taskforce with your sector to deal directly with the Government as we mobilised our combined resources to support Australians who were at risk from the worldwide downturn.
In response to the increasing demands on community organisations, we doubled the funding for emergency relief. And we provided an extra $80.4 million for emergency relief and financial counselling over two years. To support people who were struggling – to pay their rent, buy food, pay the power and gas bills – stay afloat.
But all of us here know that just keeping your head above water isn’t enough. As well as dealing with the immediate financial crisis, we must support people build long-term financial capacity and resilience.
Again, this is why we worked with the community sector to develop a new approach to the delivery of financial counselling. We listened to the views of community organisations. Because we want to work with you to use your enormous front door capacity, as the providers of emergency relief, to break the cycle of financial crisis by connecting them to other vital services. Employment services, housing, mental health and family support.
And to build financial skills and capacity we injected $33 million extra over two years into innovative financial capability programs. This funded significantly expanded successful no and low interest loan programs and matched saving schemes already operating in disadvantaged communities as part of working partnerships between the community sector and banks. Good Shepherd Youth and Family Service and National Australia Bank have teamed up together to offer no and low interest loans programs to people who have limited access to credit. Like the single mum who took out a NAB no interest loan to pay for car repairs so she could drive her daughter to school and medical appointments. Just two months ago I was in the Queensland city of Ipswich where the Government is funding the Brotherhood of St Laurence in partnership with the Smith Family to deliver the ANZ Bank’s Saver Plus matched savings program. It offers dollar for dollar matched savings to people who are supporting their kids’ education or training. It means that every dollar a person saves up to $500, is matched by the ANZ Bank. These are big, national institutions and they are out there in places like Ipswich, and other parts of the country, working at the community level.
In safeguarding the economy and jobs during the global downturn, we also delivered greater financial security for families, pensioners and carers through the economic stimulus payments. We delivered long overdue reforms to the pension system to help millions of age and disability pensioners, carers and veterans. We have delivered an increase to the pension of $100 a fortnight for singles and around $74 for couples. There are ongoing increases – in the purses and wallets of pensioners every fortnight. We also delivered a new, annual Carer Supplement of $600 to around 500,000 carers, for each person they care for. Carers most under financial pressure will receive at least two payments. That’s $1200 a year on top of their fortnightly payments.
And to give children the best start in life, to give parents the time and financial security to stay at home with their babies after they’re born – we have legislation before Parliament to deliver a Government-funded Paid Parental Leave Scheme. A scheme that meets the challenges and realities of modern family life with better options to balance work and family. And just today the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Kate Ellis, the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Child Care and Youth has announced that 570 child care centres will be transferred from ABC Learning to the new, not for profit company – GoodStart – a great development.
Looking ahead we will continue to work with the community sector. Just as we worked together to protect children, to weather the global economic downturn, to protect jobs, to tackle homelessness and reach out to the most vulnerable Australians. You will always be respected and valued partners as we drive social reform. This includes working with you through the new National Compact: Working Together, launched by the Prime Minister in March this year. As the Prime Minister said at the time, the Compact signals a new “era of collaboration that will fundamentally strengthen and improve the way we work together, that will strengthen civil society and that will help the organisations which help many of the most needy and disadvantaged people in Australia.”
We also want your input into the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into a long-term disability care and support scheme including the feasibility of a national disability insurance scheme. This is on our agenda because we are determined to give people with disability and their carers the services they need as well as the opportunity to participate in our community.
As I said at the start, for this Government the fundamental values of fairness and equality of opportunity will always be the currency of our country’s future. Over the past two and a half years we have returned the values of compassion and community as the driving force in Australia’s social policy. We have restored the genuine partnership between government and the community sector. Building a respectful, productive relationship acknowledging what we can accomplish together. Harnessing the power of community as a great force to drive positive change.