Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Crisis, catastrophe, community: rebuild, renew, recharge – Communities in Control Conference

Location: Melbourne

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I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we are meeting – the Wurundjeri people.

Thank you Rhonda for your welcome.

While I’m mentioning Rhonda I want to congratulate her, and the many others who’ve been involved in the establishment of a new community coalition – the Disability and Carer Alliance.

It brings together Carers Australia, National Disability Services and the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations and is supported by Our Community.

It aims to provide policy input and strategic advice to government.

It’s a great example of collaboration and partnership, harnessing your significant abilities in advocacy for people with disabilities, their families and carers.

I look forward to working with you.

When I spoke at your last conference, none of us could have foreseen the huge challenges which lay ahead.

The global economic crisis.

The destructive natural disasters of fire… and flood.

And the far-reaching impact these events would have on so many lives.

Twelve months ago I spoke of how rapid and complex social change risks further isolating the poor and the disadvantaged among us.

The events of the last 12 months have significantly increased this threat of isolation – at many levels.

As a nation we must resist the false security of turning in on ourselves through a culture of protectionism and isolation.

As communities we must resist the urge to turn against and marginalise minorities.

And, as a society we must strengthen for those people who are feeling powerless, out of control and close to breaking point.

It is especially important when times get tough that we maintain an open and inclusive outlook, both as individuals and as a community.

When we are challenged by uncertainty there can be the temptation to shut others out and retreat into ourselves and the familiar.

The great economic disruption and dislocation of the Depression took too many people down the path of seeking protection through exclusion.

Today we are not immune. Recent elections in Europe have shown that for many there can be reassurance through xenophobia.

Through this current economic crisis we must not relinquish our open outlook or become suspicious of others, the unfamiliar or the unknown.

Our great richness – in economic and cultural terms – comes from being inclusive and open. We must strive to retain these qualities even in the toughest of times.

The global recession, the catastrophic Victorian bushfires, and the floods in Queensland and New South Wales have tested our national resilience.

For community organisations like yours, these events challenge your capacity to meet the rising demand for the essential services and outreach you provide.

When the global economic crisis struck, the Government did act quickly to soften the impact on Australians.

First in October last year and then again in February with direct assistance to households and an unprecedented building and investment program.

In fact, for every $1 spent providing immediate stimulus to the economy the Government is investing more than $2 on long term investments that will generate future economic growth and rebuild our social infrastructure.

This includes the biggest investment in social housing in Australia’s history – a $6 billion investment in 20,000 new dwellings; upgrades to make homes liveable again and repairs to thousands more.

As well, upgrading Australian schools with an unprecedented school building program – new classrooms, libraries, science and language labs in schools across the country.

Investing in infrastructure is supporting the jobs of thousands of Australians in the construction sector and those who rely on it for employment.

Boosting consumption, through the stimulus payments, means thousands of Australians working in the retail sector and service industries keep their jobs and keep supporting their families.

While we are by no means out of the woods yet, the economic indicators are positive.

Australia is better placed than most other developed nations but the scale and the intensity of the economic downturn means we won’t escape unscathed.

I know I don’t have to tell you in the community sector about the human toll the economic downturn is taking.

The pressure it’s putting on services and the changing profile of people asking for help.

One Uniting Care branch in Sydney reports that in recent months around 15 per cent of people seeking emergency relief have mortgages – a group that hadn’t sought crisis assistance before.

And older people whose retirement savings have been significantly depleted are also seeking help.

Responding to increasing demands on community organisations, the Government has doubled funding for emergency relief providing an additional $80 million over the next two years.

In addition, we are providing $50 million over two years for innovative financial management projects to help build longer-term financial capacity for low income earners.

That’s $130 million extra in the next couple of years to support some of the most vulnerable get through an immediate crisis and move to build the financial skills needed to see them through.

Eleven million dollars of emergency relief funding was distributed immediately to providers in March to meet the urgent demand this financial year.

But we recognise that we need new ways to provide financial support services to help people get back on their feet for the long term.

Of course, crisis assistance will always be an integral part of our support but we need the flexibility to make the most of the enormous front door capacity of emergency relief.

Because to break the cycle of emergency relief, the reach of this front door capacity must be extended to build longer term financial capability and resilience.

We need a system that puts the individual at its centre: working with people to get them through their most pressing problems while connecting them to appropriate supports for their financial and social recovery.

We need ways to help those who have lost their jobs, houses or relationships to reconnect. We need ways to get people back into mainstream financial services and institutions so their current crisis doesn’t become permanent.

Working on the ground in local communities, you see what happens to families when mum or dad – or both – lose their job.

When without an income, they struggle to pay the bills.

You see what this does to relationships.

And the strain it puts on children – who can least understand why the aftershock of the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States is hurting their families.

While we might be short of empirical evidence on the impact of the current economic downturn on children, there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence.

Recently an example of this was relayed to my office by Ron Barr from Youth Insearch.

Ron runs camps for vulnerable young people. At one of these camps he asked the kids to put their hands up if their parents had been fighting about money lately.

They all put their hands up.

The research that is available – which examines the impact of previous economic downturns – suggests that an economy that falls on hard times is also hard on kids.

Family dysfunction increases, there’s a rise in child protection notifications.

Children in families experiencing financial stress are more likely to be depressed, lonely and have mental health problems.

Of course, the negative impact of the global economic crisis will have a disproportionate effect on children in families already suffering long-term disadvantage.

Supporting families is even more important in tough economic times.

It’s our responsibility to protect children from the negative effects, so they can grow and develop.

As you all know, Communities for Children (CfC) is a key plank in the Government’s support for families, working in 45 sites across Australia, with dozens of disadvantaged communities.

Today I can announce that we are extending and enhancing Communities for Children for another three years with over $104 million in funding.

Of course changing needs means there will be some changes to the program.

Sites are already developing strategic plans to transition to the Government’s new Family Support Program – to target the most vulnerable kids in the most disadvantaged areas.

There is also a new flexibility in the target age group with sites able to provide support to children up to 12 years, where they identify a need.

Last week I was in the Northern Territory and announced a new CfC site in Alice Springs to work with some of the most vulnerable children and families in the country.

Over the coming months, we will be selecting another CfC site supporting our commitment under the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children to establish up to eight CfC Plus sites.

The changes I have outlined will shape the model for the future and reflect the lessons learned from the past four years.

But the basic underlying principles will continue to be:

Early intervention to build capacity and resilience in our children and families – rather than trying to rebuild broken lives after abuse neglect, family breakdown or learning and health problems have occurred;

Recognition that communities, know best what activities and programs work for families and kids in their local area; and

Building and strengthening partnerships between providers and government to deliver the best results.

Next week, I will be releasing the evaluation report for CfC.

And I can tell you today that it reveals very positive outcomes for children and for families.

For example, it shows that CfC is able to enhance the strength and resilience of communities when it brings people together to share experiences.

It shows that families living in CfC areas were significantly more likely to report higher levels of community social cohesion. These families are also more positive about their neighbourhood as a place to bring up children.

One great example from the Port Augusta CfC site in South Australia is the Parent Advisory Group Extraordinaire or PAGE as it’s more commonly known.

PAGE is a volunteer group of parents with young kids who want to create a more family-friendly city.

Over the last four years, they have moved far beyond parent support.

Now they’re involved in networking, advocacy, research, consultancy to local programs, and project planning and implementation.

PAGE parents say they have a greater sense of belonging and increased confidence.

Many went on to get full time jobs for the first time; others became volunteers; some set up small businesses or started tertiary study.

Evidence if ever we needed it, that families are at their functional best when they are connected to their communities.

These are exactly the kind of outcomes we need for vulnerable families – especially when times are tough.

So while the impact of the global economic crisis continues to test the resilience of communities across Australia, here in Victoria the disastrous fires of 7 February left many communities all but wiped out.

One hundred and seventy-three people lost their lives; more than 800 were hospitalised; 408,000 hectares were burnt out.

Four months later, hundreds of people are still in temporary accommodation, living with families or friends or in caravans on their burnt blocks.

The dislocation, the disruption to ordinary life, the daunting prospect of starting again is difficult for those of us not affected by the fires, to imagine.

But the task of rebuilding is not confined to replacing or repairing the thousands of properties lost or damaged in the fires.

Supporting and rebuilding the resilience and strength of these families and communities is every bit as important as rebuilding with bricks and mortar.

I know many of your organisations have been on the ground helping since that terrible Saturday.

On the ground from day one, with food, clothes, shelter, counselling and support. Coordinating the thousands of volunteers who signed up to help.

And committed to be there for the long-term through the ongoing reconstruction and recovery phase.

You are out there in the damaged, often fragile communities.

You are, effectively, our eyes and ears.

That’s why we are committed to working closely with your organisations along with the Victorian Government and local government to support communities rebuild.

This will take a long time. But as the Prime Minister has said, we will be there for as long as it takes.

There to provide financial assistance through disaster recovery payments, income recovery subsidies, help for farmers, small businesses and tourism operators.

With ongoing individual case management services and site demolitions and clean-ups.

We will be there to provide the resources and support vital to connect families and children with the services and networks they need to recover and thrive.

Rebuilding communities won’t happen overnight.

For us in Government, one of our important tasks is to provide the resources needed to rebuild the places where community spirit thrives. The places where people gather together – where they can relax and talk and heal.

That’s why getting community facilities up and running again is so important.

Restoring the footy grounds – many of which were used as staging areas in the aftermath of the fires.

New netball courts in Kinglake – a temporary school has been established on the netball court so new courts are needed

As well, it is our responsibility to support the local organisations which know their communities so well.

Employing community development workers.

Providing grants to community organisations to help young people whose lives have been turned upside down by the fires.

Supporting programs like “Parenting after the Bushfire” run by Gateway Community Health which is helping parents raise their kids while living in temporary, often cramped accommodation.

Supporting Goulburn Valley Family Care to employ an additional men’s worker to help husbands, fathers and sons talk about their bushfire experiences and the helplessness and despair many of them feel but have been unable to express.

Looked at in isolation, these initiatives may seem small in the face of such loss and grief.

But together they are vital stepping stones to restore strong, resilient communities.

In difficult times like these, it is our national responsibility not to retreat into ourselves – not to put up the shutters.

We must resist resorting to that most basic instinct to turn inwards – to circle the wagons, to exclude the powerless, the poor, the vulnerable.

Instead we must reach out to those who are struggling.

Understanding that we are all in this together and knowing that our connections to one another are our most valuable asset.

So that when we come through these challenging times, we can look back and say: despite the circumstances we found ourselves in – our commitment to building the cohesion and strength of our communities, did not falter.