Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Building a Fair Australia in Tough Economic Times

Location: Australian Council of Social Services National Conference 2009, Sydney

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I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, on whose land we meet.

Sixteen months ago Australians changed their government and the nation changed course.

Sixteen months ago values like community and compassion were returned as the driving force in Australia’s social policy.

We have begun the hard work of rebuilding our social infrastructure.

It will take ongoing effort to re-write the laws and regenerate the institutions which are the bedrock of our society.

But we are making a start.

We have embarked on the biggest investment in social housing in Australia’s history.

Putting social housing back on the national agenda after years of neglect and funding cuts.

Investing more than $6 billion in 20,000 new dwellings and upgrades to make 10,000 homes liveable again and putting more affordable rental properties on to the market.

We have made it clear that we want more not-for-profit housing organisations brought into the provider mix.

Because the Government is convinced that within the community housing sector, providers can offer flexibility and innovation.

The Prime Minister has put homelessness back on the national agenda, backing it up with $800 million in new, specialist services designed to break the cycle of homelessness.

We are overhauling the way we deliver social services – adopting a new approach in partnership with the community sector that will be the hallmark of ongoing reform.

One of the first steps we took was to lift the previous government’s gag on community organisations – recognising your right to speak out even if at times we don’t agree.

And signalling this new era of cooperation, we are working in partnership with state and territory governments.

Reversing that entrenched culture of blame-shifting that has so frustrated all of you.

So that the Commonwealth, states and territories accept joint responsibility to improve health, education, housing and the lives of Indigenous Australians through national reforms.

Investing in our great public hospitals.

And in schools because we know education has the power to transform people’s lives; it’s a circuit breaker in the cycle of poverty.

So to upgrade Australian schools, we are embarking on an unprecedented school building program – new classrooms, libraries, science and language labs in schools across the country.

And to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians we have set ambitious targets in health, education, housing and economic participation.

There is specific additional funding of $4.6 billion to address the huge backlog in remote Indigenous housing and for health and employment.

And to meet our targets, we are determined to re-set our relationship with Indigenous Australians, establishing new partnerships grounded in trust and respect.

Through the new National Disability Agreement we’re injecting significant funds indexed at around 6 per cent over the five-year agreement.

Yes new money but also important reforms to provide single gateways for services so that support is easier to access and tailored to meet each person’s individual needs.

And just two weeks ago we voted to get rid of WorkChoices, once and for all.

Because especially in times of uncertainty, working Australians need to know that there’s a safety net there to protect them.

And close to my heart, and at the centre of my desk, is the reform of the financial support we provide through our nation’s most enduring plank of social infrastructure – our pension system.

This year marks the centenary of the age pension.

Through 100 years of profound economic and social change it retains its vital role in providing support, on the basis of need, to older Australians.

But reform is overdue to provide long-term security and certainty.

Reform to adapt to changing circumstances, while maintaining the system’s enduring strength – to guarantee a decent, adequate standard of living for the aged, carers, veterans and people with disability who rely on the pension to survive.

On Budget night the Government will announce a comprehensive package of pension reform.

Over the last 16 months we have laid out and begun to implement significant agenda.

Much more remains to be done.

And I want to assure you all today that our commitment to reform will not falter.

Because as a Government, building a fair Australia is at the heart of everything we do.

Social policy is not relegated to a lower order issue.

We recognise that to achieve our goals to build an inclusive, fair society, economic and social policy must work hand in hand – especially in difficult times.

Using social and economic levers in tandem to stimulate the economy and keep unemployment as low as possible – at the same time strengthening the safety net for those most vulnerable to the impact of the global recession.

The Government responded swiftly to soften the blow – first in October and then again in February with timely, targeted, and temporary measures aimed at mobilising our resources to support demand in our economy.

We are providing direct assistance to households and an unprecedented building and investment program.

For every $1 spent providing immediate stimulus to the economy the Government has invested more than $2 on long term investments that will generate future economic growth and rebuild our social infrastructure.

Boosting consumption means that sales assistants, distributors, truck drivers keep their jobs and keep supporting their families.

Helping the housing construction sector, and those reliant on it for their jobs – the thousands of builders, carpenters, plumbers and electricians employed in the industry.

Our social security safety net has also been there to help.

There was a 50 per cent increase in age pension applications in the weeks through October, November and December last year.

And for those who have lost their jobs, the Government has doubled the liquid assets threshold so they can more quickly access Newstart payments.

We are also providing immediate assistance for retrenched workers through targeted, individual assistance to help them get back into the workforce.

I don’t have to tell any of you here about the human cost and the great need our country faces.

You see it every day.

Because although Australia is better placed than most other developed nations, the scale and the intensity of the economic downturn means we won’t escape unscathed.
We know this means increased demands are being placed on organisations like yours as more Australian families become victims of the worldwide downturn.

I know it’s putting a big strain on your capacity to provide emergency relief and financial and relationship counselling, to name just a few pressure points.

And increasingly stretching the resources of refuges and homeless shelters.
Wesley Mission reported a 17 per cent increase in demand for financial assistance, food hampers and financial counselling in Sydney in the three months leading up to Christmas last year.

The profile of people asking for help is changing.

As job losses bite, more and more families are 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.

As I said, this is not news to you.

You have the grassroots connections and experience that no Government can match.

Close to the ground you are best placed to make a difference to peoples’ lives – especially in these very difficult times.

You know better than anyone that our connection to each other is our most valuable asset. Our sense of responsibility, our willingness to pull together in times of need – this is what makes Australia a place that is both fair and productive.

This Government is committed to working in partnership with you, harnessing and using your knowledge.

Not just to weather the current economic crisis, but to build a stronger, fairer Australia where community prospers and grows.

A place we are happy to pass on to our children, confident they can get ahead in life, but knowing that someone will catch them if they fall.

Responding to increasing demands on community organisations, in February we 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 most vulnerable get through a crisis and move to build the financial skills needed to see them through.

But additional investment alone is not enough.

We need a new and better approach to providing financial support services.

We need a service continuum that stretches from basic emergency relief, to financial counselling and money management advice, to innovative approaches that help individuals build a nest egg of their own through structured or matched savings plans.

When someone walks through your door seeking emergency relief, a quick targeted response is essential.

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.

With the agility to act early to identify those at risk of financial insecurity and work with them to prevent the spiral into crisis.

I know many of you here today have been engaged in detailed discussions with my department on these very issues.

This is an important conversation which will continue.

To enable this policy development, my Department is restructuring to form a Financial Management Program.

This will incorporate emergency relief and financial counselling as well as support for long term financial recovery.

It builds on the reform I announced to our families program in February.

It demonstrates our commitment to working with you more effectively to improve services on the ground.

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 better connect clients in financial hardship with the other supports they need whether it’s employment services, housing, mental health or family support.

I know that there are already many service delivery models in place that seek to do this and we want to build on these.
One idea I want to pursue as we roll out these new and innovative programs is for the community organisations that provide these financial support services to use financial case management.

Innovative programs like those showcased by the Brotherhood of St Laurance and the ANZ bank’s SaverPlus program, or the Good Shepherd and the National Australia Bank’s No Interest Loans Scheme.

The new $130 million for emergency relief and financial management to be rolled out in coming months gives us an opportunity to try a new approach to the crisis that confronts us.

Let’s put these new ideas into action.

Last year I announced the doubling of the Commonwealth Financial Counselling program, creating more positions in areas of high need across the country.

Today I am announcing a further $1.75 million to rapidly train 50 new financial counsellors. They’ll be on the ground in three months.

We’re also going to fund training for emergency relief workers so they can provide basic financial literacy and budgeting advice.

This funding will also be used to train the many new volunteers needed to deliver our enhanced emergency relief investment.

The Government recognises the critical role of the community sector in getting Australians through these tough times.

The Community Response Taskforce, which was established to enable us to work together in the face of the global financial crisis, is an example of the new partnership in action.

The Taskforce provides both a voice for the major social service providers and gives the Government first hand insight into what is happening to our communities.

And to invest in the evidence base essential for effective policy development, the Government is providing $93,000 to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

For research which will provide critical information about the non profit sector – measuring its contribution to the Australian economy.

It will complement the Productivity Commission’s study into the contribution of the not for profit sector to Australian society.

I want to end by recalling the words of two former and opposing Australian Prime Ministers.

Two very different leaders. Both warning that when you change the government you change the country.

They were right – both times.

The country did change in 1996.

I won’t go into detail. You lived through it too.

The cuts to basic services, undermining our social institutions including the laws that protected people at work.

Shutting doors, marginalising groups, tearing down the safety net for the most vulnerable.

In 2007 the government changed again.

This has given the new Government the opportunity and the very great responsibility to help re-shape Australia.

To shape a nation which shares its wealth to create opportunity for all; which tackles disadvantage and brings the vulnerable in from the margins; which works for the betterment of all our people.

Even when times are tough. Especially when times are tough.