Financial counselling, National Child Protection Framework, child abuse
E & O E – PROOF ONLY
JENNY MACKLIN: Thank you and if I can thank Wesley Mission very much for having us here today. Wesley Mission along with a number of other very significant non-Government organisations provides outstanding financial counselling services so if I can just at the outset thank you for the very important work that you do to so many people to really make a difference to their lives. I am very pleased to be here with my colleague Jason Clare and also Sophia on my right who has benefited from financial counselling and may like to make some remarks shortly. The Government in the Budget decided to significantly increase the amount of money that we’ve made available for financial counselling so we’ve increased the funding by $10million and I am very pleased to say today that that money this year is going to an extra 41 organisations, so 41 organisations around Australia are benefiting from the additional money that’s being made available in this year’s Budget. What that means is for families they’re going to be able to find a financial counsellor and get the help that can really make the difference to that family’s lives. Sometimes it’s the difference between holding a family together, sometimes it means holding on to your home, sometimes it means really figuring out how to deal with your credit card debt. There are so many different ways in which financial counsellors help families really deal with their financial difficulties. So the Government has been very pleased to extend support to these 41 organisations providing financial counselling around Australia. Just here in NSW alone, in the last year there were just under 3,000 families or individuals who were helped by financial counsellors. Around Australia around 11,000 families or individuals were helped by financial counsellors. So a very significant number of people have already been helped as a result of the Government’s increase in funding more people will be able to get the help they need to hold their families together to get their finances back in order. Over to you.
JOURNALIST: So obviously this extra funding is going to help quite a few people, I am not sure of how many people in NSW (inaudible)
JENNY MACKLIN: In NSW alone last year there were just under 3,000 families or individuals who were helped by financial counsellors. Around Australia 11,000 families or individuals were helped by financial counsellors and as a result of an increase in funding in this year’s Federal Budget, 41 organisations will get an increase in their funding so that’s going to mean more people are able to be helped. We’ll have to obviously wait until next year to find out how many but a significant increase in the number of families will be now able to be helped with their financial difficulties because of this increased funding.
JOURNALIST: What’s the funding now at the moment for these programs?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well, before the funding increase on an annual basis, so in 2007/8 it was $2.5million and it’s now gone up to $3.45million for this year, so an increase of just under a $1million in this year for financial counselling. I can also announce that new applications will be sought from financial counselling organisations like Wesley Mission and they’ll be able to apply for the next round of funding in the next couple of weeks. So we’d really encourage all organisations like Wesley Mission, other non-Government organisations to put forward their applications for additional funding.
JOURNALIST: So Minister, are they extra places? How does that funding work to improve services?
JENNY MACKLIN: This is extra money to non-Government organisations and to local governments to enable them to employ extra financial counsellors, so that they can then see more people who need their support. So we’ve already seen an increase in the number of people who have been able to be seen because of the increase in funding and we expect that to continue to increase.
JOURNALIST: And does that help? I mean is that a preventive measure, does it stop people going bankrupt, losing their homes?
JENNY MACKLIN: We’d really encourage and I am sure the financial counsellors would encourage people to come and seek help as early as possible rather than leave it till you are in really desperate circumstances. The purpose of having financial counselling available is really to help people before they get themselves into really desperate circumstances.
JOURNALIST: And where are the worst of affected households?
JENNY MACKLIN: This is a problem all around Australia so of course there are problems here in Sydney but people get themselves into difficult financial circumstances for a whole range of reasons. It might be credit card debt, it might be because they are on a very low income and have been on a low income for a long period of time. There are many, many reasons why people get themselves into difficulty. Really what we’re about is recognising that they can be helped and providing the extra money to organisations like Wesley Mission so that they can employ more financial counsellors.
JOURNALIST: Some people find it really hard to ask for help? How do you encourage people to get that help and to sort of remove the stigma of it being a failure or whatever?
JENNY MACKLIN: That is very true and that’s why it’s good that the money is going to organisations like Wesley Mission, the Smith Family, organisations that people are very comfortable to go and see and I have no doubt that the financial counsellors are able to put people at ease and to really recognise exactly what you are saying that people do find it difficult. I think the message really is that the sooner you get help the better.
JOURNALIST: And how do people know when they should be getting help? Because they could be you know making repayments or just getting by. At what point would you recommend they should see a financial counsellor?
JENNY MACKLIN: Really when you can’t make ends meet and you can see that going on and on over a period of time. What the financial counsellors are good at doing is indicating to people where they can make changes to their budgets. I am sure Sophia will indicate to you how they helped her and she’s just said to me that that’s what helped her was that the financial counsellors really helped them set out a budget, helped them figure out where they could make changes, and that’s exactly what a good financial counsellor can do.
JOURNALIST: Minister, so we’ve seen a $1million increase, is this something that you think that will need to be boosted, keep on being invested in terms of funding because of what we are seeing globally?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well we have made this significant increase in the funding. We doubled the funding in this year’s budget so the total increase is in fact $10million so that $10million will be spread over the next few years. We’ve had the first increases in funding go to organisations like Wesley Mission and the next round will be advertised shortly in the next couple of weeks so we’ll continue to roll out the additional funding so that extra financial counsellors can be employed.
JOURNALIST: And Minister that would have been allocated before what we’re seeing in the last two weeks. So do you think that you are going to now need a bit more in the kitty?
JENNY MACKLIN: I think that what we’ve recognised is that people are under financial stress. We’re going to try and get this money into organisations like Wesley Mission, like the Smith Family, so that we can get the financial counsellors employed. We do recognise that people have been under very significant financial pressure because of the ten interest rate rises in a row, so we’ve already been prepared for the pressure that people are under so that’s why we made the decision that we did in the budget.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there will be added strain on those resources you allocated?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well as others have commented, fortunately our regulatory system is in good shape so we hope that we can weather this storm and you would have seen comments from the Treasurer and the Prime Minister along those lines. So today is recognising that a lot of pressure has come on families from the very significant number of interest rate rises in the past. We know that’s put a lot of pressure on families and that is really why we wanted to support additional financial counselling.
JOURNALIST: What is your definition of mortgage stress?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well it varies from circumstance to circumstance. But really it’s just not mortgage stress either. The financial counsellors I was talking to just now were talking about rental stress and there are far too many pensioners, people on fixed incomes are paying very significant amounts of their pension on rent. So I think we have to recognise that people can get into financial stress for a whole range of reasons, it might be rent, it might be their mortgages. Sophia can talk about her particular circumstance. It might just be living on a very low income or a fixed income for a long period of time.
JOURNALIST: I sort of meant what proportion of income should be spent on rent/mortgage?
JENNY MACKLIN: I don’t want to go into that today. What I want to recognise is that people are under financial stress for many, many reasons and that’s why we’ve provided this additional support. Would you like to talk to Sophia?
SOPHIA HELENE: Thank you.
JOURNALIST: So do you just want to tell us a little bit about your story and…
SOPHIA HELENE: Okay, I’ll just give you a little bit of history about myself. My husband and I lived up on the mid north coast. He moved up from Sydney about 10-11 years ago. I’d lived there for the last 25 years and we had a business for 9 years. Last year we did our numbers and I realised that the business was going backwards and we needed to close it and that was our only income. We had just committed to two investment properties so we found ourselves with a mortgage and another mortgage for the two properties and no income. And we weren’t in a position where the banks were going to close on us or anything like that but we were definitely stressed and we sat down and made the decision to pack up our lives and move to Sydney because that’s where our employment opportunities were going to be and in Coffs Harbour the economy is based on tourism and when the economy slumps tourism dies. Any my husband being in his early 50’s wasn’t going to get the type of employment that was needed to keep our mortgages going. So we worked out what we needed and it wasn’t going to happen in Coffs Harbour. I left my son, we gave our two Labrador dogs away, we said goodbye to all our friends and rented the cheapest place we could find in Sydney close to where my husband was able to get work and we tried to turn our lives around. We didn’t know what to do because we didn’t have the skills or the talents that was needed to be able to go any further than just those action steps and it wasn’t until Jason here ran the housing crisis meeting in Bankstown, and we received like a flyer in the mail and I picked it up and said I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to go because we weren’t in crisis or we didn’t think so. We were in denial, that’s what we were in. I went because I was actually training for a position in real estate but I hadn’t started work yet and I thought this would be a really good opportunity to be able to help people who are perhaps putting off selling their property, holding off in denial like I was, and it turned out that I was the one, and my husband was the one who actually needed the information. So we approached Garry from the Smith Family in Parramatta and he emailed us some information and my husband and I sat down and we did the hard yards, and it was really really tough because it made us look at where our bottom line was and how much backwards we were going no matter how hard he was working and what I was working towards. It wasn’t going to add up and so we made a decision of what we needed to do was to sell our two investment properties, our home was rented and looking after itself at the moment, but um, and the shock of how much backwards we were actually going. And we were blessed to be able to sell off those investment properties within two weeks of making the decision of the help that we got from the Smith Family from the financial literacy. And then after that we are now going through the course together, my husband and I, and learning how to actually budget the basic skills that really should be taught in school. You would agree with that wouldn’t you Jenny?
JENNY MACKLIN: Yes I would.
SOPHIA HELENE: Yep, because if you teach the children, then they’ve got those skills and talents for the rest of their life.
JOURNALIST: How hard is it to ask for help?
SOPHIA HELENE: Um, well the thing is, um when you know it is the right thing to do, you do it. I’ve been looking for something like this for ages, but I’d approached financial planners and all they wanted was my money to turn make themselves wealthy and that didn’t make sense to me. What I needed was education and how to actually utilise my money to the best of my ability. But I didn’t have that, you know you go to school and you learn algebra and you learn all this other stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense, but you don’t learn the basics of finance, that’s the thing. This stuff can be taught in kindergarten, you know kids coming to school and who saves the most, and what do you do with it once it’s saved, and then bit by bit educating the children of the world because they’re our tomorrow.
JASON CLARE MP: Can I just make a few quick comments if that is okay? The seat that I represent in south west Sydney includes is the suburbs of Bankstown and Cabramatta and I just wanted to use the opportunity to congratulate and thank the Government for this additional money for financial counselling. It will make a really big difference to the people of the community that I represent. To put it in a little bit of perspective, Blaxland is the mortgage stress capital of Australia. More homes are repossessed in Blaxland than anywhere else in the country. Last year 300 families in Blaxland have lost their homes and today the Sheriff’s office at Bankstown will repossess three families’ homes. So that’s the situation in parts of south west Sydney. I have spent a lot of time over the last few months as a new Member of Parliament talking to financial counsellors in the community that I represent trying to understand what I can do as a Local Member to help. And the advice that every financial counsellor gave me and I am sure and I have heard it again today and that is the big mistake people make is that they wait until it is too late to seek help. So I thought what can I do in a practical way to help and I came up with idea of organising a housing stress information night. Paul Clitheroe came along as the facilitator, and we got people like the Smith Family and a local MGO that provides services as well, as well as the Banking Ombudsman and Legal Aid and the Consumer Credit Legal Centre. 250 people came along and one of those people was Sophia and I am so glad she did and that she was able to talk to the Smith Family because they were not only on the stage but also providing a stall in the foyer. I think we were able to help a lot of people that night and do some good things so I am going to do it again. There will be another event during the day this time in Cabramatta on the 28 October so it is coming up in a few weeks time. It is a situation where any little bit of help can really work wonders and give people the information they need to make a difference. We were talking about counsellors and people being reticent to make that move and I think the key thing is that there is free and independent advice out there. You don’t need to go and see someone who is going to try and sell you a product and perhaps put you in a worse situation than you’re already in. Good organisations like Wesley and the Smith Family can provide these services and over the last few months and last few years that more and more people in situations like Sophia, people that have mortgages have been coming to see them. So this money will be put to good use and it will do a lot of good for the community I represent.
JOURNALIST: Can you just explain to me why you don’t think a financial planner is the best person for a person who is under a lot of stress to see?
JASON CLARE: Sometimes they will charge you for the advice they provide you and often they will want to sell you a product and for people that under strain that are not sure whether they need to refinance or how they can fix their financial situation it may not be the best thing to do. It’s always good to know when you are seeking advice from someone that that person doesn’t have a personal interest in the advice they give and that’s what you get when you come to Wesley or when you go to the Smith Family because it’s free and it’s independent and they are working in your interest.
KEITH GARNER, SUPERINTENDENT WESLEY MISSION: As one of those organisations that is going to benefit from some of the resources, additional resources that have been made available by the Government today with the announcement the Minister has made, we welcome that. It is very important that we put investment into these things because so many people are very, very close to breaking point. Not only those who are with us now but many who we deal with. I looked at the figures early this morning, we dealt with 7,000 different counselling situations with people in the year 2007 and I think it is very important we don’t caricature the kind of people in any way that come to us. They come from all walks of life and from every spectrum of the social strata. But one of the things that we are very conscious of is the increasing level of credit card debt in Australia, the way that it is so easy for people to be brought into these. Now though that’s not the focus of this money, we know that in fact we’re helping people who are victims of that kind of situation. That has got to be part of a wholesale response to the issue of debt in Australia. We’ve seen with all those interest rises now at 10 in a row we saw the numbers so increased that on a Monday when we were fixing the appointments for the week within 30 minutes we were booked out for the month. We couldn’t really find any more space. So we want some more money that will give us the opportunity to reach more people But there is no question about it, it is one of the number one issues in Australia and it is true that more and more people, the more we talk about it the better it is because then it makes it possible for people to go and acknowledge the problem to go to people to find help and to have the kind of skilful people that are working in the area of financial counselling. You expect me to say it’s not enough, because it isn’t. But then again there is another issue to it; it isn’t just the money that has to be there at the bottom of the cliff when people fall over the edge. It has to be those things that together that I know both Governments and NGOs and charities together are all working to and that’s a society whereby we perhaps for the first time lower our sights and don’t keep saying the world is about getting more money and getting better and bigger houses and all that goes with that is just causing enormous stress and the ease of being able to take money.
JOURNALIST: Can you explain to us what someone seeking help would get?
KEITH GARNER: Somebody that first of all who would listen to him. Someone that would first of all reassure them that it’s possible to get out of the situation, because I think that’s the biggest thing when you are in it, people turn up at our offices with a pile of envelopes and they’ll throw them there, some they have never even opened because they see red on it, they know this is a bill that’s fixing up. So I think helping people sit down and take stock of the situation, give them the information that Sophia mentioned before going home and spending time looking at what the circumstances are, the incomes the outcomes, building a budget. But I think it’s about confidence and care that’s why organisations like us are in this, not just to provide a professional skill because we think it’s actually about helping people as human beings and families and really you’re destroyed under the threat of debt. It isn’t just you lose your house, you lose your esteem, your dignity, your worth. This is a country where we really credit the importance of a home and a family, and let me say the difficult thing and it’s this. Families are falling apart from because of this issue. It isn’t just about houses, it’s about the impact of human life and what it’s doing to children, and what it’s doing to families. So that’s one of the reasons why I welcome any initiative that will put more resources in to help some of the most needy people in Australia.
JOURNALIST: Have you seen any increases over any period of time recently?
KEITH GARNER: Every time there is an increase in the interest rate there has been a rise in the number of people seeking help. Usually it happens on a Monday morning, people have a weekend to talk about it, they’ve turned it upside down, they’ve wondered what they can do, so that’s a very important time Monday morning when people are on the phones trying to find help.
JOURNALIST: There might be a lot of people out there who traditionally wouldn’t consider going to places like the Smith Family or Wesley Mission, who think that oh well that’s for people who are really, really in need. What would you say to those people who traditionally have done all right but are now struggling with that extra interest rate rise or you know melt down the financial system?
KEITH GARNER: Well I think we really need to talk about it openly. We need to name the issue, we don’t need to be ashamed of it, so the more occasions that allow people like ourselves and Government to stand together and say we don’t need to be ashamed of this. We’re in a financial issue in meltdown across the world so this isn’t just our issue. We know that we have houses in cities like this and all around Australia that are beautiful houses with enormous mortgages with hardly any furniture inside, because people have been encouraged to take on these. I think it’s a raincheck for us all now to say let’s get real, let’s lower some of those expectations about (inaudible). The more we talk about it, I honestly believe people will turn to folks because they will feel there is no stigma about it. There is no stigma about going to a financial counsellor anymore than there is in going to see, you wouldn’t say to someone going to the doctor would you, oh gosh you shouldn’t be going to see a doctor, anymore than you should sit down and say you’re not going to talk to a financial counsellor, because they can help you.
JOURNALIST: What can you tell us about yesterday’s COAG agreement and how it will help benefit child protection across Australia?
JENNY MACKLIN: This is a very significant change by the new Federal Government. We’ve decided to do two things. One is, for the first time develop a National Child Protection Framework and the first step has been taken by the Council of Australian Governments to include Centrelink. Centrelink collects a lot of information that’s very, very important and could be very useful to Child Protection Agencies. Just to give you one very ordinary example but so important, a person’s current address. If people in the States, in the Child Protection Agencies, know where families are they’re much more likely to be able to step in if necessary.
JOURNALIST: It seems like such a simple measure to have, how come it has taken so long?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well it is extraordinary that it has taken so long. Unfortunately, previous Federal Governments just have not got involved in this area. We have recognised that we have information that we can share, that can be made available to State child protection agencies in the end it’s all about the kids and I think that’s why this decision is so significant.
JOURNALIST: How important is it to have a cross-border approach to this issue?
JENNY MACKLIN: It’s very important to have a cross-border approach because families move and one of the useful things is that Centrelink generally know where families are because families have to notify Centrelink of their latest address.
JOURNALIST: A report from the Australian Law Reform Commission has said that children are no safer now than they were ten years ago and that in fact the amount of children needing child protection has tripled. What’s your response to those sorts of figures?
JENNY MACKLIN: These are shocking figures and do really demonstrate why we have to have national leadership. We recognise that the States and Territories will continue to have the statutory child protection authority and they of course need our support. We are demonstrating today that Centrelink is one of the agencies that really can help in this battle to really make sure that children are safe.
JOURNALIST: What’s going wrong with our justice system when 95 per cent of child sex offenders escape conviction? What’s lacking there?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well this is another area I think deserves serious examination. Not to be ignored as it has been in the past. That’s why we want to have a National Child Protection Framework so that we can make sure that we first of all get in early and do a much better job on prevention. Make sure that children are safe before these terrible things happen. But when abuse or neglect or sexual assault takes place we have to make sure that we work together, both at the national level and with the States and Territories.
JOURNALIST: The ALRC has called for a Children’s Commissioner federally, what’s the Government position on that?
JENNY MACKLIN: That is one of the options that’s being considered as part of the Child Protection Framework. Some people think that that would be helpful. There are Children’s Commissioners in the States and Territories so as part of our Child Protection Framework negotiations and discussions that we’re having both with the States and Territories and with the non-Government agencies we’ll be considering that issue.
JOURNALIST: The Report’s author says that we have really let our children down. Do you think we have?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well when you see the very significant increases in the number of children being abused or being neglected there’s no question that these are just shocking figures. Families are letting their children down and of course we as governments have a responsibility to step in to try and prevent that abuse but when the abuse takes place to really do something about it.
JOURNALIST: What about encouraging people to take action considering the low rate of convictions. How do you get people to actually take legal action?
JENNY MACKLIN: One of the most important things of course is for people to come forward and bring evidence to the police. Often convictions don’t take place because of lack of evidence. You can understand why that is. People are frightened, children particularly are frightened, but it’s the same for women who are subject to abuse, it is a very frightening thing to do. So we have to demonstrate that we can protect people if they are going to come forward with evidence.