Transcript by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

National Compact – ABC Life Matters with Richard Aedy

Program: ABC Life Matters with Richard Aedy

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RICHARD AEDY: Today sees the launch of a new agreement, a National Compact as its known, between the Federal Government and the third or not-for-profit sector. The agreement caps two years of consultation. It comes as NGOs are increasingly at the sharp end of delivering services in housing, mental health, child protection and drug and alcohol treatment and sometimes they’re in an awkward position too as they continue to lobby for action at the same time.

Senator Ursula Stephens is the Parliamentary Secretary for both Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector and she’s lead the consultations on the Compact. Welcome to Life Matters.

URSULA STEPHENS: Good morning Richard.

RICHARD AEDY: Tell us about the range of the organisations involved. Who’s behind this?

URSULA STEPHENS: Well the Productivity Commission recently released a report into the not-for-profit sector which identified that there are about 600,000 not-for-profit organisations across the country and they covered the breadth of the sector from social and community services to heritage, sport, recreation and the arts and everything in between. So that’s a very significant part of the population and as part of those organisations we have about 5.4 million volunteers contributing to that work.

RICHARD AEDY: Your consultations have shown there’s a lot of support, I suppose for the idea of a compact but what’s it actually going to mean for those providing, and those using, the services that the various third sector organisations provide?

URSULA STEPHENS: Well I think that the Compact came about after a protracted period of very unhappy relationships with the previous government which really started to impact on service contracts and the way in which organisations were able to go about doing their business and over the period of time that we saw exponential growth in contracted service provision by the community and not-for-profit sector we were also seeing a very heavy handed approach by government.

So this Compact has really been about trying to reshape that relationship. It really has, as you mentioned, two years of consultation, we’ve now come down to some fairly fundamental principles about the way in which the Government and the sector want to work together and the outcomes will be better policies, better services and a better environment for not-for-profits to be able to get on and do their jobs.

RICHARD AEDY: It’s interesting though because, Frank Quinlan, I’m sure you’re aware of this, from Catholic Social Services says that compulsory income management legislation before parliament – and compulsory income management is something we’ve spoken about before on Life Matters – doesn’t indicate a real partnership. Under the compact will that sort of thing still happen?

URSULA STEPHENS: Well I think the comments that Catholic Social Services have made about the income management, Frank is a good friend of mine and we’ve had these debates as well; but I think that Minister Macklin said this morning on Radio National that the consultation that was undertaken was unprecedented around income management with the communities and the people most affected by the income management regime. But the changes to the income management regime really reflect the kinds of things that they asked for.

So in terms of the debate and the promotion of advocacy which is such an important part of a dynamic democracy and civil society, the idea that we can have these consultations and conversations in a very constructive way is important. So the Compact, we believe, is a framework for really enabling those conversations to start early and for those people who have expertise and advice to give advice to government. But at the end of the day those things are the government’s decision.

RICHARD AEDY: You’ve identified in the Compact eight, what you call priority action areas, and one of those is the right to advocacy irrespective of any funding relationships so I suppose a ringed fence, right. What are some of the others that are involved?

URSULA STEPHENS: Well very importantly there’s never been a kind of a bird’s eye view of the sector as a whole and what it contributes, so very importantly just for us to document and promote the value and the contribution of the sector. Not just to our economy but also to society. Because many of the social impacts of these organisations aren’t very tangible, so they’re difficult to report on and so that’s why we asked the Productivity Commission to try to develop a tool that looked at impact rather than just the outputs and the outcomes of these kinds of organisations and their activities.

As well as that looking at the issue of diversity in the sector, small organisations, large organisations, but also looking at multicultural organisations and organisations that represent small groups of specifically vulnerable populations in our community.

And of course, the big issue for service providers are the issues around red tape and streamlining reporting and we’ve seen a plethora of systems across commonwealth and state governments which means that there’s a lot of duplication and red tape and that’s something that the Government has taken very seriously.

RICHARD AEDY: That is something of course that’s very much highlighted in the Productivity Commission report, too much basically red tape and reporting requirements beyond what is necessary for public accountability. What are you actually going to do though about getting rid of that?

URSULA STEPHENS: Well we’ve been working on an array of issues but certainly through the COAG process we have put in place some key pieces of work. One which is around harmonising fundraising legislation around the country which you wouldn’t believe is just so complicated. And the second is around the use of what’s called a standard chart of accounts which will be used by federal government and state governments in the way in which we have financial transactions with not-for-profit organisations. It’s a major project that’s been lead by Professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes at Queensland University of Technology and it’s been taken up around the states.

So they are two very fundamental things but every state and territory government is looking at simplifying and reducing the red tape issues.

RICHARD AEDY: On Life Matters today my guest is Senator Ursula Stephens. She’s the Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector. We’re talking about the National Compact which is an agreement being launched today between the Federal Government and the third sector, the NGOs.

What about resources Senator? How do you fund the kind of relationship that you’re talking about because you’ll have heard that organisations are often left short in terms of what they’re able to provide across their key services?

URSULA STEPHENS: Yes that’s been one of the challenges and one that we particularly had to deal with during the global financial downturn so the Government put more than $11 million actually to prop up significant organisations across the sector last year to ensure that they could continue to do their good work. But one of the things that we know and we’ve heard everywhere is that if we can simplify red tape, if we can improve our processes of interaction with organisations, we will free up resources that are already in the sector to go to frontline services and to go to organisational capacity. That’s really where we want to focus our efforts now.

RICHARD AEDY: Because the issue of pay is a real issue isn’t it? I mean, this affects the ability of the sector to recruit and retain the best people. I mean, nobody’s there because they want to go on a lot of skiing holidays in Europe but I mean, they do need paying more all the same.

URSULA STEPHENS: That’s right and of course this is the issue that goes to the pay equity case that is lodged only a week or so ago by the Australian Services Union with the support of the Government, but also the whole issue of fringe benefits tax and the way in which the fringe benefits tax regime has been used by not-for-profit organisations to bolster salary packaging within their organisations. And this again is part of the broader independent review of taxation that’s been undertaken by Ken Henry. We really need to see a much more equitable system and how we can bring that into play will be very important and we’ve been consulting with the sector about that too.

RICHARD AEDY: The reality is that more and more seems to be expected of the third sector. Is that sustainable in the long run or should governments be taking back more control as we’re seeing in areas like health reform?

URSULA STEPHENS: Well I think that the issue really is about which parts of the sector do the best work in providing services. The big debate that is explored in the Productivity Commission report is how community organisations, third sector organisations, now fill the breach where governments have moved away from direct service delivery and are creating an enabling environment.

When we think about our proposed health reforms it’s not about the Commonwealth Government stepping in to direct health service delivery, it is about creating the enabling environment by actually cutting through many layers of red tape and giving some of the decision making back to regional and local levels and that’s what we see in the community sector all the time. Local is often the best way to deliver services on the ground.

RICHARD AEDY: Yesterday on the show we talked about the incredibly valuable work of the Lifeline telephone counselling service which is overwhelmingly staffed by volunteers.


RICHARD AEDY: One of your hats is with the voluntary sector of course. What about the role of volunteers in all this? Are they recognised specifically by the Compact?

URSULA STEPHENS: Yes they are, quite specifically. We need to make sure that we are very mindful of the way in which government programs and government policies impact on the work and the contribution of volunteers. You know, the other important and interesting finding of the Productivity Commission report was that of those 600,000 organisations only about 10 per cent are in a funding relationship with the government so that means that there are, you know, 570-odd thousand little organisations going about doing their work mostly run and supported by volunteers doing their work every day and what we have to do is to make sure that the decisions that we’re making in policy don’t actually impact and prevent them from engaging in the things that they do.

But an organisation like Lifeline and I’m so glad that Lifeline is one of the foundation partners of the Compact; they actually draw so much of their expertise from their volunteers and it’s very important that the Compact does acknowledge that. So one of the issues and the priorities in the action plan is about improving workforce issues whether people are paid or unpaid and actually celebrating and understanding the contribution of volunteers. That’s another project that we’ll take up next year because next year is the International Year of Volunteering plus ten and we’ll talk about that another I’m sure.

RICHARD AEDY: I’m sure we will. Now driving all of this is your Government’s commitment to a social inclusion agenda. In South Australia where they’ve really lead the way in this country and where voters go to the polls on Saturday, that focus has been questioned by the Opposition leader. If there isn’t a bipartisan approach how much is a Compact like this worth?

URSULA STEPHENS: Well I think what we have to do is to make sure that these principles are embedded in the way in which governments of any particular persuasion work with the not-for-profit sector in the future. And I think that there have been signals from the Opposition that they acknowledge that some of the draconian measures that were brought into play, the anti-advocacy clauses, the gagging clauses in contracts, those kinds of things, were a bridge too far. And that they now need to actually move away and understand that there is great capacity in the sector to deliver services without the great micromanagement from public services.

So we have to make sure that social inclusion, which is about giving people voice and focusing on those people and their capacities and their abilities rather than always thinking about welfare deficit mechanisms, to actually be part of the narrative in Australia’s future.

RICHARD AEDY: Senator thank you very much for joining us today.

URSULA STEPHENS: Thank you so much Richard. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

RICHARD AEDY: Yes, actually we’re celebrating that at my place because my wife is from a small town just outside of Derry but I’m sure you didn’t need to know that, nor indeed did anyone else. That was Senator Ursula Stephens who’s the Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector and you’ll find links to the new National Compact on the Life Matters website.