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Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Maimonides Society Asia Pacific Centre for Philanthropy and Social Investment

Location: Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne

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Thank you Diana for that entertaining welcome and the invitation to speak at this meeting of the Maimonides Society.

It’s a great pleasure to be able to update you this evening on how the Government and private philanthropy are working together for the benefit of all Australians.

Given the broad and serious social and economic challenges currently faced by government, by philanthropists, those associated with philanthropic organisations, or organisations that have been the beneficiary of philanthropic effort, our discussion is certainly timely.

When I spoke at the Philanthropy Australia conference late last year, we were still trying to gauge the impact of the economic downturn and we have had to recalibrate our priorities as the economic situation has become more serious.

The Government has acted decisively and swiftly in response to the challenges posed by the global financial crisis.

Our economic stimulus initiatives are about stimulating the local economy. They include significant increases to funding of local community and educational infrastructure and social housing, and are designed to support jobs, build the nation and protect Australians from the worst effects of the global economic downturn.

Our objective is to achieve long-term benefits as well as immediate economic stimulus.

In dealing with the impact and challenges of the global economic crisis, we are also focussed on ensuring there is ongoing collaboration and cooperation between government, philanthropic practice and non-profit organisations.

Late last year I opened a major summit at which a report, commissioned by the major providers of social services in Australia, was launched. The Issues Paper by Access Economics examined the impact of the global financial crisis on social services in Australia and highlighted the social and economic challenges we are facing as a nation. This report shaped the environment early on and helped craft our response.

For those people, groups and communities who are already experiencing disadvantage, as well as the many others who face the prospect of losing their jobs, homes or assets, the challenges are critical.

The crisis however also provides an opportunity for positive and sustainable change. I believe this is a time for all of us-the Government, philanthropic practice and non-profit organisations-to re-examine the ways we have been working and identify more effective ways of working together for the benefit of all Australians. We need to move away from “protecting ones patch” and refocus on organisational mission.

The economic downturn is likely to put downward pressure on the funds that philanthropic funds are able to disperse. This will require creative thinking around the types of non-financial support that can be provided to non profit organisations as well as ways to get more mileage out of the philanthropic dollar by matching and leveraging it in other ways.

Philanthropists have made an enormous contribution to improving our society, in many important ways. It is important that we remember that originally it was not government that worked in the welfare space but the early benevolent societies and other charities.

Philanthropy contributes to and promotes social cohesion by building and strengthening those ties that unite a community, creating and encouraging hope and the common good. It channels the creativity and innovation of the business sector into activities and projects that strengthen communities and build a rich civic culture.

Australian philanthropy comes in many guises. From the extraordinary outpouring of generosity and compassion by individuals, groups and families in response to national and international disasters through to the work of small and community foundations and corporate donors, and private philanthropists that work very hard behind the scenes.

Importantly, groups such as the Maimonides Society contribute to building a profile for Australian philanthropy. It provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and reflective discussion among grant makers and those connected with philanthropic efforts, and for sharing the learning with each other and, I hope, with government too.

The scope and nature of philanthropy in this country is as varied and diverse as the people, communities and groups who are supported by it.

As well as the well known forms of giving that receive plenty of public attention, philanthropic assistance can also work in very private spaces, for example, the promotion of social change, the funding of innovative projects or creative solutions, or architectural or cultural preservation – some of the things that governments cannot always fund.

Your strong connection with local communities and ability to engage the business sector to promote and strengthen the capacity of communities places your sector in an excellent position to promote change.

The Australian Government’s Social Inclusion Agenda is central to the government’s thinking on driving change to transform Australia.

With its vision of a socially inclusive and fairer Australia, our Social Inclusion Agenda is about enabling all Australians, regardless of background or circumstance, to fully participate in the economic, social and civic life of local communities.

A socially inclusive society is one where all people have the opportunity and capability to participate in key activities in their community.

To:

  • Learn – participate in education and training
  • Work – participate in employment, unpaid or voluntary work
  • Engage – connect with people, use local services and participate in local cultural, civic and recreational activities; and,
  • Have a voice – influence decisions that affect them.

If there is a single, defining point of difference with the previous government, it is our belief in the importance of people having a voice. This is why one of the first acts of the government was to remove the gag clauses from all of our contracts with non profit organisations.

Social inclusion cannot be imposed on people and communities; rather we must work to ensure local involvement is central to how we provide support and address disadvantage.

There are no answers to be found in a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Good outcomes require targeted, sustainable and holistic solutions. We need to be innovative and flexible.

For many Australians facing devastating and tragic losses recently in the Victorian bushfires and the flooding of townships in Far North Queensland, these two principles-giving people a voice and tailoring individual solutions-are vitally important.

Many of you here tonight are supporting those communities who have felt the force of these natural disasters. I want to thank you for the generosity and compassion you and many other fellow Australians have shown by donating much needed services, volunteering time or giving donations. It is very important that we send these messages of hope.

While government and non-profit services have been quick to respond in the immediate aftermath of these disasters, the rebuilding of lives, homes, infrastructure and communities will require the ongoing dedication, commitment and imagination of philanthropists-both large and small-in partnership with government and the community sector.

Philanthropy Australia recently held a forum to discuss the philanthropic response to the bushfires. Some of you here this evening may have attended this forum. One of the key messages that emerged from the discussion was the need to look to the long-term. It is only when the media focus has passed and the “dust has settled” that the opportunities for meaningful engagement that complements government activity will become apparent.

The other important message was to work with, rather than for, these communities. Local communities must be fully engaged in decision-making processes, and given the opportunity to identify their own specific financial and resource needs.

We must also build capacity, provide targeted funding and empower communities to drive rebuilding and recovery efforts by supporting community meetings and local leadership.

The Australian Government has begun this work through targeted assistance. This includes the establishment of the $10 million Community Recovery Fund, opportunities for local councils to reprioritise their infrastructure needs under the $250 million Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, and the allocation of an additional $500 million for competitive projects under this program.

We will need your help to get this money out where it is most needed and help us to rebuild these communities.

We are determined to create a positive environment that supports partnerships and collaborative approaches between government and the non-profit sector.

In consultation with the sector, I have been leading the Government’s efforts to create a new partnership between government and the non profit sector through the national compact. These kinds of agreement documents help strengthen the relationship and are a vehicle for reform in the sector. We are building on preliminary consultations undertaken last year, which revealed a strong appetite for a compact, and are currently preparing for the second stage, which will get underway shortly.

Our aim is to engage with individuals and organisations in a respectful and meaningful way, and I encourage all of you to participate in these consultations, which I expect to commence in April.

The effectiveness and success of the national compact depends on your input and involvement. The objective is to engage purposefully, value the sector, strengthen volunteering and celebrate philanthropy.

To return to the immediate challenge, the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and I announced the establishment of the Community Response Taskforce on 27 January this year, which will hold its first official meeting here in Melbourne tomorrow.

This Taskforce provides a forum for representatives of non profit organisations to deal directly with the Government on some of the seriously concerning ramifications of the economic downturn on Australians already experiencing hardship. While the Taskforce will focus on developing creative solutions to the impacts of the global financial crisis on families and those experiencing disadvantage, it will also deal with the issue of regulatory reform.

We need to ensure we create an environment that allows the organisations you represent to focus on providing assistance to communities where it’s needed, rather than be burdened with unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape.

This also means establishing an environment where philanthropy is simplified, supported and encouraged.

One of the ways we are doing this is by examining the tax arrangements which support philanthropy through the Henry Review of Australia’s tax system. I hope that many of you here have had an opportunity to offer feedback because this will be quite overarching and will have significant impacts for the non profit sector and philanthropic activity.

This year, the Productivity Commission will commence a review into the social and economic contribution of the third sector. The sector has been asking for quite some time for some data on itself in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its work. The Productivity Commission review will also inform our thinking on sector transformation.

We are also working to improve the integrity of Prescribed Private Funds and to provide the trustees of these Funds with greater certainty regarding obligations. I understand many of the organisations represented here tonight have provided submissions as part of this process.

The continued growth of voluntary giving and philanthropy in Australia is a testament to the commitment of Australians to helping those in need-nationally and internationally.

I look forward to our ongoing conversations about how we can engage, partner and collaborate to help those in our communities and around the nation overcome the barriers they currently face.

This is an opportunity to listen to and engage with communities, to develop new approaches, and to revisit and review those programs and practices that no longer provide the targeted support we need in the face of present challenges.

This is a chance for us to work together to construct a new paradigm-one that moves away from seizing competitive advantage to one where the focus is firmly upon helping those in need.

We have got a real opportunity with the $500 million grants for the non profit sector under the stimulus package to start thinking about what we can do to transform the sector and build our communities. For example, are there ways to engage people who have been retrenched in the financial sector in non profit sector work in a way that both builds non profit organisations and assists these people to maintain their skills?

For you in the philanthropic world, connected to the community with great ideas, this is an unprecedented chance to pursue your ideas and turn them into working projects.

I thank you for the opportunity to speak here tonight.