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Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

MS National Advocates Conference

Location: MS National Advocates Conference, Parliament House, Canberra

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Thank you Robert for your introduction and good morning everyone.

Robert, I and many others have greatly benefitted much from your insights and advice over the years, particularly in recent times on my portfolio and thank you for your enduring support and continuing energy.

I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land and pay my respects to their Elders both past and present.

It’s great to be able to come along today on the third and final day of your conference to affirm your work and to talk about the compact. At the moment, I’m taking every chance I can to spread the word about the compact consultations and to encourage people to engage.

Earlier this year I spoke with another group of advocates about just these types of issues. These advocates were people with a hearing impairment who were learning the skills of advocacy and seeking advice on how to influence government.

There were a few points I highlighted with this group that I thought I’d share with you today as well.

I often say, “be careful what you wish for.” By this I mean it’s very important to think through the longer term consequence of what your requests to government might be.

For example, in the context of the compact, some people are asking for a charity regulator along the lines of the British model. However, this is a heavy regulatory approach that may actually increase the administrative and red tape burden of the sector.

So it’s important to really think through what you’re asking.

Secondly, and I know this may be a bit obvious to you as seasoned advocates, but it’s very important to be clear with ministers about just what it is you are asking of them.

During my years as a senator, I’ve sat in numerous meetings with people where they bring me up to date on their interesting and very worthwhile projects. We have a good chat, but by the time they leave, I’m still not really sure what it was that they wanted me to do. I’m left wondering, “what was the ask?”

Even though ministers will not always be able to meet your demands, it’s important to be clear about what you want so that they can provide advice on ways that government may be able to assist. You might get 30 minutes only, so you need to be clear and get to the point.

The other point I need to make is that the world has changed since the GFC and given the financial constraints, the government has had to set clear priorities. So you are more likely to be successful in your advocacy if the demands you make align in some way with the government’s priorities.

Which dovetails neatly into why I’m here today.

I’ve been asked to talk to you about one of the government’s most important priorities, and that’s the social inclusion agenda and the compact.

Social inclusion is a relatively new term in Australia.

While there have been huge shifts internationally in the relationship between non profits organisations and the government, that simply hasn’t happened here in Australia.

Instead, we went down the path of contract based service delivery arrangements that in many instances depleted the sector and caused mission-drift.

And this is what the compact is about – reversing this trend, rebuilding the relationship and long-term partnership between the non profit – or third – sector and government.

This new relationship will be about more than just money. It will be about how we work together to strengthen civil society and create a more inclusive Australia.

I’ve been leading development of the government-third sector compact since early last year, when we kicked off the process with a round of consultations to determine the level of interest in developing a compact.

We had a resoundingly positive response and since that time we’ve made great progress.

In May this year, the Government established a National Compact Joint Taskforce, made up of representatives of the third sector and government.

The Taskforce developed a set of principles and potential priority action areas for the compact. These were then discussed at a workshop of over 70 third sector leaders and government representatives last month.

This group helped us refine the draft principles and potential action areas, which have now become a compact consultation discussion paper for the second phase of consultations.

On the one hand, I’m leading a work program within government and across the public service indentifying what changes we need to make to our processes and approaches. And on the other, I’m talking with the sector to hear their views about what needs to be changed and what actions the sector will undertake.

Two weeks ago I launched the second phase of consultations with an online forum. The forum is a great place to air and share your ideas about how organisations such as MS Australia and the government can work more effectively together.

You can register for the forum at www.socialinclusion.gov.au/forums.

The social inclusion site also gives details of how to provide an online or postal submission by 30 September. And there will also be some targeted consultations around Australia, which I’ll be announcing shortly.

The next steps from here, following the consultation period, are to finalise the compact and develop a short-term 2 year action plan and a longer term one of 5-10 years.

I’m aiming for a deadline of December this year when I go back to Cabinet so it’s going to be a pretty ambitious program. And I invite you to be a part of it all.

So I think this is a good place for me to finish my talk to you today and invite you to ask questions or make comments about the national compact and start getting engaged!