Category: Articles (Page 2 of 7)

Letter to the Editor: No need for MPs to go to court

Judy Bamberger asks how we can improve section 44 citizenship tests to avoid the trauma faced by MPs with less orthodox backgrounds.

Our politicians can change how the system works today. Section 47 of the constitution allows the Parliament to set any means it likes to resolve disputed eligibility. There is no obligation for the High Court to be involved at all.

A simple bipartisan agreement could be reached to amend the Electoral Act 1918 to prevent spurious referrals, allow for statutory declarations, and provide clear instructions on the appropriate interpretation of section 44. The UK has significantly altered citizenship entitlements no less than 15 times since 1948. The current system is yet to prevent a single treasonous act.

How can we claim a fair go when people are literally being judged by who their parents were?

Letter to the Editor: We’re not robots

Matt Byrne’s article on the future of ACT Labor is enlightening.

Online communities can supplement party activities, however an egalitarian party would ensure that everyone had an equal chance to participate. Not everyone has access to a smartphone. In any case, nothing beats face to face meetings for genuine debate, social connections, and familiarity with future candidates! According to the article, members should spread “the party’s values” and have “conversations at the school gate” using Labor talking points. Is the only value of members to be “campaign robots” who mindlessly repeat Labor’s key messages?

The ACT Secretary is very modern in his approach. However, the ongoing decline in membership of political parties is unlikely to be fixed through an online app.

Charities aren’t enough. ACT government should take over homelessness services

Homelessness is closer than many of us think. A single stressful event can make a person’s life spiral out of control. A death in the family, a breakdown in relationships or simply losing a job can all quickly lead to homelessness.

Domestic violence is responsible for one-quarter of all homelessness, and is most common on Saturday nights. Yet the ACT government’s outsourced emergency accommodation service, OneLink, only operates Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm.

Once your personal situation is unstable, you can’t decide to “be homeless” just a couple of days a week. You can’t time your need for emergency shelter to happen during business hours. The accommodation and food services of community services and charities, which operate a few days or a few hours a week, are manifestly inadequate in providing the security and safety of stable shelter that the rest of us take for granted.

Community organisations are not the problem. Nor can they be the solution. The vast majority of these services do amazing work but they are often staffed by volunteers or rely on donations for funding. More grant money won’t fix an inefficient and fragmented system propped up by governments that are reluctant to address the problem directly.

The ACT is an affluent community. On every measure, our wealth and income is higher than the national average. ACT Labor, despite espousing a commitment to social fairness, has presided over a decade during which the rate of homelessness in Canberra rose from the second-lowest to the second-highest in the nation.

No member of the Legislative Assembly should be proud of this outcome. Labor has traditionally used the power of government to tackle social problems. Yet ACT Labor has been content to tinker around the edges of homelessness; it has tried nothing substantial.

We are making the problem harder than it needs to be. The best treatment for homelessness is simple: provide people with a place to stay.

People should have safe, secure, 24/7 emergency accommodation on the same day they need it – not in a week, a month or a year. Like a public hospital, this should be a coordinated, government-run service, providing emergency shelter to all who need it. There is already plenty of floor space available in Canberra’s empty government offices. Does the ACT government support repurposing these offices to address our increasing homelessness problem? Has it written to the federal government about it?

To rebut a likely objection in advance, these facilities would not be “slums” but highly supervised, strictly temporary accommodation. Just like in a hospital, those taking shelter would have 24-hour access to support, including case workers, medical practitioners, legal advice, and security in cases where violence is a risk. No more buck-passing. Just a single point where individuals and families can stay until they can transition back into private or public housing in the shortest reasonable time.

The ACT government is holding yet another housing and homelessness summit on Tuesday, October 17. No doubt the elected members, public servants and chief executives in attendance will come up with many ideas requiring more expensive strategies and action plans to be written up by consultants. (In an tone-deaf move, many of these attendees will then drink wine and eat canapes at the Australasian Housing Industry awards ceremony held immediately afterwards, nodding approvingly about “social-housing success stories” while the people they are meant to help continue to shiver in cars and sleep on couches.)

It’s time the government stepped in and recognised that services for homeless people are a fundamental social good, just like healthcare. The cost savings in avoided crime, trauma, assault and poorer educational outcomes would be significant.

To those who are more concerned that I am speaking outside the Labor Party tent than about the fate of the 2000 homeless people in our city, I say: didn’t you join the Labor Party to come up with real solutions to social problems like this? If not, then whose interests are you representing?

CT Editorial: Canberra’s wealth is in the eyes of the holders

When more than one in 10 children in Australia’s most affluent city are living in disadvantaged circumstances Canberra has a major problem.

Melbourne and Sydney university researchers dissected more than 18 years of Centrelink records. They discovered children who grew up in households reliant on welfare benefits were much more likely to end up on welfare, and by definition in disadvantaged personal circumstances, than those from wealthier backgrounds.

Those who grew up in families dependent on Newstart received from 1.5 to 1.7 times as much assistance as “other people” later in life. Those who grew up with parents on disability mental health payments received 2.4 times as much, and those in single parent payment households 2.2 times.

While the academics may argue over the “cause and effect” linkages common sense suggests the poor don’t have the same opportunities as the rich or just well off.

It’s hard to lift yourself by your boot straps in a home scarred by unemployment, illness or both and in which the money for higher education and interest based pursuits just isn’t there.

That is the situation many of the almost 8,000 Canberra children in households on an “equivalised income” of $26,000 or less a year now find themselves in.

According to the University of Canberra’s National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling one in five ACT neighborhoods experience at least two indicators of disadvantage.

There are many areas where the childhood low income rate is higher than the capital city average. There are also some where more than one in two children live in low income households.

This is cause for concern given the ACT’s “salt and pepper” approach to public housing means welfare dependent families are spread across most suburbs; not clustered together into the poverty parks favoured across the border.

Academics aren’t the only ones who think this city is doing a poor job in looking after the less well off. Earlier this week St Vincent de Paul said it was expanding its night patrols to cope with a rising tide of homelessness caused, at least in part, by the explosion in house prices and rents over the past decade.

OzHarvest ACT, the food rescue charity that feeds the homeless and other disadvantaged members of the community, has also had to expand its services. Eight years ago donations of about 4000 kilograms of food a month were sufficient. Today 35,000 to 40,000 kilograms is not enough.

Given this has been designated as “Anti-Poverty week” in the ACT it would be good to see some positive action.

Former Labor candidate for Ginninderra, Kim Fischer, says a homeless policy that provides immediate access to supervised emergency accommodation backed up by medical and other services would be a great start.

Surely we can make that happen in Australia’s richest capital and the nation’s only city state.

ACT’s new federal electorates shouldn’t mirror past boundaries, because Canberra has changed

The last time the ACT had three federal electorates, a “sandwich” approach was used to draw the boundaries. The seat of Fraser was placed north of the seat of Canberra, with the seat of Namadgi below.

While ABC election analyst Antony Green is predicting a similar arrangement this time around, this would ignore the natural geographic features used to form the seats, and social developments in Canberra over the past 25 years.

Electoral boundaries are drawn taking size and community factors into consideration. The Australian Electoral Commission must consider physical features, where people live and work, and how they travel. It’s not just a matter of getting out a pen and a ruler.

In 1994, Gungahlin had just a handful of suburbs and the Molonglo Valley didn’t exist. Belconnen was almost entirely made up of standalone housing. The electorates were divided by Bruce Ridge to the north and mostly by Farrer Ridge and Isaacs Ridge to the south.

Until recently, the lack of shopping options in Gungahlin made its residents frequent visitors to Belconnen. It made sense to consider Belconnen and Gungahlin as socially connected.

But as the vitality of the Gungahlin town centre has increased, its ties to Belconnen have weakened. When light rail comes online in early 2019, the effect will be transformational. Gungahlin, Dickson and Civic will develop stronger residential, recreational and employment links as light rail becomes a convenient travel option. The apartment-dwellers along Flemington Roadd and Northbourne Avenue will have far more in common than the families living in established suburban houses in Belconnen.

At the same time, when the John Gorton Drive dual carriageway linking the Molonglo Valley to Belconnen is completed along with the suburb of Whitlam, Belconnen and the Molonglo Valley will become more connected. There will be a significant increase in traffic between the two town centres as people take advantage of better shopping options and seek to avoid peak-hour traffic by working in Belconnen. The fact that children living in the upcoming suburb of Whitlam may use Weetangera School and Belconnen High as their local schools will further strengthen these ties.

The “Y model” of seats is a better fit geographically as well. Barton Highway and Bruce Ridge would partition the ACT to the north; Cooleman Ridge and the Tuggeranong Parkway will become the boundaries to the south. A “sandwich” approach would require awkwardly cutting out parts of Belconnen or Gungahlin to make the numbers add up.

Having electorates that represent, as far as possible, cohesive communities of interest is important for a well-functioning democracy. In this exciting new time for the ACT, we shouldn’t complacently assume that past arrangements will be the best for the future.

Belconnen and Gungahlin may soon get their own federal parliamentarian

With strong growth taking Canberra’s population past 400,000, the ACT may be allocated a third federal seat this year. Like in 1996, there is a chance that this third seat will only exist for a single parliamentary term. Any new representative will have a strong incentive to ensure Canberra continues to thrive and grow, so as to lock in this extra seat.

Next week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will release its December 2016 population estimates. These will be the first that incorporate the results from last year’s census. Because all population data is inherently imprecise, the bureau will also calculate the highest and lowest probable population for each state and territory, based on its calculated “undercount”.

The Australian Electoral Commission uses the highest probable population when calculating how many seats the territories have. This means the accuracy of the census will potentially affect whether the ACT gets a third seat. Based on ACT and national population projections, an undercount comparable to the last two census rounds, in 2006 and 2011, would lead to a third seat. The prominent technology failures on census night and calls to boycott completing the census due to its requirement to collect name data on forms will add uncertainty to the outcome.

The electoral commission must produce its determination on seat entitlements on or soon after August 30, 12 months after the first sitting day of the current Federal Parliament. To ensure public confidence in the result, it would be appropriate for the ABS to publish detailed workings of its calculations. All eyes will be on the bureau and the commission to ensure their approach is transparent and accountable.

It’s more important than ever for the ACT to have extra federal politicians. With the Turnbull government moving jobs out of the capital to other electorates in blatant pork barrelling Canberrans’ voices need to be heard. Belconnen and Gungahlin are especially at risk. The proposed move of 4000 Immigration Department jobs out of Belconnen in 2015 would have devastated the local economy and sent businesses there broke. Similarly, there is an ongoing need for sustainable employment in Gungahlin. Basing a federal department in that town centre would benefit all Canberrans. These issues are quite different from those that inner Canberra faces and require their own representation.

Our city is evolving. Four out of 10 Canberrans have at least one parent from a non-English-speaking country. Canberra’s population ranks third in cultural and linguistic diversity behind Melbourne and Sydney. More than 2000 people from culturally and linguistically diverse countries migrate to Canberra every year. These new citizens are transforming the city. We need strong advocates for a modern Canberra, to continue building its reputation as Australia’s most liveable city.

These factors highlight again how ACT residents get a raw deal in the Federal Parliament. We have the most populous electorates in the country, and the least political representatives per head of any jurisdiction. Tasmania receives a constitutionally guaranteed 17 federal representatives (five MPs and 12 senators) compared to just four for the ACT, even though the ACT’s economy is 30 per cent larger. We also have a comparable population to Tasmania, though ours is growing rapidly while Tasmania’s is stagnating.

The current rules are unfair. The ACT and NT should be guaranteed seats that are no more than 10 per cent higher in population than any other state’s electorates. Our lack of senators is also highly inequitable. It only makes sense when you remember that the constitution was drafted at a time the ACT didn’t exist and the 1901 census counted only 864 people in the Northern Territory.

We should continue to push for improved Senate representation but, in the meantime, a third federal seat in the House of Representatives will provide the voice the ACT has long deserved.

Open up empty government offices to the homeless

It has always frustrated me that we do not use empty government buildings as temporary accommodation for homeless people. The juxtaposition of recent stories in the media about homelessness and vacant government office space is striking.

The federal government has identified nearly 200,000 square metres of unoccupied floor area it leases in Canberra alone. Fitting out less than a quarter of this space would be ample to house the 1500 homeless people now living in this city.

The ACT has the second-highest rate of homelessness in Australia, behind the Northern Territory. The Productivity Commission’s 2017 Report on Government Services shows the ACT failed last year to provide accommodation solutions to more than 34 per cent of people seeking accommodation support, the equal highest rate of failure in the country. Since 2012, the ACT has been the worst or second-worst performing jurisdiction on this measure.

As the repurposing of the Addison Hotel in Sydney shows, we can make better use of vacant buildings to address homelessness. It would certainly be a far more effective use of taxpayers’ money than letting leased buildings remain idle. All that is needed is political determination, some smart planning and willingness to act.

Unlike the confronting sight of a person sleeping rough on the street, people who live in emergency accommodation or “couch surf” from house to house are mostly invisible to the population. Yet the negative effects of this secondary homelessness on people’s lives are significant and real.

Homelessness is often triggered by relationship breakdown. A Swinburne University and Hanover Welfare Services longitudinal study found people who suddenly become sole parents can find it almost impossible to access rental accommodation, especially when they have a low income and a poor or non-existent rental history in the private market.

The burden of homelessness can fall disproportionately on people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. More than 16 per cent of people in the ACT needing accommodation aid are from countries where English is not the main language – almost double the national average.

Once a person becomes homeless, it can be very difficult to return to the private market. ACT rental vacancy rates are often below 1 per cent, making it easy for landlords to put “risky” applications at the bottom of the pile.

As the ABC reported recently, young homeless people (and especially women) may resort to sexual favours to secure shelter for the night. Insecure accommodation exposes homeless families to trauma and violence. Others end up in emergency accommodation that offers only a few days of accommodation, often also with people who have drug-and-alcohol issues – a frightening option for families.

The current system, which relies mostly on grants to community accommodation providers, is ad hoc and poorly regulated. What is needed is a large stock of medium-term, temporary accommodation that can provide safe, secure and stable housing for residents while they are helped to return to a permanent home.

As government-run facilities, people accessing these rooms would be provided with security and visited regularly by case managers to ensure they receive the services they need. Everything from accessing employment and education services, to drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation and help with paperwork for public-housing waiting lists.

The goal of these temporary fit-outs would be to rapidly scale installations up and down in response to client demand. Ideally, an excess of rooms should be maintained to ensure every person and family who needs shelter can always access a room and a bed. As soon as an office floor leased by any government agency or department is expected to be vacant for 12 months or more, it should be flagged as available to convert to temporary residential rooms.

A vast number of objections can be anticipated from public servants but they will be mostly excuses or baseless fears. Fit-out costs can be minimised through smart, modular approaches that reuse 95 to 100 per cent of material. Rooms can use office-style prefabricated partitions. Preconstructed bathrooms and kitchen units can be installed where existing toilet and kitchen facilities are insufficient for communal use.

In a well-off country like Australia, there should be no reason for a person to be homeless. We are proud of our universal healthcare system yet, for some reason, the need for universal shelter is not similarly endorsed. Rather than relying on the cash-strapped community sector to fill the gap, governments should see this as a their primary responsibility.

I raised this suggestion with local residents while campaigning as a candidate in the last ACT election, and the idea received near-universal acclaim. I believe taxpayers expect the government to ensure that people have a roof over their head. All that is needed is people with the vision to make it happen.

National Capital Authority needs to rethink its purpose

The National Capital Authority is at a crossroads. For it to maintain a legitimate oversight and governance role in Canberra, it needs to step up and become a strong voice for local residents and the ACT government within the federal government.

With the Commonwealth seeking to move even more government agencies to rural and regional areas, we haven’t seen such blatant disregard for the ACT residents since the federal government strong-armed the ACT into a poor land-swap deal in 1995 to obtain the site for the National Museum of Australia.

At the time of that controversy, an ACT government committee recommended the “urgent” establishment of principles that had “as their highest priority the due protection of the interests of the Canberra community in not being disadvantaged by Commonwealth planning initiatives”.

Yet here we are again, with agencies like the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority being moved out of Canberra for no conceivable national benefit.

As a territory without constitutionally protected state rights, it’s crucial that the ACT has a strong, non-partisan voice inside the federal government. As an independent advocate, the NCA should undertake evidence-based planning and policy research about how to use the combined resources of the federal and ACT governments to deliver the best possible outcomes for the nation’s capital.

The NCA must accept that its modern role includes working co-operatively with the ACT government to seek extra funding and better recognition, from federal ministers and departments, for activities that are in the nation’s interest.

But more than anything, the NCA must recognise that the success of Canberra as the nation’s capital is about more than just building promenades, monuments and national institutions. Canberra will remain a capital that all Australians can be proud of if the NCA listens to and respects the voices of the citizens who live here.

The NCA should fight for the money to build a new national convention centre. It should push back against moves to shift agencies like the pesticides authority out of Canberra for political reasons. It should lobby for a balanced approach to the location of government departments in all town centres, to minimise traffic and pollution. It should emphasise the importance of fully widening the Barton Highway, hold the federal government to account for the roll-out of the national broadband network as promised, and secure extra funds for the next phase of light rail to Woden.

At the same time, the NCA should no longer have the right to bypass the ACT government’s authority entirely on planning matters relating to national land. Most notably, the NCA is continuing to support development of up to 10,000 houses on the 701-hectare CSIRO Ginninderra Field Station despite the written and verbal objections of the elected ACT government.

The NCA also recently unilaterally approved the demolition of Bruce Hall with no right of review. The current planning arrangements are half-pregnant; a historical oddity hanging over from the first days of self-government. They serve no one well.

At a minimum, there should be a clear understanding that the federal government won’t abuse its position of privilege with national land to override the autonomy of the ACT as a self-governing territory. Ideally, the Self-Government Act should be amended to clearly specify that the Commonwealth must relinquish national land status as soon as it no longer uses it for Commonwealth purposes.

This new bargain with the ACT government would give the NCA the opportunity to set a new, modern course that would ensure its future relevance.

On the other hand, if the NCA has no interest in such “petty” Canberra affairs, a new agreement must be negotiated where the NCA’s role of protecting the image of the Commonwealth is limited to areas of legitimate national interest. This would mean giving the ACT government control over all planning and development activities, while restricting the NCA’s review and approval role to areas within the parliamentary triangle, as well as embassy and defence sites.

In short: if the NCA wants to do what’s best for Canberra, it needs to seek and respect the views of our elected ACT government.

Letter to the Editor: Deep hypocrisy

After trying to sneak through a move of the department to the airport just two years ago, the Secretary of Immigration and Border Protection is once again seeking to disadvantage thousands of Canberra residents and employees.

Residential developments in Belconnen and Gungahlin will see Canberra’s northside population grow by over 10,000 in the next five years. Despite this, by its own calculations the department is going to spend $255million to move more jobs to the airport than is operationally necessary.

Whenever a Commonwealth agency puts jobs further away from where people live, it increases infrastructure costs to the ACT government as well as transport time and cost for all Canberra residents from increased traffic congestion.

There is a deep hypocrisy in the Commonwealth government seeing no problem in relocating the APVMA to regional areas, but refusing to converse with the ACT government on employment matters local to Canberra.

The ACT should be given a seat at the table with the Commonwealth about all major relocation activities.

It is vital for the sustainability of Canberra that employment in Belconnen and other town centres is maintained and increased over time.

No other major employer is as hands-off with local authorities as we see with the dismissive attitude of the Commonwealth government towards the ACT government.

Canberra Times: Kim hopes #BetterBelconnen starts trending

We’ve given you a few examples of quirky election posters and now here’s a twist to another.

Labor candidate for Ginninderra, Kim Fischer, was credited in an article on the 10-year anniversary of Twitter, as being the first person to use the #auspol hashtag in a tweet in 2010.

“I have tried my luck again with #BetterBelconnen. I hope it is just as successful,” she told us.

“Also, Belconnen recently had its first electronic sign installed on Luxton St (by the local printing shop Instant Colour Press).

“My campaign sign is on rotation there, since I thought it would be a good antidote to all the sign theft and vandalism that is taking place.”

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