Category: Community (Page 1 of 3)

The universal right to shelter

Speech given to ACT Labor Annual Conference (29 July 2017)


Today, we are each taking time out of our weekend to try and make the world a better place. The values and principles we are debating today define Labor as the party which is prepared to commit to big ideas to solve big problems.

We fight for universal health care and we should equally fight for a universal right to shelter.

There is no more fundamental human right than access to safe and secure shelter, yet in the ACT we have the second-highest rates of homelessness in the country.

How is it that we have 2000 homeless people living in Canberra, while the Federal Government has nearly 200,000 square metres of unoccupied government offices in Canberra alone?

The only thing standing between homeless people and opening up government offices is bureaucracy and a lack of political will.

In Canberra’s cold July, the lack of action in opening up those government offices, just a third of which could shelter all of Canberra’s homeless, is unacceptable and cruel.

According to the most recent Productivity Commission statistics, in the ACT we fail to provide accommodation solutions to more than 34% of people seeking accommodation support. 16% of people requiring homelessness assistance are migrants from countries where English is not the main spoken language – almost double the national average.

I acknowledge the ACT government is looking into housing affordability and homelessness, and I hope that opening up of government offices is part of that solution.

Delegates, I urge you to support this amendment.

Photo credit: Canberra Times

The power of language

Canberra schools and community groups will be celebrating International Mother Tongue Language Day next week. The United Nations-sponsored event has promoted “linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism” since 1999.

These days English is the standard global language of business, computing, science and travel. Around half of the pages on the entire internet are in English. Trying to preserve the “purity” of the French language as the l’Académie française has done since the 17th century can seem pointless or frivolous to English speakers who are at little risk of seeing their language disappear.

Personally, I believe it is important to recognise and respect how language impacts a person’s cultural heritage, identity, and place in society. Speaking in the language and accent of your parents and grandparents is a continuous and powerful reminder of where you come from.

Language not only changes how your brain develops, but shapes how you see the world. Many languages have words that are specific to their culture and difficult to translate such as:

  • Cynefin (Welsh) – a place where you feel you ought to be and belong
  • Ganqíng (Chinese) – how two people or groups feel about each other
  • Narragunnawali (Ngunnawal) – coming together in peace

Even the Australian “mate” has a depth to its meaning that is sometimes difficult to explain to a non-Australian.

This tight association between language and cultural groups also makes language highly political. Telling people that they either can’t use a language or must use a language is an act of power. For example, where there are two commonly used languages in a region, choosing to only recognise one of them for government business sends a clear signal about which cultural group is favoured. A more subtle social problem occurs when languages are associated with “higher” or “lower” classes. “Mandarin” Chinese literally means “the speech of officials”.

Grandchildren of immigrants nearly always adopt their native country’s language exclusively. However, the existence of this natural progression does not remove our fundamental right to choose what language we speak.

International Mother Language Day was created, in part, because of past tragedies where people have been abused, beaten, or even killed for seeking acceptance and recognition of their own language. The chosen day of February 21 commemorates the memory of several people killed by police in 1952 at a gathering of protestors lobbying for official recognition of their native Bangla language.

Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Chris Bourke noted in a speech commemorating International Mother Language Day in 2014 that past Australian governments had previously tried to stop indigenous Australians from speaking their native language as part of policies of assimilation. These policies deepened feelings of dispossession and isolation from their culture among the Stolen Generation.

There is also good evidence that speaking your mother tongue as well your country’s official language improves parental relations and boosts educational outcomes.

As a result, over the past 25 years the Australian Government has funded programs to re-connect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with their native tongues. Professor Jakelin Troyhas worked extensively to document the mental and health benefits of these programs. Schools also now have programs that encourage students to be proud of their own language and to make use of it in a classroom environment.

To finish on a lighter note, here is a clip from A Bit of Fry and Laurie where Stephen Fry’s obsession with language and its relationship to society and culture are on full display:

Do you think it is a good thing for Australians to speak more than one language? What experiences have you had with multilingual situations?

Spare a thought for those working this Christmas

Christmas is more commercial than ever. It seems that shops are more and more desperate to get us to spend big on presents, but there is little meaning behind the glitz. Even the Christian message about the birth of Jesus barely gets a mention.

There are cultures where Christmas is just another festival the way that a Westerner might think of Diwali or Ramadan. And sometimes things get lost in translation: for example, 40 years ago a KFC marketing campaign went viral with the result that in Japan, Christmas is now commonly celebrated with a bucket of KFC chicken.

There used to be a tradition of helping out vulnerable people at Christmas – in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is scorned because of his unwillingness to help out Christmas charity collectors. Christmas should be a time where we come together to care for each other as a community, not just an exchange of gifts that are soon forgotten.

Unfortunately, if you don’t fit the mould of the traditional happy Western family with jobs that allow time off at this time of year, Christmas can be a difficult and isolating experience.

More than anything else, spare a thought for those dedicated workers and volunteers who are there for people who need care, and to pick up the pieces when Christmas really doesn’t go to plan for the rest of us. Babies still get born, people still have accidents, our elderly still need care. Whether they are police, paramedics, doctors, or nurses, some people simply don’t get to spend Christmas Day at home.

In fact, emergency services workers are extra busy over the holiday period as the combination of alcohol and the stress of family gatherings can lead to a spike in violence-related callouts. Crisis services have to focus on the most urgent cases for support and ignore the rest as the bureaucracy of government shuts down between Christmas and New Year. And in a sad twist, just being lonely makes people up to 60% more likely to visit the Emergency Department for company.

Others volunteer on Christmas Day to ensure that people without families or little money to celebrate can still feel included. In Canberra, the St John’s Care Christmas Day Community Lunch– feeding hundreds of people – aims to make sure “no one has to spend Christmas Day alone”. Next year they will have been doing it for 15 years – a new Canberra tradition worth preserving. Volunteering and Contact ACT also maintain a list of other places that people can go for company and free food on Christmas Day.

It’s easy to forget the truly important things in life in the hustle and bustle of Christmas. This year, if you are going to be celebrating Christmas as part of a loving family and community where people are safe and healthy, that is a true blessing worth celebrating. Anything else is just ornamentation on the Christmas tree.

Sign o’ the Times

Every day we are surrounded by symbols. Some symbols are nearly universally recognised, like the marriage ring, the Jewish star and the peace sign. The strongest symbols and brands also have what marketing types call “imbued meaning”: the ability for people to infer values just by seeing the brand image associated with a product or service. When you see the Nike ‘swoosh’ or the Mercedes-Benz logo, you make automatic positive and negative judgements about that product.

Cities, states, and territories now get branded as well. New South Wales is “making it happen”. Victoria has the “best of everything”. Canberra, of course, has Brand CBR and our “Confident. Bold. Ready.” slogan.

Branding and marketing have been around for a long time, right back to the busts of emperors in Roman times. Way before the concept of a trademark was conceived, monarchs controlled the rights to issue coats of arms – nothing less than a form of state-sanctioned branding. But today when government launch brands for cities, they often get a pretty rough reception from their residents. The common complaint is that they are a “waste of money”.

It is true that it can be hard to link brand activities to a direct monetary return. However, the saying “perception is reality” has a lot of truth to it. We know that confident consumers spend more, and that investors will put their money in places that are growing, attractive places for people to live.

City branding is just as much about convincing its residents that they live in a great place as attracting investment from outside. Brands provide a recognisable “hook” for people to respond to, and can be instrumental in changing behaviour in desirable ways. For example, the draft Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan wants better branding for Lathlain St and Emu Bank to encourage people to eat and congregate in Belconnen instead of going to Manuka, Braddon, or Bunda St.

Here is the interesting secret of marketing today: You can’t just make brand claims that people don’t believe and make them stick any more. The taxi industry campaign #YourTaxis backfired badly when people shared their horror stories about taxis instead of their positive experiences. Oil companies like Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil face intense criticism and scrutiny for their attempts to position themselves as environmentally responsible.

Contrary to some beliefs marketing is now increasingly about substance, not spin. The Walter Kronkite era of authority where someone would be believed simply because of the position they held is long gone. The consultancy Brand Matters suggests four key things that are necessary for a strong brand:

  • Credibility: Do your actions match your words?
  • Relevance: Does your audience care about the promises your brand makes?
  • Differentiation: How are you delivering on your promises in a way that is different from your competitors?
  • Sustainability: Is your brand going to maintain a strong position in the long term?

Whether you are a politician or a multinational corporation, overcoming scepticism in the message you want to communicate is often the very first challenge. The first step is to establish trust in your intentions, but how can you do that if people won’t even listen to what you say?

The NDIS will transform lives – here’s why

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is expected to be in full operation in the ACT by July 2016. All children are now eligible to join the NDIS, with only adults born after 1 July 1965 yet to be inducted into the scheme. All other States and Territories will commence their full implementation shortly afterwards (with the likely exception of WA due to ongoing negotiations).

Unfortunately the NDIS is still a mystery to many who aren’t directly impacted by the changes. While the underlying funding model involves a lot of accountants and actuaries, the way it works for individual participants is both simple and revolutionary.

The big change is in who controls the money.

Previously, funding was provided to disability care and support organisations. These organisations would offer programs and services which people with disabilities would have to apply for. The onus was on individuals to discover what options existed to get help.

As the 2011 Productivity Commission report into the NDIS noted, this placed people with disabilities at the mercy of government budget cycles and annual funding allocations. If a budget got cut, services would be cut too, regardless of the number of people in an area requiring support. The unlucky ones would simply miss out.

When talking to carers and guardians of people with disabilities in the ACT, this view of the old system certainly rang true for them. Stories of carers simply not showing up to appointments for weeks at a time, and uncertainty about how to apply or check eligibility for available care programs were common.

People have been reluctant to complain about the system because they often felt lucky to get anything at all. As one carer put it, “You don’t want to seem ungracious.”

Under the new model, the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) administers access to the NDIS. Each participant in the scheme documents their “goals and aspirations”, after which a proposal for ongoing funding support is approved by the NDIA that is “fair, reasonable and necessary” and “in line with community expectations”.

Each “individualised support package” allocates an annual amount of funding which is tied to a range of particular support needs of that participant. The person (or their plan nominee) can then select an approved provider of their choice to perform the service at a time and place that suits them.

By having certainty about funding, as well as the freedom to select and change providers, the power relationship between care providers and the client is rightfully inverted.

Providers will need to learn to market their services and ensure the satisfaction of their clients in order to get paid. This is likely to be the biggest challenge for organisations unused to operating in a market environment. Ultimately though, the pressure to evolve and improve their service delivery approach should lead to better outcomes for both carers and clients.

The switch in funding arrangements will lead to major changes in the ACT. As just one example, Therapy ACT will cease provision of therapy services by the end of 2016, with clients assisted to find new non-government therapy providers during this transition.

Bill Shorten needs to be acknowledged and commended for being the key architect of the NDIS. The 460,000 people around Australia with disabilities who are expected to make use of the scheme will have better lives. It’s a great example of how politics at its best can deliver transformational and inspirational outcomes for our society.

Photo Credit: NDIS website

The modern work conundrum – what’s a family to do?

We’re still working out what support governments should provide modern families.

It’s easy to forget how far we have come in just a few decades. Financial support for new Australian mothers may have been introduced in 1912, but women were required to resign from the workforce on the day they married for many years.

Incredibly, as late as 1972 some women in the public service were still being told they had to quit their job after marriage; the assumption was that they would have children and therefore would not work anymore.

The Whitlam government introduced paid maternity leave for Commonwealth public servants in 1973, but it was not until 1979 when the ACTU fought and won a test case granting 12 months of unpaid maternity leave to all women employees in the public and private sector.

And most recently, the paid parental leave scheme and Dad and partner pay were introduced in 2011 and 2013 respectively, encouraging parents to take greater time off work when children are born.

These changes have increased our overall workforce participation rate. The latest ABS statisticsshow the ACT has a workforce participation rate of 70.5% – well above the national average – with one of the lowest participation gaps between men and women in the country.

However, the experiences of parents trying to balance home and work can vary greatly depending on the attitudes of their managers and employers.

A 2013 study by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner found that 49% of mothers and 27% of fathers experienced discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave, or on return to work.

Both fathers and mothers are losing out.

The time women spend in primary care roles makes it harder for them to be hired in jobs at a similar level on their return to the workforce, and greatly reduces their superannuation payouts when they retire.

While discrimination against pregnant women is illegal, stories of positions being made redundant while they are on maternity leave are common, and any woman on a fixed term contract is extremely unlikely to find their role still there on their return.

To their credit, the ACT government specifically forbids the termination of a temporary role while a woman is on maternity leave, and gives them priority access to other roles on their return from leave.

For their part, fathers experience greater pressure to work full-time and take less leave in order to “show commitment” to their job, even though one in three fathers want greater care responsibilities for their children.

Just this year BHP denied its male employees access to paid leave as the primary caregiver for their children.

All this helps to explain why 41 percent of mothers of pre-schoolers made a request for altered working hours, compared with just 15 percent of Australian fathers.

Employees that are parents still want to work hard, but they need employment arrangements that value outcomes over the number of hours spent at work. Workplaces that allow limited personal calls, time-shifting of work outside of normal hours, remote working arrangements, and allow employees to do family-related tasks during work hours or break time reduce stress on parents and increase loyalty to their employer.

Refugees welcome in the ACT

The Federal Government’s decision to accept 12,000 additional refugees from Syria this year – albeit after some pressure from its own backbench and the Labor party – is the right one. But our overall refugee policy still needs work.

How many refugees we should permanently settle in Australia every year? Over the last few decades, we have accepted an average of 0.5 refugees per 1000 Australia citizens, per year. To put this in perspective, this proportionately amounts to 180 refugees settling in Canberra every year – hardly unmanageable.

As a wealthy country, I think Australia should set a formal resettlement target of 1 refugee in Australia per 1000 citizens each year. This would allow our refugee intake to increase naturally and gradually over time.

Given the Territory Government’s recent declaration of the ACT as a Refugee Welcome Zone, we can do better right here in Canberra. By publically adopting a ‘1 per 1000’ target for refugee resettlement, the ACT Government would be taking the lead nationally. Our local refugee support services have noted “there is a lot of capacity in our community” to accept additional refugees – 350 refugees per year would be very achievable.

We should also fight harder against the use of offshore detention. The key obligations of Australia under the Refugee Convention are to house refugees in safe, clean, and reasonably comfortable accommodation, and never to send them back to the country from which they fled (either directly or indirectly) while a fear of persecution remains.

Offshore processing has consistently failed the first of these tests with many stories of mental illness, abuse, hunger strikes, and rioting documented. Indeed as Waleed Aly noted, the purpose of offshore processing is solely to be as unpleasant as possible.

In a legal sense, offshore processing serves no purpose at all. All unauthorised maritime arrivals are now treated equally under migration law whether they are ever brought to the mainland or not, and Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention remain the same. During 2001 – 2007, the last time regional processing was operating, more than 60% of refugees were eventually resettled in Australia anyway.

The use of offshore, prison-like detention facilities to house some of the world’s most desperate people is unworthy of Australians’ generosity and unjustified based on their actions. These facilities should be closed immediately.

As an alternative, Julian Burnside’s proposal to use Tasmania as an asylum-seeker processing centre provides many real benefits. Essentially a whole-of-State expansion of community detention arrangements, it would allow the struggling Tasmanian economy to benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars in additional construction, education, and social support programs operating in the country. Refugees would be obliged to stay in Tasmania (or other regional areas designated by the government) unless dispensation were granted, but otherwise they would be free to participate in the community.

Any ‘Tasmanian option’ would be money far better spent than the $1.2 billion we currently spend annually on processing refugees in Nauru and PNG. The evidence is clear that community detention is both cheaper and far better health-wise for refugees and asylum-seekers. Community detention arrangements should be the norm, with detention to a building or cell only done where people commit a crime or breach their visa conditions of release.

Refugees are a net benefit to Australia in the long run. However, studies estimate a 12 year lag before their contribution is a net positive. After 20 years the productivity benefit of both refugee and non-refugee migrants is virtually the same. Because of this long lag time, most experts recommend evaluating migration programs by the second generation test – that is, by how successful and productive the children of migrants are in Australia.

Dancing in the streets? Nope, too much red tape

Spring is finally here, which means the silly season is fast approaching. As we emerge from hibernation to enjoy the warmer weather and sunshine, I’m looking forward to enjoying some community and outdoor events without three layers of woollies.

If you want to hold any kind of event that is open to the public in Canberra, the ACT government provides a 41 page planning booklet covering everything from lodging details of your event with eight different agencies to planning for accessibility and environmental controls.

Insurance is a must as well, no matter how small or apparently risk-free your event may be. If you are hiring a hall or room, you will either need to ensure you are covered by the public liability insurance held by the venue provider, or obtain your own.

With that level of rigmarole, is it any wonder that people are reluctant to initiate community events?

Back in 2011, Andrew Leigh encouraged people to hold Christmas street parties in their own neighbourhoods to build “social capital”.

As part of Canberra centenary celebrations the ACT government funded Parties at the Shops, which aims to instil “a sense of community pride, appreciation of Canberra’s local art and cultural talents, and closer ties between Canberra’s business and arts communities”. This program is still going strong in 2015 with recent events held in ScullinDowner, and Ainslieamong others. The ACT Government also maintains an events fund to encourage more people to make the effort to run events.

The challenges for ensuring public health and safety are complex.

In 2013, changes to the Food Act 2001 required that all food operations, including community fundraising BBQs, would be required to appoint a “food safety supervisor”. After an outcry, a limited exemption for stalls operating less than five times a year was put in place.

These changes were recently extended, with non-profit organisations using volunteer staff now designated as exempt from the Act unless they are operating at a declared event such as the Multicultural Festival.

That year the ACT government also suggested they might have to charge traffic control fees for a Forrest home using its Christmas light display to raise money for SIDS charities. In the end no fees were charged, but the policy is still in force.

These acts were motivated by safety and not because the events themselves were unwanted.

But in the end, it’s as much a question of the perceived attitude of the government as the red tape involved. For example, the Mooney Valley City Council provides friendly and accessible event planning guides and fact sheets that send a welcoming message to those wanting to run events. They even have a dedicated form to streamline temporary road closures for street parties, including the provision of road closure kits.

The ACT government’s recently-launched Access Canberra site promises coordinated approvals assistance for events, which is a very promising step forward.

They should consider maintaining a central list of community rooms and facilities available for hire on Access Canberra, and providing a simple, online process that allows groups to book and use any of these facilities. It should also be easier to hold street parties and get the necessary equipment and traffic control support from TAMS.

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