Exploring a Multicultural Community Venue at EPIC
Thank you, Madam Speaker, and I thank Mr Gupta and Ms Orr for bringing this motion before the Assembly today.
This motion addresses issues that I have been raising since becoming a member of this Assembly, and I am happy to see the opposite side of the Chamber recognise and begin to address these issues. The first serious opportunity I had to question this government regarding multicultural matters was during the 2015–16 annual reports hearings. I asked the then minister about the high demand for the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre and its incapacity to meet that demand. I also asked Ms Stephen-Smith the following: ‘What plans have been discussed to guarantee that the ACT’s growing multicultural communities will have access to suitable, affordable venues in future?’
So you can understand how much it satisfies me, Madam Speaker, to see this Assembly note the very worries that I raised with this government two-and-a-half years ago. The minister’s response to my question, by the way, was not very satisfying. She said that the government’s solution was, quote, ‘encouraging culturally and linguistically diverse communities to utilise existing community facilities and other suitable government infrastructure across the ACT for cultural events’.
In other words, Madam Speaker, this government had no plan whatsoever to deal with the future needs of a rapidly growing multicultural population to ensure that, in Mr Gupta and Ms Orr’s own words, ‘the community has access to essential facilities’. No, the solution was to encourage the use of existing facilities despite nearly everyone knowing that existing facilities had already been outgrown and the situation was worsening. It appears, Madam Speaker, that the Labor-Greens government had no idea just two-and-a-half years ago that their own backbench would be calling on them to note that existing venues cannot meet the requirements of Canberra’s vibrant multicultural communities. This situation highlights an incapacity or an unwillingness to look forward and plan accordingly, possibly both. It is, to be blunt, not what good governments do.
But it is what this government does, and so we have arrived where we are today, with a motion pointing out that we have venues of limited capacity amidst increasing demand – something that should not have caught those opposite by surprise. In 2017, we were told in estimates hearings that the government was receiving ‘increasing requests for facilities’ from multicultural groups that couldn’t be met. And in November of that same year, the minister replied to a question that I had put on the notice paper by confirming that multicultural groups were being denied meeting space bookings ‘due to room unavailability’. And still nothing was done. No planning, no exploring, and no feasibility studies – as requested in this motion.
I should point out here, Madam Speaker, that when the minister said the Labor-Green government’s best plan for a growing multicultural population was to tell community groups to keep using existing structures, it came with a promise. The ‘ACT Multicultural Framework’, released in 2015, included action plans for the next three years. One of these, to be accomplished in 2016–17, was ‘an online community coordinated venue booking system’ to assist ‘culturally and linguistically diverse communities to utilise existing community facilities’.
When I asked the minister what plans the government had to meet known future needs of culturally and linguistically diverse residents, she repeated this promise. People were, she assured me, quote, ‘working across government to implement this Action’. Nevertheless, like most of the actions in the Framework, Madam Speaker, this promised booking system was never delivered. And I note that when the Framework was updated just three months ago under the direction of Minister Steel, the second action plan includes no mention whatsoever of providing access to suitable venues.
And so here we are, Madam Speaker, debating whether we should call on the Labor-Greens government to engage in a task that they should have completed years ago: exploring ‘the feasibility of a large-scale venue suitable for hosting multicultural community events’. Considering how sluggish this government has been to take any meaningful action, I welcome this step forward.
I do, however, find it interesting that Mr Gupta and Ms Orr haven’t provided any greater clarity to the government in their motion. It is one thing to have a large-scale venue. It is an entirely different thing for such a venue to be genuinely accessible to multicultural community groups. This is a central concern, in fact, to nearly all community organisations – many of which struggle to pay the booking fees at current venues. Madam Speaker, I want to make this point perfectly clear. A large-scale venue intended for hosting multicultural community events will be completely worthless if multicultural community groups cannot afford to use it.
And on this point, Madam Speaker, this government does not inspire confidence. Many multicultural community groups, in fact, feel like they are being priced out of full participation in the ACT community. For example, numerous groups have told me that they no longer even consider participating in the National Multicultural Festival because they simply cannot afford to pay the fees. In recent years, many organisations have participated in the festival as a fundraising endeavour, and instead they have lost money. The general consensus is that those opposite seem to have little real-world understanding of what it takes to run a volunteer community group.
And this certainly extends to venue hire. This motion focuses on the possibility of providing a large-scale venue at EPIC, which already hosts a diverse rang of events and seems to have spaces that suit them all, including car parking. These include the CanCon games conference, the Craft and Quilt Fair, the Lifeline Book Fair, and the Wedding Expo. But the fact is that EPIC, which is run by this government, hires out facilities to community groups at a prohibitively high cost.
I have very recently spoken with one multicultural group that hired an indoor venue at EPIC for a cultural celebration, and the cost was $10,000. That is ridiculous! They were shocked to be told that this was the not-for-profit rate, and since the event was not ticketed, they had to cover this cost out of their organisation’s very limited budget. Not only that, but they were told they would be required to pay extra for electricity used and rubbish removal, the final bill for which was much more than the estimate they had been given beforehand. Needless to say, this community organisation will not be holding any more events at EPIC. And of course, many other multicultural community groups, even large ones, operate on a budget that simply wouldn’t allow for them to even consider booking a small venue at EPIC at current prices.
Some multicultural community organisations have dealt with the rising cost of everything under this government by moving their events to Queanbeyan. The most high-profile of these, of course, has been the Harmonie German Club’s decision to shift their annual Oktoberfest event from EPIC to Queanbeyan after venue hire fees increased from $6,000 to $41,000 over just a five-year period, but they have not been alone. In 2019 I have already attended several cultural events in Queanbeyan hosted by Canberra-based multicultural community groups.
One organisation that spoke with me earlier this week said they would love to hold their events in the ACT but simply cannot afford to do so anymore. This organisation pointed out that it was not just the exorbitant cost of hiring even publicly owned venues but also the rising fees of everything else in the territory as well as what feels like ever-increasing compliance obligations. I quote the head of this organisation: ‘If we could get access to a significant venue for cultural events and government support to manage the costs of these events, this would be of great benefit to the community’, but, he added, this is ‘currently a pipe dream’.
In conclusion, Madam Speaker, I welcome the feasibility study included in this motion, even though it should have been done years ago. At the same time, I put those opposite on very clear notice that multicultural community groups are already finding it difficult to afford to operate in this territory, and a venue that almost none of them can afford to hire will be seen as further evidence that this government is completely out of touch with their essential needs.
Our multicultural communities need affordable large venues with adequate parking space for larger crowds. Having attended many events at EPIC, both large and small, it has proven to be a good venue, but the hiring costs are pushing community organisations away and forcing them to hold events somewhere else. And so I urge this government to reconsider hiring costs for community groups.