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Important Financial Support for the Community Sector

I start by thanking Mr Davis for bringing this motion today, and I move the amendment circulated in my name. Before speaking directly to the amendment, I wish to speak to the motion in general, which the Canberra Liberals fully support in principle.

The motion notes the vital role that community sector organisations have been playing during the current outbreak of COVID-19. This is true, but it is likewise true that the community sector was playing a vital role in our territory long before this pandemic. For far too long, far too many Canberrans have faced disadvantages of many kinds, including sometimes crippling obstacles, and it has been the community sector that has in so many cases made the difference between coping and falling through the cracks, between barely surviving and thriving.

Mr Davis’s motion repeatedly states that the community sector has been helping the ACT Government to respond to problems arising from the current outbreak, but the reality of course is that community partners do what they do to help the community. They would be doing their best to help the vulnerable and disadvantaged with or without the ACT Government. The Canberra Liberals recognise this, and on behalf of the opposition, I express our deepest gratitude to each and every community organisation, service provider, volunteer network, and good neighbour in Canberra. You deserve the deep and sincere thanks of every single member of this Assembly.

Now, it is also true that community sector organisations are facing significant challenges right now, including a ‘perfect storm’ of increased costs (including operation and administrative costs), decreased revenue, and a massive surge in demand caused both by the current outbreak of the Delta variant in our community and the response intended to manage that outbreak. I know from my conversations with community organisers that their organisations and other service providers are in a very difficult space.

Let me share just one of many examples. OzHarvest is a food rescue organisation. Each week in Canberra, they rescue between five and seven tonnes of food that would otherwise be thrown away and currently provide it to 64 local charities that help feed people in need. I have worked alongside them as a volunteer, and I strongly encourage others to do the same. Their life-sustaining service requires three things: One – donations of surplus food from supermarkets, cafes, delis, corporate kitchens, airlines, hotels and other food businesses. Two – volunteers. Three – donations of cash to make else happen.

You can only imagine what the impact of the current lockdown has been on the Canberra chapter of OzHarvest! As noted in the motion, financial uncertainty has significantly reduced what struggling businesses and individuals can afford to give in cash donations across our community. Moreover, many of OzHarvest’s regular suppliers are closed or running at reduced capacity. Local manager Belinda estimates that supplies of donated food are down by at least 30 per cent. At the same time, demand for food in the community has increased between 20 and 30 per cent.

These kinds of issues – and specifically increased demand in the face of reduced revenue and donations – have been replicated right across the entire community sector. A CEO of one community services provider just this week pointed out to me what increased demand for existing services and crisis response has meant for her organisation, which now finds itself with both employees and volunteers not only working longer hours but also needing to work seven days a week. This kind of response is completely unsustainable without extra assistance being given, and it is beyond time for the ACT Government to step in and provide some of this much-needed financial support.

For all these reasons, I welcome today’s announcement of a $26 million funding package for the community sector, intended to address some of the issues that have been raised by organisations working on the front lines. I will be closely monitoring this financial boost to make sure that it is both sufficient in its reach and equitable in its distribution. Some of the items announced as part of the package – such as establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioner, which I welcome – are not directly linked to the current public health emergency, but much of the funding is specifically tied to the impacts of COVID-19.

And this brings me to another concern. Mr Davis’s motion specifically calls on the government to ‘examine options to provide financial support and security to community sector organisations during this period’ (emphasis added). It is true that the current period is a particularly difficult one, but the pandemic hasn’t created new problems as much as it has merely revealed and intensified existing ones. It is essential that community sector organisations be given support and security now, but it is unwise to pretend that the fix needed is temporary or that it can simply go away when the lockdown ends.

Statistics released just last month by the ACT Council of Social Service are sobering. In October last year, the number of Canberrans living below the poverty line had increased to 38,300 people, of which 9,300 were estimated to be children below the age of 15.[1] People living in my electorate of Ginninderra are now the most disadvantaged in the territory, with 10.5 per cent of them living in poverty, according to data from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.[2] The current lockdown has almost certainly worsened these figures.

The ACT has the nation’s highest rate of rental stress among lower income private rental households, according to the Productivity Commission, with 73 per cent of households paying more than 30 per cent of pre-tax income on housing.[3] Canberra is now the most expensive capital city in which to rent, according to Domain’s June 2021 Rental Report.[4] Earlier this year, Anglicare found that there were only four private rental properties in all of Canberra that were within the affordability range of a single parent earning minimum wage and raising two children.[5] For such a family, relying on social housing is not a viable option, either with ‘the average waiting time for standard housing being … 3.8 years’![6] Where are these families supposed to live?

Whilst housing is ‘the most significant expense for low-income households in the ACT’,[7] there are many other sources of financial stress. ‘Over the past 20 years, electricity prices in Canberra have increased by almost 60%, while gas prices have doubled’.[8] Health and education in the ACT both cost 18 per cent more now than they did when I was first elected just five years ago, and food costs have increased by more than 10 per cent as well.[9]

I share these figures, one) because they indicate a very serious problem with poverty here in the nation’s capital and, two) because they make it very clear that significant disadvantage has been allowed to flourish in the ACT for far longer than the past 18 months. In fact, I think I can safely say that we would not be in such dire straits right now if the ACT Government had been more proactively addressing disadvantage in the territory before COVID-19 hit. I am likewise confident that emerging from the current lockdown is not going to somehow magically change the fact that nearly one out of every ten Canberrans is living in poverty.

And once again, community sector organisations play a central role in assisting and supporting disadvantaged residents – something they have been struggling to do for the past several years now. As the CEO of another community services provider told me frankly earlier this week, and I quote, ‘additional support during the COVID lockdown and supporting agencies with the overall financial impact of the pandemic … should not mask the fact that the community sector started from a low funding base prior to the pandemic at the beginning of last year’.

Madam Speaker, the Canberra Liberals went to the election last year deeply concerned by the growing disadvantage in our community. We promised the people of Canberra a Poverty Taskforce to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with the causes and symptoms of poverty in Canberra. Such a task force would work directly with stakeholders, including community sector organisations, industry, and members of the public to find the best way forward so that vulnerable Canberrans can be supported and the number of residents living below the poverty line reduced.

In the very first sitting week of this year, we took the opportunity to call on those opposite to stop talking and start taking this issue seriously. We were ignored. But we have not given up, and to be perfectly clear, we have no intention of giving up. For this reason, I have today tabled the amendment circulated in my name once again calling for the creation of a Poverty Task Force to provide a comprehensive strategy for how to stop and then reverse the growing number of Canberrans who can no longer afford a roof over their heads or proper food on their plates. The impacts of the current lockdown have made this proposal even more essential.

The last time that the Canberra Liberals brought this proposal to the Assembly, the Chief Minister tried to deflect any responsibility by laying all blame at the feet of the Commonwealth Government. I have spoken to enough Canberrans to know that this strategy didn’t work very well for Mr Barr last time, and I suspect it will work even less this time. Canberrans are a clever lot, and all but the most partisan can see through flimsy excuse-making.

As we frequently have to remind those opposite when they forget what they were elected to do, this is not Federal Parliament. We are the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory. Canberrans expect their local government to provide solutions, not excuses. I understand that Labor and the Greens may be reluctant to have a Poverty Task Force tell them that some of their policy settings or budget priorities are wrong. I am the mother of five children. I both understand and recognise such defensiveness.

But now is not the time to be defensive. If a Poverty Task Force tells us that there is absolutely nothing that the ACT Government can do differently to alleviate disadvantage in this territory, then I think we can all agree that this would be worth knowing. And the chief minister could crow about this finding till the next election. It is pretty obvious to everyone, however, politician and punter alike, that the reluctance of those opposite is not based on the fear that they might be told that they are doing a good job. The only question at this point is whether their pride is more important than people.

Because people in our community are hurting, Madam Speaker – quite possibly more people than at any other time in the territory’s existence. Community sector organisations have been struggling for some time to meet the needs of these people, and they know full well that they need support and security for longer than this lockdown might last.

On behalf of every Canberra household who is struggling right now, I appeal to those opposite to finally accept the reality that we have a problem – a big problem – one that is not going away right now or anytime soon unless we start doing something different to what the government has been doing. We need a Poverty Task Force. We need the clarity and vision and direction that a Poverty Task Force will provide.

I commend my amendment calling for the establishment of this task force to the Assembly. Thank you.

[1] ACTCOSS, ‘2021 ACT Cost of Living Report: tracking changes in the cost of living for low-income households in the Australian Capital Territory’, Aug. 2021, p. 22. [2] Qtd in ibid. [3] Qtd in ibid., p. 14. [4] Qtd in ibid. [5] Anglicare, ‘Rental Affordability Forcing More Canberrans into Financial Hardship’, 29 Apr. 2021. [6] ACTCOSS, ‘2021 ACT Cost of Living Report’, p. 18. [7] Ibid., p. 6. [8] Ibid., p. 10. [9] Ibid., p. 6.


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