ACOSS 2O14 National Conference Wrap

Last week was the National ACOSS Conference, held in Brisbane. The ACOSS annual conference is always an important date in the calendar, but this year it was more important than ever to bring the sector together, reinforce values and plan for action.  Below, John van Kooy (@jvank00y) provides a wrap up of the key themes and ideas to emerge from the event.


Since the 2014-15 Federal Budget proposals were announced, reactions from community and social service organisations have ranged from resigned despair to outright hostility. Much collective hand-wringing in the sector has accompanied proposed funding cuts and ominous-sounding government audits, such as the McClure welfare review (mark II).

A number of agencies have publicly spoken out. The National Welfare Rights Network, for example, has criticised the budget’s ‘extreme proposals’ as a ‘recipe for increased homelessness, poverty and social division’. Similarly, the Brotherhood of St Laurence has described proposed changes to welfare payments as a potential ‘catastrophe’ and that ‘welfare agencies will have to pick up the pieces’.

To their credit, ACOSS has resisted the temptation to focus on funding cuts to specific agencies or national programs.

ACOSS has, instead, emphasised the Budget's broadly ‘divisive’ nature. By reducing government expenditure towards low-income groups, and not addressing revenue shortfalls from those on higher incomes, the Budget will be contributing to a ‘less equal’ Australian society.

What happened during the conference

While anxiety around federal policy directions lingered throughout the conference, participants were galvanised by the need to respond. As such, the sessions mostly stopped short of being ‘talk-fests’ and usually concluded with practical action and advocacy calls.

Partnerships within and across the community sector were highlighted as being especially critical in the context of resource scarcity. Kasy Chambers of Anglicare argued that ‘this race must not be run in competition’. June Oscar of Marninwarnitkura Women’s Resource Centre also argued that governments are marginalising dissent in the sector by keeping civil society organisations tethered to short-term funding, and leaving them in a ‘high state of anxiety.’

You can listen to June here:

[audio ]

However, ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie emphasised that issues of budgets and funding should be considered secondary to how the sector promotes the overall values of equality and opportunity for Australians. This reflects the important public advocacy role of the sector, through an evidence-based counter narrative to damaging and divisive rhetoric like ‘lifters and leaners’.

Tim Woodruff of Doctors Reform Society argued that health policy decisions are being made on mostly ideological grounds, in an 'evidence-free zone'. In response, civil society organisations can play an important role in the alternative retelling of policy impacts, highlighting stories from individuals and communities.

In a clear example, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten referred to Life Chances, a new book by Janet Taylor of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, in his address to the ACOSS plenary:

"The personal stories do contain moments of inspiration and sadness and triumph and setbacks and all the aspects of life that we know so well. It was its concluding arguments, however, that I found most compelling. Taylor's identified four factors, four main factors in the wellbeing of Australian families; adequate income and appropriate Government support, safe, affordable and secure housing, access to affordable health care and an inclusive education system."

In raising public awareness of social inequities, civil society organisations can build public support for better services and community programs. As one audience member commented with regard to employment equity, “you can't have a line of sight to solutions if your eyes aren't open.”

A more influential role for the sector in social policy development cannot be achieved, it was argued, without a more coherent industry profile. It's no secret that health care and social assistance is both the largest and the fastest-growing national industry in terms of employment in Australia. There should be collective power and influence that comes from this employment footprint and the industry's extensive social connections.

Nicky Sloan of Illawarra Forum asked, “What do we value in Australian society?” As Sloan put it, it might be “things made in factories by blokes; things dug up out of the ground.” But the community sector is still seen as “touchy-feely,” and not taken as seriously. Sloan's preference is to use the term “for-purpose organisations” that are viable and reinvest profits back into communities. These organisations respond to issues with a unique combination of technical capacity, public and private resources, and 'cultural intelligence'.

Through platforms such as ACOSS, civil society organisations can pursue a more coordinated, industry-wide approach to social policy development. We should continue to ask critical questions to government, businesses and individuals about the kind of society we want in Australia. We are not able to have these conversations when focused on the detail of budget numbers.

Finally, as a result of the Budget and its policy directions, it is clear that the sector has been galvanised  to hold Federal Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews to his word:

"The political community, I believe, should be at service to civil society, which is that collection of relationships and resources, culturally and associative, that are relatively independent of the political and economic spheres of activity, government should act therefore for the people’s benefit."

You can listen to Kevin Andrews speech over here

Links to further resources:

ACOSS National Conference Resolution on the Federal Budget

ACOSS Conference Presentations

Twitter highlights from the Conference

ABC RN ‘Big Ideas’ program “The Great Divide” (concluding panel discussion of the Conference)

John van Kooy is a social researcher who has worked in community, social service and international aid organisations for the last decade. He is also currently undertaking a PhD at RMIT University on the informal economy in cities – how people survive on ‘graft and getting by’ in response to economic policies and social institutions.

Posted by Gemma Carey