The winds of change - ACOSS Conference 2014

In this post, Kathy Landvogt from Good Shepherd Youth and Family Service (@goodadvocacy) provides another perspective on the 2014 ACOSS Conference.

We came to ACOSS Conference as always, eager to gather collective insights, but this time it felt different. With the shock waves of the Abbott government’s cruel and dangerous budget still ricocheting around the country, a new solidarity was needed, and a plan to galvanise change. I had fantasies of a devastating analysis that would force all to see the emperor’s new clothes for what they were: spun from nothing more substantial than ideological vested interest.

The mood was subdued, and may have seemed flat, but it was deadly serious. The words that came from the podium in the first session were quietly spoken yet fighting. We were anchored at the outset by Indigenous Australians, and felt the solidity of the partnership between the National Congress of First Peoples and ACOSS. The National Congress was de-funded in the Hockey budget, but its Co-Chair Kirstie Parker was incisive: the Congress is not a construct of the government; it is wholly owned by the Aboriginal community, and it will go on. Congress will launch a public support fund.

This is a new policy landscape where what seemed solid, like support for the National Congress, melts into air. Yet it is also a very old landscape where the ground we always stood on, the fundamental reciprocity of social relations, is still firm beneath our feet and will grow firmer with our efforts.  ACOSS President Cassandra Goldie’s welcome engaged not just our minds but our common humanity in shouldering this task. ACOSS seeks to transfer ethics into action: this leadership is moral as well as strategic.

June Oscar, of the Fitzroy valley where some of the greatest policy failures and greatest community successes are to be found, also spoke of leadership, collective leadership. She reminded us too that in the most recent policy – even if cast as “tailored solutions that will ensure long-term transformational change” – the voices of the poorest are completely missing. Our job, continued June, is to make sure those voices are heard, and fear must not silence or divide us in that endeavour.

Kasey Chambers from Anglicare echoed this challenge. Civil society is our organisations’ business, yet the greatest threat lies not in program funding cuts but in the growing inequality that is unravelling the fabric of civil society itself. Kasey argues that our efforts must not be wasted on the distraction of funding insecurities, but be bent towards taking charge of the narrative. This must be done not just with evidence, but with a stronger values base. For example, the impact of the Medicare $7 co-payment on the household budget for someone on Newstart is equivalent to a $43.40 hit to the average household budget. Such facts should become common knowledge.

The need for the voices of people affected by policies to be heard in public discussions permeated the conference. ACOSS itself now has free individual membership to bring more of those voices into its own work. The women from Rise Queensland, a DV and abuse self-advocacy group, were there. They spoke of re-traumatisation by cruel policies, and pleaded directly for greater understanding and compassion from the Minister for Human Services Kevin Andrews, when he addressed the conference the next day.

In that much-anticipated session Minister Andrews carefully explained to us the rationale for the budget’s choices: the changing economic base, the government debt, and the demographics of aging. For those of us who had attended the ‘Making sense of the budget ‘crisis’’ workshop the previous day, to understand the economic pressures the government is actually under (there is a real challenge but it is not a crisis), it was frustrating to hear such simplistic descriptions. They did not explain why income support took such heavy cuts when economic analysis shows that this has only a minor effect on the ‘budget rescue’. The ‘crisis’ language had abated somewhat, but the language of economics had not. Social services are now an investment in the country’s future productivity rather than an ethical responsibility. If such responsibility exists, it is not seen as the government’s. Our organisations are to be the primary protectors and builders of civil society.

Hearing then from Patrick McClure, chair of the Welfare Review, there was a strong hint that New Zealand’s ‘actuarial’ approach to assessing individuals was in favour. Actuaries assess risk. The question of what will be offered to people who are assessed as ‘bad risks’ remains to be answered.

The questions to the government representatives, as well as discussion in the workshops, returned repeatedly to the central concerns about the budget. This government’s muscular version of civil society may itself be a risk to developing the resilience, mutual aid, and independence the government values so highly. It might also undermine the trust on which civil society is based. Those who fail to cope with structural changes to employment – the very changes that the government is struggling to come to terms with – are now maligned as ‘leaners’. The age of entitlement now brands older people as dependent on ‘welfare’ instead of recipients of income security entitlements. Individual responsibility is constructed as the supreme virtue, apparently above the primary virtue held by the world’s major religious codes, compassion.

It was encouraging then to hear from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten that he believes “a great nation is a compassionate nation”, a statement that was subsequently challenged though, in questions about asylum-seeker policy. It was also heartening to hear that the Opposition will block aspects of budget, that people are more than economic units, that the government has a role in ensuring national cohesion, and that as Martin Luther King said, the rich must not ignore the poor because our destinies are tied up together.

One of the statements that seemed to resonate most, both inside the room and in the twitter-sphere, came from Greens leader Christine Milne, who said that the Hockey budget has misjudged Australians: we care about each other not just our bank accounts.

So what in the end were my take-home messages?

The workshops were rich with detailed argument, scholarly analysis, graphs, statistics and facts, many giving a devastating critique of the budget.

But it was also clear that the wind beneath our wings is our values. In the community sector we should not be afraid to be called bleeding hearts, do-gooders, or class warriors. Yes, our hearts are pained at what we see. Yes, we wish to make positive changes. Yes, we stand with people who are poor. We maintained our civility throughout the ACOSS conference in the face of policies that are more heartless than any we have seen in this country, but there was certainly resolve and solidarity as we left.

What we will do with that resolve in the new policy world is still a question. This government has disbanded advisory committees and expert panels without a backward glance, so does our expertise have anything to contribute to policy? Minister Andrews promised that advocacy would not be stifled. There will be a period of consultation about the McClure Welfare review before recommendations are shaped. It seems the opportunities for invited input will still occur, although they will be fewer. And we do not have to wait to be asked.

This government wants more distance between itself and our organisations. There may be advantages to be found in this stance. In the time that we are not spending writing policy submissions, we can be working in advocacy coalitions, and in communities, creating platforms for the ‘unheard’ to speak.

Post by Gemma Carey