This year's ACOSS conference- a wrap from a gender perspective

This year’s ACOSS conference – Towards the Common Good – took place at Technology Park, Sydney, June 24–26.  Rik Sutherland from St Vincent de Paul reports.

The day started with an excellent opening by ACOSS President Micaela Cronin, followed by the keynote speech by Linda Tirado. Linda has a lived experience of disadvantage, and came to public attention after a Facebook post she wrote on poverty went viral. The themes she touched on resonated throughout the conference: privilege (of gender, and race), othering, empathy, national identity (“do not be America”), and dignity. Next up was a panel discussion of inequality in Australia, featuring Dr Cass Goldie (ACOSS), Fiona Collis (IPSOS), Marcelle Mogg (Catholic Social Services). Interestingly, this was tweeted as “a great panel of smart, articulate women”. Undoubtedly true, but oddly highlighting gender as if it were relevant to intelligence and persuasiveness.

The afternoon took us on timewarp with a step to the right: first, Brad Hazzard (NSW Minister for Community Services) used his presentation to express shock that some teenage girls were proud of being pregnant; and then, Greg Smith (Melbourne Law School) made a neo-liberal argument for lowering company tax and increasing GST (a regressive tax). It felt like Dr Helen Hodgson (Curtin) was speaking a different language, as she highlighted the disproportionate impact of GST on the poor, and the taxation concessions currently received by high income earners.

The final session of the day was titled Families in Focus: Women, Men, Caring, and Paid Work. Given the promising title, it was surprising that the discussion dealt with gender only by mentioning headline stats on women’s lower participation. One panellist even made the veiled claim that women are their own worst enemy, mentioning online ‘mummy wars’. After prompting from the audience, domestic violence and entrenched gender roles were finally picked up, particularly by Prof Barbara Pocock.

The second day of the conference began with Scott Morrison raising the importance of government austerity; private philanthropy; paid work (caring was not mentioned), especially for young people so they don’t fall prey to the ‘dastardly’ ISIS; and an investment approach to welfare (argued later by economist Dr Simon Chapple to be ineffective). After this was a facilitated discussion on social security payments, in which the standout was Catherine Yeomans, who took over from the Toby Hall as the (first female) CEO of Mission Australia last year, and made excellent points about focussing on dignity, rather than minimising government costs.

New Greens leader Richard di Natale then took to the stage, echoing points about prosperity being about equality and wellbeing, not just GDP. Bill Shorten then tied the threads together by linking inequality with lower economic growth, and railing against the rhetoric of ‘lifters vs leaners’, and labelling the current government “unteachable”. The subsequent panel on civil society discussed current threats to advocacy (including defunding, gag clauses, threats to whistle-blowers), and how this weakens democracy. Maha Abdo AOM noted how anti-Islamic attitudes frame the media debate, silencing her community. All participants agreed that the voice of lived experience is essential, and the consensus seemed to be that there are opportunities in we as a sector talking to each other (and business) a lot more, recognising our shared interests, and collaborating cleverly on advocacy (Amanda Tattersall gave the example of the Sydney Alliance).

The afternoon session – Jobs of the Future – was a panel discussion on the interconnectedness of education, work, age, and climate change. The cross-cutting theme seemed to be a lack of communication between different areas, but (despite Prof John Buchanan’s critiques of free-market Thatcherism) the debate was more about adjusting to inevitable future markets than trying to collaborate in actively shaping them.

The wrap-up by Micaela focussed on the importance of diversity of voice, and in my view ACOSS did succeed in giving most people a platform (most, but not all – a tweet noted that there are been no discussion of non-heteronormative Australians, and a participant I spoke to from government pointed out that no bureaucrats had spoken). However, what I walked away feeling is that we need to not only hear these voices, but then to really listen and engage with them. If we pigeon-hole others (‘mummy bloggers’, ‘unteachable’, ‘religious’), or fail to attempt understanding of their language and frame (person-centred vs economy-centred), our progress towards the common good will be stunted. On that note, my hope is that perhaps P2P will be able to pick up where ACOSS left off.