After seven years leading the ACT Council of Social Service, SUSAN HELYAR leaves this week for a new role at the ANU. In this farewell piece she regrets not having been able to get politicians to prioritise investment in community services as core infrastructure, as vital as health and education.
AFTER almost seven years advocating for social justice in Canberra one thing that’s clear is that this is not the Canberra of 2013.
Our skyline has filled with apartment blocks while the Molonglo Valley, near the ACTCOSS office, has changed from a mostly bare landscape to one filled with plenty of new housing but not the right mix of social infrastructure to provide the level of amenity older suburbs enjoy.
Many people in the ACTCOSS membership doubt this new Canberra is a city that works well for everyone.
Political debate has caught up to the community with its increased focus on the utility, affordability and accessibility of transport, housing and shops and neighbourhood amenities. There have been good investments and an ambitious agenda for town centres, but we still have a long way to go to deliver the municipal-level social infrastructure – in buildings and in community development workers – that regional centres across the border see as core business.
We need to see more focus on resourcing neighbourhood workers who can create harmonious places all across the city, not just in locations targeted for “property value uplift”.
Political debate still lags behind the community on vital local services. Every election, Federal and territory, the major parties compete for who is going to be the best investor in health and education. These universal services are, of course, valuable. I would agree a great hospital and a high-quality school are essential for quality of life in our city.
Local community services are just as important, but never get the visibility or support that is their due. Like services that put a meal on the table when the household budget is overwhelmed with rent or mortgage payments as well as a shocking energy or car-repair bill.
Or the family support program when parents split up and the kids need some support beyond the family. Or the community service that comes to meet you when you face a crisis bigger than your family and friends can manage. And the home-care worker who changes your sheets and transports you to appointments during your recovery from a major health crisis or as you age.
One of the disappointments of my time as leader of ACTCOSS is that I have not been able to get governments or oppositions to prioritise investment in community services as core infrastructure considered as vital as health and education.
Another contrast with the Canberra of 2013 is the erosion of financial security further up the income scale.
The costs of living in this city mean increasing numbers of people can only cope with one or two missing pay periods before looking down the bleak tunnel of homelessness.
Our work with income-support recipients to push to raise the rate of Newstart (a wincingly Orwellian name), youth allowance, sickness allowance and similar payments demonstrated how quickly you use up your savings, find you are unable to meet the most basic costs of living and get caught in a web of debt. Any of us can end up on the slippery dip to addiction, how wide the harms reach and how difficult the financial and emotional recovery is.
Shifting the public debate to focus more on the issues advocated by ACTCOSS has been rewarding. A deeper understanding of housing affordability challenges and the experience of poverty are two things that I’m proud were achieved as a result of the collective advocacy of the whole community sector over the last few years.
Our coming together over housing delivered $100 million for public housing, the biggest per-head-of-population increase of any state or territory in Australia. Tripartisan recognition of the increasing cost-of-living pressures on low-income Canberrans has led to better investment in concessions, extending subsidies for energy-efficiency improvements and affordable-housing targets in all developments.
As I walk off the public stage, ACTCOSS will, as it always has done, continue to advocate for actions to follow words. Away from the shiny apartment towers around the lakes and beyond the revitalisation of town centres, community advocates will continue to call on the ACT government to grow the infrastructure and human resources that will deliver connectedness, accessibility and fully funded responses to people dealing with difficult circumstances.
If Canberra has a chance of staying as a city we want to live in, then acting on the issues ACTCOSS talks about and our members work on every day, is essential.
Susan Helyar is the outgoing CEO of the ACT Council of Social Service, a peak body that advocates for social justice in the ACT and represents not-for-profit community organisations. Her last day is Friday, November 15.