Sorry record of a government that’s stopped caring

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“THE Chief Minister needs to understand that it takes more to be a progressive government than painting rainbows on roundabouts.”

When I heard these words being uttered I was initially unsure how to react. The sentiment struck an immediate chord with me because it is unutterably true but at the same time made me feel a little uneasy.

Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope.

My discomfort was not that the sentiment was unreasonable or uncalled for or even that it offended some unwritten rule about public discourse, for instance, in relation to political correctness.

Rather, I think it was regret that one group of people in the community, a majority of whom experience disadvantage and discrimination at a level far greater than any other, namely the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, look with envy at the recognition and respect being accorded another group that has been historically marginalised and discriminated against and without intending to do so, create the whiff of a suggestion that the honour or recognition accorded to the other group, while Aboriginal people remain ignored and marginalised, is somehow not warranted.

The comment was made by a leader of the local Aboriginal community in a speech at the Sorry Day March on May 24. Sorry Day is a commemoration of the catastrophic harm done to thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.

In the speech reference was made to the ongoing hurt, discrimination and disadvantage being experienced by Aboriginal people in Canberra and the frustration at the lack of progress or any sense of urgency or commitment by the ACT government to address the causes of disadvantage or to ameliorate its consequences.

It had also not escaped the notice of the Aboriginal community that the Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, was not present at the Sorry Day commemoration and had not issued a statement about its significance. There is also a commonly expressed view within the Aboriginal community that he almost never personally engages with them or evinces interest in their concerns.

There is clearly ample evidence of the dire situation of many Aboriginal people in Canberra. For example Canberra, scandalously, has on a relative basis, the highest number of Aboriginal children in out of home care in Australia, the highest number of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 in youth detention in Australia and the highest number of Aboriginal men and women in prison in Australia and the situation is getting worse, not better.

The point being made by the speaker on Sorry Day was that a government that allows this sorry record and more, to persist year after year is not a progressive government.

If one accepts that hypothesis, and I do, it begs the question whether there are other examples of ACT government policies or practices, or lack of them, about which the same could be said. And I fear there are.

I was recently disturbed by the announcement by the Minister for Housing, Yvette Berry, that she has directed Housing ACT, which is increasingly operating as a giant real estate agency rather than a provider and manager of social housing, to sell off another 700 public houses in the inner north and south and relocate the existing tenants in outer suburbs.

The occupants of these houses will be following the thousands of public-housing tenants who have already been forced to move away from the centre of the city so the government can leverage the value of the land they have been occupying. These are not the actions of a progressive government.

The ACT government has over the last six to seven years pursued a land-release policy that ignores the housing choice of a significant majority of residents, namely to own and to live in a detached house.

As the owner of effectively all developable land in the ACT the government is in the position of a monopolist when it comes to land supply and housing choice and has been ruthless in the exercise of its monopoly power.

As a direct result of policies implemented by the ACT government, Canberra has the highest rents in Australia and an affordability crisis almost entirely of its own making.

It is virtually impossible for a family with a gross household income of (say) under $110,000 and who cannot expect family support, to ever buy a detached house in Canberra. The government has effectively dictated that they must either live in a flat or leave the ACT. These are not the actions of a progressive government.

The government has over the last six years abandoned the funding formula for the ACT’s two public hospitals that provided adequate funds to meet the growth in demand from increasing population, ageing and new technologies.

This has resulted in an effective reduction in funding in that period of hundreds of millions of dollars. The impact of these cuts has fallen disproportionately on residents from lower-income quintiles. These are not the actions of a progressive government.

The government has in the implementation of taxation reform reneged on the undertaking that the reforms would be revenue neutral. It has ignored the recommendation to abolish land tax which has contributed to the rental crisis. It has also introduced a raft of flat charges, reneged on its commitment to not increase the flat component of general rates and has ignored recommendations regarding concessions to ameliorate the effect of the reforms on people on low to moderate incomes. These are not the actions of a progressive government.

The government has……. I am sure you get my drift.

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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

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