Tackling poverty in Australia

The following paper was written and presented by Lew Wheeler, Co-convener of the Fair Go For Pensioners (FGFP) Coalition Victoria. She was a guest speaker at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church on Sunday 13 August.


I acknowledge the owners of the land on which we met today, Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation and pay my respect to their elders past, present and emerging.  I also acknowledge both the owners living culture and their unique role in the life of this region.


Bleed ’em dry until they die, so said Gwyneth Jones, of the financial exploitation and treatment she received when a resident of Aveo, Australia’s biggest retirement village operator and her home at the time.  Gwyneth said Aveo’s treatment of her changed her “It has damaged my psyche…I’m full of anger and bitterness about the trauma I was subjected to”. See the report, in The Age and the Fairfax-Four the ABC’s Corners investigative television report Bleed them dry until they die, 26 June, 2017.

Gwyneth’s heart wrenching words apply equally to the impact of Governments’ callous disregard and treatment of people living around us who live in poverty and struggle to survive every day, denied access to opportunities for a fair go at life.

Poverty and Inequality – ‘Cop it Sweet’ Not Likely!           

There are over 2.9 million (2,990,300 or 13.3. %) of our population living in income poverty of whom 730,000 are children. Child poverty in single parent families is now at a crisis level.

In 2014, there were over one million Victorians living in (over 650,000), or at risk of poverty (440,000) and our work suggests we have made no progress in reducing poverty.

Inequality in Australia is at a 75-year high with the gap widening between the top and bottom on the distribution of total income and that of total wealth.

Behind these numbers are people living every day in grinding hardship and in poverty.

Neo-liberalism Australia style with its small government and pro-capitalist free market policies has not lifted more people out of poverty or narrowed the inequality gap as Treasurer Morrison wants us to believe.

It is a myth that Australia has a welfare problem.  We have a poverty problem and an inequality problem as Falzon reminds us.

FGFP has not stood silent about what we know and see daily on our streets undertaking anti-poverty advocacy and campaigning work and most recently tackling issues of unemployment and housing which are both key predictors of poverty.

Our work on unemployment and housing issues shows some of what FGFP does and how the work of a progressive coalition of community groups, unions and individuals relates to tackling poverty in Australia.

Unemployment – ‘Sick with Worry’

In 2015, FGFP continued its anti-poverty strategy work concentrating on unemployment.  FGFG invited the now named Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union and WOW! Willing Older Workers to join the Victorian Steering Committee and then established an Unemployment Working Group.

Combining our knowledge, skills, experience we produced resources to show that the dismantling of the Australian welfare system was underway.  Years of funding cuts, redundancies, 17,000 jobs lost from the Australian Public Service since 2013 and rapid privatisations of government functions are evidence of this. The ‘new’ Australian ‘investment’ social welfare approach unveiled in 2016 accelerates the erosion. Wheeler Summary Overview, FGFP Analysis of the McClure Report, 5 March 2015 held on file.

Essential public welfare services are too stretched to help people in a timely and appropriate manner when we lose our job, flee domestic and family violence, fall on tough times, get sick or have a disability, seek sanctuary in a new country or simply get older with little money.

Given its role, Centrelink is an important example losing 5,500 jobs since 2013.  No surprise then that Auditors reported that Australians waited the equivalent of 143 years to speak to a Centrelink Service Officer in 2013-2014 only to hang up before their calls were answered. And still millions of calls go unanswered each year.

Imagine if you were dangling off the end of a phone waiting to report so that you could get paid. What springs to mind?

Then there is the crushing fiasco of the robo-debt recovery system issuing 250,000 notices to various income support recipients throwing thousands into the hands of private debt collectors and with a 20% administrative error rate.  People affected were scared and intimidated then threatened with legal action.  It is still in operation.

FGFP Unemployment Working Group pointed to the fact that instead of helping unemployed people by providing actual job creation programs and decent income support, the Turnbull coalition government continues to stigmatise and treat unemployed people as part of the so-called ‘undeserving poor’.  Labels such as ‘dole blunders’, ‘lazy’, ‘no-hopers’, job snobs and leaners discredit and negatively stereotype individuals, blaming them for their unemployment and poverty. Myth busting information sheets on file FGFP.

This demeaning treatment lets unemployed people know there is no respect due only miserly Newstart Allowance of $390 a fortnight below the poverty line, an obligations and compliance regime which metes out punishment and inadequate support services.

As advocacy groups have often reported, poverty not individual behaviour is the problem.

No mention is ever made by this Government that there are 17 unemployed people for each job vacancy. There are no jobs for all.

If unemployed, mental health issues can and do arise both as a consequence of not being able to find paid work no matter how hard you try, the treatment meted out by those supposedly there to help and the financial pressures of trying to survive.

The emotional toll can be crippling yet the federal Government continues to fail to put in place a range of public policies to address these injustices.

FGFP continues to fight for the right to work with decent wages and conditions, provision of federal job creation programs, decent income support and support services for those out of work, reversal of privatising government welfare functions and services and putting a stop to demonising and criminalising people on welfare.

When federal government public policy fails unemployed people – go live on the street.

Public housing

A new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement has been struck with State and Territory governments to increase the supply of new homes and improve outcomes, particularly for those most in need and due to commence next year.

In the meantime, renting is becoming permanent not a temporary housing tenure option as fast-growing numbers of people need to rent throughout their lives.  Yet public housing is getting left behind.

Jacobs points out that it is no coincidence that supply-side interventions, such as sustained investment in public housing have been spurned in favour of demand-side subsidies totaling A$54 billion of revenue foregone in 2016. for supporting sustained investment in public housing!

As at 30 June 2014 there were 64,471 public housing dwellings in Victoria. As at June 2017, there were over 58,000 people in housing need in Victoria of whom close to 23,000 were homeless and over 35,000 on the Department of Human Services State-wide waiting lists.

In early 2017, FGFP set up another housing working group this one to work on public housing as we became increasing concerned about what we were hearing   about the Victorian government’s new housing plans, particularly from Friends of Public Housing Victoria (FOPHV).  We asked FOPHV to join FGFP Victorian Steering Committee and work together on the public housing working group.

Bleed ’em dry is what the Victorian State Government is doing to public housing tenants right now through the implementation of its $185 million Stage 1 so-called Public Housing Renewal Program which is part of the government’s affordable housing policies released earlier this year called Homes for Victorians.

Stage 1 involves public-private partnerships in a sell-off of up to 80% of public housing stock to private developers to build private housing, transferring the management of 4,000 public housing dwellings to community housing providers and providing an additional 10 per cent of public housing stock.   In the process destroying homes and local communities as each Estate identified under Stage 1 is set for demolition in part or in whole. The 9 Estates sites are located in Ascot Vale, Brighton, Brunswick West, North Melbourne, 2 estates at West Heidelberg, Hawthorn, Clifton Hill and Northcote.

We have very good reasons to believe that the claimed 10 per cent increase in public housing means mostly ‘community housing’. The latter is not owned and managed by the government as is public housing but either owned and/or managed by private non-government community housing agencies.

Stage 1 plans are not new rather they pick up the trend that began in Thatcher’s Britain spreading to around the world and now Australia.

A shortage of land in inner-city Melbourne can be solved by selling-off the Estates located on prime inner-city real estate land and selling-out the residents.  This is the homes of public housing tenants we are talking about. Many have lived in their homes for decades.

This is not in the public interest and certainly not in the interests of residents.  It is a shameful appropriation of land and property which when gone cannot be replaced.

In June, the Premier was called upon to reverse the two proposals regarding the transfer of the 4,000 dwellings and the redevelopment of the 9 Estates. This letter was endorsed by 21 Victorian Steering Committee coalition members. As the State election is a mere 16 months away we got two delegation meetings very quickly.

We also got very few answers to the detailed concerns raised only with Advisors.  We were told that land shortages, cost of building and red tape are causes of the Victorian housing crisis.

Similar to unemployment, Governments have a set of myths to peddle about public housing and residents.  Public housing is a failed policy reinforcing welfare dependency, there is mismanagement and neglect leading to run down Estates with some dwellings not fit for habitation and outdated rules and regulations impede new housing development.

We are hearing more of these myths and again residents are ‘sick with worry’ due to the fact that they are being forced to move and are receiving little information about where, when and for how long they will be relocated.

The fight back to keep public housing took another step forward when a joint meeting was held between FGFP, FOPHV and Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church (MUPMC) initiated by Marion Harper of MUPMC.  The aim is to build a joint community and union mass movement in support of public tenants and public housing.

The Hands-off Public Housing campaign is in the early stages of development building the coalition, seeking research assistance from a team of union researchers to provide the evidence to drive the mass movement, lobbying all politicians and attending public housing tenant meetings and most importantly of all joining FOPHV in visits to affected residents on the Estates to share information, listen and learn about residents’ needs, wants and local community and document their concerns.

A forum of organisations in support and residents is being organised to fill out more details of the Campaign.  Work is also underway to provide legal advice to residents about their rights.

Our joint work supports Jacobs conclusion that the “housing problems experienced by low-income households are a symptom of entrenched inequality within Australia”.  https://theconversation.com/how-policy-success-not-failure-has-driven-australias-housing-crisis-53751

Can the Fair Go endure?

Can the Fair Go endure given the way in which the Abbott- Turnbull coalition government tackles poverty and inequality: tackling the poor and blaming their individual behaviour as the problem while at the same time accepting shocking levels of poverty and inequality in wealthy Australia.

These are poor public policies which punish people in appallingly callous ways.

It is a massive failure of Governments to adequately provide for all people and their communities.

A bare bones start towards a national anti-poverty strategy is beginning to emerge from all our joint undertakings.   This proposed change of policy direction is about a place to call home and a place to call work.  These are two of the basic human rights for building a fairer, diverse, sustainable and just Australia.   Yes, the fair go will endure if we continue to fight.  Thank you.

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