Better future for those in need
The Canberra community is, by and large, a fortunate one. Our standard of living is the highest in Australia and we have the lowest levels of disadvantage. Average household incomes are about 20 per cent higher than the national average. But such statistics tell us about populations, not about individuals, and there is no question that there are individuals - and families - in our city who are doing it tough.
There are households that struggle to save enough to meet the occasional unexpected and urgent expense - a broken fridge or hot-water system, or a trip to the dentist. There are others who admit to thinking twice about a trip to the doctor, knowing that the expense can't really be afforded.
Identifying these Canberrans and holding out a helping hand isn't always easy. Their incomes are modest, but often not quite low enough for them to qualify for income-based rebates and concessions. Their hardship is often hidden from view - hidden from government services, hidden even from neighbours and friends. They may dip into and out of hardship, making ends meet most of the time, but coming unstuck when working hours are suddenly reduced, or shifts are scaled back, a medical condition flares up or the landlord increases the rent.
Because they might not qualify for regular welfare programs these Canberrans are in some ways the most vulnerable and most at risk people in our community. Asking for help might not come easily to them, even when they find that their expenses are starting to exceed their income.
While Australia - and Canberra in particular - came through the global financial crisis reasonably well, the community-sector organisations, charities and churches I speak with regularly tell me that demand for crisis aid remains high.
Last year, I brought these frontline, grassroots organisations together at a community roundtable, to explore how, as a city, we might reach out to and help those Canberrans finding the going tough.
In the wake of that roundtable, I asked the Reverend Gordon Ramsay of Uniting Care Kippax and a small group of experts to do some in-depth research and pull together a targeted assistance strategy for the government to consider.
I have now been handed that work. The panel suggests 34 new ways in which, as a community, we might help Canberrans who, through no fault of their own, are struggling to meet their financial obligations. There are recommendations to do with financial counselling, health, housing, transport, education and training, and information-sharing. The panel suggests more flexible payment options for fees and fines, industry facts sheets to alert tenants to avenues of assistance if they find themselves in financial hardship, even ways to encourage pro bono work from private dentists.
Some of the recommendations will require government action (and money) but others are things we can tackle together as a community.
In a number of areas, the government is already responding, particularly in relation to ideas generated at the roundtable. For instance, this week we launched a new website, assistance.act.gov.au, a one-stop-shop for information about government and community-based help. I've asked community organisations to help spread the word about this resource.
The strategy identifies a need for low-interest loan options and I have already written to the larger banks in town, asking about the availability of socially responsible loans.
It calls for more financial counselling to help affected Canberrans better manage their money. Care Financial Counselling Services has been given extra funding and is in the process of recruiting more staff.
New food banks have been opened in Tuggeranong and Hackett and we will give serious considerations to the suggestion from the panel that we find a way to help people meet their travel costs.
The cost of housing is also highlighted in the strategy. The government will shortly issue a suite of initiatives as part of its affordable housing action plan, which will include some ideas relating to the rental market.
I don't believe that a caring community like ours wants to see any of its members enduring hardship, alone and unsupported.
The targeted assistance strategy contains some great ideas, generated by the Canberra community itself, and by the men and women who work, day in, day out, with those experiencing hardship.
Katy Gallagher is the ACT's Chief Minister.