This year marks a few anniversaries in this city of ours. Who can forget the first ACT Legislative Assembly elections and sittings in 1989? A colourful cast, including openly reluctant legislators, picking up the cudgels with a growing confidence that came to surprise Canberrans.
Or the 1989 grand final when the Canberra Raiders, an outlier team, burst a decade of run offs between the Eels and Bulldogs that had become so dull even many Sydneysiders quietly cheered us on?
Here at the ACT Council of Social Service we also paused briefly to mark 20 years since we joined with government and researchers to begin a concerted effort to explore poverty in Canberra and highlight its lived experience.
Whatever the official story was, Canberra's reality as a city, like capital cities around the world, has always had people living in poverty within walking distance of national institutions. But a feature of this place is how long we stuck to a script of delay, denial and dissonance started by federal governments reluctant to countenance the idea that inequality and poverty existed right under its nose.
Early reports strike a note of frustration about the need to prove poverty existed in the supposedly well-heeled and affluent city of 9-5 public sector workers advertised on the brochure.
The ACTCOSS journal from 1985 opined that "the pure image of Canberra as a non-segregated city of egalitarianism and fairness, of affluence and opportunity for all, is essentially a myth... Whilst the federal government holds to the erroneous image of the territory as universally affluent, it is not likely to commit additional resources to funding the non-government sector, the services required to redress the injustices of those disadvantaged in our community."
Speaking at the beginning of the work in 1999 then ACTCOSS director Daniel Stubbs injected a note of frustration about "this endless collection of evidence" as a way of putting off good policy and programs.
But collect evidence they did and step by step this built a more detailed and immersive picture of the nature and interconnected causes of poverty. No one chooses to be poor - poverty happens to you but what we didn't fully understand was how.
Revealing how poverty happens to people in a city like Canberra has required a constant chipping away through data, stories and evidence situated in shifting policy sands, multiple election cycles, changes in policy fashions and dozens of different ministers and public officials.
Over two decades the community sector has highlighted the uncomfortable reality of people sleeping rough in our extreme climate; families juggling impossible choices with household budgets that don't cover essential needs; older women finding themselves in precarious housing and homelessness after a lifetime of unpaid care work; and young people, people with disabilities, refugees and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Canberrans facing poverty traps constructed from exclusion, discrimination and a fraying safety net.
Community organisations sometimes get criticised as perpetual Cassandra's - endlessly railing against insoluble problems to justify our own existence. While population growth and changes in collection methods make it difficult to compare figures across wide spaces in time, the fact that the first poverty report showed that 25,500 people were in dire poverty while the latest figures indicate that 25,800 sit below the poverty line does provide some indication that concerted efforts can produce social progress. And that's something we're very happy to discuss.
The realisation that poverty is about circumstances that people find themselves in has allowed ACT governments over 20 years to focus responses appropriately through concessions, financial counselling, responses to need, affordable housing and top ups to essential services. It's also helped us understand how not to make things worse - the effort to save the Narrabundah long-stay caravan park and debates about punitive fines being two examples.
In 2019 it means that the response to issues faced by people on low incomes has moved from polite scepticism to a strong endorsement from the leaders of all ACT political parties. This is to their credit and welcome going into the 2020 ACT election.
Yet the sands shift still as we face the uncomfortable reality of a federal income support system where Newstart and Youth Allowance have fallen behind the cost of living, with essential goods and services becoming less affordable for people on low wages or in insecure work. Affordability shrinks even faster for income support recipients. Newstart has not increased in real terms in 25 years and now more than half of the people on it live below the poverty line.
This hits very hard in Canberra. Over recent years, cost of living pressures have grown at a faster rate for low-income households than they have for higher income households costs of essential goods and services continues to rise.
Year by year climate change increases the need for action on energy efficient housing, fit for purpose public utilities, and adjustment in concessions and hardship arrangements to deal with energy bill shock.
An ageing population and a changing urban form require new responses as the city of 1989 gets a receding hairline and vanishes beneath a medium density skyline.
As far as anniversaries go, 2019 seems to be shaping up as a year to remind us that getting to the grand final isn't the same as winning it.
Reliving past glory won't cut the mustard for reducing poverty and disadvantage here either. We need to keep across the whole field of play, continually focus our attention on the shifts in circumstances and be prepared for the rude surprise.
For the ACT this means improving the availability of affordable rental housing as rents rise and the minimum wage stagnates, bolstering the human side of community services investment in a changing city, acting to mitigate the effects of climate change on those with the least capacity to respond, adequately funding services to bolster a fraying safety net and investing in prevention and early intervention under real community control for all who struggle in the ACT.
- Craig Wallace is the policy manager for the ACT Council of Social Service. Shattered Myths: 20 years of ACT Council of Social Service work on poverty was released last Tuesday and is available at actcoss.org.au