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Emergency relief fall guys for a heartless government


Soup van clientAfter a lifetime of full-time paid employment, upon retirement I approached the St Vincent de Paul Society in Darwin and offered my services. My wife was ill so I could not offer much away from home time, but could do other things like administration or publicity etc. from my home PC. The president offered me the job of council secretary. Not much to it, he said, just sign a few letters and come to a monthly meeting. No worries — I'm in.

The monthly council meetings were more than I had bargained for, but I managed to make plans to see my wife was looked after while I attended them, including one meeting in Batchelor which I fitted in on my way to see our daughter in Alice Springs when she had her first child. Things travelled smoothly for over a year.

But a week ago I get a phone call from the CEO of Northern Territory Vinnies. Could I come in and sign a letter about emergency relief before the next council meeting? 'Of course.' The letter is produced and, being conscientious, I actually read it. The Federal Government is offering Darwin Vinnies additional ER funds for the rest of the year. And I stop. I am not comfortable.

This same Government has just brought down its 2014/15 Budget and cut programs for the marginalised, especially the unemployed. Those under the age of 30, who could have reckoned on receiving Newstart allowance if unemployed, will spend six months qualifying for it with no financial assistance from Centrelink. No wonder Vinnies and the Salvos and everyone else managing ER will need additional funding — we will be overrun by applicants bringing through the door with them the saddest and most pitiable stories.

I know this because as the year had progressed I had taken on the presidency of a local Vinnies Conference and also started to work in the ER office in the local Vinnies shop. I had seen and heard the stories of people who could not cope in Darwin, where rents are high and costs of living are above the national average, and where, if you are a little outside the mainstream or lacking in trade skills, employment opportunities are limited.

The employment bubble that Darwin has experienced for the last three years is about to contract as INPEX completes its construction phase, and work will be even harder to get. Just as the Government's new Budget measures are being introduced, the Northern Territory economy will start to decline.

The 'safety net' is meant to be about ensuring that powerless victims are not left destitute. But now the unemployed under 30 are to be made ineligible for Newstart for the first six months.

Why was I concerned? Firstly, the way ER is managed is inefficient and not timely — an applicant might have to wait days to get an appointment with an ER agency. Secondly, the ER program entails a cost-shifting exercise by the Federal Government. Instead of Commonwealth employees administering a Commonwealth program, it sub-contracts this essential government safety-net service to voluntary organisations such as Vinnies.

More importantly, it is degrading and demeaning. It further marginalises unemployed people who, by definition, have little control over the health of the Australian economy. Even worse, it alienates them from meaningful participation in society. It undermines dignity while it forces younger unemployed people to look for charity. How in heaven's name is a person without personal financial resources supposed to go out and look for a job?

Sure, charity is one thing that Vinnies does, but our motto is a 'hand up not a hand out'. Most Vinnies programs are developed to provide dignified assistance to people to help them get back on their feet. ER is for when all else has failed. In this case it is the Government which has failed and dumped on the unemployed.

I nearly didn't sign. Then I pondered that it was not my right to withhold without consultation with the council.

What would you do? The council meets next week. I can't attend as my wife has just had a serious operation and needs my company, but my thoughts are with the full council members as they ponder our relationship with a heartless government. When do we stop being their fall guys?

Mike BowdenMike Bowden has a Master of Aboriginal Education from Northern Territory University. He was founding coordinator of the Ntyarlke Unit at the Catholic high school in Alice Springs in 1988. From 1993 to 2001 he was manager of community development at Tangentyere Council. In 2005 and 2006 he was acting principal at Ngukurr School and Minyerri School in the Roper River district of the Top End.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Northern Territory, Vinnies, Budget 2014



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Existing comments

This sounds like blackmail. I cannot understand how the government is permitted to discriminate against people who are legally adults, and deny them basic support that is available to other adults. Is there not a legal challenge to be mounted against such discriminatory behaviour of government against its own citizens, based on age? This comment doesn't help your dilemma, I know. If all charities refused to be complicit (is agreement on that even possible?) wouldn't the government have to think again?

Mary-Ann Lovejoy | 29 June 2014  

Great article and the real view of how the government wants to operate. We need to support and help provide opportunities by not taking away any dignity of those who need assistance.

Joe De Pasquale | 30 June 2014  

Mr Bowden. Sounds like your moral position is that you should not accept financial help for the poor and disadvantaged from a conservative government. You shouldn't have signed it if you truly believe it is another attempt to dump on the poor by a heartless government. I wonder if you would have signed it had the money been offered by the corrupt ALP.

john frawley | 30 June 2014  

Concise & thought provoking. I go to my Vinnies shift soon knowing the time is Now (or yesterday) to consider and act politics and policies. Alice

B. Erskine | 30 June 2014  

Cry my country.

Paul | 30 June 2014  

Thank you, Mike, for this insightful comment from the front line, which is what Vinnies, the Brotherhood of St Laurence et sim are in the genuine war against poverty and the consequent marginalisation and alienation in this country. Having worked with unemployed and disadvantaged people in my career I am appalled both at the McClure Report and the current Government's intention to implement it. To succeed would be to take us back to dreadful times like the Depression or the 18th or 19th Centuries. There used to be a cry in the Mother of Parliaments "Shame, shame! Resign! Resign!" I think many Australians are feeling thus about the Abbott Government.

Edward Fido | 30 June 2014  

Perhaps I don't fully understand this article.In simple terms a government has only so much disposable funds and can maximise their use by cutting staff in admin areas. If they now are willing to give more financial support to charities to carry out that admin, shouldn't volunteers in those charities welcome the opportunity to become a more understanding, softer body in the administration of financial support as long as the finance is in place and of course the training of the voluntary staff to administer it?

Tony Knight | 30 June 2014  

Thanks for the article, I would write back to the govt asking how they calculated the additional amount and what they expected it would amount to for recipients-noting the limits of the service you provide. David

David | 30 June 2014  

Advise Vinnie's Council to reject the offer in lieu of negotiation. Then call meeting of all Charity Organisations to discuss before going back to Government with a unified approach. This would be my advice. Chris Shirley, Social Worker

Christine Shirley | 30 June 2014  

Mike, you've hit the nail dead centre! It sounds like enabling a cruel, ideologically driven decision by a government that liberally throws round judgments on people who are forced to live in poverty. There needs to be a continued, respectful pushback against these damaging policies. However, If Vinnies refused to accept the extra ER funds would the government suddenly come to its senses? A tough decision. Prayers please

Kevin Dance, C.P. | 30 June 2014  

Thank you, Mike, for your thoughtful reflection. It looks like the Government isn't giving Vinnies any choice. An accompanying letter stating the facts similar to what you expressed above would at least make the Government aware that Vinnies cannot be duped, although I don't think that Vinnies can really exempt itself from picking up the pieces!

Lucy Kert | 30 June 2014  

I sympathise with Mr. Bowden. It is a difficult decision. To not sign the perpetrators' missive means that he has to resign, which is exactly what they intended in the first place. And that would rid them of a dissenting voice in their midst. In the end, integrity has to prevail at all cost whatever the economic logic.

Alex Njoo | 30 June 2014  

This seems like a way to cement structural weaknesses leading to poverty rather than to resolve them. I wonder also whether there would be any new conditions on disbursing the extra ER - just to ensure the "undeserving" get punished and Vinnies and other charity members learn to accept the deservingness concept.

Werner | 30 June 2014  

This is a real worry. As a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer in Shepparton. Will the Gov. want us to do pages of forms etc. which is common in Gov. Departments? In Shepparton, we have a very high unemployment for young people, and already have a many homeless people. This would certainly end up with more homeless people, and would the charities be expected to feed these people for six months?, or, to keep them in their homes, pay their rent and power bills? It is very unreasonable to expect this of the charities.

M. Taverner | 30 June 2014  

Thank you for your article. I worked for most of my adult life with unemployed and disadvantaged people. It is now a far harsher climate and I am greatly concerned for the future - for without early positive intervention those affected can understandably give up.. .

Cherie Mowbray | 30 June 2014  

Thank you Mike. The Abbott Government is very good at catch twenty two scenarios so it seems - or is it that its addicted to secrecy and duplicity, cutting welfare funding on one hand and handouts on the other?

Name | 30 June 2014  

Mike, you've high-lighted some important issues, not least of which is how the St Vincent de Paul Society should react/interact with a government which some members might consider is acting immorally. The Society, along with many other charitable organisations, has become very dependent on government funding to continue its work. Whether this is for good or ill depends on view-point, but it does set up a dilemma, which the Society, at its highest councils, should be discussing.

Vin Victory | 30 June 2014  

It is an appalling situation of double talk by the Government, I do not know what I would do if I were in your shoes. Those marginalised are being treated as though they are the ones with the problem.

Margaret Lawton | 30 June 2014  

I hope I would do what a previous principal of our School for Deaf Students did in the 1980s when there was a Liberal Government in power. Those in special education in the non-government sector had to beg annually for a pittance of what was given automatically to "normal" schools. When she received a letter advising her that the present offer would be granted when she signed an agreement that it was only for that year, she rang the 7.30 report or its equivalent, read the offending paragraph on camera and refused to sign. The government caved in and the funding was made recurrent, though the hoops we had to jump through annually to obtain it were not. (I always thought that form filling for funds, and I did a lot of it, was the 20th century version of the mendicancy that St Dominic had proposed for his Order nearly eight hundred years before.)

Joan Winter OP | 30 June 2014  

By taking money from the government you are tired to contract obligations , In other words you can not bite the hand that feeds you. This is the way governments gag welfare groups from speaking out for the poor and needy Frederic Ozanam would not be impressed. ( who will speak for the poor if we cant)

Ron Congues | 30 June 2014  

The Government has fulfilled at least some of it's responsibility to assist the young unemployed. The big problem now is to generate some income to get some of the funds thrown away by the incompetent profligate spending of the several ALP governments which preceded Abbott. I'm also a St Vincent de Paul volunteer in one of the poorest areas of Melbourne. Most of the people we help are in desperate need, but there are some in their early 30s on DSPensions whose condition is never checked.. It's a good thing that Andrews is conducting a review of eligibility etc. It's also time the levels of income and assets of part aged pensioners is also reviewed. I'm one of many part pensioners who can get by comfortably without it.

Bill barry | 30 June 2014  

Mike, your letter is such an authentic complaint that it should convince Joe Hockey and the Prime Minister that their Budget is anything but good.

Anne Forbes | 30 June 2014  

A serious dilemma indeed. Perhaps all agencies such as the SVDP should go back to their mission statements and hold to them. If they're about longterm bandaiding, OK, accept the federal money. If they're about building self-respect and autonomy, don't have a bar of it. You don't have a spoon long enough to sup with this lost and you'd become unpaid tools of government policy.

Joan Seymour | 30 June 2014  

I agree with you completely Mike. These changes to our safety net welfare program are demeaning and alienating of people who are most marginalised by our society and economy. I do not understand why the government wants people to have to beg for support. It seems particularly un-Christian to me. And I agree it is much less efficient and much more random in outcome than our present system, with all it's faults.

Cath Connor | 30 June 2014  

Relying on volunteers to do work of government is morally wrong and totally unacceptable. Marginalising the poor and disenfranchised does not equate with my understanding of Christianity or any loving creator. Will we gradually see all social 'safety net' services delivered and administered by volunteer organisations on government handouts? What is Australia coming to???

Amina Bracken | 30 June 2014  

This govt is also looking at ways to make it harder to be endorsed as a PBI. If charities receive any funding then they will have to meet certain busness standards. So much for volunteers

W. Smith | 30 June 2014  

I note that Mike is a senior citizen like many (most?) Vinnies volunteers. In effect these elders are being called upon to extend their "working lives" (perhaps even into their eighties) to attend problems not of their making. This will not only create difficulties for their clients but have adverse effects on these volunteers. Another point: way back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the charity model sustained gross inequalities. A democratic ethos worked towards challenging and reforming this model. Today, it seems to me, that we're heading towards a similar situation: gross inequalities and a dissipated democracy. I think the founder of St. Vinnies would be appalled at what is being asked of this organisation today in the context of a relatively well-off country.

Jane Anderson | 01 July 2014  

Caught between a rock and a hard place. If Vinnies refuses to go along with this, the government will find less efficient organisations to do it.

Mike Varga | 03 July 2014  

Nothing like shifting the responsibility to those that are already trying to help these lost people through no fault of themselves, most times. I think Senior members of the Government especially those who called themselves Christians (Catholics ) need to heed the words of Pope Francis & the Jesuit ideology

Sue O,Donoghue | 04 July 2014  

So true Mike! The governments are expecting the "charities" to pick up the pieces. It is a very convenient way for them to decrease their (i.e. they supposedly are our representatives) expenses and avoid wearing to anger of "the destitute" when it is those "heartless vinnies" (and other charities) that turn them away without a food or electricity voucher this month. Yes you do end up becoming "the fallguys". Thank you for being conscious of and highlighting this.

Gerard Nolan | 05 July 2014  

Hi Mike, Nice to see you are still writing in a focused way. Thanks- a recent book I read on Darwin, breezed over the long grassers and such. The comments, all read, helped me understand the import oif what you said. Vince in SA

Name | 06 July 2014  

This has not passed through legislation yet, we must pressure our politics, particularly those in the senate NOT to let this through. It is one of the most appalling pieces of legislation I have seen in my 50 odd years on this earth. I work directly with people effected by this and simple said, they will be living a nightmare, most do it tough enough as it is.

Amanda Whittington | 06 July 2014  

I see where you're coming from. Nobody who is eligible should be denied emergency relief, but the Federal Government should not expect charities, be they Vinnies, the Salvos or ANY other organisation, to make up for their heartless and callous policies regarding welfare recipients. Charity is there to provide dignified assistance for those who are down on their luck due to emergency circumstances. The Government cannot expect others to make up for their heartlessness.

Cool Pete | 06 July 2014  

Is it possible to call a Nation wide conference for all the CEO of ER facilities to respond as a collective group?

Verndora | 06 July 2014  

I wouldn't sign it and then ask someone you trust on the committee to submit it for discussion. I would also contact as many other St Vinnies as you or someone on the committee can canvas for their views.

June Fitzsimmonds | 08 July 2014  

I have been hoping that someone in the NFP field would bring this up. This invitation of the Abbott government to collude in demonising the unemployed was inevitable. I hope that in considering this, organisations also remember that under this government's 'anti advocacy' approach they are also treated as an 'enemy'. They will not be allowed to publicly advocate for the people they see their your stakeholders - which may matter a lot as this goes pear(er) shaped.

Sharon | 16 July 2014  

Hi, Mike! Excellent piece on the deviousness of this current federal government and how mean it is to its citizens. I have just read this piece - and I wonder how you dealt with the matter? In fact I was in the NT during the time you were wrestling with this issue. Did you go public? Were you reduced to silence by threats to your funding - small as it no doubt is in any case? What happened?

Jim KABLE | 22 August 2014  

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