Finding common ground

The Federal Labor Party is taking its first tentative steps away from the more extreme elements of the Howard government’s economic fundamentalism. One of the influences has been the electoral successes of state Labor governments. The lessons are not that complicated. Australians still want to live in a country where the water is drinkable; community services, health care and public transport are accessible and reliable; and schools and universities are sufficiently affordable to provide ground for optimism about the future of their children and grandchildren. Australians want to live in reasonably friendly, reasonably safe, reasonably supportive communities. This last expectation may also help explain the resurgence of interest by state and local governments in a diverse array of initiatives under the broad banner of building, strengthening and engaging local communities.

The goals and strategies of ‘community building’, or ‘community development’ as it was more commonly known 30 years ago, are far from new and continue to raise questions. There is an understandable suspicion that ‘community building’ is just a smokescreen, obscuring underlying structural inequalities and conflicts. No government looks forward to making hard decisions about the redistribution of, and public investment in, health, education and community services. And inviting a few local community leaders to comment on such decisions does not constitute community engagement.

There are many ongoing experiments in community engagement that appear to be making a difference where it counts, although all are still in their early days. In Victoria, the Wendouree West Neighbourhood Renewal program, the Aboriginal Justice Agreement implementation strategy and the Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority are three such examples. These may serve to illustrate some of the benefits and limitations of community development projects.

Wendouree West Neighbourhood Renewal: ‘Everybody here will want to be here.’

Wendouree West was established as a public housing estate on the western edge of Ballarat in 1950 and now has a population of 2500. This is certainly not a slum: its layout and appearance are textbook Housing Commission-styled suburbia in a semi-rural setting. However poverty, unemployment and crime have been rubbing shoulders with the problems of limited access to health and education services, and to mainstream Ballarat life, since the late 1960s.

For this reason, Wendouree West has been one of the priority sites for the Victorian government’s Neighbourhood Renewal program designed to use community-building strategies to narrow the gap between the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Victoria and the rest of the state.

Faye Macintosh has been resident in Wendouree West since the 1960s, and has been involved in numerous community initiatives and neighbourhood groups over many years. As a member of the Wendouree West Residents Group she sees a genuine difference between older methods of community consultation and the present Neighbourhood Renewal project: ‘We weren’t told, we were listened to—we were asked what we thought, what we felt.’

Her colleague in the Residents Group, John Boers, is also eager to promote the value of community involvement, while stressing the difficulty that he and others had in mastering the conferral process. ‘When I joined I thought, “Why aren’t they just doing this? What’s all this yabber, yabber, yabber for two hours every week?” But I only can get something off the ground now because they did that groundwork and did it properly, correctly and legally and everything else that most of us hate. Lucky for us they had enough gumption to keep going and get it right, so we can get things going!’

One of the first lessons of the Wendouree West initiative is that practical, visible improvements are the key to creating faith in the process within the community. John says that when he joined the Residents Group, ‘a lot of people said to me, “You’re an idiot because nothing is going to happen”. People are actually starting to change that [view] because they’re actually starting to see things happen.’

A community-run survey of residents provided an important mechanism for building trust and identifying local concerns. The results of the survey also demonstrated the extent of people’s loneliness and isolation. Kevin Waugh, one of the community survey organisers, notes his surprise and alarm at the stories of loneliness and loss that came up in the survey process, and at the widespread desire for contact and conversation. For many local residents, participation in the survey was less important than simply being listened to.

Other organisations have had to become comfortable with the new community consultation model. Uniting Care, under the guidance of Cliff Barclay, bought into the Wendouree West experiment last year when the group purchased four ‘dead’ shops in a central location in the area. Community consultation on the shopping strip challenged Uniting Care’s initial assumptions about the best use for the shops. ‘They said to us that they didn’t want a food bank,’ says Barclay, equivocally, ‘even though we think from our experience that would go down quite well there. But they wanted a mini-mart. So we came up with a plan that combined those two things. We can sell some stuff, also we can have free stuff for people to take.’ Other proposals are a white goods repair facility, providing a convenient local enterprise and training; a coffee shop, which also offers training and a social hub; a factory seconds outlet, and a centre where service providers such as Centrelink can put their representatives on a regular basis.

Waugh speaks with enthusiasm about the local benefits of a project he initially greeted with scepticism. ‘Now, when people walk down the street they’re not looking at the ground, they actually look up and talk to you, look you in the eye. They want to actually talk to each other.’ In a few years, he says, Wendouree West ‘will be a great place to live. It will be a community that actually believes in itself, an inclusive community, everybody here will want to be here.’

The Aboriginal Justice Agreement: ‘We’ve got a practical way of fixing it.’

The Aboriginal Justice Agreement was established by the Victorian Labor government in 2001 as a mechanism for working with Victorian Aboriginal communities to take forward the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The organisations involved include the state government, ATSIC, Victorian Aboriginal advocacy groups, the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee, and Victorian Koori Communities. The key to success, according to Andrew Jackomos, Manager of the Indigenous Issue Unit in the Department of Justice, is that Indigenous communities are winning real participation and ownership, rather than being assigned a merely consultative role.

This commitment to engaging Aboriginal communities in new approaches to justice issues has attracted enthusiastic support from workers in a range of  Aboriginal communities. But it’s clear that no single initiative could be expected to address quickly the entrenched problems in the relationship between Victoria’s Koori population, the judiciary and the police. Larry Kanoa, Chair of the Grampians’ Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee (RAJAC), notes that on a scale of one (rhetoric) to ten (reality), the AJA initiative is ‘at about three … and anyone who reckons they’re further advanced than that are fooling themselves. It’s just a process that needs to have its life, and needs to have a long life, not be one of these fly-by-night ideas’.

As a result of Indigenous community input into the AJA process, a whole range of practical initiatives is being explored. These initiatives include cross-cultural awareness programs for police and the judiciary; community support and family visiting programs for Aboriginal prisoners; peer support and mentoring for Aboriginal young people; the introduction of temporary, non-custodial ‘holding cells’; the development of a ‘Koori Court’ exploring more culturally appropriate and responsive forms of legal administration and a system of ‘night patrols’ run by Aboriginal volunteers.

Justin Mohamed, of the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-op and Chair of the Hume RAJAC, sees the night patrols, recently introduced in Shepparton, as a good example of the way in which creative and constructive strategies can emerge from genuinely listening to the Indigenous communities most affected.

‘There was a fairly large issue with the [wider] community with the young people down the mall at night-time and they were seen to be creating havoc and making people feel endangered. We know our young people aren’t angels but it wasn’t just them, it was a whole lot of other kids from other nationalities and so forth but the Aboriginal kids got the brunt of the blame for it. So the community decided, “We’ve got a practical way of fixing it”.’

Volunteer drivers patrol the streets of Shepparton on Friday and Saturday nights  returning local kids to their homes. Police co-operate in the program by alerting the patrol to the whereabouts of teenagers who ‘need to be picked up’. Patrol staff say that the young people they deal with respond positively to their presence and to the service. In the first six months of the program, arrests of young Kooris declined by almost 40 per cent.

Both Kanoa and Mohamed have seen situations where the traditional bureaucratic point of view has sought to re-establish itself—telling the Koori community what to do, or attempting to solve problems without consultation. Nevertheless, both see the AJA process as a healthy start.

Mohamed explains that historically, Shepparton would only attract ‘the lower level of bureaucrats’ who have little decision-making authority. Under the AJA the Indigenous community, local government, police and other stakeholders have been impressed with the importance the state government has placed on the initiative. Now Mohamed finds himself with ‘the Department of Justice and the senior people there, sitting around a table listening to a community Chairperson like myself, listening to what the real needs are. It’s a little bit unusual for the community. In the past two years it’s been a fairly steep learning curve and things have happened which we probably never thought we were able to achieve leading up to the AJA before it started. I’m positive. I reckon it’s a step in the right direction for the way communities communicate and how government departments hear what the community is doing.’

Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority: ‘The community is the vital player.’

Catchment Management Authorities—such as the Glenelg Hopkins CMA in western Victoria—have grown out of the more traditionally bureaucratic Catchment and Land Protection boards as an uniquely Australian approach to engaging local citizens and communities in the sustainable management of local water resources and catchments.

According to Colin Dunkley, CEO of the Glenelg Hopkins CMA, the shift towards community engagement has been significant. Colin was involved in writing the first regional catchment strategy for the area. He says the difficulty was that the strategy came first, and the community was only invited to participate in implementing the plan; in other words, to do the work.

‘It’s almost the opposite now, the community is the vital player and we’re asking the community to look at the threats, identify and value the assets available. Let’s try and get [the] community, in a co-ordinated way, to help us solve the problems.’

Dunkley says that community members can now work to effect change in resource management in the region. There is growing interest in addressing long-term environmental challenges through organisations such as the South West Sustainability Network. However, the most effective starting points for getting involved often come from success in addressing immediate concerns affecting the daily life of communities, and in promotional and community-based group activities that highlight the issues, as much as directly working to solve problems.

‘We’ve got an issue of carp in Rocklands Reservoir. There was a meeting here this morning with a whole range of people: the angling community, local tourist operators, others that have concern about carp in the river. We organised the meeting and we brought the NRE (Department of Natural Resources and Environment) specialists into the office and spoke to them. So that facilitation process is one of our important roles. The outcome was that the community will have a day where they will actually have a ‘fish-off’ and try and simply reduce the numbers [of carp]. They understand they’re not going to get rid of the carp in Rocklands Reservoir, but it will promote awareness, it will get rid of a few fish, and it will be the community doing something that they’ll see as positive.’

According to Dunkley, community engagement in natural resources and sustainability means tapping into an existing spirit of innovation and a pool of ideas and marrying this with local leadership. ‘People talk about innovation—there’s no shortage of innovation, there’s always ideas. It’s grasping them and pursuing them and taking them through to action which is the difficulty and so that’s where leaders can be really valuable in small towns.’

Community engagement: First steps on a long journey?

Cautious optimism, a willingness to keep learning and the importance of turning rhetoric into reality are the common thread in these stories.

In all three cases, enthusiastic support for a more respectful engagement with citizens in the decisions affecting their lives is tempered by a healthy scepticism. People are properly suspicious of token involvement. They are also aware that small transfers of power and responsibility to the community may be withdrawn with the next shift of the political and bureaucratic wind.

In each instance it is clear that people will only start to take the rhetoric of community building and community engagement seriously when they see evidence that it delivers real and lasting improvements to their lives. Community building and community engagement can be valuable processes and are paths worth pursuing. But such efforts are no substitute for long-term investment in the core public infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, health centres, housing, transport, parks and meeting places. Such institutions provide real foundations for resilient and healthy communities.

Twenty years ago Martin Mowbray and Lois Bryson wrote a famous and influential article called ‘Community: The Spray-on Solution’. It was in response to the sometimes overblown claims for community development as a public policy cure-all. Then, as now, ‘community’ was easily criticised as a buzzword that meant any number of things—all of them positive. Similar caution is necessary in judging the next generation of such experiments. But in a world—and a country—short on alternative directions, it’s important to learn from any examples of governments taking even the most tentative of steps away from free-market fundamentalism.

Professor John Wiseman is a Professorial Fellow in Community and Public Policy at Victoria University. Dr David Nichols is a researcher at Victoria University and research fellow at Deakin University’s Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific.



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