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Joe Hockey's prize orchid


Prized orchid

In his Mid Year Financial Economic Outlook statements this week, Treasurer Joe Hockey construed 'The Economy' as some rare prized orchid, requiring careful nurturing, while the patient gardener waits for just that one moment in a lifetime when the flower blooms. 

The trouble with treating The Economy like a prized bloom is that we fail to recognise that the it exists to serve people. The health of our economy should be measured by the degree to which it lifts up those people who are vulnerable, frail and in need of support. A healthy economy is one in which opportunities are created for people to exercise greater degrees of self-determination, and where people have access to support to enable them to seize the opportunities available. 

Listening to Mr Hockey and so many in political leadership speak of The Economy, one could be forgiven for thinking that if only the architecture and financial settings were right then all of society's ills will fade away. Sadly the reality is more stark. While Mr Hockey and others tinker with The Economy - a little water here, a little fertiliser there - people living in the community are struggling to live lives of simple dignity.

Many non government social services agencies are embedded in the community, lending support to individuals and families day in and day out. Demand for services and support at Christmas will peak as families struggle to find something to celebrate, let alone finding something to celebrate with.

The availability of social support services is not keeping up with the demand. In a recent survey undertaken by the Australian Council of Social Services of 1000 community service workers, 43% of these services reported that they are simply unable to meet the needs of people coming to them for help. The largest service gaps exist in areas of the greatest need: among services working most closely with those on the lowest incomes and with the highest levels of need in their communities.

The May Federal Budget delivered a major blow to expenditure on welfare as well as changes to income support. This double whammy of reducing levels of support and reducing the support available has directly affected the most vulnerable people in our community. On the surface it appears that the most vulnerable were easy targets for the budget cuts recommended by the Commission of Audit. Revenue raising options were not given the same attention as reducing expenditure on social services to deal with the alleged budget emergency.

As a result of the May Budget, the capacity of non government social services agencies to respond to people in need has been further hampered by changed and protracted tendering processes that go to the heart of their viability. Many agencies are highly vulnerable to the outcomes of this tender process, which is now well-delayed beyond the promised decision deadline. Many are uncertain as to how, and in fact whether, they will be able to continue to support their clients over the Christmas period and beyond. 

Government has been clear that it wants a more competitive tendering environment, fewer and larger organisations for contract purposes, and a reduction in spending on social services. The Department of Social Services received an overwhelming response to its July 2014 grants selection process, receiving more than 5500 applications totalling $3.9 billion of services value. However the Government has advised there is only $800 million available meaning many organisations will be unsuccessful with their applications. 

The impact of funding uncertainty has had alarming effects on service providers. The results of a Continuity of Funding survey undertaken by Mental Health Australia were worse than anticipated with 73% of respondents saying that they would be forced to reduce local options for consumers, 40% reporting they have already lost staff and an alarming 91% confirming that if their funding future is not confirmed in the short term they will have to further reduce staffing numbers. 

Even if services continue through transferring of funding to other agencies, there is still a significant impact on the people served. Research shows that people who have suffered significant trauma in their lives find it difficult to establish trusting relationships, and trust lies at the heart of effective social support services which enable people to move from support to independence. 

Despite the difficult year for the sector, there are some signs of hope for the future. We believe that most Australians do care about how the poor and vulnerable are treated: the widening inequality gap between the rich and poor does not sit comfortably with most Australians. We witnessed a backlash to the Medicare co-payment proposal and other harsh measures including the proposed cessation of income support for six months for young unemployed people. This outcry led to the Government backing down on some of the more punitive changes to social service programs and support. 

We welcome the focus in Patrick McClure's Welfare Review on job creation and training as a way of breaking the cycle of disadvantage. Not everyone is capable of working but for those who are able to work, employment provides stability, opportunities for education, and greater social participation as well as an income. Increased employment is also the best means of stimulating growth in the economy. 

This Christmas will be a time of anxious waiting for many in the social services sector. Our thoughts are with those affected by the uncertain funding environment, the committed and hardworking staff of our social service organisations and most importantly the people and the communities they support.

Marcelle Mogg Marcelle Mogg is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.


Orchid image by Shutterstock.





Topic tags: Marcelle Mogg, economy, Joe Hockey, MYEFO, social services, social inclusion, welfare



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Existing comments

Dementia care has been so depleted by funding cuts that patients are left to be cared for by family with no assistance. This is a direct result of the Coalition Government

Ross | 17 December 2014  

Ms Mogg, Your thesis today is the perfect argument in favour of the concept that the Australian economy is not remarkably wealthy and that the money is simply not there. The government in a most deceptive manner has tried to reduce the incomes of GPs by 13% to save some $3.5 billion - easy stuff , because they know well that doctors can't walk away from the genuinely ill or go on strike Doctors have no choice and, apart from the priesthood, are the only profession in the "no choice" situation. Everyone in this country has to take a cut in lifestyle if the economy is indeed going to become wealthy enough to fund all need and that includes the staff of the welfare agencies as well - a little Christianity in kind rather than in dollars and cents! Joe Hockey does not strike me as an experienced gardener - he seems to have forgotten that flowers are short lived.

john frawley | 17 December 2014  

Trouble is, the sacrifices made on the altar of The Economy are never enough, and are always paid for by the most vulnerable. Whilst the miners, led by Gina Rinehardt, managed to stave off a mining tax, who will stand up for the poor who cannot afford our expensive cost of living now, let alone when the big end of town has succeeds in persuading the government to bring in a tax hike in the GST?

Eveline Goy | 17 December 2014  

"Not everyone is capable of working" So often this fact is not acknowledged by politicians, by commentators and, most sadly, by people with disabilities who are highly functioning. I have seen people whose condition has been exacerbated because they have been driven by the mantra constantly reiterated that they should be working.

Sheelah Egan | 17 December 2014  

Thanks to both women for your views today. Marcelle,, some of what you say from your perspective as CEO of Cath Comm Services, though 'right on' re pollies' attitudes, and lack of understanding of 'real people's' actual experience, because theirs is nowhere near it, and won't ever be, also links with a parallel body to yours. That is Cath. Health, and many of its clients are no longer of working age. My view is that the office part of that Dept needs better insights into the time care-workers need to be able to provide to clients. These are quite unrealistic, I think. Gillian, wonderful to read about the soldiers' writing about their experience as it happened. As you point out, it helped motivate them,, helped lift their spirits in the midst of horror. So apt, in the light of Sydney's recent siege and its outcomes. This, because we now see people coming together form the wide range of backgrounds we have in this country of ours, to support each other and focus on moving on in a better way. Both the diggers' experience and Sydney's this week highlight 'on-the-groundness', which is what big organisations like Catholic Offices need to try and make sure keeps them in touch with and able to respond to the needs of those they're in place to serve. 'Soldier on' but 'poco. poco'! Tread gently and listen! Lynne

Lynne Green | 17 December 2014  

Thank you Marcelle for a very telling article. I truly hope that this intuitively spiteful government has learned the pragmatic lesson that the community (and so the Senate and opposition) will not allow European-style austerity economic policies. If they want, as they should, to put the national budget in order it has to be within the context of protecting the poor, and making Australia more rather than less equitable.

Eugene | 17 December 2014  

Thanks Marcelle for a tragic and unnecessary picture of woe for the vulnerable who are easy targets for cruelty. Having read many such reports and reviews lately I do not need any convincing of the need for change. What bothers me is the 'who and how' can we change things. Latterly I feel like a horse spurred and whipped at one end and muzzled and held in tight reins at the same time. Surely with sensible and inventive and compassionate people we must be able to have some influence. We must be able to change something or stem the tide of inequality and the treatment of a nation of people as an economy. Frankly I am in danger of refusing to read more and more accounts of how bad things are until I can know some way of making things better. Otherwise I fear bing like a gossip monger with no responsibility for the tales I read and peddle.

Michael D. Breen | 17 December 2014  

It's 3.57pm on Wednesday December 17 and still no one has commented on Marcelle's article and I ask myself why. Is it because ES readers agree with her assessment of the Hockey Budget and in particular it effect on social welfare? Or is it that we have become fatigued about the issue? In my own case I haven't commented because I think the socio-economic issues facing the country are bigger than the federal budget. The whole three tier federal constitutional system is an ongoing drag on the economy. If there is no will for structural reform there, we will continue to drain the economy of valuable resources. But supposing we did decide to reform, there would still be lack of political will to carry out the taxation reforms that were suggested in the Henry Report. The ALP lost my respect when they showed they didn't have the political courage to embrace at least some of the Henry reforms and take them to an election. Sorry to have such a pessimistic attitude at this season of Good Will but that's the way I see the socio-economic situation in Australia in the second decade of the 21st century - Hockey's orchid notwithstanding.

Uncle Pat | 17 December 2014  

The budget, like any other government policy, should be judged by whether it reduces or increases general inequality. Increasing inequality generally results in increases in social problems.

Bob Myers | 17 December 2014  

There seems to be plenty of money for politicians past prime ministers. Etc. and weapons and war. So much for Christians in government and yes I am a Catholic. But most definately not enamoured with those rich men who live in a different world from the rest of us

Irena | 17 December 2014  

Exactly! The mistaken metaphors we use for the economy are central to our difficulty in making progress in these discussions. Check out the brilliant Anat Schenker-Osorio for more on this. I recommend her book: 'Don't Buy It - The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About The Economy' or this http://www.alternet.org/economy/learn-everything-you-need-know-about-economy-south-park-episode

Rachael Vincent | 18 December 2014  

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