Twin revolutions to help troubled suburbs
Hidden away in most capital cities around Australia there are troubled suburbs which suffer the afflictions of social and economic breakdown.
These communities are often populated by a majority of good hearted battlers living alongside a minority of ratbags. These hidden communities are often absent from our national debate partly because the communities lack advocacy skills and partly because the problems seem so intractable.
Often the only time these troubled suburbs are noticed is when the harsh glare of the media descends upon them in response to some criminal incident or to catalogue their social dysfunction.
There’s no running away from the seriousness of the problems faced by these troubled suburbs – intergenerational unemployment, family breakdown, domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, anti social behaviour and lawlessness. These problems breed despair and hopelessness amongst residents, and they demoralise those who work to improve social and economic conditions.
The most demoralising thing for residents has been however the failure of bureaucracy to be accountable to the local community. All too often it appeared that a distant government has been making inconsistent rules that fail to punish bad behaviour and fail to reward good behaviour.
It has been a bewildering experience for many in these suburbs to watch the normal rules of society twisted in such a way. During the Howard years they watched aghast as parents who had been reported to child protection authorities received thousands of dollars in family assistance or baby bonus payments.
This combination of unconditional largesse by one level of government combined with the weak and often tragically flawed child protection policies of state child protection authorities corroded public confidence in government in the troubled suburbs. It seemed too many that the system ignored bad behaviour and in many ways rewarded it.
For those living in these troubled suburbs seeking work can often be an uphill battle. All too often they are locked out of the job market because of a lack of contacts, or skills, or transport or opportunity. Sometimes postcode injustice prevailed, as employers looked at a street address on a CV and decided to rely on prejudice and reject a job application out of hand.
The previous government made no effort to acknowledge those who tried to get work but failed, and simply left it to the market. All too often the system appeared to be indifferent to those battlers expected to constantly face rejection in the job market and still keep trying despite their diminishing prospects.
The actions of government both good and bad have a disproportionate effect on troubled suburbs. The Rudd Government recently held a Centrelink Jobs Expo in the City of Playford in my electorate. I was amazed by the response- on a forty degree day thousands of people plied into the Civic Centre to stand five deep in front of a jobs board, to talk to employers, or to seek training.
It was a huge success in getting people work, getting them engaged and giving them hope. One wonders how many more might have found work if such job expos were held in the decade before the global financial crisis.
In the past decade the Howard Government presided over an increasingly larger gap between rich and poor, between those who benefited from a growing economy and those who were locked out, between accelerating social capital in some suburbs and decline in others. The Howard Government policy of benign neglect was a disaster for the troubled suburbs.
The Rudd Government won’t accept that social and economic depravation is the natural state of any Australian community. The Government has launched two policy revolutions that will forever change the way in which government interacts with our poorest and neediest suburbs. These policies will benefit the whole nation in their application, but their effect will be disproportionately positive for those in the most desperate need.
The first revolution is a politically prominent one- the Education Revolution. Its benefits are national and shared by all school systems. The impacts will however be greatest impact in places where education can have its greatest transformational effects on a student’s life expectations, income and opportunities. In troubled suburbs schools are often the closest thing that some children have to a refuge, a safe oasis of normalcy in a sea of dysfunction.
In a world of faceless bureaucracy schools are often the only personal and friendly interaction some families have with government. Schools in troubled suburbs are an important gateway to government services, advice and help. There are schools in my electorate who perform these functions right now through a combination of their own resources, help from non government organisations, dedicated school leadership and teachers who go beyond the call of duty every day of the school term. Until the education revolution there was inadequate acknowledgement of the challenging environment these schools face.
The Education Revolution backs these schools in two ways. The first is to recognise and map the social disadvantage through the My School website. Many of the critics of this website worry about the effects of public exposure on school communities, particularly in relation to the role of the tabloid press. In my experience it’s the poor who suffer most of all when there’s a lack of accountability or when poverty isn’t measured or recognised.
It’s the troubled suburbs which most desire accountability the most because they know their kids don’t get a second chance in the real world. They can’t afford a second best effort from the education system. The risk of public scrutiny is worth it to get better accountability, better funding and a greater understanding of the challenges they face.
The second way the Education Revolution backs these schools is by implementing the Low SES School Communities National Partnership. There are schools in my electorate that would not have received extra funding save for the fact that their need was identified by the My School website and were deemed eligible for this partnership. This partnership will attract high quality teachers, give school leadership’s greater flexibility to manage their staff and budgets, tailor learning arrangements to students and improve and embrace external partnerships with the community and business.
Most importantly this partnership allocates the extra funding to complete the task. Most importantly no future Australian government will be able to ignore or under fund schools in disadvantaged areas.
A good school in a troubled suburb is always going to struggle if families and communities are unstable. The Rudd Government has launched a quiet but profound policy revolution on welfare reform. This quiet revolution unsullied by the reactionary politics that so often accompanies discussion on welfare will reach out and help to heal broken families in troubled suburbs.
While nobody expects perfect behaviour from any citizen, the community does have a right to expect that those receiving government assistance for children in their care run safe and functional households. All too often children are the innocent victims of intergenerational poverty and family breakdown. All too often government assistance provided for their care is wasted, lost or spent on substance abuse. All too often a family can descend into chaos affecting their neighbours, their community and their local school. In troubled suburbs it happens everyday, and until now the Australian Government did not do much to prevent it.
Jenny Macklin’s reforms to welfare will change Australia’s approach to welfare for the better and introduce community values and expectations into the delivery of such assistance. When welfare payments to broken families are quarantined we know that it stabilises those families and helps them provide housing, food and the basics of life. We know that income management can be a potent policy tool in not just stopping undesirable behaviour but also in providing help to individuals in desperate circumstances.
When a broken family in a troubled suburb is stabilised, it can serve to stabilise the street, a school and a community. The Government’s reforms send a powerful message about our expectations of good values not just to the family in need but also to the community around them.
These twin revolutions will have a profound affect on our most troubled and disadvantaged suburbs around Australia. When combined with the social inclusion agenda and our commitments on homelessness they give real hope to all those who refuse to give up on these individuals, families and suburbs.
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