Speech to ASU members, Blaxland - Restoring Respect for the Community Sector

1.19pm | March 17, 2022



I wanted to start by thanking the community sector workers here today.

This government may not appreciate the importance and value of your work, but I know that ordinary Australians do.

The past three years have placed an extraordinary burden on our community, and you have all stepped up to provide an extraordinary level of support.

From providing shelter and assistance to those who lost their homes in the 2019 bushfires, help to the sick, isolated and vulnerable during the pandemic, and now dealing with the devastation of the floods.

The work that you and your organisations have done has been nothing short of amazing. And it is all the more impressive given that it came after years where the Coalition Government seemingly did everything in its power to destroy capability in the sector. The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government has underfunded services, undermined organisations, and underpaid workers.

After all of that, the Australian community was lucky to have dedicated and capable community sector workers left to help us through the last few years.

It is clear, however, that we cannot afford another term of the neglect, hostility and disdain this government has shown the community sector.

An Albanese Labor government will reset the relationship with the community sector.
Meaningful consultation

An important first step is actually speaking with the sector.

The community sector has been cut out of government processes. Successive ministers have appeared disinterested in consulting meaningfully with the sector, its workforce, or those who rely on it.

Throughout our time in opposition, Labor convened the Community Sector Partnership met for to bring together leaders from the community sector including service delivery organisations, researchers, workers and their representatives, and service users. Together we have discussed priorities for policy reform and set a new agenda for working together to deliver positive social change.

In government we will work with the community sector to develop new arrangements, institutions ongoing processes for authentic and regular collaboration to inform and advise on the best approaches to tackling systemic, new and emerging community issues. This will include working with the community sector on timely public policy development as well as designing and delivering services. Labor will also work with the sector on improving funding models and strengthening sectoral governance.

Labor will create feedback and engagement processes with the sector that foster openness and transparency. This includes sharing relevant data with the sector openly and willingly in order to improve service delivery. We won’t use participation in advisory working groups as a mechanism to gag community organisations from engaging in legitimate policy discussions.
Consultation doesn’t mean consensus. Although we agree about a great many things, I can’t promise that we’ll always agree about everything, but we will hear each other. I believe that those informed and respectful conversations will make better and more effective policy.

A better funding process

It is clear that the Liberals’ approach to funding community sector organisations is not working.

While Labor remains committed to honouring existing contracts with community organisations, we are going to take a different approach to funding the sector going forward.

Critical to this is working out what is going wrong. One of our priorities if we obtain government will be an assessment of all of the Department of Social Services’ funding models.

This is a first step in moving towards a grants program that is capable of identifying and properly funding some of the best that the sector has to offer. What would that look like?

Best practice will ultimately depend on the nature of the particular service we are partnering with the community sector to provide, but it should at least reflect a number of important principles:

  • We should seek to support diversity amongst small, medium and large not-for-profits to ensure a vibrant sector. This will include increasing funding for local community organisations capable of marshalling the resources of local communities.
  • The delivery of community services is largely not a commercial undertaking. In most circumstances it will not be appropriate for funding arrangements to be commercial in confidence.
  • Advocacy should be recognised as a key component of the work of the community sector, and funding agreements should not include barriers to advocacy such as gag clauses.
  • For-profit providers should not receive funding for essential frontline services such as homelessness, domestic violence and emergency relief.
  • There should be appropriate incentives for programs with a strong evidence base.
  • Where appropriate, funding should include proper and transparent indexation, so community organisations do not see the real value of their grant drop away during the term of the grant.
  • Funded organisations must respect minimum award pay and conditions. Poor IR practices should be a relevant consideration in funding decisions.

Longer, more stable funding cycles

Best practice should also include a move to longer term funding for ongoing services. Frequent retendering of grants programs is unproductive. That is a criticism shared by community organisations, community workers and their representatives, service users, us, the productivity commission – basically everyone except the present government. 

A Labor government will move towards longer, more stable funding cycles that reflect its commitment to providing quality services that deliver lasting benefits for communities. In many instances, services may be best delivered through 6-year contracts but there are some instances where longer or shorter time frames are appropriate.

This transition involves more than just longer contract terms – it requires investment to develop capability within the sector and within government.

Longer contract terms represent an investment of trust in an organisation. Organisations need to develop the internal systems capable of honouring that investment.

The shift also requires active contract management. At its worst, frequent retendering serves as a substitute for proper contract management by an overstretched and under resourced Department. We need to address this dynamic by ensuring the Department of Social Services has a proper partnership with the delivery organisation and a strong understanding of the way the services are delivered.

Our public servants are more than up to the task. Empowering the Department to do this, though, requires us to work against 9 years of efficiency dividends, wage freezes, and neglect.

It is a challenge worth undertaking. The benefits of more secure funding extend to an organisation’s workers and end users. Changes to service providers are very disruptive to clients.

Labor also expects that longer contract terms should give organisations the funding certainty they need to adopt more secure employment practices, including full time and permanent employment where appropriate.

Recognising the significance of government funding

Finally, government must recognise and accept the central role it plays in the finances of many community sector organisations.

In some parts of the community sector, government is the only real purchaser of services. The amount government pays for those services is of systemic importance.

The funding provided to an organisation should reflect the efficient costs of providing the services it is contracted to deliver. This is not a licence for organisations to spend freely and expect the government to cover their costs. After all, a dollar that is wasted is a dollar that could have been spent helping vulnerable people and families. Labor recognises, however, that we should not be asking community sector workers to subsidise the provision of services. 

Community sector workers deserve to be paid a fair wage. Labor considers that a competitive dynamic driven exclusively by competition on Labor costs is ultimately unhelpful to the people the service seeks to serves, not to mention the workers who provide that service. It is a dynamic that can be avoided by ensuring tenders and grant programs are sufficiently and appropriately funded to provide for adequate and safe staffing levels, and fair and reasonable wages and conditions (including leave, such as Paid Domestic Violence Leave).

This is critical for the sector and intersects more broadly with questions of pay equity. The community sector is a female dominated sector. Almost a decade ago, many of the people in this room won a hard-fought battle to have the value of this work recognised through the Equal Remuneration Order. We know that many older women retire into poverty. Without proper pay and conditions today’s generation of community sector workers may become tomorrow generation of community sector clients. We can’t consider our funding decisions in isolation – community sector funding has the capacity to have a real impact on the gender pay gap.

Where to from here

It took years of chronic underinvestment by the government to bring the sector to where it is today. I’m not going to pretend that we can undo the damage overnight, but I am confident that together we can undo it.

The principles I’ve discussed today – fairer funding, better tender processes, meaningful consultation – are different ways of achieving the same outcome. They are all part of the development of a genuine partnership between government and the community sector. It is a partnership that the community deserves.