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Communities still need the stimulus

Julie Edwards |  10 May 2010

The fall-out from the economic stimulus package, whether it is insulation, school halls or public housing, continues to cause political headaches for the Rudd Government.

As a result, there are widespread calls for the stimulus measures to be quickly wound back as the Australian economy emerges from the global economic crisis.

It would appear that as an exercise in public policy, the objectives of the economic stimulus have been largely achieved, as Australia has emerged unscathed from the worst ravages of the meltdown.

As the global economic crisis enveloped the western world in spring 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd invoked the spectre of the Great Depression and described it as 'the economic equivalent of a rolling national security crisis'.

And while the PM's language may — in hindsight — have been melodramatic, most credible economic commentators endorsed the magnitude of the $42 billion stimulus package.

Now some 18 months on, it would appear that the normal world order is resuming — the banks are again functioning and profitable and China's thirst for Australian resources continues.

Fortunately, middle Australia avoided the soup kitchen queues.

However our most disadvantaged communities are still our most disadvantaged communities; in such communities economic crisis is a permanent situation. Social conditions are characterised by double digit unemployment, high rates of criminal convictions and imprisonment, poor educational and employment attainment and, in some areas, child abuse and neglect.

The team I work with at Jesuit Social Services has continually reminded governments that tackling stubborn place based disadvantage requires a sustained and coordinated mix of investment and government service reform to be continually applied over many, many years. It cannot be fixed with just 18 months of economic stimulus.

The Victorian Government has just released its sixth A Fairer Victoria statement which contains over $1 billion in funding for services to help combat poverty and promote social inclusion.

We have supported A Fairer Victoria since its inception in 2004, in particular the recognition that combating disadvantage requires a persistent and strategic approach that mobilises the resources of Government in partnership with the third sector.

While the Victorian Government can certainly do more in terms of the quantum of investment underpinning A Fairer Victoria and strengthen its focus on reforming government services to respond better to the unique challenges of disadvantaged communities, the broad policy objectives are fundamentally sound.

I believe that the Victorian approach provides a ready template for the Australian Government to adopt to allow for the continuation of economic stimulus measures — but targeted at our most disadvantaged communities.

Research we conducted in 1999 (Unequal in Life), 2004 (Community Adversity and Resilience) and 2007 (Dropping Off The Edge, in partnership with Catholic Social Services Australia) undertaken by Professor Tony Vinson pointed to the convergence of evidence of disadvantage in communities including: limited education, deficient labour market credentials, indifferent health and disabilities, low individual family income, engagement in crime and child maltreatment.

According to Professor Vinson, this presented a 'mundane but enduring story' but also points to the need for a 'persistent effort of seven to eight years' to help shift disadvantage which has been entrenched over decades.

This means sustained investment in projects that create jobs for young people in disadvantaged communities to build community resilience. Intensive and coordinated efforts are needed by government, the private and third sector to drag some of these communities into the economic mainstream.

The fact that children can have their life trajectory largely mapped out from an early age because of their postcode, as Professor Vinson points out, 'offends our national values, especially the idea of a fair go'.

So despite the well documented implementation problems, it would appear the economic stimulus package has achieved its broad policy objectives — protecting middle Australia from recession. Now that the tide of gloom has receded the pressure is on the Government to ditch the stimulus.

However we urge the Rudd Government in this year's budget and in subsequent budgets to continue the economic stimulus — but focused on our most disadvantaged communities, truly creating A Fairer Australia.

Julie EdwardsJulie Edwards is CEO of Jesuit Social Services. 



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