Saturday, August 11, 2012


I've always believed that governments should supply the necessary services the community requires.

Particularly for the disabled.

Unfortunately, here in Canberra, the Territory government appears to have some difficulty 'finding' the money, as this column tries to show with one vital project in particular . . .


Working out where the government’s money should go is really just a matter of sorting out priorities. Perhaps that’s one reason we’re so keen to limit the involvement of our elected representatives, because once they’ve become involved a political calculus inevitably enters the equation.

Take sports funding. Personally, I reckon our athletes have done brilliantly at the Olympics. The determination of people like hurdler Sally Pearson; the integrity of two sailors from Lake Macquarie, Iain Jensen and Nathan Outteridge; the overall brilliance of top-five medal winner swimmer Alicia Coutts; and the wonderful story of a girl from the back-blocks, Anna Meares, turning Beijing silver into London gold twirl the ugly clamour of people like Kevan Gosper for more money into discordant noise.

His simplistic equation between ‘money in’ and ‘gold out’ turns their athletic triumph to ashes. How do the athletes feel to be told their individual efforts are completely irrelevant to success by comparison with the amount of funding the country devotes to Olympic sport? Sure, money helps, but there’s more to it than that. Perhaps it’s time for him, and national Olympic boss John Coates, to turn over the podium to more positive people who can support our athletes rather than denigrate their efforts.

Under pressure in 2010, the Rudd government suddenly found an extra, recurrent $30 million to support the Olympic effort. The government now spends more than $170 million, each and every year, building our elite athletes. This is a political decision. Loud and incessant lobbying has managed to ensure the money’s spent on the transient glory of sport rather than, for example, roadwork’s or hospitals. There is, however, another group of people who need a leg-up if they want to achieve. Unfortunately, it currently appears as if there’s no political will for funding the homeless.

In the lead-up to the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd rightly identified a group of people who were missing out on the years of prosperity associated with the boom of the Howard years. Everyone has an image of a homeless person – usually a man (a “derro”, we used to call them), unkempt beard, shuffling along with watery eyes in an old army greatcoat. But the reality is far broader than the simplistic stereotype.

You won’t see the couch-surfer on the streets: they shift restlessly from shared house to new acquaintance, sleeping over night-by-night, “just ‘till they find somewhere else”. The druggie, possibly a dropout from uni. Then there’s the young mother and child escaping a violent partner, or the older man with a just grievance at being chucked out of home for reasons he can’t fathom. Some were cast aside by society long ago; others are more recent casualties. About the only thing you can be sure of is that they don’t have a voice – or certainly not one the politicians can hear, anyway.

But after that sudden spate of concern for the homeless, prompted by Rudd, we’ve learned to look through them again. They are, by-and-large, back to being invisible. And perhaps nowhere more so than here, in Canberra, the nation’s capital.

Finding solutions to the issue of homelessness is as complex as the myriad of reasons that cause the problem in the first place. However, finally it’s looking as if a new way of dealing with ‘sleeping rough’ could potentially offer a real solution. In the past, the natural tendency has been to (attempt to) deal with the apparent cause of the crisis – be it domestic violence, drug addiction, or simply lack of skills. That’s failed. And investigating a new method of trying to find a solution to the problem was Homeless Minister Brendan O’Connor’s (quite good, really) excuse for a trip to the sunshine of Helsinki while Canberra was shivering and waking up to -4 degree mornings this week.

Since 2008 the Finnish government’s been dealing with the problem by turning it inside out. This follows on from a US strategy called “housing first”. The idea is that by providing homeless people with a long-term place to sleep, or a flat that they can call their own, allows people to re-establish their links with the community. It empowers the individual and offers them time to settle down and an opportunity to integrate with broader society. The model is inclusive, so the communal living includes permanent residents with those who will, eventually, move through and find other types of accommodation. Finally, the model allows a ‘concierge service’ to provide overwatch care and proper support to those who might require it. Classes are also offered to assist people in acquiring the sorts of skills they might need to get back on their feet. It’s cheaper and produces better results than the service mix we use at the moment.

In an interview on the AM Program, O’Connor appeared to be impressed. He’s undoubtedly aware, surely, that similar initiatives (under the name ‘Common Ground’) are already underway in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Hobart and Adelaide. Surprisingly he didn’t mention these, instead confining himself to pledging he’d “open a conversation” with the States and Territories as part of an effort to introduce such a scheme. Hopefully the Ministers will manage to do more than just talk. The time has come for action.

And nowhere more so than here in Canberra, where welfare worker Liz Dawson became fired-up with the idea and others, like ACIL Tasman executive director Stephen Bartos, have worked to bring it to fruition. The existing Common Ground establishments in the other states have been largely funded by Commonwealth grants under the stimulus package. Today, that money’s vanished. Although the Snow Foundation’s generously committed half-a-million dollars towards building a facility locally, something like a further $12 million will be needed to turn the dream into reality. The ACT government, meanwhile, keeps patting its pockets, seemingly unable to find the money. Perhaps other election commitments – like putting wi-fi on busses – are perceived as being more important than giving homeless people an opportunity to re-build their lives.

The money needed is a pittance when it comes to the recurrent drain of elite athletic funding, but that’s no guarantee there will be enough political will to find the sum required. Particularly when Australia’s focussing so intently on feel-good panaceas like the medal tally. It’s much easier to simply keep allocating more money to winners than it is to spend money on those who are trailing the field. As Sports Minister, it’s understandable Senator Kate Lundy’s in there fighting for our athletes. As an ACT Senator, one would hope she’s also trying to ensure the homeless are given a helping hand off the streets at a fraction of the cost.


  1. You've not commented on the Swimming squad in the Australian Olympic Team. Did they perform up to not only expectations but more importantly to their personal bests (PBs)? Coates has done a 180 degree turn and now is saying its not about money per se while Gosper still is.......Gosper and Coates should retire.

    PS Buses is spelt with one 's' not two.

    1. Thanks. Sorry about the spelling. I agree about Gosper and Coates.