Time to take a seat at the table

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The Victorian community and the community sector are a powerful force for good, working to support people, strengthen society and advocate for change. Emma King says it’s time the sector took its rightful place as the “fifth estate”, equal to those domains traditionally  recognised as wielding power and influencing society’s course—the government, the media and the courts.

The power of the Victorian community sector, and the communities it works in partnership with, is phenomenal. The community sector is one of the biggest economic and social contributors to the Victorian community. At last count, it employed more than 97,000 workers, and was supported by about 135,000 volunteers.1 It contributes approximately $11 billion to the Victorian community every year. Importantly, it is continuing to grow and to do so rapidly, particularly with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and the growth of the aged care sector.

Nationally, the social care and support sector is set to be the fastest growing employment industry in Australia over the next five years.2 The community sector’s power cannot be underestimated.

The community sector is also powerful in ways that  no other sector can replicate. It works in direct partnership with the community itself and gives expression to that community, amplifying its many voices. It goes out with the mission of supporting people, connecting communities and advocating for social change that will strengthen society. In doing this, it makes powerful connections between people of all walks of life, gathers insights and confidence from people that are often denied to other sectors, and brings all this together with evidence and research, to point to solutions to social problems.

The sector is also characterised by its diversity, again reflective of the diverse communities it works in partnership with. It comprises a vast range of organisations and leaders. From small grassroots organisations to multi-million dollar not-for-profit operations, these organisations and the people who work and volunteer with them strive every single day to make a difference to the lives of those they work with. Each organisation is powerful in its own way, and when  working together, their combined power grows and intensifies, able to help shape a fair and just society.

It is time the community sector was recognised alongside other traditionally acknowledged bases of power, including the government and media. The community sector is a domain of society just as important and just as powerful.

To look at the power and  effectiveness of the community and the community sector, we need look no further than two transformative changes now taking place – the introduction of the NDIS and Victoria’s recent response to the scourge of family violence. After generations of painstaking work and advocacy, each of these important community issues are now achieving attention and funding of an ilk  that wouldn’t have been thought possible by many even 10 years ago.

Firstly, to take the example of the NDIS, the introduction of a scheme that is the biggest change to Australia’s  health system since Medicare, the result of one of the largest grassroots campaigns in our country’s history.

People with disability and their carers formed this campaign and led it. Through the force of their passion, belief and commitment, along with the unarguable legitimacy of their direct experience and stories, the NDIS campaign evolved and gathered incredible momentum. Through this, people with disability and their carers propelled  themselves from being marginalised and sidelined in the national debate, to being front and centre, and ultimately, gaining the outcome they were fighting for.

People with disability will now be able to use an insurance scheme to meet their individual needs and be treated as consumers of services, accessing the critical supports and resources they need, and not as recipients of ‘welfare’. It is estimated that by July 2019, about 105,000 Victorians will have transferred to the scheme. Many people with disability I’ve spoken with see this as much more than the opportunity for living an “ordinary life” – quite rightly they want a “great life”.

While there are many complications government is working through to enable delivery, and debates swirling over models and concepts such as choice and control, it is important at this point to pause for a moment and take stock; to realise the enormity of people’s achievement in  propelling the response to the needs of people with disability to this point, where it is a central, mainstream part of community debate, media coverage and government policy. People who are receiving services within the NDIS pilot sites have described it as truly life-changing.

The point we are at today would simply not have occurred without the grass-roots campaign led by many different people and organisations in our community and the community sector, who believed that not only was change necessary, but also absolutely possible.

Looking to another example of the immense and profound power of the community and the community sector, we can turn to the landmark response we are seeing to the scourge of family violence. Ten years ago, family violence still remained largely hidden, not really rating a public mention. The tireless efforts of family violence organisations, women’s groups, and other community campaigners were largely ignored, and again, marginalised and sidelined. But these advocates, including Domestic Violence Victoria chief executive Fiona McCormack, continued their passionate and painstaking campaign for recognition of the widespread nature of family violence, and the gender inequality that lays at its heart, as well as their battles to secure more support for those affected by its terrible consequences.

These campaigners lay the groundwork for the broader community to be galvanised into action, once spurred by the extraordinary presence of Rosie Battie following the tragic death of her son, Luke, in February 2014 at the hands of his father. The leadership of former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay was also instrumental in  the following year. Together, with the support of the community sector, they brought an issue that had remained hidden—despite the death of one woman or child almost every single week in our country as a result of family violence—into the spotlight. If that many people were being killed at railway stations each week there would have been an absolute outcry, yet family violence had somehow been excused.

The dedication of these community leaders was then picked up and matched by Premier Daniel Andrews, who prior to the 2014 election committed not only to a Royal Commission into Family Violence, but to implementing all of its findings.

Both of these examples illustrate the power of individuals, communities and the community sector to achieve extraordinary change through long-term joint advocacy. They illustrate the power of people with lived experience using their own expertise and the research available to them to advocate for changes to their lives and throughout the broader Victorian community, and their will to keep advocating until they achieved success that was initially deemed  improbable. They prove that giving voice to those with the expertise of lived experience, and matching this with research and advocacy support, delivers real power and real change.

The community sector has long been society’s conscience. It is the bell that rings when there is a risk of power, wealth and advantage becoming too concentrated in the hands of too few, or being misused. This is particularly critical in working to eliminate poverty and disadvantage. The power of voice is extraordinary, and it is critically important to support people living in poverty or facing disadvantage, and to help raise their voices to drive change in our community.

We see this play out in many different ways. We can see it in the sense of belonging and empowerment created through neighbourhood houses across the state. We see it in the work of Go Goldfields in Ballarat, where a community is working together to positively change the trajectory for all its members. We see it in the strong advocacy effort that was involved in saving CoHealth’s incredible community pharmacy in Collingwood, which provides crucial services for those among the most marginalised in our society.

Fiona McCormack was recently asked why the prevention of family violence hadn’t previously been recognised or funded to the extent that it is now. Her response was blunt and insightful. “We fund what we value as a community,” she said.

It is time for the power of the community sector, and the community it works in partnership with, to be valued. The sector has always had an informal and unrecognised power, one that is inherent and derived from its incredible goals and achievements. Now is the time to  acknowledge this, and see it translate into society’s more formal power structures. It is time the community sector was recognised and properly valued as the ‘fifth estate’, a domain of society equal to the government, the media, the courts, the police and other esteemed institutions. It’s time for the community sector to take its rightful place at the table.

1 Victorian Council of Social Service, Strengthening the state:
A snapshot of Victoria’s community sector charities, 2015.
2 Australian Government, Department of Employment, Industry
Employment Projections: 2014 Report, 2014.

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