By Susan Helyar, Director, ACT Council of Social Service, appeared in City News, 13 October 2016
At the start of this election year we invited people to shrug off hopeful complacency, acknowledge growing economic inequality in our community and prioritise addressing gaps in our social infrastructure, starting with housing affordability.
As the Federal election unfolded we invited people to cherish and exercise the ability of people to speak up about all kinds of things happening in their lives whether it’s abuse or issues of unfairness and inequity ticking away underneath the surface. We spoke out against the public shaming and silencing that too often happens when people speak out against social or economic injustice.
Far from fading into election fatigue following the marathon Federal poll, the ACT is having its most engaged election since self-government. If this election feels different, it’s not just that we have more people with more corflutes contesting more seats. We also have a maturing voter base that is keen to engage, participate and shape the political debate.
Community organisations have been ambitious in this campaign, hosting forums, launching their own platforms at rallies and pitching solutions, not just problems. Increased community engagement has turned campaigning around and encouraged candidates to listen and respond directly to voters in their electorate.
We are a literate, educated group of voters many of whom have an insider’s knowledge of how it all works – it doesn’t have to be politics as usual for us. We can heighten our ambitions, initiate dangerous conversations and through our efforts shake up complacency.
For the first time ever 19 community organisations – often with different agendas on many issues ranging from healthcare to the environment – developed a shared agenda for the next ACT Assembly seeking commitments from candidates on city infrastructure, economic development, social infrastructure, services and our local environment. Threaded through this shared agenda is a recognition that unless we tackle growing inequality in the ACT we can’t make economic progress or increase social wellbeing.
For ACTCOSS the fundamental issue to address to reduce inequality is the lack of affordable housing in our city. Candidates have acknowledged this. Increasing housing affordability featured in the party leaders answers to many of the questions asked and priorities discussed at the ACTCOSS Election Forum in August.
In another first, business, community, industry and unions, who all disagree on some pivotal issues, linked arms in the last week of the ACT election campaign to say we have a problem and need a strategy when private rental is $470 a week in Canberra and so many people can’t see a way to owning their own home. This group, whose members have vastly different political affiliations and agendas, have said the lack of affordable housing is putting a brake on economic diversification and entrenches inequality. The have said development of a comprehensive territory-wide housing strategy should be a first order priority for the new term of government.
Business and industry are right to talk economic consequences – a city which can’t house its key workers can’t create wealth, diversify or grow its economy much less ensure social wellbeing and cohesion.
Unaffordable housing drives homelessness. Through the campaign there has been growing awareness amongst voters (as evidenced by letters to the editor in “CityNews” and “The Canberra Times”) that our city has a major problem with homelessness. Homelessness not only damages lives, it increases fiscal risks right across government with revenue reductions from less economic activity and direct spending costs in justice, education, disability, health, mental health and the specialist homelessness systems.
In the face of this growing awareness, the community isn’t sitting back and waiting for politicians to provide answers, they are taking the election into their own hands – sometimes literally. Voters are handing out how-to-vote-for-housing fliers advising candidates on how they should vote to increase housing affordability and address homelessness if they get elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly. Candidates are hearing about housing affordability concerns when they are doorknocking and voters have said affordable housing is in their top five priorities.
Maybe Canberra isn’t a complacent city as much as one where mutual fear of social judgement has held us back from talking about what’s really going on.
When we provided people with a safe place to provide their stories of home we heard from public servants facing housing crisis following bereavement, income loss and a cascading set of changes in circumstances. We heard from Trish who said: “Nobody I know talks about homelessness – they are in that Canberra state of mind where you have to pretend things are okay... Being a public service town people are worried about being judged for not being successful. People talk about their holidays and try to outdo each other and I’m sitting there thinking: “I wish I could afford air-conditioning”.
Any of that ring true for you? If so you’re not alone because those stories keep coming our way. This week, we received a story from Kristen who described her journey from public servant “who wore a lanyard, ingested too much caffeine, spent all day glued to a computer screen and battled a twice-daily commute” to a “technically homeless person living out of suitcase and pet sitting” following a trauma-related injury.
We’re also discovering that our politicians aren’t so far from the affordable housing problem, either. At a forum at the start of the campaign in August prominent candidates from the Canberra Liberals, ACT Labor and the ACT Greens talked openly about times they faced housing issues following relationship breakdowns; slept in cars when there were no other options; lived in an abusive relationship and had to escape at a minute’s notice; or were simply regarded as a bad risk by a landlord or a lending institution. All of these candidates were respected for telling it like it was – they emerged enhanced. We should be proud of that.
The challenge ahead for our city is to continue the dangerous conversations after polling day. These conversations will name inequality, inadequate infrastructure, environmental risks and gaps within and beyond the universal health, education and transport services and will let the ACT government know that the community expects action to fill these gaps. As this election campaign closes, I am encouraged that Canberra is becoming less complacent and more willing to confront the risks we face to a fair, prosperous and sustainable future.