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Community leadership and the role we all play in creating change for good

Marie was an ordinary, unassuming woman, in her sixties I would guess.  She was well dressed, clean and neat, and wore a hat on this cold winter’s day.  Standing outside a city office tower, she was so normal she could have been anyone’s aunt or grandma or sister, waiting to meet them for lunch. So normal I barely noticed her as I dashed toward the lift well, late again.  Her hand gestured forward, and the motion caught my eye but as I spun around she withdrew, turning away.  My gut made me ask: “Do you need help?”

With a tear in her eye and just a moment of hesitation she whispered “yes dear, I don’t suppose you could spare two dollars?”. Then the reality hit: there is nothing normal about the indignity of standing on the street, alone, asking complete strangers for support. But this is a new reality for many Australians.

News out this week predicts that women will be about $1million poorer than men in retirement, but the reality for the Marie’s of the world is here and now and it’s very, very bleak.  This week’s 4Corners program gave us an insight into what life is really like for the long term unemployed: those who took time out to raise families and never found their way back; who suffer chronic illness or disabilities; whose roles were made redundant; or those who have never, ever experienced the luxury of paid work.

[NB please follow this link to watch it on iview – but do it soon because the link expires in 24 days]

The reality is that half a million people are looking for work in Australia right now. Around 75 per cent are single and the Government expects them to live on $35 per day – less than $250 per week – unless they have children.  Try finding rental accommodation in any major city for less than that and its obvious that homelessness is a very real prospect.

Those who do have children have for the most part had their welfare payments cut by up to $65 per week due to recent changes in Government policies.  They indeed are living on the brink.

It’s easy to listen to the stories of heartbreak, to hear the desperation in the voices of parents who cannot afford the lives they dreamt for their kids, and to ask what the Government is going to do to fix this.  But here’s a bigger question: what are you going to do to fix this disparity on our doorsteps? What can WE do?

Demanding our Government pay more welfare is a short term fix but it isn’t going to bridge the divide between the haves and the have nots.  It won’t give give the unemployed a purpose in life, and it isn’t sustainable.

According to the Commonwealth Treasury’s 2013-14 budget, our Government will have racked up gross debt (face value) of $290 billion as at December 2013 and this will rise to rise to $340 billion during forward estimates.  The gross interest on this level of borrowing for 2013-14 is $12.5 billion, or $34 million per day. Payable by tax payers.  EVERY SINGLE DAY!  Any increase in welfare payments will need to be funded with additional debt, and that’s what policy makers are finding hard to sell.

This problem of long-term unemployment is enormous, but between us we have a big bank of intellect, education, networks and know-how.  We are members of a business community that employs people.  We are individuals who vote.  We are community leaders.

Could we not put our heads together and come up with new ideas, like special incentives, award rates and pathways to employment? Could we not all play some role in getting those in need where they want to be: off the dole and into paid work?

We employ two people with permanent intellectual disabilities in one of our family businesses.  It was my husband’s initiative to take a risk on them, and create a pathway for each, from welfare to real work.  Turns out it wasn’t a risk at all: they’ve been with us for over a decade earning the same as other employees, enjoying the same opportunities as other employees and paying taxes like other employees. The only thing disproportionate is their outstanding level of commitment and loyalty.

So I wonder…

Could you take a risk too and give someone some hope?  Could you speak with your employer about doing the same? Could you donate to, or volunteer with, a charity who supports those in need? Or could you write to your local MP and voice your expectations?

Maybe it’s time we all put our heads and hearts together and demanded community leadership and community solutions for all Australians, especially those living on the brink.

Your thoughts?


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