Same same, but different – 2019 in review
18 December 2019 at 5:13 pm
As the sun sets on 2019 – and this decade comes to an end – Luke Michael looks back at how the year unfolded for the social sector
If 2018 was a year of political chaos and upheaval, then 2019 was – for the most part – the year of the status quo.
We wrote last year that the federal election set 2019 up as a “sector-shaping year for Australia’s charities and not for profits”.
Indeed it was, but not in the way many anticipated.
Labor dominated the polls and was expected to romp home to an easy election victory, after six years of a Coalition government already onto its third prime minister.
The party came into the election promising to fix fundraising laws, strengthen charitable advocacy legislation, restore the nation’s foreign aid budget and remove the National Disability Insurance Agency staffing cap.
But none of these reforms came to fruition, after Scott Morrison shocked political pundits by winning the election and forming (a slim) majority government.
This year was marked more by what didn’t change then by what did. Despite growing public pressure, Newstart wasn’t raised, the government did not release its response to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission review, fundraising laws remained the same and progress stalled on Closing the Gap.
This did not deter the sector though, which rallied to achieve some significant policy wins in 2019 through strong advocacy.
Disability groups finally convinced the government to launch a royal commission, New South Wales decriminalised abortion, Victoria removed its “racist” public drunkenness laws, and targets were set to remove young people from aged care.
There were also some huge developments in the world of social finance. The Morrison government helped level the playing field for the cooperatives and mutuals sector, passing legislation in April making it easier for member-owned businesses to compete with listed companies.
Also that month, the government announced the creation of a Social Impact Investing Taskforce, which will develop a strategy for the Commonwealth’s role in the social impact investment market.
Dr Gary Johns makes his mark on the ACNC
This year was a drama filled one for the ACNC. It began with Labor demanding that the commission publicly release results from its staff surveys, with the opposition and sector leaders concerned by what they believed was a major decline in staff morale since Dr Gary Johns was appointed commissioner.
In April, it emerged that assistant commissioner Murray Baird was on leave from the ACNC, and had been offered a temporary position at the Australian Taxation Office, after a major clash with Johns over leadership and the direction of the organisation.
Johns’ mantra since he took over as ACNC commissioner has been to develop a charity marketplace. He believes this will create a more engaged and informed public, despite sector figures being critical of the idea.
The ACNC charity marketplace is set to become a reality, with Johns announcing in August that the initiative will commence on 1 July 2020.
Disability groups question NDIS underspend
Disability issues – particularly the National Disability Insurance Scheme – continued to dominate the headlines in 2019.
In February, it was revealed that 70 per cent of Disability Support Pension applications were rejected in 2017-18.
Disability advocates said this meant many people with disability were being forced onto Newstart and receiving almost $400 a fortnight less.
In July, we profiled a woman who spent 22 months trying to get on the DSP – highlighting the complexity of the application process.
The use of NDIS funding came under close scrutiny in the lead up to the federal budget, following reports the government was considering using an estimated $2.5 billion in unspent scheme funds to reduce the deficit for the financial year.
The final budget outcome for 2018-19 revealed the federal government spent $4.6 billion less on the NDIS than expected because of delays getting people into the program.
This underspend helped the budget return to the brink of surplus for the first time since 2007-08, but disability advocates said any excess funds should be used to fix the scheme’s implementation problems rather than to improve the government’s bottom line.
The NDIS also went through an overhaul at an operational level. Robert De Luca quit as NDIA CEO in April to become the head of Zenitas Healthcare.
The position was left vacant for more than 150 days until Martin Hoffman was unveiled in the role in October.
On a political level, Stuart Robert was appointed the first ever NDIS minister in the Morrison government new-look cabinet following the election.
Meanwhile problems in the scheme persisted. A Senate inquiry heard in October that people were afraid to challenge problems in their NDIS funding plans because they were told they risked having other services cut if they did so.
Community groups fail to see the “positive” side of homelessness
Homelessness was another issue that the sector fought hard to address in 2019.
This year saw increased recognition of the spike in older women finding themselves on the verge of homelessness.
Young people also suffered, with analysis showing 11,000 young people across Australia remained homeless even after seeking help from services.
While community groups called on the Morrison government to show leadership by starting work on a national homelessness action plan by the end of the year, this didn’t eventuate.
Instead, the homelessness minister Luke Howarth came under fire in July for saying he wanted to put a “positive spin” on homelessness.
He wasn’t the only Coalition minister to come under fire for their public comments.
Social Services Minister Anne Ruston was slammed in October for suggesting a raise to Newstart would simply “give drug dealers more money and give pubs more money”.
Ruston comments came amid growing debate around the adequacy of Newstart – which has not risen in real terms since 1994.
The government has stood firm on its opposition to raising Newstart, despite former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos and Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan all publicly calling for an increase this year.
Pro Bono News recently explored the sad and sorry history of Newstart, which has seen governments of all persuasions overlooking and undermining people on Australia’s unemployment benefit.
As debate on the payment rages, a Senate inquiry into Newstart this year heard stories of recipients losing homes, skipping meals, self-harming, and rationing their insulin.
Welfare recipients also said they were wary of incoming changes to Australia’s income support system that will see the Sickness Allowance scrapped and replaced with an all-encompassing working age payment.
Social enterprise sector thrives
But it hasn’t been all bad news.
A report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation this year found that Australia was now the second best country in the world to be a social entrepreneur.
Australia jumped up 24 places from its ranking in the original 2016 survey, with the foundation lauding the nation’s strong government policies to support social entrepreneurs and a friendly environment for businesses doing good.
This followed the Queensland government’s decision in September to launch a social enterprise strategy to double employment in the sector.
Climate change was another issue which mobilised not only the sector, but young people across Australia.
In March, children from more than 55 Australian cities and towns took part in School Strike 4 Climate protests, calling for politicians to stop Adani’s coal mine, reject fossil fuels and commit Australia to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.
This was followed by an even larger climate strike in September, which saw an estimated 300,000 Australians gather at rallies around the country.
Earlier this year, the winners of Pro Bono Australia’s Impact 25 Awards were revealed, with prominent figures including Gillian Triggs, Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM, Tracy Bevan and Ronni Kahn AO recognised for their tireless work in the sector.
And just this month, the Morrison government announced it was preparing a new foreign aid policy, which will be informed by an expert panel and public submissions.
Aid groups hope this revamped program will focus on the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people while also deepening Australia’s relationships in the Indo-Pacific.
So while 2019 did not deliver a major shift to Australia’s social policy agenda, the sector played a vital role agitating for change and achieved some major wins along the way.
As the nation enters not only a new year, but a new decade, there is no doubt the sector will continue to serve the community and fight to make Australia a better place to live for this and future generations.