Thursday 11 March 2021

Federal Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities and Non-for-Profits, Andrew Leigh MP expressed that he was a “huge fan of the neighbourhood house movement” during a forum on the eighth Sustainable Development Goal ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth'.

The Labor member for Fenner joined Neighbourhood Houses Victoria CEO Nicole Battle yesterday for an insightful discussion covering several interrelated topics such as the decline in social connections, the impact of COVID-19 on the job market and non-for-profit sector, as well as poverty and wealth inequality.

Andrew is passionate about social connectivity, having last year co-authored the book Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook, and talked of his concern for what he described as “a real crisis in civic connection across Australia”.

“Australians are half as likely to be attending church as we were in the 1950s, half as likely to be members of a union as we were in the early 1980s, less likely to be volunteering… there are fewer community organisations now per person than there were in the 1970s and we’re seeing a drop off in political engagement,” Andrew said.

“We have a problem where Australia has moved from a country of ‘we’ to a country of ‘me’."

He talked of the important role neighbourhood houses played in reducing inequalities through creating social connections.

“It’s a mistake to see social connectedness and inequality as two different things… and that’s where neighbourhood houses are so important, because you’re not only creating social connections, you’re also creating opportunities for people that help improve intergenerational mobility, that help reduce inequality, and help build a society where the benefits don’t flow to the disproportionately lucky few, but are broadly shared across the community.”

Andrew said the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to shake up the status quo, citing action on wage subsidies and homelessness, but has also provided immense challenges, particularly for charities and non-for profits. These challenges include a drop in volunteering, a lack of fundraising avenues, and the pressure to meet growing community demand as these organisations struggle to stay alive.

He is particularly concerned about the impacts of the winding back of JobKeeper and the flow-on effect this will have for organisations like neighbourhood houses, if they don’t get the support they need.

“This is really a time where we need to be helping the helpers,” he said.

Nicole took the opportunity to share how involved neighbourhood houses had been throughout the pandemic.

“We have 1,000 neighbourhood houses across Australia and to be honest, in terms of COVID, we were very much on the front line with a lot of the response, so the disparity of income that you’re talking about, our houses experienced it first hand. They had more people than ever coming through to access food, people coming in with bill payments, people getting involved with debt traps, because they just don’t have enough money.”

With a Federal election looming, Nicole went on to mention that there are 38 marginal seats which require a less than five per cent swing, and across those seats there are 177 neighbourhood houses.

When asked how neighbourhood houses could use this to their advantage in influencing policy platforms in the lead up to the election, Andrew said, “Invite Coalition members as conservative as you can find, as well as Labor members or Greens members as progressive you can find, ensuring that for everybody, poverty becomes a higher priority.” He pointed to the NDIS as a successful example of getting the needs of a disadvantaged community to the top of the political priority list.

The second part of the forum focused on how social enterprises are championing economic and social change. Nicole was joined by Matt Pfahlert, CEO of Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise Academy Australia, and two neighbourhood houses provided successful case studies in running their own laundromat and sustainable café.

Watch the forum here: