Thursday, 18 October 2018
Cowan Electorate: Blue Sky Community Group
Last week I visited the Blue Sky Community Group in my electorate of Cowan. Blue Sky provides financial counselling services for people, many of whom have found themselves in untenable positions of accrued debt and are facing financial hardship. I met one of their clients, who, after a severe illness, could no longer work in her once-lucrative position. She lost her house and had to rely on welfare and housing assistance. But she also found herself with $38,000 of credit card debt. Much of the responsibility for that falls on the unscrupulous banks and credit providers that continued to offer her more and more credit, at high interest rates and with high penalties for late payments, even as she struggled to afford the most basic repayments. Eventually she went to Blue Sky, and the financial counsellor there was able to help her manage her repayments and get some of that debt waived. Essentially, they saved her life.
I spoke to the counsellors at Blue Sky about the growing need for their services, particularly in Western Australia and within Cowan. There has been a huge spike of people in Cowan who are suffering mortgage stress. The end of the mining and construction boom in WA saw thousands of people retrenched and unable to find work. Men, women and families who bought homes at the peak of the boom, when house prices were at an all-time high, are now left in a situation where they have unmanageable mortgages, but they're also unable to sell their homes at a price that would even begin to cover the mortgage debt that they find themselves in, because house prices in WA have fallen so much. They bought their houses to fulfil that great Australian dream of home ownership. They are the aspirational Aussies that this government likes to talk about. They worked hard, they paid their taxes and they did everything they could to contribute to and participate in the economic and social fabric of this country. But they're also the people that this government has forgotten in its pandering to big business and the top end of town. I cannot stress enough to this House just how important these kinds of services are, particularly at a time when we are seeing stagnant wage growth, increasing cost of living, job losses, casualisation of the workforce and the loss of penalty rates.
Equally important is the service provided by community legal centres across Australia. Today there's a delegation of senior staff from CLCs visiting Parliament House. They include representatives from women's legal services, employment law centres, generalist community centres, those with health justice partnerships, specialist domestic violence units, those with elder abuse expertise and those from regional areas. These centres provide a vital service and support to people experiencing family violence in areas including housing and tenancy, social security, financial matters and credit debt.
By way of a statistic: in WA there are 28 centres, and last year they helped 22,759 people with funding of just over $6 million. The Women's Law Centre tells me that relationship breakdown due to financial stress has increased the demand for the services of community legal services there. The Employment Law Centre is telling me that there is an influx of people around employment law and entitlements but also that the increase in a casualised workforce, and more long-term unemployed mid-level engineers and managers, et cetera, is also due to the end of the mining construction boom.
These centres support particular groups within the community: women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with disability, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. They work to help everyday people with everyday legal problems in pretty much every state and territory in Australia. But this vital service is under threat, because of no funding certainty for the community legal sector. This impacts on their ability to provide a service that meets a growing need, and, in practice, results in a service lag. Last year 97 CLCs spent over 3,857 hours per week on funding related activities. Again, I cannot stress enough to this House the vital importance of these kinds of services for our community to ensure that no Australian is left behind. We can talk about economic growth all we like, but we need to ensure that all people have access to that economic growth.