Senate debates

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Community Services

7:10 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is no secret that I am a firm believer in the fundamental liberal principles of small government, of free markets and of individual liberty and personal responsibility, but people of my ilk are often berated by those on the left—the Greens and Labor—for being cold, uncaring and unfeeling. This character assessment follows a flawed logic: that a belief in less government involvement in people's lives is necessarily incompatible with having a generous heart.

The left is wrong when it says that, if something is socially good, it must be done by government, that taxpayer funded programs and distant bureaucrats are the only source of welfare cohesion and social support. Community organisations, religious groups and not-for-profits have a long history of successfully looking out for the marginalised and less fortunate members of the Australian community.

Indeed, part of that model is something I would like to talk about tonight, and that is the social enterprise model. Social enterprises are defined in different ways, but at their core they share the goals of improving social and community wellbeing through the application of essentially free market business principles. Rather than only aiming to maximise profits—which I think is a wonderful thing and still important—social enterprises focus on how their business activities can be directed towards facilitating social good and development. For example, they can adapt management practices and reinvest profits in a way that is targeted towards a virtuous circle of continued social improvement. There is no one-size-fits-all with social enterprises, which operate as not-for-profits, cooperatives and community owned businesses.    This flexibility allows social enterprises to deliver a range of benefits throughout community.

Of course, there are the economic benefits, which I, being on the right, get particularly excited about. Social enterprises in many shapes and sizes boost jobs and investment, often in areas otherwise neglected by traditional business activities. In particular, small businesses, the engine room of our economy, provide the perfect scale for nimble and adaptable social enterprises which can tailor their services to their local communities.

But the driving force behind these enterprises is what they can achieve in terms of social benefits. The best form of welfare is a job. The benefits of employment—dignity, self-reliance, confidence, and skills development—provide a platform for new migrants, the long-term unemployed and other disengaged individuals to enter the workforce. By tailoring hiring policies to actively target these members of the community, social enterprises help to break down barriers and improve social cohesion. In addition, social enterprises often provide training services to cater for skills shortages that may otherwise prevent people in the local community from obtaining employment.

Internationally, we have seen the Conservative Party under the leadership of David Cameron utilise centre-right principles to achieve social progress under the banner of the Big Society. The Big Society champions the redistribution of power away from the state—from the politicians and the bureaucrats—to individuals and local communities. The ideal is to have a society with higher levels of personal, civic, and corporate responsibility with volunteerism, ingenuity, and community engagement, rather than the dead hand of government, as drivers of local change. As part of this, the Conservatives have sought to strengthen and support social enterprises in the United Kingdom, recognising the important role that the sector can play in an otherwise straitened fiscal environment.

Research in Australia has highlighted the benefits of the sector at home. In June 2010 the Finding Australia's Social Enterprise Sector report was handed down, shedding some light on this rapidly growing sector. At that time it was estimated that 20,000 social enterprises existed in Australia, a 37 per cent increase over the previous five years; 73 per cent had been in operation for at least five years; and 62 per cent had been in operation for at least 10 years, displaying the sustainability in the social enterprise model. The sector as a whole generated almost 40 per cent of its income from trading activities across a wide range of goods and services—an impressive $22 billion annually—and constituted up to three per cent of gross domestic product.    Encouragingly, 57 per cent of social enterprises reported that they reinvested any profits back into improving their businesses and extending their outreach to their target demographics. While no doubt the sector has changed significantly over the last five years, its benefits are plain to see.

As an illustration of the work being done, I would like to share an example of a successful social enterprise from my home state of Queensland. Access Community Services Limited, based in Logan, is a leader in settlement, employment, training and youth services to migrants, refugees and other clients. Its operations primarily cover Logan, Ipswich and the Gold Coast but reach right across Queensland. At its inception, Access identified a need to provide transport to jobseekers, especially those from a migrant background, in a region where public transport options were not always suitable. It came up with an innovative solution and established a driving school. This first social enterprise has since trained thousands of jobseekers from numerous cultural and ethnic backgrounds, enabling them to travel to work and take part in employment and community activities. Access has since gone from strength to strength, integrating a range of different businesses in a coordinated approach to cater for a diverse range of client needs. There is a real estate agency, a cafe and a virtual op shop. There are integrated gardening, repairs, moving and waste management businesses, which have provided niche employment opportunities and filled service gaps for local councils including Logan City and the Western Downs Region. There are further plans to diversify, which I will touch on shortly.

This approach again highlights the unique benefits of the social enterprise model. Not only does each business provide employment and training to new migrants and other clients, but the profits generated can then be put towards supporting Access's other youth, employment and training, and settlement programs. In December last year, I had the pleasure of visiting some of Access's operations in Logan. There I met with Access CEO Gail Ker OAM and her team, who are strong and passionate believers in social enterprise and what they can do for local communities not just in Logan but across Queensland. The most exciting part of the day was the showcase of Access's newest enterprise—the Spice Exchange. The Spice Exchange aims to provide migrant, refugee and other disengaged women with a soft entry into the workforce through food and culture. The women create recipes for different spices and mix the ingredients themselves, which are then sold commercially. This environment allows the women to pass on their own cultural journey through the products they create—some of which I got to taste test during my visit. Not only do the women have an opportunity to develop their English, interpersonal skills and self-confidence but, most importantly, they get to develop their small business skills such as budgeting and marketing—also part of the on-the-job training at the Spice Exchange—so hopefully they can go out into the broader community and establish their own businesses. For the Harmony Day celebrations in Cloncurry this Sunday, the Spice Exchange will be formally launched in conjunction with the Cloncurry Shire Council and the local Country Women's Association branch—a great example of community and cultural engagement. I am sorry that I have to apologise for not being able to be there on the day due to boring logistical reasons.

Following on from my visit to Access down in Logan with Gail and her team I think it would be appropriate for parliament to establish a parliamentary friendship group supporting social enterprise. I will be writing to MPs and senators in the near future to gauge their support for such a friendship group. I would particularly like to thank my friend Carmen Garcia for highlighting for me the good work the social enterprise sector can do in local communities. Her dedication to assisting migrants, multicultural youth and other disengaged individuals in taking part in the Australian way of life is commendable. I congratulate Carmen on the recent birth of her son Cooper—a big baby boy at 9 pounds 12 ounces, which I am told is rather large. Female senators are nodding in agreement; the men are just looking awkward! The social enterprise model is something is something that should be supported because it combines the best of what I believe is the freedom of the individual in terms of smaller government and a greater responsibility for the individual to take care of themselves.