Monday, 6 May 2013

Protest against funding cuts to Welfare Rights Centre

Cutting the cake, but no celebration on Welfare Rights' 30th birthday
In April, the NSW State Government sent shock-waves through the community sector when it announced that it was stripping community advocacy organsiation, Welfare Rights Centre, of all its State Government funding.

The decision will see $404,000 withdrawn from the organisation, representing 40% of its total funding.

The funding cuts were defended by NSW Community Services Minister, Pru Goward, who said, due to restructuring, her department is now primarily focused on child protection and that it should be the responsibility of the Commonwealth to ensure that the Welfare Rights Centre remains adequately funded. Welfare Rights' Director, Maree O’Halloran, responded saying there is "a legitimate and necessary role for both levels of Government to support the most vulnerable people in our community."

On 3 May 2013, Welfare Rights' 30th birthday, a snap Emergency Rally was held in Sydney to protest the defunding announcement.

Although the rally was held during a weekday lunchtime, over 300 people attended the event. The fact that people turned out in force is hardly surprising, considering the unique and important services that Welfare Rights undertakes.

For 30 years, Welfare Rights Centre has been funded primarily by the NSW and federal governments to provide free, expert advice to financially disadvantaged people, assisting them to resolve issues navigating the social security system. Welfare Rights also advocates on behalf of people experiencing disability discrimination in relation to employment, as well as providing free legal advice for clients appearing before the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Protestors come out in force to attend the Emergency Rally
In the last financial year, over 30% of people assisted by Welfare Rights were people with a disability, including people living with chronic illness such as HIV. AFAO and some of our member organisations have collaborated with Welfare Rights on policy and advocacy issues many times over the years, benefitting from their highly-respected expertise.

At the Emergency Rally, numerous high profile speakers came out in support of Welfare Rights.

Speakers included: Kristie Rue from Single Parents Action Group; Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS); Linda Burney, MP, Shadow Minister for Family and Community Services;  Alex Greenwich, MP, Independent Member for Sydney; Cate Faehrmann, MP, Greens NSW and Sally McManus, Secretory for the Australian Services Union (ASU). All spoke out against the short-sightedness of the NSW Government decision.

ACOSS CEO, Cassandra Goldie, addresses the rally
ACOSS CEO, Cassandra Goldie, highlighted the immense value of the services provided by Welfare Rights, explaining that the organisation is uniquely placed to give expert advice about navigating Australia’s complex social security system; MP Alex Greenwich stressed that these essential services are achieved for a very small outlay in funding terms.

(A recent analysis of Community Legal Centres has estimated that every dollar spent on legal assistance creates $18 dollars in social benefits. Framed in these terms, the $404,000 funded by the NSW government to Welfare Rights Centre creates a dividend of $7.2 million dollars.)

The ASU's Sally McManus said that the defunding of Welfare Rights would have a ‘knock-on’ effect that should not be underestimated. She explained that, on a daily basis, the Centre receives requests for advice from community workers across the country, and the loss of five staff positions due to the defunding would have repercussions felt by communities throughout Australia.

Some speakers also raised fears that other community advocacy organisations could be similarly targeted. Kristie Rue said the defunding decision was not just about money, but was also about "silencing dissent".  Sally McMannus echoed these sentiments, saying that Pru Goward’s justification could easily be used “as a cover” for cuts to other advocacy services not involved in direct child protection roles.

A number of speakers, including Greens MP, Cate Faehrmann, said that the Sydney rally was the beginning of what would become a large and ongoing campaign protesting the State Government decision.

Several speakers expressed optimism that, despite the adversity, the work of Welfare Rights would continue and - with further pressure from the community - the NSW government would ultimately have no choice but to reverse its decision and restore full funding to the organisation.

To learn more about the work of Welfare Rights Centre NSW and ways you can add your voice to the protest, visit https://www.welfarerights.org.au/organisations/nsw/sydney

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