IT’S a complex discussion about a very serious problem: what to do about the rising numbers of ‘at risk’ children in the Nambucca.
And for now, the Nambucca Shire Council has decided to leave it to the experts.
Last month council voted to stick to the three ‘R’s of roads, rates and rubbish and relieve itself of its community development responsibilities under the auspice of a broad new swathe of changes coming to the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS).
Currently the Nambucca Shire Council receives funding from FACS to employ two full time staff who implement a range of services and activities for vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community, on behalf of the State Government.
Of primary importance under the new FACS model are changes to the Targeted Early Intervention (TEI) program – an initiative which tries to directly help at-risk children (and their families/communities) before reaching the point of child removal.
Funded agents like the council are being asked to self-assess and select from a new ‘menu’ of levels of service and engagement they may wish to provide.
But council has decided that they would much rather the funding be redirected to local service providers than expand the council’s capacity to offer these new service levels.
“Council is assured by FACS that funding levels to the Nambucca Shire will not decrease under these changes, as the level of need is just too great,” the council business paper reads.
One factor that weighed critically in the debate was the desire for “funding for Aboriginal people being managed by Aboriginal organisations”.
A rescission motion was tabled at the next council meeting by councillors Susan Jenvey and Anne Smyth when it was realised that the implications of this rather complex piece of legislation meant the axeing of two of council’s community development jobs, and a possible loss of direct engagement with the Shire’s most vulnerable, especially in Indigenous communities.
Despite a fiery debate, that rescission motion was lost and council will continue along the path of deferring its funding to private providers.
The debate: a case of big vs small government
In Australia, privatisation is starting to leave a legacy of scepticism when applied to human and essential services – think the most recent TAFE debacle and the government subsidisations for private health insurance despite glaring faults in the industry, to name just two.
After all, is efficiency really more important than ensuring that noone falls through the gaps?
And quality control can be quite bothersome when there are huge numbers of different private or community service providers doing the work.
But mayor Rhonda Hoban said it was her hope that by encouraging an Indigenous organisation-led service provision, it would attract more funding to the Nambucca in the long run.
Cr Jenvey suggested that instead of opting out completely from the realm of community development, that council might choose instead to act as a watchdog for consistency in services.
“Some areas in the TEI program where council could take a leadership role would be around the co-ordination of a plan, and service consistency, by fostering collaboration between agencies, and a co-ordinated approach to supporting communities. It must prosecute a framework for why disadvantage by postcode requires a human services model and not a business model,” she said.
“On the subject of assurances or guarantees from FACS that existing levels of funding be guaranteed to the shire, once Nambucca Council no longer has any skin in the game, it doesn't have a seat at the table.”
She also said removing council’s community development positions would send a message that “we no longer occupy that space” of social justice and inclusion.
But the mayor countered that she was shocked when she realised that FACS’ funding to council stripped the very same funds from local boots-on-the-ground organisations like the Nambucca Valley Youth Services.
She pointed out the devastation that was felt in the community when the Youthie lost funding for Headspace.
“For our council staff to get into that direct TEI program would probably require them to move their desks down to the Youthie,” she said.
“This is not about taking money from anyone but about putting those resources into the hands of people who are more qualified to do the job.”
But deputy mayor Martin Ballangarry was concerned that removing these roles would undo the good work the council has recently done in making connections with its Indigenous mobs.
“After pondering over this and talking to my Aboriginal people, I believe this would be a disservice to them,” he said.
I think we are doing an injustice to remove any Aboriginal connection to this council.
“I don’t mind being a ‘token’ but give me some ammunition to be able to work with my community.
“I think we need to keep something in this Shire for the Aboriginal community.”
Councillor Brian Finlayson reminded the other councillors that the decision made was not to remove these services from the community, just to remove that responsibility from council.
“Our senior staff can’t cope with what they’ve got to do at the moment, let alone deal with another department,” he said.
And councillor John Ainsworth agreed that he didn’t believe council was properly set up to provide the kind of services FACS has outlined.
But councillor David Jones said eliminating a full-time Aboriginal community development position from council would be unrepresentative of our community’s make-up, further entrenching racial divides.
“This organisation should have Aboriginality embedded in it. This is ‘us’ not ‘other’,” he said.
“I know these are complex issues but maybe we should have eight percent of staff in this council being Aboriginal, which reflects our Shire’s eight percent Aboriginality.”
But general manager Michael Coulter said there would be more benefit in building the capacity of Aboriginal organisations to do the job.
“At the moment those services are being delivered by white Australia,” he said.
Cr Jenvey was not convinced, however, that putting power into the hands of “unknown NGOs” would be the best option.
“I don’t think FACS itself really knows where this program is heading,” she said.
“What I do know is that council is the vital grass-roots link between communities.”
The debate over the rescission motion was like watching a tennis game – both sides were equally concerned about turning the tide on the rising rate of ‘at risk’ kids in the Valley but, in the end, the small government approach won out.