The world has changed a lot in the last 40 years but the challenge of people having a say in what happens in their communities remains. Charmaine Jones reflects on the community empowerment experiment of the Australian Assistance Program and what we can learn to face the community building challenges for the future.
As we move towards the 40th Annual General Meeting of Inner Sydney Regional Council for Social Development (now trading as Inner Sydney Voice) the organisation has been reflecting on all it has seen and done over four decades, as well as being left to ponder what the next few decades will bring given how public participation looks in the 21st century. As I wrote this, Australia was in limbo, awaiting the news of whom will govern us. As the counting of the votes dragged on I thought we should all be reflecting on the future of public participation. It would appear while we now live in a world with all the knowledge of humankind at our fingertips, as a collective, we are less knowledgeable than ever.
In the days when Regional Council was being established, there were no GetUps or Change.Orgs; people participated through neighbourhood organising, protest marches, sit-ins, folksongs and burning things, lots of things: bras, books, flags and manifestos. And it seemed to work. Anti-Vietnam War protests saw the Whitlam Labor Government end conscription. The Green Bans initiated by the Builders Labourers Federation saved the historic buildings in The Rocks from demolition as well as protecting other vital urban spaces.
It was also the Whitlam Labor Government which saw the need for an avenue through which Australians could have their say, keep informed and have input in to local decision making. They created the Australian Assistance Plan, which saw the establishment of Regional Councils for Social Development (RCSD) across the nation, as a mechanism for local communities to have a voice.
Recently University of Newcastle digitised the archives of the Hunter Regional Council for Social Development including a 1974 film about the Australian Assistance Plan. The film narrator talks about Future Shock whereby communities and individuals felt less important than the changes rapidly taking place around them. As a means of building resilience to that ‘shock’, each Regional Council was funded to employ a social planner and community development officers. An observer from the times praised the Australian Assistance Plan for generating “much more general acceptance of the concepts of welfare for the community and local participation” adding also “that It would be difficult to refute the conclusion that the sum of $6.6 million granted to Regional Councils of Social Development in 1975-76 promoted a very large amount of constructive welfare activity because it was spent in support of local and often voluntary efforts.”
In fact, with the indomitable Marg Barry at the helm, the work Inner Sydney Regional Council did in the early days saw the establishment of a number of other welfare services including multicultural centres, family and children services, and tenancy services. The need for these types of services had been highlighted by the local community working alongside agencies like Community Services and the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOSCAR).
But times have changed and advocacy is now almost a dirty word, and this work is certainly no longer funded by government. So what do we have left in the 21st century? What models of community voice and public participation are there for us now?
The outcome of the Brexit vote in the UK is good evidence of the particular failings of certain 21st century participatory models ‘What is the EU?’ and ‘What happens if the UK leaves the EU?’ were the highest Google search results in the UK the day after the vote. Surely, the majority of UK residents should have known the answer to these questions before hitting the polling booths. Our heavy reliance on social media as a source of news and information appears to be having an impact.
It what some refer to as the modern day version of commercial talk back radio, social media is the only news filter for many people. There is little depth or analysis to the news they are being fed and people’s responses to it are visceral and immediate. There is no room for sound consideration or thought in the social media world. People distance themselves from the content and their reactions, before speedily scrolling on to the next post.
Another driver behind the loss of sensible debate and public participation is the 24-hour news / infotainment cycle. News is flung at us in rapid soundbites, accompanied by scandalous images, and seemingly powered by fear and hatred, or, at the other end of the spectrum, is filled with frivolous celebrity gossip. Whole communities can be displaced, but it is naked photos of Kim Kardashian that will bring the world to a halt. As Jeff Sorensen from the Huffington Post puts it “journalism is now clipped to a sentence that scrolls at the bottom of the screen.”
It is this environment that emphasises the importance of the continuation of work from apolitical organisations like Inner Sydney Voice. Their role in providing clear, unbiased analyses of what is happening at a local community, city-wide and state-wide level is probably more valuable now than when they were first established.
The world is spinning a lot faster than in 1974, and if communities were in shock then, in 2016 they must be almost in a state of paralysis. This is why we must maintain a strong focus on community capacity building and the inclusion of traditionally under-represented groups, such as persons with disabilities, youth and indigenous groups, in the public participation and decision making process. All citizens should be able to have input in to building consensus on local social development agendas and where limited resources are best placed.
Forty years down the track, we recognise capacity building is a long-term process if it is to ensure all stakeholders are involved and have their voices not only heard, but respected. For organisations like Inner Sydney Voice, it is a process whereby those of us assisting in building capacity must be adaptive and flexible as political, technological and environmental landscapes shift.
Facilitators of public participation in 2016 need to shift their modes of thinking. No longer does having a group with branch meetings and sub-committees meet the needs or interests of 21st century denizen. We need to ensure we recognise spin and avoid using weasel words. We need to understand that young people all have mobile phones but seldom make phone calls. We need to understand Australians work some of the longest hours in the OECD. We need to focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong in our communities. We need to create formal and informal avenues for people to contribute through and most importantly, we must listen.
We must remain the ones with our feet firmly planted on the ground and our ear to the wall. But, as in the words of Henrik Ibsen, “A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.”
Charmaine Jones is the Executive Officer of Inner Sydney Regional Council now known as Inner Sydney Voice.
A Say In Your Community With The Australian Assistance Plan (1974): https://uoncc.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/a-say-in-your-community-with-the-australian-assistance-plan-1974/
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