Dr. Frank Purcell, President of the North East Central Council of the St Vincent de Paul Society, examines issues relevant to social cohesion and social justice in the Goulburn Valley. While the Goulburn Valley has a history of success at welcoming new settlements and providing employment and associated services, much research is needed in order to understand settlement today, and the needs of those who are living in poverty. Dr Purcell asks, “Would a research and advocacy centre be an opportunity to strengthen that spirit of mutual cooperation which has done so much for the region up till now? Would such a centre assist both voluntary and professional agencies in this area to work together with the needy and disadvantaged to design and construct a range of bridges out of poverty?”
When I came to Shepparton 38 years ago, I was impressed by the rich community culture of this region. Newcomers groups, a network of special schools for children with disabilities, baby-sitting clubs, sports programmes, school holiday programmes, English tutorials for new migrants, strong cooperative enterprises in dairying, credit unions and much more. The list was and still is impressive. I have also seen that range of services grow and strengthen over the years. Some are voluntary initiatives like Community Houses; Mens Sheds, Woodturners groups, Environmental groups; others are professionally staffed but government funded health, educational and welfare agencies with good links to the voluntary networks they are complementing. It is not surprising that researchers have found that the contribution of the voluntary sector to the Australian economy is and was greater than that of the mining industry at its peak.
Looking back, I have to acknowledge another aspect of the Goulburn Valley which stood out for me as a new arrival. The comparatively successful integration of migrants into this multicultural Shepparton community has lessons to share with other parts of Australia. We explored that ten years ago when La Trobe held a Forum here on Social Cohesion in the Goulburn Valley. Further assessment of whether that is still happening would be so useful.
One of the key lessons from that Forum was the importance of participation in the workforce. From the 1920s until recently, non Anglo-Irish migrants to Shepparton came largely from rural communities overseas. They were experienced rural workers, able to look after livestock, orchards, vineyards, and vegetables. They were good workers and skilful.
Dr John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Australia argues that the test of a good economy is its ability to provide jobs, housing, healthcare and education. The poor and disadvantaged in a community are usually to be found among those who are not sharing those benefits. If this community is to retain its ability to integrate migrants, its economy must continue to be effective. There are signs that the situation is changing. The automation of agricultural work, the impact of free trade on local manufacturing jobs, a shortage of housing, the growing numbers of children dropping out or getting little from schooling, the growing incidence of youth suicide and mental health problems are all signals of a challenge for this community.
Fortunately, the presence of tertiary educational resources in La Trobe’s Shepparton Campus, Melbourne University’s Rural Health Campus and Shepparton’s GOTAFE could be important sources of help for this community to understand the challenges it now faces. Looking forward, I would like to propose a possible development of links between the academic research resources of those educational facilities, the Goulburn Valley voluntary sector, the various community development, and other health, educational, and social services agencies striving to meet the needs of those especially disadvantaged in some way.
Hopefully there can be student involvement from La Trobe and GOTafe – especially of those who see themselves working in the areas of social work, welfare, community development, mental health and journalism. Such a development could encourage these volunteers to become qualified graduates who will eventually work in this field, even locally.
The professional agencies, secular and religious already have research capacities in their ranks, but not always the time or funding to do much. Many of the voluntary sector groups do not have such resources. I am speaking from my experience as President of the Shepparton Interfaith Network and President of the North East Central Council of the St. Vincent de Paul society. Both of these are voluntary bodies whose members belong to religious communities with a strong commitment to social justice and concern for the poor and disadvantaged. This includes not just the Christian communities, but also the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities which share a similar concern for those in need. All those groups would benefit from being able to access the insights gained from action/research projects and the findings from various surveys and Commonwealth Census reports. There is now a growing realisation and acceptance that while giving people handouts is necessary in a crisis, for the long term we have to help the poor and disadvantaged, together with members of the wider community, design and build bridges to enable people to work their way out of poverty. Simply blaming them for their situation without recognising that a poor economic framework is a major cause of disadvantage, will achieve nothing.
This region has been recognised for its great cooperative tradition in assisting small farmers to work together to survive. Would a research and advocacy centre be an opportunity to strengthen that spirit of mutual cooperation which has done so much for the region up till now? Would such a centre assist both voluntary and professional agencies in this area to work together with the needy and disadvantaged to design and construct a range of bridges out of poverty?
In the last financial year the St Vincent de Paul Society spent $2,642,043 in providing material aid for the poor and disadvantaged people of the North East. This provided material assistance – food, financial assistance with rent arrears, gas, electricity and rates payments, tents and swags for the homeless, educational expenses, school camps fees, school uniforms and text books, fuel and car registrations which cannot be afforded by supporting parents and the needy.
The St Vincent de Paul Society did that without government funding. But are we duplicating resources available through other agencies? Are there other groups in this region who are not receiving any support while other groups are comparatively well resourced? The St. Vincent de Paul funds were raised by the Society independently of Government grants, through donations from individuals, through voluntary fund-raising by schools, community sleep-outs during winter, and our network of 10 Vinnies Shops across the region. We have the flexibility to ensure neglected groups can be helped.
Hence, the St. Vincent de Paul Society in this area is supportive of the idea of a Social Justice Research and Advocacy Centre and would consider taking on the role of financial sponsorship for such a project. If you would like to know more about this project, you can contact Frank Purcell: necc.pres (at) svdp-vic.org.au