Remembering those doing it tough

Bendigo sees itself as a “go-ahead” kind of town, with an entrepreneurial spirit born of the gold rush. You can see this in the shared workspaces, the dozens of cafes, mushrooming housing developments, and the “only in Bendigo” art gallery exhibitions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this focus on success. However, it can create a blind spot.

This week, which happens to be Anti-Poverty Week in Australia, we need to remember those who are not “succeeding” – those who are existing on the knife edge of survival. We tuck them away where we can’t see them. We forget them if we can. But if you take the time to talk to any of the leaders of welfare agencies in this town, you’ll see that there is a larger than expected number of people who are struggling with homelessness, unemployment (especially amongst young people), mental health, having enough food and money to get through the week, as well as children in foster-care.

As a former high school teacher and current community worker in some of Bendigo’s economically disenfranchised areas, I can personally attest to these realities.

Is there anything that council can do? Or is this one of those areas that must be tackled by state and federal governments? Certainly, there are some actions that can only be taken by higher levels of government, such as raising the Jobseeker rate or supplying more public housing.

But councils can, and must, do something about poverty. Here are a few ideas – feel free to share yours:

  • Continue to support Bendigo Foodshare as they supply emergency food relief to dozens of agencies across the region. In particular, help them to locate a larger long-term facility.
  • Explore how to change our planning scheme so that new housing developments include higher percentages of social and affordable housing.
  • Provide outreach versions of council services into neighbourhoods that are facing poverty.
  • Partially fund youth workers in neighbourhood centres in areas that are facing poverty.
  • Ensure that health care card holders and pensioners receive discounts on all fees, rates, registrations, and other levies.
  • Play a co-ordinating role amongst agencies to ensure they are all pulling together, advocating on issues on concern, sharing information, and not unnecessarily duplicating services.

You might also be interested in this Facebook interview with Ken Marchingo, head of Haven Home Safe, where we talk about housing in Bendigo.

(Image credit: “Homeless” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, Bendigo Art Gallery)

Conserving our Natural Heritage – What is Council’s Role?

What role should council play in environmental action? Some say that council, being a very small player in the global scene, should not try to achieve environmental goals such as carbon emission reductions. Or, that council should simply focus on “basics” like roads, rates and rubbish.

However, I believe that we need to be stewards of the land on which we live. We have a responsibility to care for it, reduce our harm to it, and repair it where we can. Doing so will not only be good for the land, but also for our own health and wellbeing.

Here are some practical ideas:

  1. Ensure that council assets are using renewable design and energy.
  2. Rehabilitating our natural heritage. For example, the Bendigo Creek is currently undergoing work of this kind – I support this. I would also support the rehabilitation of former mining land, like Victoria Hill, especially given the proposals to make the Victorian Goldfields a UNESCO heritage site.
  3. Implementing “circular economy” solutions for waste. This involves supporting industries that take products at the end of their life, and converts them into usable materials for other products. This prevents these products from going into landfill.
  4. Increasing dramatically the net amount of trees in the municipality. We do plant thousands of trees each year but many are also lost (due to age or construction). Having a green Bendigo will cool our city and make it a lovely place to live.

What are your ideas for taking care of our natural heritage?

Bendigo Council should “Love Your Local”

Recently, the City of Greater Bendigo launched the ‘Love Your Local’ campaign to encourage us to buy local in order to help small businesses recover from the economic effects of Covid-19 restrictions. So we should. But it’s time for the council to practice what it preaches.

I asked the council’s director of corporate performance, Andrew Cooney, how much the City spent on external goods and services, and how much of this was spent inside and outside Greater Bendigo. External goods and services are things that the City contracts other organisations to supply for us. This could be things like:

  • toilet paper
  • food for events
  • architectural design
  • construction and engineering
  • consultants
  • telecommunications equipment and services

Andrew got back to me very quickly (thanks!) with this table:

As you can see, the City of Greater Bendigo spent about $108m on external goods and services in the year 2019-2020. Of that, about $53m was NOT spent in Bendigo or in the Loddon-Mallee region. However, the City’s own procurement policy states that ‘all other factors being equal, the City must give preference to regional economic benefit when sourcing products’.

The City should increase the proportion of money spent in the city and the region, especially given the need for the local economy to recover from the effects of Covid-19.

Bring Back Whipstick Ward Meetings

Ward meetings are an excellent way to ensure residents’ voices are heard by local governments. We should bring them back.

Being a local government councillor is not an easy gig, contrary to perception. From my observations and reading, there is a stack of stuff to read, and lots of demands on your time. Dozens of individuals and groups in the community want your support and advocacy on a staggering array of issues, ranging from a dodgy footpath, to a planning application, to action on issues that local council has very little control over.

It would be easy, as a councillor, to lose sight of what your purpose is. So, let me remind myself right here of what that purpose is. To be a faithful conduit between the community and local government.

Why is that important? The City of Greater Bendigo, like all local governments, is an institution and a bureaucracy. I don’t mean that pejoratively: institutions and bureaucracies are needed to get things done at a large scale – things that individuals and community groups can’t or shouldn’t do on their own.

But bureaucracies do have their downsides. The main downside that I see is that they get pre-occupied with internal bureaucratic aims, and this distracts from listening to those outside the bureaucracy. This is where local democracy comes in. For example, advisory committees and asking the community for their opinion on proposed projects are ways that the bureaucracy can get people’s views on their policies.

Local councillors play an essential part in this process. They should be continually providing ways for residents to give their views on what council could be doing, or what it could be doing differently.

THat’s why I propose bringing back Ward Meetings. These are organised times for councillors, residents and council officers to gather and discuss important issues in the ward. In the last term of council, ward meetings have been replaced by more informal “listening posts” outside supermarkets and the like. These are useful, but ward meetings provide a more formal environment for feedback to be given, and issues followed up by councils. I imagine ward meetings being held every 6 weeks, and rotating their location around the ward.