Candidates reveal their views on social welfare issues

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In line for Nicholls: Candidates who attended the Shepparton Community Share Agencies forum faced a series of questions from social workers and students. (From left) Jeff Davy (Australian Citizens Party), Ian Christoe (Australian Greens), Bill Lodwick (Australian Labor Party), Steve Brooks (Liberal Party), Sam Birrell (The Nationals), Rob Priestly (independent) and Andrea Otto (Fusion Party). Photo by Murray Silby

In a continuation of a series of forums being held around the seat of Nicholls in the lead-up to the federal election, candidates have faced a range of questions from people working in the social sector.

In a deviation from the forum hosted by the Committee for Greater Shepparton and the News earlier in the month, which considered a wide variety of issues, the forum hosted by Shepparton Community Share Agencies on April 28 concentrated on social policy issues.

Seven of the 11 candidates standing in the seat attended the forum and presented their views on five questions put to them by social workers and students studying in the field.

Here’s an edited outline of their responses to the five questions from the seven candidates present — Rob Priestly (Independent), Jeff Davy (Citizens Party), Andrea Otto (Fusion Party), Steve Brooks (Liberal Party), Ian Christoe (Greens) Sam Birrell (Nationals) and Bill Lodwick (Labor Party). Tim Laird (Liberal Democrats), Rikkie Tyrrell (Pauline Hanson’s One Nation), Dr Robert Peterson (United Australia Party) and Eleonor Tabone (Australian Federation Party) were absent.

Question one: What will you do to prevent gender-based violence in our community?

The question was put by Amanda, a social worker employed at Primary Care Connect, working in the family violence program. Amanda said, through her work, she mostly saw women and children being impacted by family violence and men were the people most often committing it.

Sam Birrell: First thing we’ve got to do is get it away from being a woman problem. There’s a male behavioural problem.

Steve Brooks: The Federal Government has spent $1.3 billion on just what you’re talking about. Specifically on women, there’s a $5000 payment to women and children who are escaping family violence. That’s a pragmatic way of dealing with the problem.

Andrea Otto: I have experience in it. We have to flip the narrative. This is about gender roles. We have to get rid of gender roles, putting women and men in boxes. That’s the root of gender violence. $5000 is good, but you have to remove the perpetrator.

Ian Christoe: It's an insidious problem. It’s a learned cultural behaviour on the part of men. The Greens policy is for a $10,000 grant for people fleeing violence.

Rob Priestly: My goal is to continue a round table of female leaders from across the region. I thought I had a handle on this until I started campaigning. It’s shocked me the number of men who come to me talking about their poisonous views. We have a serious problem with what’s in people’s heads. It sometimes aligns with racism.

Bill Lodwick: In 2020 I started an op shop for people impacted by family violence. As a man there’s a limit to what I can do, but the Labor Party understands this very well. Fifty per cent of (Labor) members of parliament are women. Think about a party who wants to do something about it.

Jeff Davy: When Australia went from a credit system to a debt system an ever-increasing break down of society happened. That is doing it to us. That’s the cause of family violence, the breakdown of society.

Question two: What will you do to close the gap in our region, and how will you support young Indigenous youth affected by our systems and structures that are designed to further disadvantage them and disconnect them from their roots?

Ali, a final year social work student, who arrived in Australia as a one-year-old refugee, put the question to the candidates, asking how they would deal with ongoing incarceration rates and child removal within the First Nations population.

Sam Birrell: I won’t say what I’ll do, but I’ll work with communities. There’s been too much of Canberra saying what things will be done. It’s about place-based ideas and not Canberra telling people in different parts of Australia how things are going to be.

Steve Brooks: We need to focus on what we can do. Things like funding Melbourne Indigenous Transition School to expand so if an Indigenous kid from Shepparton wants to go and study in Melbourne they can.

Andrea Otto: It’s pretty easy to solve. White fellas need to go to the community and ask what they need and how to do it. Instead, it’s been white fellas giving solutions that don’t fit.

Ian Christoe: There needs to be self-determination for services they access, in particular health services. The Greens policy includes $200,000 compensation for victims of the Stolen Generations. Indigenous rangers, age of responsibility for prison raised so children aren’t incarcerated until 14 years old.

Rob Priestly: My understanding is we have an epidemic of suicide. More Indigenous kids are being taken away from their families than ever. They clearly don’t feel they have a place. We need to make deliberate policies to empower families.

Bill Lodwick: We still have intergenerational trauma, that’s why we need good people who work in social work. We need to lift the age for criminal responsibility.

Jeff Davy: It’s a serious problem, but successive governments haven’t got it right. We need good education and meaningful jobs after it.

Question three: Do you support an increase in social security rates and a reduction of harmful practices in social security policy? If not, why?

This question was asked by Cat, a social worker employed in child and family services since 2016. Cat said the increase in social security payments during the COVID-19 pandemic showed it was possible to increase the payments, and that it brought a positive impact when it was.

Jeff Davy: More and more people are being pushed into poverty under this debt system. We must move back to a credit system. I do support an increase in payment, but the only way to fund it is to move to a credit system.

Bill Lodwick: Yes I support an increase. When the Morrison Government was handing out money under JobKeeper it clearly enhanced people’s lives.

Rob Priestly: Yes I do support an increase and so does everyone. I think most people within the parties support it. The Business Council of Australia supports it.

Ian Christoe: The short answer is yes. The Greens would also provide more money for homeless crisis assistance.

Andrea Otto: We need a universal basic income for people. We need to make sure we are supporting the most vulnerable in our community because if we lift them up, we lift the rest of the community up, and that’s a good thing.

Steve Brooks: If you look in isolation then it should be increased, except you can’t just look at it in isolation because there are serious implications for small businesses to get staff. Given we’ve just had the largest increase since 2013: No.

Sam Birrell: I support an increase provided it doesn’t disincentivise those who can work from working. I also hear stories from businesses who say they can’t get staff and believe people who can work won’t work.

Question four: How would you support raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years as per the United Nations recommendation, and if not, how would you support the healthy development of the under 14s currently incarcerated?

The question was asked by Dallas, a second year social work student, who said he agreed with the United Nations that Australia’s age for criminal responsibility of 10 years old is too young.

Jeff Davy: I would support raising the age.

Bill Lodwick: Ten is too young, unfortunately people take advantage of their age. Fourteen is a suitable age.

Rob Priestly: I would support it, but we’ve got to look at what happens next. We need to have appropriate structures in place to ensure we’re moving to a positive plan. Just moving the line isn’t enough.

Ian Christoe: Yes. It’s Greens policy that it needs to be 14.

Andrea Otto: I definitely support raising the age.

Steve Brooks: This is a state government responsibility, but absolutely. Ten-year-olds being incarcerated, that does not sit well with me.

Sam Birrell: I don’t know. It’s an honest answer. Not every criminal charged leads to incarceration. I would want to test it.

Question five: What is your understanding of the direct impact that the Federal Government can have on the issue of housing insecurity and affordability? For example, through social and economic policy.

A recent social work graduate, Brittany, asked the question. She mentioned that across the Nicholls electorate 28 per cent of renters and 42.6 per cent of mortgage holders are experiencing financial stress, and Shepparton has the highest rate of homelessness in regional Victoria.

Jeff Davy: Public housing is part of our infrastructure bank plan to fund local governments, state governments, and the more houses built the costs will come down. We also need more public housing.

Bill Lodwick: We’re planning a $10 billion housing future fund. We want to help 10,000 first-home buyers in regional Australia. That will help them secure a loan with as little as five per cent deposit, with the government guaranteeing the rest.

Rob Priestly: There are significant structural problems. There’s a limitless amount the government could pour into social housing and not fix this. We’ve buggered up our land delivery system. The cost of a block has doubled. The costs are so only large developers can afford to develop land.

Ian Christoe: Negative gearing allows owners of rental properties to make money by reducing their tax, artificially increasing demand. The more important part is the public and community housing aspect. We will build one million new homes over 10 years to reduce chronic shortage in public housing. Extra money for crisis accommodation for people with emergency requirements.

Andrea Otto: We need to remove the incentive for people to buy lots of houses and negatively gear them. We have to build more houses. Twenty years ago we sold off most of Victoria’s public housing and we have not replaced it and that’s a compounding problem.

Steve Brooks: There’s demand and we don’t have the supply. We need more land made available. Social housing is state responsibility, but the Federal Government, in the last year, spent $1.6 billion to assist the states.

Sam Birrell: It’s a supply and demand issue. Supply hasn’t kept up. The time it takes until land is declared residential is too long because of bureaucratic red tape.

Audience question: What vision would you like to deliver to the people of Shepparton?

Andrea Otto: To move from a fossil fuel-based economy. We go beyond net zero, our policy is for an 800 per cent policy exporting renewable energy.

Rob Priestly: We’re almost the pre-eminent location for net zero. We should link the agricultural sector to renewals. Shepparton looks like a capital city with its ethnic mix. Its diverse background will be a strength. We will grow more food.

Sam Birrell: Better economic opportunities for people to start business. Innovation. Opportunities for employment. When I was 19, the opportunities for work were fruit picking or nothing. Now there’s a choice of jobs.

Steve Brooks: I’m looking forward to technology generating our own energy here without emitting anything and doing so cheaply. Demand for what we produce here will go up. I’m really hopeful and excited about the future.

Bill Lodwick: To be hopeful, don’t let the bastards drag us down. Think critically. Peter Dutton talks about war. If you read what the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) writes there’s no tipping point. On this planet, more people doing more and more, are wealthier and living longer than any other time in history. The things that make people think they don’t want to have children are mostly hyperbolic lies from people who want you to invest in their wind farm.

Ian Christoe: Despite the prime minister (Scott Morrison) trying to stop anything from changing, it will. Everything will be electrified. Agriculture will have a bright future. We’ll still have the water. More will be grown on same resources. We can’t stand still with education, we’ll need a well-educated workforce.

Jeff Davy: We have to go back to a credit system, we’re a trillion dollars in debt. Services will have to be cut. Australia is sleepwalking into financial armageddon.