Thursday, July 03, 2008

Brumby takes chisel to some of his harder edges, by Paul Austin - The Age - 5th June 2008

The Premier has earned the praise and support of the social justice set.

WHO'S afraid of John Brumby? Well, the social justice set has been - until now.

A shockwave went through Victoria's welfare lobby last winter when Steve Bracks and John Thwaites abruptly quit politics. The fear was that Brumby would bring to the Premier's office a harder edge, turning Labor away from the fight against poverty.

After all, Brumby had become Labor's key to the top end of town, the de facto head of the pro-development, pro-business group in cabinet who often clashed with Thwaites, the champion of social justice and unofficial leader of cabinet's wetter, greener types.

But Brumby has always believed the welfare lobby's suspicions were based on a misreading of him. "I'm very committed to tackling disadvantage - that's why I'm in the Labor Party and not in the Liberal Party, right?" he said in an interview with this columnist during his first week as Premier.

Since then, Brumby has worked assiduously to flesh out his social policy credentials. He's done it in words and, more importantly, in actions. His success can be gauged by the fact that Rhonda Galbally, matron of the social justice set, now declares Brumby's Victoria to be the national role model as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard pursue their "social inclusion" agenda.

The young John Brumby, studying to become a teacher, was heavily influenced by the 1975 Ronald Henderson inquiry into poverty. Henderson said then: "(Poverty's) continuance is a judgement on the society which condones conditions causing poverty." Brumby says now: "Social progress is a journey without a final destination … there is always another child needing an education, another family needing health care, another person with a disability needing support and access, another refugee needing help to start a new life and, unfortunately, another family needing protection from violence."

Brumby draws on his experience in three of the most disadvantaged pockets of Victoria: the old gold mining town of Eaglehawk, on the fringe of Bendigo, where he first taught; the Latrobe Valley, which he studied closely several years ago; and Broadmeadows, which he represents in Parliament.

The gold had long gone from Eaglehawk by the time Brumby arrived in 1976; it was now the second poorest urban area in Victoria. "Eaglehawk Secondary College fought against the continuance of disadvantage," he told the Australian Council of Social Service national conference in April. "The school … worked to engineer better conditions for its students through before-school and breakfast programs, sports programs, linking up with the community health centre, and linking up in all sorts of other ways with the local community. What Eaglehawk taught me was that two of the best ways to overcome disadvantage are, first, through education and, second, through community building."

The lessons learned at Eaglehawk came into play in 2001 when Bracks asked Brumby to chair the Government's Latrobe Valley taskforce. The valley was doing it tough: unemployment was through the roof, residents were fleeing to Melbourne, and houses in Moe and Morwell were selling for as little as $20,000. After a three-month study, Brumby's taskforce made 50 recommendations for social and economic revival. The Government backed the plan with $100 million. The biggest project involved training and employing locals to rejuvenate social housing. It was the forerunner of the Government's "neighbourhood renewal" program, now operating around the state.

"In a way, the Latrobe Valley taskforce encapsulates our Government's approach to the community and the economy. We see the two as inextricably linked," Brumby told his ACOSS audience. "What I've always said about the economy - whether it's financial management or job creation or infrastructure investment - is that it's a means to an end … and that end is a stronger, fairer society.

"You want a strong economy because you understand that economic growth creates the capacity for better services and social infrastructure, like hospitals, schools and community centres. But you also understand that you can't have a strong economy without a strong community - that while economic growth may pay for social progress, social progress enables economic growth."

Fine words come cheap, but these ones are backed with big dollars. Brumby lists the $500 million allocation to public and social housing in last year's budget - several times bigger than even the social housing lobby's ambit claim - as one of his proudest achievements as treasurer. And last month's budget, his first as Premier, injected a further $1 billion into the "A Fairer Victoria" program that is now being studied by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Recognising the strong link between poor health and poverty, Brumby has allocated more than $400 million to reducing chronic disease. There is $225 million to help people in the poorest postcodes in the state - more of those "neighbourhood renewal" projects that had their genesis in the Latrobe Valley. Acknowledging education as a bridge from poverty to prosperity, the Government is devoting $200 million to poor and "at risk" students. And there's $163 million for early childhood programs, again with a bias towards "at risk" children.

Brumby says his aim is to make this state the best in the nation, and adds: "Victoria can't be the best place in Australia unless it's also the fairest place in Australia." Rhonda Galbally, that admirably hard-to-please campaigner for the downtrodden, is on board. She says Brumby's "brave policy action plan" is making Victoria fairer.

She sees no reason to be afraid of Victoria's new Premier.

Paul Austin is state political editor.

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