City Talk: Poverty Amid Plenty City Conversation

(6.30pm 30 April 2012, City Recital Hall)

Thank you, Adam Spencer, MC, and welcome, everyone.

I would like firstly to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the 200 nationalities who make up our City and the Sydney Morning Herald for partnering with us in both our City Talks and our City Conversations, thank you Judith Whelan.

I also welcome our keynote speaker:

  • Paul Gilding, Executive Director of Greenpeace International

and our panellists:

  • Sam Mclean, Deputy National Director, GetUp!
  • Ben Waters, ecoimagination, GE, Australia and New Zealand
  • Rachel Botsman, Social Innovator and author
  • Ross Gittins AM, Economics Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald and
  • Marc Ahrens, Occupy Sydney.

In John Steinbeck's great Depression-era novella, Of Mice and Men, Lennie, the child-like farm labourer, has one great dream, the story he tells himself over and over - how, one day, he and his friend George will "live off the fat of the land".

It's a story our society has told for generations: the promise that we will get richer, will enjoy endless growth, and consequently, happiness.

In recent years, that story has been questioned. British researcher Richard Wilkinson has played a leading role in building awareness of health inequalities and the social conditions that affect people's health and well-being.

His 2009 book, The Spirit Level, written with Kate Pickett, attracted world-wide attention.

Their research shows that we create problems by valuing growth above equality—shorter life-spans; citizens who are unhealthier and unhappier; greater rates of violence, of obesity and teenage pregnancies; greater rates of addiction and imprisonment.

And of course our growth-oriented society drives consumption, and adds to resource-depletion and greenhouse emissions. GDP is not the only - or even the best - measure of a society.

In more unequal societies, people work longer hours, spend more, save less and are more likely to be in debt. Yet, beyond a certain point, wealth makes no further contribution to health or happiness, and greater inequity is actually damaging - and not only to the poor.

And if you think that our "lucky country" is more equal, the sad truth is that it is not. Like Britain and the United States, we have one of the greatest gaps in equality, and the parallel high levels of incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse and other negative consequences.

While the huge profits from Australia's finite natural resources boom are enjoyed by a few, a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald showed that 40 per cent of Australia's workforce - that's four million Australians - are now casual workers, with the lack of protection that implies.

Bread-winners and young people pushed into insecure jobs are rightly fearful about their future. And as casualisation of the workforce grows, it will increase stress on those workers and increase pressure on our sense of community and social cohesion.

At the City of Sydney, we believe that government has an essential role in narrowing that gap and building an equitable and sustainability society.

The City of Sydney does not have access to the big levers of change. But we are the level of government closest to the people and we take seriously our responsibility to nurture communities, to close the gap where we can, and to improve the quality of people's lives.

We aim to structure our city - physically and socially - to promote equity and create environments in which human relationships can flourish and be sustained. Sustainable Sydney 2030 is built on this premise: that city government must plan for a future that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

We invest heavily in parks and public open spaces—such as the new Pirrama Park and Paddington Reservoir Gardens, Sydney Park, Redfern Park and Prince Alfred Park. These give all residents access to green space and sunlight, to recreation and play-space for children.

Well-stocked and well-equipped libraries provide access to knowledge and opportunities for learning, whatever your income. And an extensive grants program, worth $10 million a year, encourages community projects and programs that might otherwise not reach fruition.

Child-care for working parents and specialised programs—such as job-skills for young people through to IT training for older people—support our communities at all stages of their lives.

For some young people in the City, the simple lack of a driver's licence becomes a major barrier to employment. Under the Driving for Employment program, the City partners with the Salvation Army and Oasis Youth Support to provide vehicles and funding to teach these young people and allow them to get up the driving hours need to gain their licence.

Our Lights Camera Action program is providing young aboriginal people in the City the chance to learn skills and explore job opportunities in theatre, film and television - while also addressing the under-representation of aboriginal people in those media. So far, 150 people have joined up, with 30 securing work in the 18 months to last December.

Other key programs support the homeless, or people who have health, drug or alcohol problems.

Housing affordability is a major issue. Sustainable Sydney 2030 aims to make 7.5 per cent of all city housing affordable, so that people can live close to their work rather than face the burden of a lengthy commute from outer Sydney to a low-paid job in the CBD. This is in addition to the existing social housing in the City.

We're also providing an increasing number of low-cost living and working spaces for artists.

At Oxford Street, young and emerging creative people, who are at risk of being priced out of the city, now have access to City-owned properties at affordable rents.

Oxford Street businesses have been squeezed by Westfield at Bondi Junction and in the City, so the 16 new businesses are bringing new life to the area while also using local shops and cafes, thereby supporting the local economy.

The new tenants form a creative hub of organisations, collectives and collaborations - both non-profit and commercial - including web and object design, architecture, transmedia, film, visual arts, music, start-up businesses, social enterprise, animation and more.

We are now moving ahead with a similar venture for our properties in William Street.

Our Village Plans aim to bring communities together where they live and work, to build trust and community connectedness, to green and improve the quality of life, and to ensure all voices can be heard in the debate around important issues.

To build a sustainable city and society, we must ensure that everyone has the chance to take part in community life, to build positive and supportive relationships, and to have access to the facilities, the information, the services and support that they need.

Over the past two years, the City has worked with the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS and the McCaughey [pronounced McCacky] Centre at the University of Melbourne to prepare a framework that will guide our future work in this area.

We have developed a draft set of 100 indicators and 159 measures covering a range of social, cultural, environmental, governance and economic issues. We recently had draft Community Wellbeing Indicators on public exhibition and feedback is now being assessed.

Collectively, they provide a "health check" of the status of our community. They are the most comprehensive set of indicators developed by local government in Australia and consistent with world-leading research from the UK and Europe.

The draft indicators include a range of categories:

  • Culturally rich and vibrant communities, which are concerned with the arts and other creative ventures, leisure and recreation, and recognising and supporting cultural diversity. This also includes peoples' access to culture - as spectators and participants.
  • Democratic and engaged communities that focus on the opportunity for people to have a say in the decisions affecting their lives, where they are engaged in the decision-making process, where government is transparent and accountable, and where equality and human rights are cornerstones.
  • Dynamic, resilient local economies that address concerns such as local employment opportunities, workforce participation, business development, income distribution, and innovation and productivity.
  • Sustainable Environments which address issues such as the availability of open space for both passive and active recreation, urban ecology, water, air and noise and those human activities which affect the natural environment - from transport and consumption to waste and resource recovery, from energy systems and greenhouse emissions to biodiversity.

Some policy areas can be dealt with directly by city government; in others we seek to influence other decision makers; and finally there are areas over which we have no control or influence but know are of concern to the community and affect community well-being - questions such as internet access, food security, and, importantly, income distribution.

We have invested in measuring the full range so that we can make informed choices about how to direct our efforts and to track the progress of the community over time. We want to be in an informed position to advocate on the community's behalf to other levels of government, the private and not-for-profit sectors.

I want to conclude with a quote from Richard Wilkinson in a recent interview:

"It is really important to paint a picture of a world we can move towards, a world where we not only have greater equality and [improved] social relations but also a move towards sustainability…a move towards working for the community where we get our sense of self-worth."

This is certainly our goal at the City in working with our communities towards Sustainable Sydney 2030.

Further Information:

To view the recording of this City Talk use this link