2020 was a significant year for many reasons. Before we draw a line in the sand between what happened and what is to come, we are pausing to look back on some of the events from last year –the first 12 months of FCVic’s operation under its current name.
We started the year amidst the devastation of the bushfires which ravaged communities across East Gippsland and North East Victoria. FCVic was quick to respond, calling together a teleconference meeting of the financial counselling agencies within the affected regions in the first week of January. We asked what financial counsellors were seeing in their communities and began work on a sector response to the disaster. On 31 January, we delivered our first bushfire response training and briefing session to financial counsellors, which looked at insurance issues, supports and services available to people affected by the fires, and training on trauma response and self-care.
FCVic continued its role supporting the sector through the disaster by delivering further training; enhancing recovery efforts by building connections and understandings between other emergency relief and recovery services; and informing and educating those services about the work of financial counsellors.
While the nation was responding to the emergency situation arising from the bushfires, FCVic was also responding to a crisis emerging in the financial counselling sector. For some time, FCVic had been concerned by reports of members struggling with work-related stress and at risk of burnout. Following an extensive survey of our members in early 2019, which recorded responses from more than 160 practising financial counsellors (75% of Victorian financial counsellors), we had a clear picture that many financial counsellors were working in jobs that were becoming unsustainable. The results of our survey were published in February 2020 as the Counting the Costs report.
The report made recommendations to funders, employing agencies, financial counsellors and other stakeholders on how to respond to the serious issues of heavy caseloads, complex casework and high levels of stress.
It was not long after the report was released that the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in Australia. In some ways, the financial counselling environment became a little easier in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, with many reports of a drop in demand for service resulting from wide ranging support measures implemented by government and industry. However, the sector had to contend with the challenge of remote service delivery and financial counsellors working in unprecedented isolation to support clients in complex and demanding life and economic situations.
FCVic sought to pivot (to use the 2020 word of the year) in response to the developing situation to ensure it had in place strong communications and supports for members, and was able to build links with other sectors. We initiated an ongoing series of update emails for members with information and resources specific to the pandemic. Acknowledging the high volume of emails circulating at the time, the COVID-19 updates included a brief summary video of the contents to allow members to efficiently digest the key points and identify which items they needed to read more about.
We also re-booted our training calendar to enable fully online delivery, while remaining responsive to the evolving training needs of financial counsellors in a constantly changing landscape. We increased the frequency of our network meetings to provide greater connection and support during this time, and brought convenors of our networks and working groups together regularly to maintain support and communication.
In response to the pandemic, the Victorian government announced a range of initiatives to support the community, including protections for tenants, an energy package and mental health supports. FCVic was asked to help support the financial counselling sector engagement in these initiative areas.
FCVic’s project work on recognising and preventing financial elder abuse, funded by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) since 2018, was close to wrapping up when the pandemic hit. In June 2020, we delivered 21 webinars about ‘Financial Vulnerability in Older Victorians’ through our partners – DHHS’s 10 Elder Abuse Prevention Networks, the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria and Australian Multicultural Community Services – to strengthen the links between financial counsellors and other community services working with older Victorians. The webinars were attended by 402 participants representing 151 organisations across Victoria.
On 15 June, coinciding with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, FCVic delivered a special forum exploring ways of working effectively with people who may be experiencing, or perpetrating, elder abuse. Around 70 financial counsellors participated in this event. Over the course of the project, more than 40% of practising financial counsellors participated in professional development on elder abuse.
Building on what we learned from this engagement, we followed up with a brief campaign ‘Warm Safe Home for Older Victorians’ to raise the awareness of financial counselling support. Through this campaign we hope to reach older Victorians who may be experiencing financial vulnerability or hardship, understanding that this may be the result of elder abuse, whether recognised or not.
In response to COVID-19, the Federal Government provided additional funding to the financial counselling sector, including funding Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) to support sector capacity. Among the initiatives developed by FCA was the Internship Model designed to bring more workers into the sector by supporting agencies to employ students of the Diploma of Financial Counselling. The program, which commenced in July, aims to accelerate the training of new financial counsellors, provide workplace learning and prepare more financial counsellors to meet new demands.
In Victoria and Tasmania, a total of 30 interns, 24 mentors and 18 agencies are involved in the program. Many people have been in the background providing support, including FCVic’s Workforce Development Officer, Joy Mason. Joy’s position has been funded by FCA out of its Federal government resources, and she is working closely with interns, mentors and training providers to ensure the program runs smoothly. FCVic provided a four-week mentoring workshop series starting in September, and established communities of practice for both intern and mentor groups.
The Intern Program has now passed the halfway mark, and it is anticipated that the majority of interns will have completed their studies by the end of June 2021. This is largely possible due to the commitment of the agencies and mentors who took up the challenge of participating in the program during a difficult time in everyone’s working and personal lives.
Among the positive results from last year were the instances in which our members demonstrated their ability to overcome apparently insurmountable problems and create better outcomes for their clients, their communities and the sector. Although COVID-19 prevented FCVic from holding our annual conference event, we still managed to pull off an ambitious Virtual Gala Awards Event to celebrate and recognise the hard work of our members. Over 250 grazing boxes were delivered across Victoria (and interstate) to kick of the event, which included an awards ceremony, trivia, karaoke and a raffle.
Further utilising the online platform to engage members and other stakeholders, FCVic developed a series of online hardship forums to encourage collaborative relationships with creditors to build effective, compassionate responses that reduce harm and hardship. Each of the four forums, held from September through to December, focused on a specific industry or sector – banking, energy, telecommunications and tenancy – with key representatives from those fields in attendance.
Developed in response to growing concerns of an impending ‘debt cliff’ which is expected to follow the conclusion of several COVID-19 response measures, the aim of the forums was to build relationships with financial counsellors and influence key creditor groups around their hardship response design and intentions into the future. Each forum was facilitated and led by financial counsellors who skillfully opened up the conversations with the sector representatives allowing for future follow up around the issues discussed.
Despite the efforts of the financial counselling sector to ensure the protection of vulnerable consumers into the future, in September 2020 the Federal Government announced plans to change legislation around responsible lending obligations. This raised major concerns for financial counsellors who have been witnesses to the severe harms that irresponsible lending has on individuals and families. Consumer advocacy groups have strongly opposed the proposed changes and led a coordinated campaign to prevent it from being passed.
Financial counsellors were encouraged to write to their local MP and share their case studies of inappropriate lending. FCVic sent letters to every Victorian MP and Senator to educate them about the bill and the dangers of removing key protections for credit consumers. FCVic and local financial counsellors met with Nationals MP Damian Drum, and an advisor for Independent MP Dr Helen Haines to further discuss the issues with the proposed bill. Dr Haines opposed the bill in Parliament, citing her correspondence with financial counsellor Sandra Blake.
As a result of the combined efforts of the campaign, progress on the legislation has been slowed. Senators voted to send the bill to a Senate Inquiry that will report back in March 2021.
Another significant campaign that saw major developments in 2020 was the campaign to permanently increase the rate of the Jobseeker (formerly Newstart) and Youth Allowance payments. After years of advocating for the Federal Government to ‘raise the rate’ of the social security payments from an insufficient $40 a day, the Government delivered a substantial increase to the payments in response to the impacts of COVID-19. Suddenly job seekers had access to a livable income and could afford basic essentials they had previously gone without. As a result, the demand for financial counselling services stabilized (rather than continually increasing). However, the new payment rates were implemented as merely a short-term measure, and in September and the end of December there were cuts to the payments, with Government promises that they would be fully removed in March 2021.
The announcement by the Government of its plans for further cuts and removal of the supplemented payments was met with widespread concern, and the legislation was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs for scrutiny. FCVic made a submission to the Committee, calling for the Supplement to be restored to its original level on a permanent basis, and was subsequently invited to attend a Committee hearing to provide evidence. Our EO, Dr Sandy Ross, and the Convenor of the FCVic Centrelink Working Group, Liz Stary, attended the hearing and spoke about the positive impacts that the increased payments had made to people’s lives, enabling them to bring themselves out of debt, and establish a pathway towards employment.
While the Labor and Greens senators supported a permanent increase to the social security payments, the Senate Committee’s report recommended that the bill be passed. With the final cut to payments looming on 31 March 2021, the financial counselling sector is now bracing itself for the anticipated surge in demand.
Concerns within the sector around the expected wave of demand for financial counselling have been mounting as we face the withdrawal of temporary assistance measures provided during the pandemic. In December 2020, FCVic released a follow-up to its earlier Counting the Costs report to better understand how the sector has changed as a result of COVID-19. The New Costs to Count report provides a snapshot of financial counsellors’ experiences, looks at the impacts of COVID-19 on existing levels of work-related stress, and considers what opportunities there are to introduce more sustainable work practices to minimize the risk of work overload and burnout.
In 2021, FCVic intends to work with funding bodies, agency employers and financial counsellors to address the issues identified in the report, improve service delivery to meet new client needs, and create a safer working environment for practitioners.