Chairperson’s message – July 2020

Chairperson’s message – July 2020

As Victorians we stand together fighting the scourge of COVID-19. We do this in simple ways: washing our hands, wearing a mask, maintaining 1.5m social distance. We also do this as an industry through our work, providing support for those who have lost their jobs, businesses, and their financial security.

For many agencies, referrals to financial counselling services have temporarily slowed and this has helped get waitlists under control. Overworked financial counsellors are finally getting a moment to catch their breath, but are not afforded the privilege of being able to relax as the spectre of the future looms over us.

Both tiers of government have brought us into the tent to help deal with the fallout from the virus. The Federal Government has provided additional funding to agencies to expand the sector for the projected surge in demand.

The State Government is providing extra funding to FCVic to work on key projects, and FCVic has been busy planning these new projects in the mental health, utilities and tenancy spaces.

FCVic has also been recruiting to help with workforce development and training, as well as feeding into various other projects and campaigns, such as the Raise the Rate campaign.

Work is being done to prepare a one-day industry summit for next year, as well as an electronic AGM as an alternative to the one normally held alongside the conference. Luckily, our new constitution when revamped last year included provisions for electronic, remote participation.

In dark times we have to remember what we are grateful for. I am grateful I am a financial counsellor. Whilst many other sectors are doing it tough right now, our sector looks like it will come out the other side of this crisis stronger and with a larger membership.

I am also happy that people on Jobseeker are finally getting enough money to live on. Hopefully, the government sees the light and raises the rate permanently, instead of leaving people to languish in abject poverty. With so many people stuck on Centrelink, the pressure to raise the rate can only help the cause.

Chairperson’s message – May 2020

Chairperson’s message – May 2020

With the change of season upon us we also have a change in our lockdown restrictions. The winter chill is here but hopefully this will be offset with an increased warmth in our hearts brought about by interactions with friends and families now possible with the easing of restrictions.

In the words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. With change comes hope. Hope that things will be better somehow. That Jobseeker will get fixed. That we as a nation will restructure our economy to be greener, and kinder to the less privileged – our clients amongst them.

These changes may or may not come about in our country, but at the very least, it looks like financial counselling will continue to extend its reach and grow as a sector. This means a bigger voice and greater impact.

Whilst there has been a dip in referrals for a lot of agencies, the feeling out there is that what we are experiencing is comparable to a tsunami. Currently the water has receded, and we are bracing for when it surges back in. All indications are that economically the hard times are ahead, especially when people exhaust their hardship with the banks, and JobSeeker and JobKeeper are rolled back. So it’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare ourselves for what is coming.

If we can be grateful for something it is that we have time to prepare for what is coming. We can also feel grateful that both State and Federal Governments are looking to our sector to be part of the solution.

FCVic is receiving funding in a package developed by the Department of Health & Human Services, as part of the State Government’s response to COVID-19, to help flatten the mental health decline curve. It is well established that there is a comorbidity between financial hardship and poor mental health outcomes. This opportunity reflects increasing recognition of financial counselling as an essential social support service and an opportunity to not only lift mental health skills and knowledge of financial counsellors, but to include financial counselling as part of mental health services as we advocated in our submission to the Victorian Government’s Royal Commission into Mental Health. On top of this financial counselling was recognized in an energy support package developed by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. This includes funding for additional financial counsellors, and for FCVic to coordinate and advocate on energy issues. There is hope that we will secure further funding to assist with other pressure points for our clients in the coming weeks.

FCVic and its Board are mindful that now, in the lull, it is time to get our house in order and as such Sandy has written to the heads of the financial counselling agencies in Victoria, following up on the Counting the Costs report and seeking their assistance in making sure things are sustainable and workloads are safe for when the waters come rushing back in.

When the waters come back in and people are thrown in the deep end, we will need to line up all the supports we can to help people in hardship stay afloat.

Chairperson’s message – March 2020

Chairperson’s message – March 2020

Martin Luther King said [paraphrased to remove gendered language], “the ultimate test of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.” If this is true, I know that historically all of us can stand tall. Both myself and the FCVic Board hope to support you to continue to do so into the future.

Financial counsellors already know about the challenges that exist out there. Those who have been around long enough have seen the reforms our sector has driven. Reforms that when conceived were often considered controversial. 

The FCA conference has been postponed. The FCVic history and launch event has been postponed. I am sure that most if not all of you have seen the queues or pictures of the queues at Centrelink; have friends and relatives who have been laid off work or had their hours reduced; know retirees who have had their nest egg diminished by the decline in the stock market. These are dark times, but I am mindful that what we have to offer as a profession is a message of hope.

Due to the tireless work of leaders in our field, governments are starting to really grasp the true value of our profession. This can be seen in the Federal Government’s announcement over the weekend to increase funding to support financial counselling, and in the responses of both State and Federal Governments to the bushfire disaster. FCVic is engaging at a state-level and we hope that the good relationships that have been built with key stakeholders will ensure the valuable role of our sector is recognised in any state-based response.

The way we do things is changing and there are many hurdles. FCVic staff are now working from home. I am writing to you from my kitchen table and some of you are probably reading it there.  All of this brings new obstacles and challenges. In spite of this, FCVic and its Board are doing their utmost to support the sector through this difficult time, as well as making sure that any growth does not lead to a diminishing of professional standards.

The Counting the Costs report on financial counsellor stress and work overload was successfully launched. The implementation of recommendations from the report is still being pursued. They say don’t bring your work home with you. This is no longer the case. It is of paramount importance that we maintain a healthy work/life balance especially as we will probably all be working from home for some time to come. Caseloads are of pronounced importance to a healthy workforce and now is the time to focus on our health. The FCVic Board and staff want you all to stay well. Stay well my friends.

Chair’s report – January 2020

Chair’s report – January 2020

As I write this now it is raining outside, and I am glad. Normally, at this time of year rain would disappoint me. The bushfires have changed all this. By all reports, mega-fires and extreme weather events are the new norm.

There is an immediate sadness with all of this as we think of the victims of the bushfires, the loss of lives, the destruction to homes and livelihood, the destruction of the land where we have lived and played and destruction of the animals that walk upon it. There is also the existential sadness for a future when the environment becomes less habitable, for us and for our children.

However, there is a light that never goes out and that is the extraordinary capacity to endure, and the generosity of the average Australian and their propensity to give. Which, when I read the actual dollar amounts, staggers me and gives me hope.

To all those who are reading this who have been affected by the bushfires, or who have family and friends affected by the bushfires, my thoughts go out to you and so do the thoughts of the FCVic Board and staff.

FCVic has not been caught on the back foot by these events. We have been working behind the scenes long before this bushfire season started, lobbying hard for the inclusion of financial counselling in future disaster relief planning. When this current crisis unfurled the Victorian Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) welcomed our offer of support and have brought us into the tent. FCVic aims to have financial counselling become an integral part of future disaster relief efforts.

The State Government has agreed to fund 9.5 FTE financial counsellors across both Gippsland and the Upper Murray region affected areas, as well as providing funding for FCVic to coordinate the response. To date, FCVic has received over 60 offers of support from the financial counselling sector! We have also employed Annette Lumsden to help coordinate the sector’s offers of assistance. To all of those who have offered support, thank you!

Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) has also received funding from the Federal Government and donations from the Westpac bank. I will be attending the FCA Representative Council meeting next month and will take part in discussions on how best to deploy these funds.

There has been a lot going on at the FCVic office and the good staff there have been run off their feet. As is obviously apparent though this communication, the name has changed. As of the twentieth of this month FCRC shed its skin and became FCVic.

The FCVic Board is looking to recruit another external board member. The position is advertised currently on the FCVic website and through Open Communities.

FCVic will also release a history of the Victorian financial counselling sector to mark FCRC/FCVic’s 40th anniversary. This will happen on the evening of the 16th of March to which you will all be invited, so save the date. More details to come. FCVic is working hard, so expect more positive announcements as the year progresses!

Sometimes in life what matters is how you walk through the fire, saying this, we have a lot to be proud about as a sector.

Chair’s report – November 2019

Chair’s report – November 2019

There is an old Chinese curse that goes, “may you live in exciting times,” however with the release of the Sylvan Report when I think of these words, I think of the great potential our sector has for growing in number of practitioners, influence and reach. Hopefully, the government will deliver on this report and we, as a sector, can overcome the tensions between growth and maintaining our high level of professional quality.

FCRC has been busy writing and submitting a tender in conjunction with Carers Victoria that, if successful, could help the sector to grow and continue its move into the health care space.

FCRC has also been working hard on the name change and James has been writing a history of the organisation to celebrate a historic 40 years. Both will have launches in the new year.

The work on stress and burnout continues with the engagement of a professional writer to produce a report and with FCRC and the Board developing strategies to maximise its impact and strategies to get agencies and funding providers involved in the solution. Unfortunately, these things take time to be done properly, so I thank members for their patience and ask that in the interim we FCs stand by each other and are mindful of the pressures on our colleagues.

The Board has been busy since the conference, having met twice already. At its first meeting the Board invited Lisa Garlick to fill the casual vacancy created by my election to the Chair’s position. Welcome Lisa.

I would also like to welcome, again, our new Board members David Balcombe and Tracey Grinter, and congratulate Carly Baker on being re-elected to the Board.

We also bid farewell to the retiring members of the Board, Mark Phillips (Treasurer for four years) and Heather Barclay (Board Director for two years), and thank them both for their significant contribution to our sector.

I would like to give a special farewell to Julie Barrow, outgoing Chair, who stepped up after the passing of Tony Naughton. I also congratulate Julie on being elected to the Board of Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) where she will be an asset to financial counsellors across the country. I look forward to hearing more about her good work at the national level.

The new Constitution means that all Board office bearers, apart from Chair, are appointed by the Board. The Board has met and decided to invite Cathy Clark to stay on as Secretary and David Balcombe to fill the positon of Treasurer to acknowledge the will of the members’ votes, and their distinct skills sets and experience. The new position of Deputy Chair, I am excited to announce, will be filled by Carly Baker. I am looking forward to leading the team into the future.

The Board is currently looking to expand its skill base by recruiting a second co-opted member. Watch this space.

Chair’s report – September 2019

Chair’s report – September 2019

It is with sadness and optimism, I sit down to write my final Devil’s Advocate report as Chair of FCRC.I have decided the time has come to hand over the reins to a new Chair and I do so with utmost confidence we will find a person with amazing skills, knowledge and passion to contribute to our organisation.

As I reflect on the past 4 years, I am proud of the significant work of our Board members (past and present) and in particular the unsung heroes who deliver way beyond the capacity of our organisation, our Executive Officer, Dr Sandy Ross, our former Executive Officer, Peter Gartlan and the friendly and talented staff at FCRC. I would particularly like to thank James for going above and beyond in his availability and support to me during my term as Chair.

I also hope I have shown it is possible for an introvert and someone terrified of public speaking to have a voice and make a difference. I believe we have many voices that we need to hear from in our membership, particularly from those who see the broader landscape and are passionate in contributing positively to effecting change for our clients. I would encourage you all to believe you can step up and make a difference.

Over my time as Chair I have witnessed many changes: a change of Executive Officer; changes in Board members; and most proudly building and strengthening relationships with funding bodies and external stakeholders. There are new financial counselling positions specialising in Family Violence, and there has been continued work towards professionalism of financial counselling, and opportunities for our sector to grow through recognition of the important role financial counsellors play in many service delivery areas.

I have also experienced many personal challenges during this time and look forward to the time to focus on my children as they grow into young adults.

Finally, I would like to thank the current Board: Colin Harte, Mark Phillips, Norm McMurray, Cathy Clark, Heather Barclay, Max Smart, Joanne McMahon-Hide, and Carly Baker for their significant contribution to the governance of FCRC over the past 12 months. I also remember with fondness, as I sign off, the person who encouraged and had confidence in me in standing for the position of Treasurer of the Board when I first nominated; a great man, friend and colleague who will always be missed, Tony Naughton.

Chair’s report – July 2019

Chair’s report – July 2019

As we move into a new financial year, we see changes taking place that can both benefit and impact the people we work with. Changes to Superannuation may impact insurances on accounts with balances less than $6000 and there has been a lot of education for our colleagues by industry partners to ensure we can provide the best advice for our clients. These changes were introduced to prevent fees and insurances eroding smaller superannuation balances which can also impact our clients.

The new Banking Code of Practice came into effect on 1 July 2019 which has been simplified and is more accessible for clients to engage and seek their rights in relation to banking products, services and transactions. This includes banks proactively taking steps to identify customers in financial hardship, a clear statement about potential hardship options available to consumers, the inclusion of family violence and access for indigenous consumers in working with customers in vulnerable circumstances, assessment on application of ability for a customer to repay a credit card balance within a 3 years period. It also covers simplified information, protections and rights for small businesses and guarantors. The new Banking Code is a set of enforceable standards monitored and enforced by the Banking Code Compliance Committee.

The Raise the Rate campaign led by ACOSS and strongly supported by our sector has stepped up over the past couple of weeks with many discussions in federal parliament about what it is like to live on $17 a day after paying rent. The answer coming from government is to get a job, however as we know in the work we do this simplistic solution is not a one size fits all.

I often think back to the time I met with a proud woman at the back of the local Salvation Army store to give her a couple of bags of groceries so that she would be able to eat that week. She loved her job, she lived a simple life, however after returning to work following a workplace accident she was monitored and eventually dismissed. This was the workplace she had worked at since leaving school. The people she worked with were her community and due to no fault of her own she lost everything she knew.

At the age of 55 she found herself living alone on Newstart with $40 left each fortnight for food, after paying rent and utilities. She was registered with an employment agency for over 12 months, during that time she had completed a Certificate in Disability and a Certificate in Aged Care. She couldn’t even afford the fuel on Newstart to travel to placement for her course. When I asked her if the employment agency had assisted her to apply for any jobs, the answer was NO. She didn’t understand why they hadn’t helped her to find work, it probably didn’t help that the rural town she lived in, her hometown, only had a handful of jobs at any one time. Yet the same small town had three government funded employment agencies.

How are people supposed to get ahead? How can they maintain their dignity, health and wellbeing while they are unemployed if the system is working against them? I have met with many people who have been contemplating suicide because they can no longer see hope in their situation, they want to work, but on Newstart they have slowly lost their confidence and ability to meet their basic needs.

And then the same people struggling to make ends meet, struggling to survive are targeted by payday loans and consumer leases as a carrot to cover their basic needs. This is the hardest part of the work we do, to work with people who at no fault of their own are at the mercy of this broken system.

To finish on a positive note, the Board has been advocating with Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) to acknowledge the importance of FCRC member participation in working groups, committees and Board. FCRC cannot function effectively if members are constrained from participation. We are extremely pleased that CAV has responded positively to our request that it clarify with funded agencies that participation in FCRC groups can count as funded outreach activity. We understand consequential changes will flow through to funding agreements over the next few months. We are grateful for the positive relationship we have established with CAV on this, providing support to our sector in making a difference to the lives and wellbeing of the people we work with.