What we spoke about
This SPN teleconference focused on the role of Local Government in the settlement process and opportunities for settlement service providers to engaging with Local Government on settlement issues. Speakers included Rolf Fenner, Senior Policy Advisor, Australian Local Government Association; Con Pagonis, Multicultural Policy Advisor, Municipal Association of Victoria; and Cr Gaetano Greco, Mayor of Darebin Council.
Local government, being the government operating closest to the people, is uniquely placed to play an important role in settlement. Although traditionally settlement planning has been led from a federal government level, local government has played an increasing role in positive settlement outcomes for refugees and migrants. Local governments engage in actions to promote multiculturalism, social inclusion and ensure equitable access to their programs and services for all community members. Many are undertaking activities to welcome new migrant and refugee arrivals to their community and the wider Australian community, such as through becoming Refugee Welcome Zones.
Local governments are increasingly engaging with the settlement sector to foster positive settlement outcomes. However, there is no consistent approach from local governments across Australia. Strengthening links between the settlement sector, local government and all levels of government was the focus of discussion.
Paul Power – CEO, Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA)
Refugee Welcome Zones is an initiative started by the RCOA in 2002. Councils are asked to pass a resolution to commit in spirit to welcoming refugees. This is a voluntary non-binding commitment requiring no expenditure which is its strength and weakness. To date 89 LGs have joined the initiative. The resolution requires champions in local government as it can be forgotten when councillors change. Since the initiative’s inception, a few local governments have signed a resolution only to later reject it when leadership changes as it is seen as being too politicised an issue for local governments. RCOA has looked at what they really want the zones to achieve and positive ways to encourage councils to put their commitment in spirit into action. The action areas of focus are on supporting individuals living in the community and ways to create ‘community spirit’ around the resolution.
In the UK the City of Sanctuary Movement is a similar initiative which takes it beyond local government and encourages businesses and community organisations to commit to welcoming refugees. RCOA encourages councils to share what they are doing to meet their commitment with other LGs. RCOA has been documenting how LGs are implementing their resolution and found mixed results. Also, some councils may not have refugees or migrants in their community but would like them to settle there.
Councils’ welcoming activities include: consulting the refugee and migrant communities, new policies, small funding grants, gatherings, events, service directories, translating services, youth programs, library activities such as living libraries, in language materials, awards, local cultural precincts and local employment support programs. RCOA will be looking at how to get more councils to share their welcome activities and post it on RCOA’s website and email bulletin.
Rolf Fenner – Senior Policy Advisory, Australian Local Government Association (ALGA)
ALGA is the national peak body for local government and is based in Canberra. Its members are state local government associations. It aims to represent the broader national issues local governments face which are very diverse across the country. Local governments are connected by the idea they represent their community via the democratic process. Councils are a key partner and player in settlement issues. But they are faced with challenges as their communities have long list of issues they want their local government to work on.
Local governments have limited resources available to address the diversity of issues they face. There is cost shifting amongst all levels of government with federal and or state governments initiating programs and provide initial funding but costs are later shifted to councils. The ALGA board met to discuss its challenges with the federal government’s Commission of Audit. State and local governments deal with settlement issues but don’t make immigration policy or receive resources to assist in addressing settlement issues. There is a major taxation review underway in Australia which may further impact local government resources.
The ALGA Board will meet to set their annual strategic priorities. ALGA President Felicity-Ann Lewis is keen to work in the settlement space. There is no longer a Select Ministerial Council for Settlement Issues. The Commonwealth is open to holding a senior staff group to look at settlement under the National Settlement Framework. Councils are an ally in the settlement space but has multiple issues and challenges it faces. Local government is represented nationally sitting on the Council of Australian Governments. But it is not legislated in the federal constitution and is legislated under the states and territories’ legisative frameworks.
Con Pagonis – Multicultural Policy Advisor, Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV)
Con Pagonis’ work with MAV focuses on multicultural policy. It is not a role replicated across country in other local government peak bodies. Local governments are highly varied across Australia. There are 565 municipal authorities across Australia and 79 in Victoria. Each state has its own state peak local government association. Local governments don’t have strong top down capacity like state or federal governments to create a consistent approach across the country. Local governments’ role in settling new migrants and refugees varies nationally. In the past councils have relied on partnerships with federal and state government to address settlement issues. However, these partnerships have dramatically diminished and better collaboration is needed.
The federal Department of Immigration has previously provided strong intergovernmental leadership on settlement issues. There were state and local settlement planning committees to engage local government. The Victorian Settlement Planning Committee was disbanded several years ago and local settlement planning committees have been left to their own resources since then. The Victorian state government previously collaborated with MAV and local government was a priority in cultural diversity planning with standing committee, biannual conferences and professional development activities. But three years ago this stopped. The MAV Board has since established a multicultural committee which advises on policy. It has moved into a LG multicultural policy leadership space previously occupied by state government through the VMC.
MAV provides professional development opportunities on multicultural issues. In 2014, it commences biannual sectoral multicultural conferences. MAV coordinates multicultural diversity planning across the Victorian local governments. There is a network of cultural diversity planners. It may include council officers with roles dedicated to cultural diversity planning or officers which add multicultural issues to other work roles. MAV, in partnership with the Victorian Local Government Multicultural Issues Network (VLGMIN), provides informal peer support to this network which meets bimonthly. MAV and the VLGMIN hold an annual Victorian LG multicultural forum focused on CALD participation in LG.
This year MAV has partnered with arts managers in councils to focus on multicultural arts. The MAV Board’s multicultural committee advises on a range of issues including cultural diversity, the Racism It Stops with Me campaign and Multicultural forum. Asylum Seekers living in community is an issue on MAV’s radar. There is a cost shifting by Commonwealth Government to LG to provide assistance to these individuals. MAV is lobbying to engage with federal government on this issue and move towards more forward planning.
Cr Gaetano Greco, Mayor of Darebin Council
Darebin Council has a long history of engaging with multiculturalism. Darebin established a centre to assist Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders. The centre undertook activities such as providing assistance finding accommodation and accompanying TPV holders to Centrelink. Darebin is a Refugee Welcome Zone. Darebin’s interest in social inclusion and issues stems from local government’s role in ensuring the wellbeing of its residents, regardless of where they are from or their visa status. Federal government does not provide enough settlement support and LG must provide assistance. Darebin’s settlement activities includes:
- Darebin’s Refugee Welcome Zone resolution allocated $30,000 to set up a Darebin people seeking asylum support program.
- An Intercultural Centre organises cultural events, seeks to create an understanding across many communities and is a drop in space for people seeking asylum to gather.
- Asylum seekers were linked with Neighbourhood Houses which offer different courses or activities and allocated free spaces for people seeking asylum for courses.
- Consulted the community on how can council assist people seeking asylum.
- Allocated spaces for people seeking asylum in health Services ensuring access to GPs.
- Organised a Mens Shed where men could developed relationships with men. It included a bicycle recycling program.
- Libraries provided people seeking asylum membership activities.
- Allocated places in children services for people seeking asylum.
- Ensured kindergarden places were allocated to people seeking asylum.
- Local gyms and pools offered free memberships.
- The YMCA offered free membership.
LGs have limitations in the settlement process but also real potential to help. Darebin works very closely with other organisations. The Darebin Ethnic Communities Council partnered with the Council to developed a Darebin Community Passport. It is given to people seeking asylum. Organisations who are prepared to provide services to people seeking asylum are listed on it. ALGA National Conference is a great opportunity to promote and enlist more councils to get involved in settlement. Mayors could be asked to champion assisting Asylum Seekers in the community.