Sunday, 16 May 2010

Melbourne, 1989

I'm going to break one of my blogging rules and talk about my work. After all, it's my blog and I can do what I want, and besides it's not the first time.

When I was a young housing activist in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I spent a bit of time on the executive of National Shelter. This organisation was, and still is, Australia's peak non-profit housing advocacy organisation, and is basically a federation of State and Territory organisations. At this time, we had a small amount of funding from the Commonwealth Government so we had a couple of underpaid staff and were able to be active on the lobbying front in a low profile kind of way. However, the organisation as a whole was struggling. Very few of our State branches had any money, and most were like the Queensland branch I represented, a few people who would get together in whatever time we could make in our regular jobs.

Representatives from the State and Territory branches used to meet once a quarter, over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, to set the direction for the organisation. In October 1989 we were due to meet in Melbourne and the subject of the meeting was an important one for us. The Commonwealth and State Governments were in the midst of renegotiating the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement, the main vehicle for funding public housing in Australia. While most of the action went on between governments, behind closed doors, they did at least like to make a show of consultation, and we needed to define our own position.

In the event there was a pilot's strike, and almost half our members couldn't make it. We only just had a quorum, with reps from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. We met in a very shabby meeting room on the ground floor of a large high rise public housing block in inner city Melbourne. As was the norm, after the first day of discussions some of the delegates (not me!) took the opportunity to explore Melbourne's night-life and turned up late and very much the worse for wear the next day. After a cold, rainy start to the weekend, the sun came out and we adjourned to the lawn outside.

Here a very interesting conversation took place. We were all dissatisfied with the nature of the consultation and with some of the directions of the negotiations. The discussion turned on the key question - should we continue to take part in consultations, or should we boycott further involvement as an act of protest? We spent a long time debating this as we sat on the grass in our shabby clothes and morning after headaches. The discussion reached a stalemate and we took a vote. Victoria and South Australia voted for the boycott, Queensland and New South Wales to stay involved. I remember arguing that we needed to use whatever small influence we had to make positive changes. I remember thinking, as the eight of us sat there in the sun, "if we pulled out, would anyone notice?"

The chairperson, despite being a Victorian, used his casting vote to keep us involved. We all flew home on our haphazardly scheduled strike-breaker planes, pausing only for a quick drink in the flight lounge. Our staff went to various consultation meetings, were duly ignored, and the agreement rolled on as it always had.

National Shelter still exists, and now that I'm a consultant I've done the odd little piece of work for them. Not much, because they're even shorter of money now than they were in 1989 although their State and Territory members are in much better shape. As a result of some clever alliance building they've had some significant successes lately.

But I find myself wondering, what would have happened if, back in 1989, the chairperson had voted the other way? Would the governments have taken more notice of us? Would they have taken our views more seriously? Or would we have simply been swept away in the tide of their scorn, swatted like flies by a powerful, well resourced government sector that could never quite figure out why they funded us in the first place?

1 comment:

Pykle said...

Ah me, the universal question of relevance. But if you go to the ant and consider her ways and be wise you will conclude that although each ant seems totally irrelevant, they do achieve some fairly amazing things. I remember Little Mother had a saying in German behind her desk saying "A smile costs nothing but is worth a lot" - maybe some of our well meaning efforts are a bit like that.