By Therese Moore
Social security minister Jocelyn Newman paved the way for state and federal governments to silence community groups critical of their policies by abolishing funding to the national peak housing group, National Shelter, on June 27.
"Senator Newman has, at one fell swoop, gagged the national housing voice of low-income people in every state and territory. She has proved to the public that she is not interested in having their views represented if those views do not coincide with her own", Shelter NSW chairperson David Ramsey said.
"This shoot the messenger approach is symptomatic of a government with no commitment to consultation at a time of major upheaval in the housing sector", Rod Plant, executive officer of NSW Shelter, told Green Left Weekly.
"De-funding National Shelter is an attempt to silence the only organised voice on behalf of housing consumers at a national level. If the government wants us outside the tent, we'll keep pissing on them", Plant added.
Over the last 23 years, National Shelter, a federation of state peak bodies, has represented the views of some 700 community and consumer organisations using advocacy, policy and research to press the views of tenants to the national parliament.
At a time when the question of financing public housing is up for grabs, National Shelter had a decisive role to play in defending public housing. Its vocal criticism of aspects of the Howard governments housing "reform" agenda, and the valuable research role on behalf of grass roots organisations made National Shelter an obvious target for the axe.
However, the speed with which the government moved was unprecedented. Notice that National Shelter would not receive funding was given on June 27, only three days before the expiry of the organisation's contract. It was also federal parliament's last sitting day for two months. Only two weeks funding was provided to enable the organisation, having been in operation for 23 years, to wind up.
National Shelter intends to continue as a network of state-based organisations, Plant said. Shelter NSW will convene the network for at least the next year.
However, like National Shelter, Shelter NSW operates with a tight budget and in some cases with no funding for the local issues which consume much of its time and energy.
Ramsey said: "For example, we are battling at the moment to put mechanisms in place to protect low income tenants during the Olympics. If the state government doesn't move soon on tenant protection and emergency accommodation, it will be too late."
When the time comes to address the national aspects of this and other issues, when we need expert policy or advocacy advice, National Shelter provides the essential 'glue' that helps hold it all together."
Letters and faxes protesting the de-funding of National Shelter can be sent to: Senator Jocelyn Newman, Minister for Social Security, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600. Fax (06) 273 4122. For information on Shelter NSWs campaign to protect tenants during the Olympics, contact Rod Plant at Shelter NSW, telephone (02) 9267 5733.