The two critical issues for NSW electors on Saturday appear to be concerns about coal seam gas, and ownership of the poles and wires of the state’s electricity network, according to former MP Tony Windsor, who expects the vote to be close (writing in The Saturday Paper).

Meanwhile, Tracy Howe, CEO of the Council of Social Service NSW (NCOSS), argues below that other important matters affecting large numbers of people in NSW, particularly poverty and disadvantage, have not received the attention they deserve.

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Tracy Howe writes:

With an election dominated by debate about roads and the state’s poles and wires, blink and you’d be forgiven for missing some of the announcements being made on all sides of politics that would see real differences for people experiencing poverty and disadvantage.

Levels of poverty in NSW are not encouraging. Poverty affects nearly 900,000 people in New South Wales – more than in any other state or territory and a further 7% are near, or at risk of poverty. Children under the age of 15% are more likely to experience poverty than any other age group and 44% of people with disability are at or near the poverty line.

We should all be worried about this. Research consistently shows that in unequal societies even people on good incomes are less well off. They are likely to be less healthy, less likely to be involved in community life, more likely to be victims of violence. Our social cohesion suffers.

So what has this election campaign brought so far? Some clear progress in some areas, but it’s patchy.

Investment in social and affordable housing is finally on the agenda. 60,000 households are currently on the waiting list to access social housing and many of them could be waiting for over 10 years.

We know that access to housing is a key social determinant of health, when someone doesn’t have access to housing it becomes increasingly difficult to provide effective wrap around services that they may need. It’s a crucial issue for health and wellbeing in this state.

So it’s good to see some movement from all parties on this. NCOSS welcomed the NSW Greens commitment to invest $4.5 billion to build public and low income housing and NSW Labor’s $300 million plan to address housing affordability issues. NCOSS also recently signed an MOU with Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and Premier Baird committing to establishing a fund to leverage up to $1 billion for social and affordable housing.

There’s a lot of work to do to see the tide turn on this issue but after years of neglect we’re finally seeing this issue get some traction.

Another focus for NCOSS has been the future of ongoing funding for independent information, advocacy and representation for people with disability. It was great to see NSW sign up for the National Disability Insurance Scheme but since then there has been some apprehension about where funding for these services will come from.

It was great to see Labor guarantee funding for an extra two years and a move from the Coalition to help manage the transition for these services but there is still a lot of nervousness about their continued presence. These services will be crucial in helping to smooth the difficult transition to the NDIS and we’ll continue to advocate for them.

All parties have promised increases to public health spending, new and rebuilt hospitals and better health services – all of which are important to people on low incomes. It is going to be challenging for the next government to deliver this in the context of reduced Commonwealth investment in the health and hospital system over the next decade, increasing population and public demand for new and better health services.

We’ve also seen both parties commit to bolstering the Isolated Patients Travel and Accommodation Assistance Scheme to help people travel to health care. This is a big win for people in rural and regional NSW.

Additional funding will enable many local, community-based health transport providers to help more patients. Transport has long been identified as a major barrier to accessing health and next we’ll be looking to see the focus of the scheme extend beyond just specialist health services.

The crisis levels of domestic and family violence are also finally starting to hit home. We’ve seen strong policies on all sides come through to start reducing levels of violence and provide support to women and children experiencing violence.

But so far, it’s not enough and a quick look at the NSW Women’s Alliance blue print for A Safer State shows there’s still a lot more we can all be doing to tackle this issue.

Having said all this, no party is presenting an overall vision for dealing with levels of poverty and disadvantage which has led to some clear gaps NCOSS continues to be very concerned about.

Aside from discussion about electricity prices linked to the potential lease, cost of living appears to have fallen right off the agenda.

Over the last ten years, households on a government pension or benefit other than the age or veterans’ affairs pension have experienced the largest increase in living costs, with increases at 23.5% above CPI. This group has not only seen higher increases in the cost-of-living, but they have also experienced below average increases in incomes.

When households are experiencing these kinds of cost of living pressures we see parents having to choose between school excursions or a visit to the doctor, we see households choosing between food and energy bills.

Yet concessions to help these households are not keeping pace with prices rises and they are not well targeted.  We need to see a full review of the system to make sure it is providing the assistance people need to circumvent vicious cycles of debt and further disadvantage.

So far all parties have been a bit muted on these issues, but there’s still time before the election for parties to put a focus on making sure our support systems are really getting the right help to the right people when they need it.

All in all we’ve seen some much needed progress on issues affecting people experiencing poverty and disadvantage but, there is always much more we could be doing to improve the wellbeing, resilience and opportunities available to people in our communities.

• Tracy Howe is CEO of NCOSS.

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• For further reading: The Sydney Morning Herald’s live blog of NSW election coverage includes links to details of the promises and policies on offer to date, and a “Policy Reckoner” tool that gives readers a quick overview of the policies on offer in the areas below.

Education
Health
Coal and coal seam gas
Economic Management
Transport
Urban planning
Privatisation of electricity assets
Environment
Law and justice
Domestic violence
Family and community services
Same sex marriage
Local government

 

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