Helping the helpers - Op Ed, The Canberra Times


The Canberra Times, 24 March 2020

On the NSW South Coast, charities are hard at work supporting victims of this summer’s unprecedented fires. There are homes to be rebuilt and debris to be removed. Teachers are seeing signs of mental distress among children who were evacuated from their homes three or four times. When local MP Fiona Phillips and I held a roundtable with charities in Nowra earlier this month, they told us how their budgets and staff were overstretched.

And that was when there were less than 200 coronavirus cases in Australia.

In the face of Australia’s greatest post-war health emergency, there’s a risk that Australian charity workers have become the forgotten people.

Already, we’ve seen charities sidelined by the federal government’s response. In the first stimulus package, businesses were prioritised over non-profit groups. That meant a for-profit childcare centre could access support that was unavailable to a non-profit early learning centre. Although the second stimulus package contained support for small charities, the main measures are off limits to major charities such as Mission Australia, Barnados, the Smith Family, and Goodstart Early Learning.

Across Australia, charities directly employ over 800,000 full-time equivalent paid workers, and indirectly employ almost 500,000 more. Charities engage over 3 million volunteers. The sector is worth over $120 billion, making it larger than the retail sector.

Already, charities are being asked to help respond to the coronavirus outbreak. Northside Community Service, a large charity in my electorate, tells me it has had a huge increase in requests for its in-home aged care program, as elderly people ask for help with shopping and personal support. Their mental health programs have seen a spike in demand, and their homelessness programs are getting more calls. Among its clients are people undergoing chemotherapy, whose immune system is already compromised.

Yet at the same time as coronavirus is increasing the demands on charities, it has exacerbated a decline in donations. Save the Children report that January and March were their worst fundraising start to any year. Ronald McDonald houses just cancelled a major fundraising ball. Charities that run stores – such as St Vincent De Paul or the Salvation Army – are being hit by the collapse in retail. Philanthropic foundations are suffering from the share market collapse, which will mean they’re likely to give less money to charities.

In the social services sector, many non-profits are funded on a fee-for-service basis. Their contracts provide payment for services such as running workshops, hosting festivals, or meeting with of clients. When coronavirus shuts down these activities, it shuts off a key funding source for many charities. If government policies prevent a charity from doing its job, surely the government has a moral obligation to help them avoid redundancies.

In the Global Financial Crisis, the largest impact fell on men in sectors such as construction and manufacturing (which is why some countries referred to it as a ‘mancession’). This time, it is women working in face-to-face occupations who are most at risk from the economic slump. Most charity workers are women. Like many feminised industries, charities don’t keep a bevy of highly-paid lobbyists on retainer. But that doesn’t make our frontline charity workers any less deserving of support.

Right now, charities are asking for better engagement. As the Community Council for Australia’s Tim Costello and David Crosbie point out, the charity sector enjoys high levels of trust, yet ‘our voice and our experience is not at the table in any of the major national policy discussions’. The Community Council for Australia have called for the Morrison Government to offer more security to maintain employment, to provide more funding to meet increased demand, to enable greater flexibility in how charities respond, to ensure that charities can continue to meet existing needs – including bushfire recovery, and to help build trust and community resilience.

The priority isn’t just the 1.3 million workers that are directly and indirectly employed in the charity sector, it’s also about ensuring that charities are properly resourced when we need them. Within weeks, there is likely to be a massive spike in demand for ventilators, hospital beds, support for those self-isolating at home, and counselling services.

The impact of coronavirus will still be felt after the virus has been vanquished by a vaccine, and a vibrant community sector will help with the recovery. In the words of Costello and Crosbie, this is about ‘overcoming the immediate challenges and building flourishing communities across Australia’.

If we don’t help the helpers, how can we expect them to be there in the community’s moment of need?

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities, and his website is


Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.