2022 VCOSS Election Platform

A note from VCOSS CEO Emma King

The work of the 59th Parliament has been shaped by COVID; both the virus itself and the associated health, social and economic challenges. The pandemic tested us in previously unimaginable ways.

And as this document attests, it was Victoria’s lowest income earners, people from multicultural backgrounds and those with existing health concerns that bore the brunt of these challenges.

But through it all, significant social policy reforms were pursued. Treaty, the Mental Health Royal Commission, changes to tenancy laws, ongoing reforms to family violence, the Big Housing Build and an embrace of Housing First, new education equity measures, voluntary assisted dying, supervised injecting rooms, LGBTIQ+ equality measures. The list goes on. 

We need all parties committed to continuing these reforms so they can deliver on their promise for positive change. This platform details how VCOSS believes this should occur.

Read more.

Almost three years with COVID in our lives has allowed Victorians to develop a razor-sharp focus on the things that matter. They want a multiparty commitment to completing flagship reforms that address entrenched and systemic challenges.

And, just as everyday Victorians have juggled multiple priorities through the pandemic, they expect members of the 60th Parliament will deliver systemic change while also attending to the immediate needs of communities still recovering from COVID’s lingering social and economic effects.

Then, we must raise our eyes to the horizon.

What are the new big ideas Victoria wishes to pursue?

This document contains bold and specific plans to embrace wellbeing economics, introduce a Youth Guarantee, end childhood poverty, stop the loneliness epidemic, dismantle the digital divide – and much more.

Underpinning it all must be a strong and well-funded Victorian community sector.  The pandemic highlighted the critical role community organisations play connecting people, building strength, advocating for change and supporting communities through adversity. Politicians from across the political divide acknowledge this contribution.

Currently, the community sector is valued, but underfunded. This must change if Victoria is to truly thrive.

Only with secure, adequate, and long-term funding can the community sector play its role most effectively.

Our future is what we make it.

EMMA KING
VCOSS CEO

⦿ Become the wellbeing state

Embrace the wellbeing agenda

A disconnect has emerged between how we discuss the prosperity of our state and the lived experience of community members.

The way Victorians feel about their life is increasingly at odds with headline economic indicators like Gross State Product and inflation.

A person might hear that the community is doing well, but not see it or feel it. They may read about strong economic performance but not directly experience the benefits.

The concept of wellbeing economies has been developed to address this gap. It is giving governments across the world a new way to think about social progress and target funding to make the biggest difference.

In the next four-year term:

  • Victoria should become a wellbeing economy and deliver wellbeing budgets. Wellbeing economies start with identifying the desired outcomes, based on priorities expressed by the community about what matters to them. Departments are then tasked to create innovative solutions during each state budget cycle. As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for more frequent climate disasters, a wellbeing economy will help build Victorians’ resilience, health and prosperity.

Understand Victorians’ wellbeing priorities

A wellbeing economy will only be meaningful if Victorians help shape its design.

This requires thorough and meaningful engagement across the state. The government must listen to people about what matters to them, their family and their community.

The government should:

  • Launch a six-month wellbeing engagement exercise. This consultation project would ask Victorians to consider wellbeing across economic, social, cultural and environmental domains. The discussions would have a future focus and would encourage people to consider tangible and innovative steps to achieving wellbeing.

The full diversity of Victoria’s population must be represented in these consultations, including people experiencing disadvantage and First Nations people.

Make wellbeing a whole-of-government reform

People don’t think in terms of government silos. Their challenges often fall between departments.

For example, people want the government to tackle loneliness, improve resilience and help them use and access technology better. Yet none of these fits neatly into a single portfolio.

Rather than dividing wellbeing priorities between departments, every department should be tasked with considering how they can contribute to every priority. Secretaries would ask themselves ‘how can we help solve this problem?’ rather than ‘does this problem fit into our remit?’ Partnerships would be crucial to delivering this approach. Leaders in government, civil society and business would work together to develop innovative solutions.

This whole-of-government approach would be governed by a wellbeing framework.

VCOSS calls on government to:

  • Develop a wellbeing framework. This framework would explicitly outline Victoria’s wellbeing priorities and the outcomes a wellbeing economy should deliver. It would help drive a high level of collaboration across government, and hone initiatives to be most effective. The framework would need to be refreshed at regular intervals to match changing community needs and expectations.

Strong leadership will also be required.

Ultimately, as a whole-of-government reform this will come from the Premier and Cabinet.

But to be a complete success, a dedicated champion is necessary. Victoria should:

  • Appoint a Minister for Wellbeing. The new Minister would be responsible for getting a wellbeing economy off the ground and leading community consultation. The Minister would also help ensure that wellbeing priorities are being progressed and Victorians are having their voices heard.

Their work would be supported by a branch within government to drive the changes and to help departments comply with the framework. The branch would be tasked with building partnerships with communities, undertaking consultations, and working closely with organisations such as VCOSS. Ideally, this unit would be located within the Department of Premier and Cabinet to acknowledge the whole-of-government nature of the reform.

Future-proof the wellbeing approach

Big, meaningful and long-term reform requires certainty.

To protect the wellbeing agenda from future threats or tinkering, Victoria should enshrine it in legislation.

Specifically, VCOSS calls on government to:

  • Draft and pass a Victorian Wellbeing Economy Bill, setting out how the wellbeing economy agenda would work in practice, including processes and timelines. The proposed Bill would detail how departments should match budget bids with wellbeing priorities, the required level of community consultation and how often the framework should be refreshed.

The legislation could also specify the proportion of each state budget that must be allocated to the wellbeing economy to ensure initiatives receive adequate investment.

The drafting process is important. The government should commit to publishing an Exposure Draft of the legislation for public feedback, in line with a community-driven wellbeing approach. This consultation process should be designed to make it easy for all Victorians to understand what’s proposed and have their say.   

Legislating for wellbeing would show Victorians that their wellbeing is the government’s topmost priority, both now and into the future.

Back to top.

⦿ Value the community sector

Provide fair, evidence-based and adequate funding

The funding provided to community services organisations doesn’t reflect the true cost of delivering services. It’s also largely insecure and short-term. Meanwhile, overall demand for social assistance and the complexity of that demand continues to increase.

Underfunded services simply cannot help everybody who needs it. Services reliant on unpredictable and inconsistent ‘drip funding’ also cannot properly plan or attract and retain staff.

This leaves many organisations with limited capacity to deliver on the Victorian Government’s vision for system reform.

This status quo isn’t in the interests of vulnerable Victorians, service providers or the government.

Victoria should:

  • Increase base funding to reflect rising demand (because of COVID, inflation and other trends), increased case complexity and the true cost of delivering services. The quantum of increase should be determined in partnership with sector peak bodies. It must be equitable across the sub-sectors and different government departments.
  • Index that funding properly. The Victorian Government should provide fair, transparent and predictable funding indexation, so the amount of money provided to services maintains its true value over time. Embedding a fair indexation formula that includes increases handed down by the Fair Work Commission, increases to superannuation and other costs would future-proof services against changing community needs and economic shocks.

In early 2022, Victoria did commit to a 4.6 per cent funding boost to services funded by the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) and the Department of Health (DH) for 2022-23. This was a good start, and that additional money has already improved service delivery.

However, this rate of indexation is for one year only, and does not apply to community services organisations funded by other government departments.

Victoria needs a transparent, consistent, whole-of-government and whole-of-sector solution for the long term.

Political parties should commit to an indexation formula that ensures sustainable funding for all community service organisations. This will allow services to operate more efficiently and effectively.

Provide long-term, stable contracts so CSOs can attract, train and retain staff

A thriving community services industry is central to Victoria’s long-term recovery and performance. It is an engine room for job creation, and an enabler for many of the Victorian Government’s flagship reforms.

But the sector’s impact is constrained by short funding contracts. You can’t deliver long-term reform on short-term funding.

Short contracts also lead to inefficiencies, with higher contracting and recruitment costs, uneconomical use of infrastructure and limited capacity for long-term planning.

Furthermore, one of the key reasons the sector struggles to attract and retain workers is because short-term government funding creates insecure jobs. Nearly 15 per cent of all Victorian casuals (or about 43,600 people) work for a community service organisation. They account for about a quarter of the sector workforce.[1]

These Victorians would enjoy a better life with more job certainty.

Urgent action is required. Victoria should:

  • Introduce long-term contracts for government-funded community service organisations. By default, government funding contracts for the community sector should span seven years. This is the recommendation of the Productivity Commission. It should be an immediate priority.

Use data to model demand and grow and develop the industry

Policy and systems reforms spanning aged care, disability support, family violence, mental health and early childhood education can’t be delivered without a huge lift in the size and skills of the community services workforce.

As well as taking action to deliver fair and secure funding to the sector, a government priority for the next four-year term should be to:

  • Fund an overarching community services industry workforce strategy that enables all parts of the sector to grow and develop their workforces. 

  • Establish a robust, accessible industry-wide dataset on the community workforce, comparable across sub-sectors and tracked over time, to support the design and implementation of the community services industry workforce strategy.

This could be modelled on the UK’s Adult Social Care Workforce Data Set. The data set provides information that supports workforce planning for England’s adult social care sector. It includes information on about 750,000 workers across 20,000 worksites.

Local data of this nature could be used, for example, to produce a specific workforce development strategy for regional Victoria.

Recognise community sector workers as ‘key workers’ and provide affordable housing

The pandemic has highlighted that community sector workers are – and always have been – essential workers.  However, they do not tend to feature prominently, if at all, in policy conversations about affordable housing for key workers. 

This needs to change. Just like nurses and teachers, community sector workers need assistance.

Currently, many community sector workers cannot afford to live in the communities in which they work. Employers lose workers who find work closer to home, including in other industries.

The lack of affordable housing has made it difficult for organisations to attract, recruit and retain staff, particularly in regional Victoria. Other challenges beyond the sector’s control – such as insecure and short-term funding, inadequate indexation and pay inequity – have complicated things further.

Victoria should:

  • Include community sector workers in affordable housing schemes. A proportion of government-backed affordable housing projects should be reserved for community sector key workers. Housing should be prioritised in areas of the state where skills shortages are most acute. This investment will boost local services, generate economic growth and increase community and individual wellbeing.

Provide paid student placements

Student placements provide an important pathway into the community services industry. Most TAFE and university qualifications relevant to the sector require students to complete a minimum number of placement hours with an employer before they can graduate.

These unpaid placements are extremely valuable because students develop work skills while still studying. They also provide an opportunity for prospective employees and employers to get to know each other. This year’s graduates are next year’s new workers.

But cost-of-living pressures are making it difficult for students to undertake placements. Many already juggle study with paid work, and taking on unpaid labour means they lose valuable income from casual or part-time jobs.

On top of this, students incur placement-related expenses such as travel, housing (for example, if they need to undertake a placement that does not enable them to travel home each day), uniform and equipment expenses, or childcare costs.

Victoria should:

  • Roll out supported student placements.  Eligible students would be assessed for need and offered financial or practical support. This support would provide payment in lieu of lost ordinary income for those who’ve had to reduce hours at a paid job or quit a job to undertake a placement. The program would also incorporate flexible wraparound support for those who need it – for example, access to coaching and mentoring. The program would be designed by government in partnership with students, training provider representative bodies and community sector peaks.

Extend the Sick Pay Guarantee to more casual workers in the community services sector

The pandemic has shone a light on the problems of toxic insecure work. Without access to paid sick or annual leave, many casual workers have had to make difficult decisions about whether to go to work when unwell or stay home and lose their income.

The Victorian Government has stepped up, introducing the ‘Sick Pay Guarantee’. 

This is a two-year pilot scheme that covers more than 150,000 casual workers in retail, hospitality, cleaning, security, and aged and disability care. Eligible casual and contract workers can access up to five days of paid sick/carers leave at the national minimum wage, enabling them to take time off when sick or when they need to care for a family member.

Victoria should take the next step, and:

  • Expand the Sick Pay Guarantee to all community sector casuals. While the inclusion of aged and disability care workers in the pilot is welcome, casual workers from the broader community services sector should be added, given the high rate of casualisation in this industry (the sector accounts for 14.2 per cent of all casual workers in Victoria) and the close proximity of sector workers to vulnerable people.

Increase women’s leadership and economic security

The community services workforce is female-dominated, but this is not reflected in senior leadership roles, where women are under-represented.

One constraint is access to part-time leadership or co-leadership roles.

These types of roles have the potential to expand the participation of women in the community services sector. However, there are gaps in knowledge about this form of leadership; no resources to build organisational or individual capacity; and no models of good practice for the sector. 

A further constraint is persistent negative stereotypes about part-time work. Some research suggests that women who access flexible arrangements are more likely to be viewed as unsuitable for management roles and less likely to be promoted.

The Victorian Government should:

  • Fund VCOSS and Gender Equity Victoria to design and test a model to support the growth of part-time and co-leadership positions in the sector.

VCOSS and Gender Equity Victoria would undertake research with employers and women to produce a high-value Insights Paper for the government about industry barriers and women’s experiences.

This research would then be used to design and deliver resources, training and support for participating employers, to enable them to model a new form of leadership in their organisation.

Resources, training and support would also be designed and delivered to cohorts of under-represented women, to build new skills, knowledge, confidence and networks to pursue part-time or co-leadership. Participants may include older women, women in regional/rural Victoria, Aboriginal women, women with disabilities, and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

This initiative would enhance the performance and impact of community sector organisations, and improve the economic security of Victorian women in the sector by:

  • Supporting community service career progression opportunities and leadership roles for women of all ages (and therefore access to greater remuneration).
  • Enabling more women with care responsibilities to sustain employment at senior levels in the community services sector.

Strengthen volunteering

COVID has devastated Victoria’s volunteer workforce. In the early stages of the pandemic, two-thirds of people who’d previously been volunteering stopped doing so, compounding a longer-term decline in volunteering.

The volunteering workforce is pivotal to social services delivery across Victoria. Almost 25 per cent of respondents to a Volunteering Victoria survey were engaged in delivering services funded by the Victorian Government. The dramatic decline in formal volunteering has reduced organisations’ capacity to meet community needs. With increased demand for social services across Victoria, a strong effort is required to help Victorians get back into volunteering. 

Volunteering also fosters social connection – it is a key part of the solution to loneliness and isolation. For example, for older people, volunteering can provide a sense of belonging and purpose after retirement. For people from newly-arrived backgrounds, volunteering creates opportunities to make new friends, practice English, and develop skills and networks to get a job.

The new Victorian Volunteer Strategy 2022-2027 has an important role to play in making volunteering more inclusive and accessible, creating new pathways into volunteering, and helping past volunteers return.

 VCOSS calls for the government to:

  • Fully fund and deliver actions from the Victorian Volunteer Strategy 2022-2027.
  • Guarantee adequate and sustainable funding for place-based volunteering support services and resource centres that promote, resource and facilitate volunteering in local communities.
  • Work with Commonwealth, state and territory counterparts to fully implement nationally-consistent and free screening checks for volunteers working with people experiencing vulnerability.

Back to top.

⦿ Inclusive communities

A shared future for Victoria

Victoria is committed to providing formal recognition of the status, rights, cultures and histories of Traditional Owners and Aboriginal Victorians through a Treaty process.

In the next four-year term, government must:

  • Continue to partner with the First People’s Assembly of Victoria to advance towards Treaty, so that Victoria’s Traditional Owners always have the freedom and power to make the decisions that affect Aboriginal communities, culture and Country.

VCOSS urges:

  • Bipartisan support for the Treaty negotiation framework, when it is completed.
  • Bipartisan support for the government of the day to negotiate and agree to treaties with Aboriginal negotiating parties.

A key step in the process is truth-telling.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission is Australia’s first formal truth-telling process. Its purpose is to assist reconciliation and healing and establish the foundations for new, positive relationships between the state, Aboriginal Victorians and non-Aboriginal Victorians.

All parties are urged to recognise and address historic and ongoing injustices for First Nations people by providing:

  • Bipartisan support for the continuing Yoorrook Justice Commission truth and justice process. This includes being responsive to the advice of Aboriginal leaders on the timeframe for reporting.

Go further with gender responsive budgeting

Tackling gender inequality is at the heart of making Victoria a more inclusive state.

Victoria’s introduction of gender responsive budgeting is helping shift the dial. It is a mechanism to ensure that government departments (and other ‘defined entities’, such as local councils, courts, hospitals and universities) think critically about how their policies, programs and services will provide women, men and gender diverse people with equal access to opportunities and resources.

The Victorian Parliament’s Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) has acknowledged the “sound progress” Victoria has made on this reform, while also noting the capacity for a more “overarching, linked and integrated” approach.

Victoria should implement all PAEC recommendations.

Specifically, it should:

  • Legislate gender responsive budgeting. Putting gender responsive budgeting into law would future-proof this important reform. The 2022 Victorian Budget put aside funding to support this reform. It should be progressed with the full support of the Victorian Parliament.
  • Establish an independent Gender Equality Budget Group to undertake an annual gender equality needs assessment of government initiatives. This could be modelled on the United Kingdom Women’s Budget Group and include experts from across government, academia and the social sector.
  • Establish a gender budget baseline. This would require a detailed analysis of all existing expenditure and revenue budget initiatives. Insights would guide future spending to target inequalities.
  • Train the public sector on gender responsive budgeting. Establish a formal program to support the public sector to apply a gender lens to all policy development and budget bids.

In the next four-year term, the government should also:

  • Lift its investment in gender equity. The government should provide dedicated and long-term funding for gender equity programs, in addition to investing in policy work. 

Improve the wellbeing of LGBTIQ+ Victorians

Across almost every measure of health and wellbeing, LGBTIQ+ people fare significantly worse than non-LGBTIQ+ people.

This is not because of their LGBTIQ+ status, but because of stigma and discrimination that many LGBTIQ+ people encounter.

About 60 per cent of LGBTIQ+ Victorians report being treated unfairly because of their sexual orientation, while about 80 per cent of trans and gender diverse Victorians report unfair treatment due to their gender identity. As a result, LGBTIQ+ people are less likely to use mainstream services.

The Victorian Government has been a strong champion for LGBTIQ+ equality.

To take the next step, and further enhance LGBTIQ+ Victorians’ wellbeing, all parties should support: 

  • Government seed funding for an LGBTIQ+ community-controlled sector Social Delivery Fund. This Fund would provide organisations that are initiated, governed and operated by and for LGBTIQ+ communities with access to dedicated funding to deliver programs and services that address the evolving needs of their communities.
  • Government funding for mainstream services and education providers to ensure robust, LGBTIQ+ inclusive practice. 

Ensure inclusive recovery for culturally and linguistically diverse Victorians

Victoria is one of the world’s most culturally-diverse societies. Our state is enriched by the cultures, traditions, experience and innovation of our migrant and refugee communities.

These communities are strong and resilient. However, they have shouldered a heavy burden through COVID.

The pandemic has exacerbated long-standing systemic challenges, such as racism, a lack of secure work and social isolation.

The Victorian Government should:

  • Fund multicultural and multifaith groups to deliver tailored information and support to communities, including information ‘in-language’. This investment should include (but not be limited to) funding to continue the cross-sector Multicultural Emergency Management Partnership – see page x.
  • Release the Statewide Anti-Racism Strategy and provide funding to implement all actions.
  • Introduce legislation to broaden anti-vilification protections, in line with recommendations by the Parliamentary Inquiry on the effectiveness of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.
  • Fund the development of a new co-designed Multicultural Strategy. The completed Strategy would help to coordinate action across government to engage and support migrant and refugee communities. One outcome of the Strategy would be a more responsive and equitable funding model for the multicultural sector, in place of current fragmented drip-funding.
  • Make CALD Victorians a priority in all new mainstream government assistance programs, particularly those relating to employment and mental health, as well as supporting multicultural organisations to design and deliver tailored services.

More funded support for our carers

Unpaid carers save the Victorian economy $19 billion annually.But it comes at a great personal toll.

Carers have lower household incomes than non-carers, and are almost 50 per cent more likely to live in poverty. Young carers are more likely than their peers to drop out of school.

Carers often ignore their own their own health needs, making them more likely to have a chronic health condition. They also experience high levels of social isolation and mental ill-health.

We need to provide greater support to our carers.

VCOSS calls for all parties to commit to:

  • Grow the Support for Carers program in the next 12 months to restore funded services for carers.
  • Grow the overall recurrent investment in funded carer services to $34.5 million by 2026, in line with current growth in carer numbers. Currently, more than 700,000 Victorians take on the role of unpaid carer for a family member, friend or other person – and ABS data suggests that number is growing rapidly.

Refer also to VCOSS’s call for sustained investment in employment support for carers.

Make public spaces safe, accessible and inclusive

Public spaces are where we build belonging, enjoy nature, meet friends, play sport and hold community events. They play a particularly important role for people who live by themselves, people who live in overcrowded or cramped housing, and those without a safe place to call home.

But the benefits of public spaces aren’t shared equally.

Some neighbourhoods have few public spaces, or spaces of poor quality.

Some groups feel unsafe or are excluded. Some groups are treated like criminals when using public spaces.

All Victorians should enjoy access to good quality public spaces that are safe, accessible and inclusive.

To enable this, Victoria should:

  • Give more Victorians a local park. Government should fund the Local Parks Program for another four years. The assessment criteria should be expanded to include equity. This would allow more money to be spent in places where few parks currently exist. This program should also continue to support the revitalisation of existing, rundown parks.
  • Make public spaces accessible. Ensure all new government-funded park, sport and recreation projects are accessible, in line with the State Disability Plan.
  • Make public spaces safe. The government should continue to fund the ‘Creating Safe Places’ grants program which assists councils to fund urban design and place activation initiatives that improve the safety and use of public places by a diverse range of community members. The government can also help more Victorians to feel safe in public by leading a concerted push to end systemic racism and ensuring gender impact assessments prescribed under the Gender Equality Act are applied to all local and state government public open space projects and park developments.
  • Make public spaces inclusive for all people. Too often, people using public spaces are criminalised. Prominent examples include rough sleepers, substance users or groups of young people wrongly assumed to be ‘up to no good’. Victoria should reclassify public space offences that criminalise poverty and disadvantage, and replace police responses with health, social and youth support.
  • Create more ‘youth-friendly’ spaces. Victoria’s 2022–2027 Youth Strategy makes a welcome commitment to partner with local government and the community sector to create local youth hubs in priority areas. It provides an initial down-payment of $1 million to fund new youth hubs in Geelong and outer-metropolitan Melbourne. This strategy should be a lever for the government to provide funding so that a new ‘youth hub’ can be built in every Victorian LGA that doesn’t have one. The government should also continue to provide grants to community organisations and local councils to support young people to design and deliver free events in public spaces.
  • Increase access to existing public spaces by improving the reach, frequency and accessibility of public transport, and continuing to invest in community transport options.

Tackle loneliness head-on

Loneliness and social isolation are increasing.

This is a concern, because loneliness is linked with dying early, poor physical and mental health, and general dissatisfaction with life.

Victoria should enact a bold strategy to tackle loneliness.

To begin, the government should:

  • Launch a public campaign to reduce stigma and promote help-seeking, supported by a community ambassador program.
  • Develop a loneliness screening tool that enables health and community services to identify people who may be lonely or at risk of loneliness. This would be an Australian-first, and should draw on the expertise of Victoria’s community health sector.
  • Embrace ‘social prescribing’. Social prescribing (sometimes called community referral) is where health professionals ‘prescribe’ non-traditional or non-clinical treatments, like involvement with a community group or local activity that offers practical or emotional support. This practice was recommended by the Mental Health Royal Commission, and trials are underway in Gippsland, Geelong, near Benalla and in outer suburban Melbourne. Evidence from these initiatives should be used to expand access to ‘social prescribing’, so it is available across the state. This work should leverage the expertise and reach of Victoria’s community health, Neighbourhood House and Community Information and Support services.
  • Boost opportunities for volunteering
  • Fund known enablers of social connection, including community transport and digital inclusion. Government should also boost funding for Neighbourhood Houses and Community Information and Support services, as well as multicultural groups, youth groups, seniors groups, and other community groups that foster social connection and help people to find friends.

Extra support for community connector organisations

For many Victorians, Neighbourhood Houses are the local community.

These facilities offer a safe and welcoming environment for social activity and friendship, as well as high-quality programs that are either free or heavily discounted.

The range of services offered is diverse, from early learning programs to job skills training, and support for victim survivors of family violence. Neighbourhood Houses help reduce social isolation and assist people living in poverty.

But they’re under-funded, and the funding they do receive is insecure.

Victoria should:

  • Boost core funding to Neighbourhood Houses. Neighbourhood Houses need a fair and permanent increase to their core funding. Without this, when temporary ‘boost’ funding ends in 2024 the sector will lose 154,000 hours of activity a year across 189 communities.

Community Information and Support Services are also part of the community fabric. They ‘wrap’ support around a person in distress, providing information, referrals to other services, and direct material aid like assistance with food, household and medical bills, school fees and travel expenses.

The sector is heavily dependent on unpaid labour. About one-third of agencies are run entirely by volunteers. This situation has become untenable with the depletion in volunteers since COVID, and the increasing complexity of issues people need help with.

Victoria should:

  • Fund one paid Coordinator in every Community Information and Support Service. This would deliver 41 new positions across the state at a total annual cost of $4.1 million.

End digital exclusion

Digital access is an essential service. Being on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’ makes many everyday tasks impossible.

You can’t apply for a job, access online services, video chat with family or engage in remote study.

Key barriers include not being able to afford a computer or a smartphone, not knowing how to use them properly, or not being able to afford an internet connection or data plan.

This fuels social disconnection and loneliness and – with so many services online – some Victorians are missing out on vital supports and assistance.

Victoria should:

  • Guarantee a human interaction for all government services. Every government service should be required to offer an in-person option for all community interactions. This should be face-to-face and free. The only exception should be when a computer or telephone interaction is directly facilitated by a person. (For example, refer to VCOSS’s call to action on remote court hubs.)
  • Connect more Victorians to the NBN. The government should install free NBN across all public housing properties, and subsidise NBN services for community housing tenants and other low-income households.
  • Give all public school students a free digital device. Digital devices should be formally included in the ‘standard curriculum’, meaning schools are required to provide them for free. Additional government funding will be required so schools aren’t left out-of-pocket.
  • Provide more digital literacy support. The government should fund Neighbourhood Houses, Community Information and Support services and other suitable community organisations to hire a new staff member to deliver digital capability, outreach and coordination. It should also continue to invest in telephone information and referral services for groups with high rates of digital exclusion, such as older Victorians.

Make all mainstream services and support accessible for Victorians with a disability

Access to mainstream services and systems is not a privilege – it’s a right. Yet people with disabilities continue to face barriers. Many Victorians with disabilities:

  • Live in housing that’s not of their choosing, because there’s not enough accessible stock.
  • Miss out on timely and effective healthcare because of transport barriers, communication challenges and discrimination.,
  • Are unable to leave violent relationships because there are not enough tailored, accessible support options.

VCOSS urges all parties to:

  • Progress the introduction of a Disability Inclusion Act. like Victoria’s ground-breaking Gender Equality Act, this should be an ambitious piece of human rights legislation that imposes ‘positive duties’ (legal obligations to perform actions or pursue goals) on state-funded systems.
  • Appoint a Disability Inclusion Commissioner. This Commissioner would have oversight of progress on the achievement of fully inclusive mainstream services. This role should be an identified position for persons with a disability.
  • Adequately resource state-funded disability advocacy to assist people to assert their rights and lower barriers to service access.
  • Fund rolling action plans to ensure implementation of all initiatives in the State Disability Plan.

Support people with disabilities to have choice and control over decisions that affect them

People with cognitive disabilities who don’t have family or friends to provide ‘informal support’ can be left to navigate complex systems on their own.

The decisions they have to make can range from routine choices, through to big life decisions about whether to sign a contract or consent to a medical procedure.

Without any informal support, people rely on organisations and paid professionals for help. But these groups may not have the time or skills to assist, or may even have a conflict of interest. There is no organisation specifically funded by the Victorian Government to provide independent decision support.

Victoria should:

  • Require all government departments and statutory agencies (for example, courts, police, hospitals, education providers, and Child Protection) to arrange decision support for people with significant cognitive disabilities, where they need assistance to express their will and preference. Getting access to decision support should not come down to ‘luck of the draw’ in terms of the system you’re in or the worker you interact with.
  • Create a Supported Decision-Making Service to meet demand for independent decision support. This service should be staffed by a multi-disciplinary team. It would provide 1:1 assistance to support decision-making capacity for individuals with cognitive disabilities. It would also provide advice and training to people who give informal support, or who would like to do so, so that their approach is robust and genuinely assists a person to express their will and preference.

Fix the interface between the NDIS and state systems for Victorians with a disability

The National Disability Insurance Scheme was fully rolled out in Victoria in 2019.

But the way this federal scheme intersects with Victoria’s state systems remains patchy, confusing and problematic.

For example, patients with disabilities can get stuck in state-funded public hospitals for months beyond the point where hospital care is necessary, because of NDIS service delays.

In prisons, one of the reasons people are being denied appropriate disability support is that NDIS and state corrections officials can’t agree who should pay. As the Victorian Public Advocate puts it: “prisoners with disability languish without their human rights being met”.

VCOSS urges the incoming government to:

  • Clarify rules and responsibilities. The Victorian and Commonwealth governments must work together, through Disability Reform Ministers’ meetings, to urgently address service interface issues. Key steps will be revising the Applied Principles and Tables of Support, and providing clear, updated guidance to the National Disability Insurance Agency, Victorian departments and services.

This should be done in conjunction with improving access and inclusion in state-funded services (refer above) and properly funding disability advocacy (see next section).

Increase long-term funding for the Victorian disability advocacy sector

Disability advocacy plays a unique role in helping people with disability, families and carers to assert their rights, communicate their needs and overcome barriers to accessing services. Advocates also play a vital role in identifying and reporting systemic issues and preventing violence, abuse and neglect.

Demand for advocacy continues to build. The Royal Commission into the Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability has increased awareness of the benefits of advocacy. Problems with the NDIS and the impacts of COVID have also added to the demand pressure.

While the sector has welcomed bursts of ‘boost funding’ in recent years, this is unpredictable, and masks the core issue: base funding is too low and hasn’t increased to meet demand. Short-term funding makes it difficult for organisations to plan ahead and retain good staff.

VCOSS urges the Victorian Government to:

  • Properly fund disability advocacy services. Core funding must reflect the level of demand, quantum of unmet need and complexity of cases.
  • Empower more self-advocates. Work with the Federal Government to fix the sustainability challenges experienced by many self-advocacy groups since the introduction of the NDIS.

Increase access to public and community transport

Transport unlocks opportunities – school and work, social interaction, access to healthcare and more.

A great public transport system is at the heart of an inclusive, connected community. It’s also better for the planet.

But many outer suburbs and regional areas are poorly served by public transport. Compounding this, ageing infrastructure means huge parts of the network are not usable by people with disabilities or mobility challenges, such as older Victorians. Cost is also a factor.

To make public transport accessible, Victoria should:

  • Require all transport services to have at least one accessible carriage.
  • Fund a record-breaking four-year accessible transport infrastructure blitz, as part of a big push towards 100 per cent universal access. This initiative should be the state’s next flagship infrastructure program, matching the ambition of Victoria’s highly successful Railway Level Crossing Removal Program. 
  • Reduce bus fares and add more frequent and direct services. Buses are the most available public transport mode in heavily car-dependent outer suburbs, but Melbourne’s bus system is currently underused. According to Infrastructure Victoria, the average bus route is only 25 per cent full during the morning peak period, while over 80 per cent of train and tram routes are full. Relatively high bus fares are a key factor.

For people who can’t use public transport but don’t have alternatives, community transport is critical. These are hyper-local services provided by community organisations.

But the community transport sector is under-funded and existing funding arrangements are complex. This has created a patchwork of services with different availability, scope, eligibility and fees.

Victoria should:

  • Immediately boost funding to community transport providers so they can meet current demand.
  • Fund a study of unmet need to inform future evidence-based investments that fill service gaps. This might include new transport providers, or existing providers being funded to offer more services.

Back to top.

⦿ A healthy Victoria

A note on the social determinants of health

All Victorians need access to timely, high-quality medical care. This chapter proposes specific measures to strengthen the healthcare system and improve health outcomes for Victorians.

However, these initiatives must be paired with approaches to address the social factors that shape health outcomes.

Research shows that safe housing, quality transport options and connected neighbourhoods strengthen health. So too does having a good education, a decent job and a fair income, not being the subject of racism, discrimination and violence, and living in a clean environment.

Accordingly, this chapter should be considered in conjunction with VCOSS recommendations made elsewhere in this Platform  to:

  • Progress Treaty
  • Deliver the Victorian Anti-Racism Strategy
  • Use Gender Responsive Budgeting to drive systemic improvement and
    work to eliminate all forms of gendered violence
  • Address inequities in early childhood
  • Build more public and community housing
  • Improve education participation and attainment
  • Sustain employment assistance for disadvantaged jobseekers
  • Act on toxic insecure work
  • Make an equitable transition to net-zero emissions
  • Fund community-led bodies to deliver public health information to groups who require more tailored messaging. (This should include initiatives led by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, women’s health services, LGBTIQ+ led organisations and organisations connected with culturally and linguistically diverse Victorians, young people and seniors.)

Close the Aboriginal health gap

Aboriginal Victorians are more likely to experience ill health and to die young than the rest of the population. This is a long-tail effect of European colonisation, which has created multi-generational dispossession, marginalisation and discrimination.

Self-determination is key to closing this health equity gap.

In the next four-year term of government, Victoria should:

  • Provide Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) with adequate and secure funding to meet rising demand for health and wellbeing services. This should be backed by the creation of a new infrastructure strategy and fund that provides a sustainable approach to building and maintaining the facilities needed by ACCOs that are delivering health services and their communities. 
  • Fund the implementation of the Victorian Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Research Accord. This will produce research in health and wellbeing that is meaningful to Aboriginal people and involve them as active partners.

These recommendations are made in tandem with other proposed measures to assist and empower Aboriginal people, including addressing historic and ongoing injustices, building more Aboriginal housing, fixing Aboriginal over-representation in the justice system, raising the age of criminal responsibility and reducing alcohol and other drug harm.

Reinforce community health services

Community health services have a broader remit than standard healthcare services.

They improve health equity by knitting together healthcare and social assistance for people who are disadvantaged, have complex needs or don’t have a GP. Their work has a strong focus on the prevention of illness through health promotion, disease prevention and early intervention, and includes action on the social determinants of health. They also provide assessment, treatment, health maintenance and continuing care services. They are the providers of trusted health information. They build health literacy, promote healthy living, help people avoid chronic diseases and deliver care that prevents people from needing to go to hospital.

Community health is a sector that can help government solve some of Victoria’s biggest health challenges. These challenges include delayed diagnosis of health conditions, a rise in chronic disease and escalating mental health concerns – all of which are leading to unsustainable demand for hospital care.

The Victorian Government should relieve pressure on hospitals and the health budget by using community health services to provide more care in the community.

Specifically, Victoria should:

  • Formalise the role of community health. The sector currently operates in a policy vacuum. This contributes to missed opportunities for early intervention, disconnected patient care, and unnecessary system costs. The Victorian Government should develop a clear policy statement that formalises the role of community health in the health system. Policy clarity would improve health system planning and commissioning, foster strong partnerships and support more integrated care. 
  • Give the community health sector a seat at the table for all future health planning. The insights and recommendations community health representatives would bring to planning discussions would improve outcomes across the whole health system.
  • Increase core funding and provide longer-term contracts to the community health sector for ‘business as usual’ work, so services can meet existing demand and respond to increasingly complex community needs.
  • Make community health a partner of choice. This will require formally identifying community health as the Victorian Government’s preferred delivery partner for all new investments in out-of-hospital care and non-acute healthcare services.

Offer vulnerable people health assistance before they ask for it

It took a pandemic to expose the depth of extreme deprivation and social isolation in hidden pockets of our community. Victorians should not look away.

The government should apply the evidence from the short-lived but highly successful High Risk Accommodation Response (HRAR) program, which operated during the height of COVID.

Specifically, it should:

  • Design and fund a state-wide assertive outreach healthcare and social assistance program. This program would be targeted to people who need help, but don’t seek it because of their profound social exclusion and low levels of health literacy. Local community health workers – assisted by lived experience officers – would go into, for example, caravan parks, rooming houses, Supported Residential Services and public housing to:

    • Identify people who need health and social assistance,
    • Build trust with them, and
    • Proactively connect them to appropriate services.

The program would be funded recurrently, and delivered by community health services that are already part of their communities. The workers would be local, not coming from nearby ‘satellite sites’. This includes the lived experience workers, who would be paid members of the team, alongside multi-disciplinary community health staff.

Such an approach would help people who are not proactively accessing community health services.  It would allow community health services to perform assertive outreach in places they can’t currently reach with existing resources.  

The program would provide opportunities for early intervention. The healthcare delivered to high-risk groups would help to reduce avoidable hospital admissions. And it would produce additional health, economic and social benefits for communities through the creation of lived experience jobs.

While investment in the ‘Community Connectors’ program following the cessation of HRAR is welcome, the scope of this program is too narrow and the time-limited 12-month funding is insufficient for the model of care that’s required.

An evaluation of HRAR undertaken by Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Global Health and Equity warned: “The costs of piecemeal responses to the current and future needs of residents may well exacerbate inequities and intergenerational poverty.” VCOSS echoes this concern.

Lock in increased investment in the Women’s Health Program

Gender inequity produces unequal access to healthcare and poor health and wellbeing outcomes.

Victoria’s 11 women’s health services increase awareness of gendered health needs and drive improvement across the broader health system, alongside LGBTIQ+ health services.

They deliver tailored health education and gender-based preventive healthcare to women in their communities; for example, sexual and reproductive health advice, information and testing.

But their impact is constrained by insecure funding.

While the 2022 Victorian Budget included a historic and welcome funding boost for the Women’s Health Program after decades of under-investment, this extra funding is for just two years.

VCOSS urges parties to make a commitment to:

  • Maintain the ‘boost’ funding as the new baseline level for the Women’s Health Program – with a fair rate of indexation applied annually, to maintain the real value of this funding.
  • Introduce long-term contracts to improve economic security for the women’s health workforce.
  • Support women’s health services and LGBTIQ+ health services to strengthen collaboration and alignment.

Boost access to mental health care now, while progressing big structural reforms

Record investment is scheduled to flow into Victoria’s mental health system over coming years, to implement the recommendations of the Mental Health Royal Commission.

This will increase care and improve outcomes in the medium and long term.

But the system is under immense pressure now, particularly as three years of COVID takes its toll and structural reforms to address historic challenges are carefully rolled out.

VCOSS calls for a two-track policy and investment approach to navigate this challenge.

In the next term of Parliament, Victoria should:

Track 1

Keep working to deliver the Royal Commission reforms fully and effectively. 

All parties need to commit to seeing through all elements of this reform– including the Mental Health Levy, which ensures ongoing funding for this vital work. The Victorian Parliament must also unite to support an approach to the big system changes that recognises and responds to the current workforce challenges and supply limits – as advised by peak bodies and lived experience groups. The blueprint is sound. But the pace of implementation needs to match the reality on the ground.

Track 2

Respond to the immediate crisis.

In the meantime, the government should fund short-term actions to meet immediate and escalating demand. This new investment should have a strong focus on increasing access to social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal people, as well as more mental health care for young people, women, LGBTIQ+ people, refugees and migrant communities. It should be delivered through community-managed mental health services that already know these groups, and can ‘ramp up’ quickly to provide even more care.

Invest in a modern treatment system for alcohol and other drug users

The Mental Health Royal Commission recognised the crossover between mental health and substance use, and the need for more targeted support to help people dealing with both.

The Victorian Government must ensure Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) sector representatives have ‘a seat at the table’, alongside mental health bodies and people with lived experience, driving system reform together.

There is also additional work for the government to do to address drivers of substance use beyond mental ill-health, reduce wait times for AOD treatment, and improve health and wellbeing outcomes for all cohorts of substance users. This investment should include safe and supportive services for groups with specific risks and needs – for example, LBGTIQ+ Victorians and migrant and refugee communities.

 To ensure that people can get the help they need when they need it, Victoria should:  

  • Address current demand pressures. Immediately reinstate the COVID Workforce Initiative – this would enable the sector to quickly restore 100 full-time equivalent AOD treatment workers and respond to urgent training and upskilling needs.
  • Address medium-term demand pressures. Provide funding for 250 additional full-time AOD clinicians over the next two years and at least 200 residential rehabilitation and 50 residential detox beds across regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne. Demand for AOD treatment services increased by 71 per cent over the course of the pandemic, exacerbating long-standing capacity issues. Right now, many people who voluntarily seek AOD treatment cannot get it. The new investment should include safe and supportive services for women, LGBTIQ+ Victorians, refugee and migrant communities and other groups who face barriers.
  • Get ready for what’s coming. Fund the development of an industry plan that will deliver the AOD sector with the workforce and infrastructure it needs to meet future demand.
  • Better regulate the private AOD treatment sector, to ensure quality and consumer safety.

Provide more timely access to public dental care

About 1.5 million Victorian adults are eligible for public dental care, but very few actually receive any. In the year to June 2021, just 12 per cent of eligible Victorians (or about 175,000 people) received any treatments.

This is because there are more than 150,000 people on the wait list. On average, it takes almost two years to see a dentist. The pandemic has only made wait lists worse.

This wait is a misery for low-income Victorians. It can mean months of pain and shame.

It’s also likely to cause or worsen other health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, hepatitis C, and pancreatic and oral cancers.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Increase the public dental treatment target. Recent Victorian budgets have set a target of public dentists treating about 360,000 to 380,000 Victorians each year. This target should be progressively doubled over the next two terms of Parliament. Significant additional investment will be required to make this a reality.
  • Build the capacity of the oral health workforce. A bigger target is meaningless without the staff and facilities to meet it. This should include a strong focus on attracting clinical staff into the public dental sector.
  • Help the sector train new workers.  The Victorian Government should fund Dental Health Services Victoria to oversee a dental graduates’ program in public hospitals and community health services. This would provide a structured and supported entry pathway for talented young dentists into public dental services.
  • Boost investment in public health, prevention and promotion. At least 5 per cent of Victoria’s dental health budget should be spent on oral disease prevention and promotion. This should include broad public health messaging, and strategies targeted to ‘at risk’ or disadvantaged groups.

Back to top.

⦿ Easing the cost of living

This chapter should be read in conjunction with the cost-of-living measures recommended elsewhere in this platform, including on school costs and housing.

Formalise Victoria’s commitment to ease the cost of living

About 11 per cent of Victorians live in persistent poverty. Many more are on the brink, struggling with debt, rising rents, mortgages and the ballooning costs of essentials like food, medicine, clothing and energy.

Many solutions lie in the federal domain, such as lifting the rate of JobSeeker and making our tax system fairer.

But the state also has a critical role to play. The government should:

  • Establish an independent Cost of Living Commissioner. This Commissioner would lead collaborative work addressing challenges that sit across multiple areas of government, such as concessions, food security, telecommunications affordability and accessibility, and housing. They would have a mandate to look across state services and private markets, and consider national factors. Their work would help departments break free from bureaucratic siloes and deliver whole-of-government responses.

Victoria’s new Cost of Living Commissioner would help coordinate some of the other reforms recommended in this chapter.

Help people access existing entitlements

About 14 per cent of low-income Victorians who are eligible for an electricity or water bill concession aren’t currently receiving it.

Some people aren’t aware a concession exists or don’t know how to apply. Others don’t have an internet connection, struggle with online applications, face language barriers or wish to avoid perceived stigma.

Either way, Victorians in hardship who are entitled to an existing support are missing out.

VCOSS estimates roughly the same proportion of people would also be missing out on eligible concessions from other service providers, such as phone companies.

The Victorian Government must target this ‘missing 14%’ with extra support. Specifically, it should:

  • Simplify the application process for concessions. This should be done in partnership with communities and inclusive communications experts.
  • Proactively market concessions and help people access them. It shouldn’t be entirely up to individuals to investigate what concessions they may be eligible for. Neighbourhood Houses, Community Information and Support services, community legal centres, multicultural bodies and other community organisations already do great work to raise awareness of concessions, assess people’s eligibility and help people apply. But inadequate and insecure funding means they can’t help everyone who needs it. Community sector organisations need more secure funding to continue this work, so concessions advice and assistance is a stable and effective service.
  • End the ‘digital divide’. People need help to access and navigate online information and application processes.

Grow the financial counselling sector to match need

Many people in financial distress are at a tipping point. With the right support, they can be saved from spiralling into further debt, distress and hardship. Without it, they have worse outcomes and need to draw on more government assistance down the track.

The proliferation of credit cards, dodgy debt management services, payday lenders and risky ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes has created a ticking time bomb for individuals, families, communities – and government.

Financial counsellors are a fundamental safeguard. They are employed by community organisations to provide free, independent and confidential advice to people in financial distress. This might relate to housing costs, energy hardship, disaster recovery or debt.

But there are not enough of them, and they’re not in all the right places. For example, financial counsellors aren’t consistently embedded in aged care, disability or mental health services, where people need them.

With better service system design – and more funding and workers – financial counselling could reach more people and provide earlier help.

This would reduce community hardship and cut long-term expenditure in a range of government-supported services (like material aid, tenancy advocacy and homelessness support) and expensive government systems (such as the courts).

To achieve this, Victoria should:

  • Commission an independent review of Victoria’s financial counselling sector. This review should analyse the current suite of services, identify gaps and forecast future demand and development needs. It would include a blueprint to guide increased government investment. 
  • Fund the financial counselling sector to help more people. Maintain at least the existing level of funding while a review is underway.
  • Establish a financial counsellor outreach scheme. For example, a financial counsellor employed by a community legal centre could have a schedule to visit local aged care or health services.

 

Boost food relief now, while developing a long-term plan

Food relief agencies are experiencing unprecedented demand.

This immediate crisis is due to rising inflation and sluggish wages growth smashing household budgets, just as COVID, foreign events and natural disasters disrupt food production and supply.

Relief services are trying to provide nutritious and culturally appropriate food to a growing number of people while struggling with dwindling donations and fewer volunteers.

More broadly, one in 25 Victorians – or about 180,000 people – run out of food or struggle to afford food each year.

Food insecurity is when a person can’t access decent food due to cost, supply, environmental, physical or other barriers. People have to skip meals or eat junk food because it’s cheap and all they can afford.

About one-third of people experiencing food insecurity don’t seek help, because of perceived stigma and access issues. This leads to poor health, lower education outcomes and other social costs.

Both immediate and long-term measures are needed to meet these challenges.

The Victorian Government should:

  • Fund pop-up food relief markets and regional food hubs to ensure emergency food relief is accessible for all Victorians, when and where they need it.
  • Cut food waste. Establish a grants scheme to help small businesses, community sector organisations, sports clubs and others implement initiatives that reduce food waste and increase quality food donations.
  • Back food relief workers. Food relief agencies require additional funding to recruit, train and support skilled volunteers.
  • Undertake a food system review. This would examine physical and economic accessibility, availability and quality of food across Victoria.
  • Fund ongoing data collection into food security challenges. Part of this would be funding for VCOSS to continue producing the Victorian Food Stress Index.
  • Produce a whole-of-government Victorian Food Security Strategy. This would be a long-term blueprint to create a food system that supports health, sustainability, equity and resilience for all Victorians. It would be informed by the food system review and ongoing data collected by VCOSS for the Victorian Food Stress Index.

Fund an ongoing suite of independent energy advice services

The energy market is complex. While there have been significant market fairness reforms over the past four years, many low-income and disadvantaged households who stand to benefit the most are still missing out.

Community sector organisations are playing an important role in helping people understand their entitlements, make informed choices, and apply for discounted energy-efficient products and services.

They also provide advocacy support to people who are in energy hardship (or on the cusp of it) but not engaged with their retailer.

However, these programs don’t reach everyone who needs them. That’s because of funding shortfalls.

Victoria’s energy fairness reforms would achieve more if there was secure funding for community sector organisations to do this work across the state, instead of one-off, time-limited grants.

VCOSS urges all parties to:

  • Establish an ongoing Energy Assistance Program that offers graduated support for households. This program should be delivered collaboratively by experienced community sector organisations, and provide recurrent funding for:
    • An information, advice and referral phone line
    • Online resources for community education and outreach (building on the Energy Info Hub)
    • Drop-in clinics and in-home support for people who need extra assistance.  The in-home support would provide practical ideas and help for people to make their home more energy-efficient – such as installing draught stoppers.

Wipe COVID-era utility debt for those in need

Households that fell through the cracks of Federal and Victorian safety nets now find themselves carrying significant COVID-era utility debts while facing the headwinds of a national energy crisis.

In electricity alone, as of 31 March 2022 there are now 16,513 households in Victoria who are receiving help from their retailers but nonetheless cannot afford ongoing usage.

These household are currently in arrears by an average of $2,056.

VCOSS calls on parties to:

  • Provide a one-off ‘Utility Debt Demolition’ payment of up to $2,000 to help eligible low-income households to clear their utility debt.
  • Boost the Utility Relief Grant (URG) base rate. The URG is a key thread in Victoria’s overall support system, but the support it offers hasn’t kept pace with the support low-income households require. The safety net should do more than just cushion the fall.

Remove barriers to clean, energy-efficient technology 

Victoria’s response to climate change and our transition to net zero emissions has the triple-benefit of a cleaner planet, healthier people and communities, and cost savings for households. 

For example, government policies and programs are driving increased take-up of solar panels and batteries. Participating households are enjoying lower energy bills at a time of spiraling energy costs, while helping save the planet. 

A government subsidy is encouraging more Victorians to buy electric cars. This is helping new EV owners, supported by government, to avoid skyrocketing petrol prices. 

And people replacing old appliances with energy efficient ones, thanks to government-sponsored upgrade programs, are staying warmer in winter, cooler in summer and saving money. 

But these new technologies are expensive. Even with these positive government initiatives, the best and most effective new technologies are still out of reach for the lowest-income households. 

The government should ensure that low-income Victorians have equitable access to clean technologies, starting with: 

  • Targeted investment to improve the energy efficiency of poor-quality homes. Measures would include grants of $5,000 – targeted to community housing providers and low-income households – to help bridge the financial gap between existing schemes (such as the Victorian Energy Upgrades program) and upgrades that save the most energy but are still too expensive for people on the lowest incomes.
  • Solar panels on all houses owned by the Director of Housing. This would save households more than $500 a year on their energy bills.
  • Direct subsidies, rebates and no-interest loans to enable low-income household to replace gas appliances with electric models, and abolition of gas disconnection penalties.
  • Action to make all public housing properties fully electric. This includes the installation of solar panels and batteries on all suitable properties, and working with communities to identify and implement innovative place-based solutions where installation is trickier. 
  • Other targeted initiatives that make new and emerging energy-efficient, clean technology accessible and affordable to people on low incomes.  

Protect household gas users from market abuse

Victoria’s ‘Default Offer’ (VDO) for household electricity has slashed some household power bills by 25 per cent.

The VDO is a trusted reference point in the electricity industry and delivers a capped price for households who can’t change power supplier.

This stops retailers ripping off people who live in caravan parks, rooming houses, retirement villages and apartments.

But these benefits aren’t available to the 83 per cent of Victorian households (mainly in regional Victoria) that rely on mains gas for cooking, heating and hot water.

These households include low-income renters with limited finances to upgrade appliances.

While Victoria transitions to a low-carbon future, we must ensure people aren’t left behind. 

Victoria should:

  • Introduce a default offer for household gas. Detailed modelling and data analysis will be required to establish an appropriate price and avoid unintended consequences.

Keep energy retailers honest

Retail energy market reforms, including the new regulatory framework on payment difficulty, have provided stronger protection to low-income households.

But there’s more we can do to hold powerful private energy retailers to account and assist households.

Victoria should:

  • Establish a ‘maximum arrears’ cap. Currently, people can accumulate debts far beyond their capacity to repay. But with a cap in place, power companies would be banned from generating new customer debt beyond a set point. This would save people from accruing large debts, and give power companies realistic expectations about what money might eventually be repaid.
  • Mandate minimum training for call centre staff. One way to do this is through prescribed training standards in retail licences.
  • Expand the Energy and Water Ombudsman’s scope to include new energy products that come into the market, such as emerging solar and battery systems.
  • Increase community oversight of retailers by establishing regional forums that bring together energy industry representatives, community members and government stakeholders. Communities would have access to de-identified data and other information from their local area. These forums would enable communities to ask questions and suggest improvements.

Back to top.

⦿ Thriving children and families

End childhood inequity in a generation

Victoria’s commitment to provide all families with two years of free kinder – including a Pre-Prep year – and build 50 low-fee government-run childcare centres will benefit everybody, but particularly children from disadvantaged homes.

The ‘Best Start, Best Life’ initiative will boost children’s participation in early learning and women’s economic participation.

But the impact could be even greater if coupled with new targeted investments in neighbourhoods that have the highest levels of childhood disadvantage.

Victoria can act to end childhood inequity in a generation by:

  • Funding Victoria’s Centre for Community Child Health to lead a multi-sector, multi-partner trial of ‘Beyond the Silver Bullet’.

‘Beyond the Silver Bullet’ would identify 10 transformational interventions and deliver them in 20 priority communities. The sites – and the 10 interventions – would be selected with government.

The interventions could include things like: sustained nurse home visiting, playgroup participation, childcare attendance, parenting programs, access to green spaces, and financial support.

Many of these interventions already exist.

The difference in this trial is that:

  • They would be combined (or ‘stacked’) in neighbourhoods; and
  • Every child and family in the trial would receive every intervention in the antenatal to school-entry period, to accelerate equitable outcomes.

While Victoria has some excellent initiatives to support vulnerable children and families, single interventions alone – no matter how well they are scaled – have proved insufficient for addressing the complexity and magnitude of childhood inequity and its intergenerational effects.

‘Beyond the Silver Bullet’ can transform the lives of Victorian children and provide a global template for disrupting early childhood disadvantage.

Connect more families to early help through right@home

Early help for vulnerable families reduces hardship and improves children’s long-term development.

Providing early intervention is in Victoria’s social and economic interests.

A key building block should be right@home. This program uses the existing Maternal and Child Health workforce to provide 25 structured home visits to vulnerable families. The visits start before a child is born and continue over the child’s first two years.

right@home benefits both parents and their children. It’s been shown to improve parent care and connection. Children are happier, more stable and better prepared to start school. There is also less intimate partner emotional abuse in participating families.

However, the program only operates in four areas of Victoria: Ballarat, Dandenong, Frankston and Whittlesea.

Victoria should:

  • Provide funding to scale and sustain provision of right@home across Victoria, so that it is accessible to all families who need it. This program should be recurrently funded as ‘business as usual’ in Victoria. It’s a high-impact, evidence-informed initiative that aligns with eight recommendations from the Mental Health Royal Commission, as well as ongoing family violence reforms.

If scaled, right@home could also be the first ‘layer’ in the stack of 10 ‘Beyond the Silver Bullet’ interventions.

Keep strengthening the child and family services system

Victoria’s child and family services system is under immense pressure.

Demand is increasing across family services, family violence, sexual assault and child protection. The workforce is stressed and fatigued. Service providers – dedicated to supporting vulnerable children, young people, families and carers, and their workers – are worried about funding and program sustainability.

Over the next four years, Victoria should continue to implement policies and approaches that reduce demand. Crucially, the government should continue to invest in reforms that shift the system from crisis responses to early help.

A fundamental building block is a sustainable child and family services sector.

The government should:

  • Provide adequate and secure funding to providers so they can meet demand and provide the highest levels of therapeutic care.

Government investment over the next four-year term should also:

  • Deliver a substantial increase in resources for the sector to provide early intervention, and family preservation and reunification.
  • Support self-determination, with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations empowered with more funding to work proactively with Aboriginal children and their families to prevent them from becoming system-involved.

A key focus should be expanding access to voluntary programs that recognise strengths and build capability. These expanded programs would help families address stressors – for example, financial challenges or housing concerns – at an early point.

These programs would be designed to signal faith in people’s abilities to put themselves on track. They would be non-stigmatising and provide positive support.

 

Relieve cost-of-living pressure on our foster and kinship carers

Foster and kinship carers create safe environments for children and young people to grow and develop.

Carers shoulder a heavy financial burden to do this important work.

Victoria pays carers a fortnightly ‘allowance’ to contribute to day-to-day expenses. But this allowance is currently inadequate.

Many foster and kinship carers still worry about money and affording the costs of caring for kids.  Many pay for the costs of care out of their own pockets. This cost burden is contributing to carer dissatisfaction, carer churn and a long-term decline in the overall number of carers. The loss of experienced carers is costly and creates instability for children and young people already living with significant trauma.

Victoria should:

  • Raise the Care Allowance. This allowance should cover the true costs of providing a safe and therapeutic environment. The Victorian Government should complete a review of the current allowance (as recommended by the Australian Institute of Family Studies) to determine an appropriate increase and implement the new payment level immediately.
  • Improve Client Expense funding. This funding is intended to provide for extraordinary expenses that are not covered by the Care Allowance. Examples include medication, allied health services, extra-curricular activities and indirect expenses when accessing services (such as transport costs for children and carers in regional areas). The current funding is limited and pooled. This means some children receive the supports they need, while others miss out. Action is required to ensure an adequate, guaranteed minimum amount of funding per child, and funding assessments that are timely, consistent and transparent.

The next four-year term is also an opportunity to provide equity for kinship carers, who currently receive less financial assistance than foster carers.

Increase community connection and support for foster and kinship carers

Being a carer is rewarding work, but the experience can be isolating. 

Carers want more peer support. They also want greater access to respite care – in particular, respite carers they can build a relationship with over time.

Victoria needs to address these needs urgently, to retain carers and attract new ones.

The Victorian Government should:

  • Invest in initiatives that increase community connection, emotional and practical support for foster and kinship carers.

As a starting point, the government should look at innovative peer support programs that are being rolled out by the community sector. Several community agencies are rolling out evidence-informed ways of connecting carers who live close to each other. This creates a kind of ‘extended family’ or support network.

Where positive outcomes are being achieved, government backing should be provided. Victoria should scale up what works, so that all carers have access to these peer supports, no matter where they live.

The investment should also be sustainable. Community sector organisations can’t deliver meaningful results with insecure drip funding.

Support the children of incarcerated Victorians

Sending a parent to jail also punishes their children and families.

The effects include long-term trauma and shame. Children with jailed parents are more likely to experience mental health issues or get in trouble with the criminal justice system themselves.5 These children’s experiences were detailed by the Victorian Parliament’s 2022 Inquiry into children affected by parental incarceration.

A first step to reducing harm is limiting incarceration. The government should reform laws and end policing practices that criminalise poverty, disadvantage, ill-health and trauma. This will result in fewer parents being funneled into the prison system. The money saved should be diverted to community initiatives that further prevent criminal offending.

But more must also be done for the children of people already sucked into the quicksand of the prison system.

The government should:

  • Accept all recommendations set out in the Parliamentary Committee’s Inquiry Report into children affected by parental incarceration.

There should also be:

  • Bipartisan commitment to full implementation of the Inquiry recommendations over the course of the next four-year term.

As recommended in the Inquiry report, the state should:

  • Collect data on children. Police, court officers and corrections staff currently aren’t required to ask if somebody is a parent, or how their children are coping. These children become invisible. This information should be collected and used to ensure support is offered to affected children, families and carers.
  • Recognise the rights of affected children. Victoria should explicitly recognise the rights of children and young people who are involved with the justice system through their parents, or other family members. This could be done through legislation or some other instrument. Such a move would formalise the state’s obligation to these children.
  • Designate a lead agency in government to provide effective leadership and coordination of support services for children affected by parental incarceration. This should be the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH).
  • Provide existing community services with the funding they need to deliver and coordinate support to children, families and carers. As per the Committee’s strong recommendation, this funding, to be provided via DFFH, should be consistent, sustainable, and reflective of client need and the level of community demand. It should enable services to provide assistance such as direct financial support for immediate material needs, through to healthcare, trauma-informed individual therapy, family counselling and youth mentoring. Support would be tailored to individual needs. Take-up by children and families would be voluntary and the assistance would come with ‘no strings attached’ – accepting help would not create any obligations for the child or family to the government. 
  • Fund more research. Victoria should commission research into the best long-term interventions for affected children. This evidence should be used to develop new programs that support family connection and child wellbeing for families with a close relative serving time.

Increase support for parents with disability

When it comes to families, friends, relationships and communities, people with disabilities – and those with children with disabilities – have the same aspirations and needs as those who don’t have a disability. 

Victorians with all kinds of life experiences need things like good access to sexual and reproductive health services, relationship advice, or parenting information and support.

However, access to these resources isn’t always equitable. Some individuals and families with disability experience barriers to getting the information or services they’re seeking.

Or the kind of support that’s delivered – for example, parenting support – doesn’t align with what they need. 

It’s important that systems are geared towards assisting people with disabilities and their families. While there have been welcome investments as part of the family violence and child and family services reforms, disability advocacy organisations and self-advocacy groups say parents are still not receiving the full range of holistic supports they need.

The Victorian Government should:

  • Increase support for parents. For parents with disability and parents/carers of children with disability, government needs to expand access to timely, tailored, accessible and inclusive information, advice, advocacy and services. There should also be dedicated government investment in evidence-based parenting support programs for people who are seeking this help. Existing good initiatives should be scaled. Additionally, the government should provide funding for the development and delivery of new innovative models of support – co-designed with people with disabilities – that respond to needs.
  • Improve interactions with the Child Protection system. Greater investment in prevention – such as targeted, voluntary, evidence-informed parenting support programs – is needed to help families before things reach this point. However, where families are engaged with this system, it’s important Child Protection gets this engagement right. More investment is required to build the Child Protection workforce’s understanding of disability and capacity to provide appropriate support.

Back to top.

⦿ Stronger early childhood education, schools and skills

More high-quality play-based learning

Playgroups allow children and their parents/caregivers to play, interact socially with other families and build connections with local services. Children who attend playgroup are significantly more likely to start school well, and be on track developmentally.

Boosting playgroup participation will improve children’s learning, development and wellbeing, and ease the shift from kinder to school. It will also complement and enhance Victoria’s Best Start, Best Life reform agenda.

To support this shift, Victoria should:

  • Move playgroups into the Early Childhood Education portfolio. This would enable the government to better connect learning, development and wellbeing across playgroup and kindergarten.
  • Fund a Playgroup Development Worker in every council area. This person would support the growth, sustainability and inclusion of local playgroups, and strengthen their connection with other child and family supports.
  • Establish playgroups at all government primary schools. As a starting point, the current Department of Education and Training program to build kindergartens on all new school sites should be extended to include ‘school playgroups’.

Help vulnerable children and families engage in kindergarten

Two years of high-quality early learning is one of the best early intervention investments governments can make. It strengthens children’s cognitive, social and emotional development, and sets them up for success. All children benefit – but children experiencing disadvantage benefit the most.

Currently, some Victorian children don’t receive the recommended 15 hours of kinder per week. And some don’t participate at all. Australian Early Development Census data reveals that one in five Victorian children start school behind. When this happens, it’s rare they ever catch up. In most instances these kids will slip further behind as they get older.

There are many reasons why a family might not access early childhood education and care.

Some families might struggle to afford the cost, or not have a childcare centre near them. Victoria’s Best Start, Best Life initiative should dismantle these barriers.

But families navigating social or cultural challenges will require extra support. Victoria should:

  • Expand the existing Access to Early Learning program. This Department of Education and Training program assists three-year-old children from families involved with Enhanced Maternal and Child Health, ChildFIRST or child protection services. Extra funding is needed so the service can expand across the state and meet demand.
  • Boost other community programs that foster links with early learning services. An example of an approach that should be expanded and provided with ongoing funding is the Family Learning Support Program model. This approach works directly with culturally and linguistically diverse families living in inner-city high-density public housing. It was successfully piloted during COVID lockdowns.
  • Train more bilingual and bicultural early childhood and care workers. As a starting point, the Victorian Government should partner with the community sector to identify where bilingual and bicultural workers are needed most. The next step is to co-design and implement a traineeship model that taps into local talent and matches people to local jobs.

Support inclusion in early childhood education and care services

Many young children with disabilities or developmental delays weren’t properly diagnosed or assisted during the COVID lockdowns. Children and families are now presenting to education and care services with increasingly complex needs. The proportion of children with disabilities formally requiring special assistance or extra assessments has grown markedly since 2018.

Services and families need the right support so all children can meaningfully participate in early learning. Over the medium term, the Victorian government should work with the community sector to:

  • Map existing disability supports to identify current access barriers and service gaps.
  • Boost funding to remove identified gaps and barriers.

In the meantime, the government should:

  • Dismantle the barriers we know about right now, through changes to the Kindergarten Inclusion Support and Preschool Field Officer programs. These two programs should be brought together, refined and expanded. Changes should remove the hurdle of a diagnosis requirement for children, make it easier for services to access an additional educator, and offer direct support to families to fill out paperwork, engage other services and navigate the transition to school. 

This approach would complement, not duplicate, existing supports.

Support community-based early learning services to thrive

A thriving early childhood sector is one where not-for-profit services are strong. These types of services have a strong focus on access and equity. They have higher quality ratings than private for-profit services.

However, some community-based services are experiencing challenges. Working in communities facing poverty and hardship can increase pressure on the workforce and make it harder to keep quality staff.

The ‘market share’ of not-for-profit services increases in these areas, and more support is needed to boost service quality and outcomes for children. The Kindergarten Quality Improvement Program isn’t always set up to help services overcome significant challenges. A fit-for-purpose program is needed for services operating in the most disadvantaged areas.

Other challenges include ageing infrastructure and affordable land and rent.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Deploy ‘turnaround teams’ to assist struggling services in disadvantaged areas. These teams would help services (including outside school hour services) to regain their ‘Excellent’ quality ratings.
  • Boost incentives for high-performing educators and teachers to work in disadvantaged areas.
  • Support place-based long-term infrastructure planning with the sector and local councils.

 

Make public education free

An increasing number of Victorian families are struggling to afford the cost of a ‘free’ public education.

So-called ‘voluntary fees’ and payments for extra-curricular activities keep adding up.

For children whose families can’t pay, it’s difficult to get the most out of schooling and keep up with other students.

To address this, the Victorian government should:

  • Formally declare digital devices, textbooks and stationary part of the standard curriculum. The government would need to allocate additional school funding to cover these items.
  • Fund State Schools Relief, schools and other support agencies to cover school uniform co-payments where vouchers don’t cover the full costs (as a complement to State Schools Relief’s existing suite of programs).
  • Give kids from disadvantaged households access to free public transport all year. An existing government-funded scheme to help kids in need travel to school is a good start, but is limited to one 30-day travel pass when someone is in crisis.
  • Expand the Get Active Kids Voucher Program to fund recreational activities like music, drama and visual arts, in addition to sport.
  • Launch a School Lunch Club program that is co-designed with students themselves, to avoid the potential for stigma.

Support students with disability to thrive

Victoria’s landmark $1.6 billion Disability Inclusion reforms won’t take full effect until 2025. This presents an immediate challenge to ensure students get the learning supports they need now.

Even in areas where the package has begun rolling out, it’s taking longer than anticipated to complete Disability Inclusion Profiles. The reasons are many and varied, but include the nationwide shortage of allied health workers and the complexity of the process for students and families.

In the meantime, students with disability are being excluded from school through restricted days or hours – advocates report that schools aren’t providing appropriate support to students with behaviours that have emerged or been exacerbated during COVID.

The Disability Inclusion Package will be a game changer for students with disabilities. We just need to take steps to smooth the implementation. The government should:

  • Fund disability advocacy organisations to deliver more phone support for families. This would improve access to information, advice and advocacy, and support referral to other services as needed. By leveraging the trust and expertise of disability advocates, the government will improve communication between schools and families, help students safeguard their rights, and assist all parties to better understand what good supports and reasonable adjustments look like.
  • Provide more professional development for teachers and school leaders. To embed practices that support the rights of students with disability, all school staff must be fully trained and supported. Currently, training is opt-in. VCOSS would like to see more principals and assistant principals take up learning and development opportunities, and all teachers offered training on disability and trauma.
  • Increase access to allied health workers. Urgent measures to improve allied health workforce attraction and retention should be identified as part of an overarching community services workforce strategy. This will help speed up the roll-out.
  • Engage with students, families and disability advocates to identify other steps that government can take to improve inclusion while the roll-out is happening. There are students who will ‘age out’ of the school system before reforms reach their area. We need to find ways to strengthen support for these groups.

Address learning and wellbeing needs to support student engagement

An estimated 10,000 young Victorians drop out of school each year. It’s a long-standing challenge, only made worse by COVID.

Students can disengage because they’re struggling academically, have wellbeing issues or financial barriers. This can have lifelong consequences, increasing the risk of long-term unemployment, poor mental health and engagement with the justice system.

Some of the solutions to prevent student disengagement sit outside the school gate, like ending youth homelessness and offering more support to parents. However, schools remain central. Two of the most effective ways schools can keep kids engaged are to address literacy and numeracy struggles early, and to respond to students’ wellbeing needs. 

To support this, Victoria should:

  • Develop a tailored literacy and numeracy strategy for Grade 1 students. This approach is all about early investment to avoid costs down the road. It’s 75 per cent cheaper to address a literacy problem during Grade 1 than in Grade 4. And evidence from the Productivity Commission shows the negative lifetime effects of low literacy on labour market participation and productivity if we don’t act early.
  • Continue funding targeted small group, school-based tutoring beyond the ‘COVID recovery’ period. The Tutor Learning initiative is helping students catch up the ‘lost learning’ experienced during home schooling, but the investment should be retained long term. Small group, school-based tutoring is proven to reduce learning gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers.
  • Expand wellbeing teams in schools. These teams will identify students facing barriers (for example, homelessness or family violence) and assist them to get help from local specialist organisations.
  • Expand eligibility for the Navigator program. This program is currently only offered to students who miss 70 per cent of classes. But by then it might be too late. The eligibility threshold should be reduced to 40 per cent, so more kids can get help, and sooner.

The government can also improve student learning and wellbeing by providing students with more agency in their education. Student voices should be centred in all education decisions – at a system level, school level and individual level.

In the next four-year term, the government should:

  • Expand access to ‘Teach the Teacher’. This student-led program supports schools to embed student voice practices. However, its reach is currently limited. The government should fund the development of a new blended-delivery model, to enable all schools in Victoria to participate.

Prevent expulsions and suspensions

Expulsions and suspensions have a devastating effect on a young person’s life and should only be used as a last resort.

The evidence is clear: staying in school and completing Year 12 or equivalent improves students’ life outcomes. Those who don’t complete tend to experience poorer employment prospects, lower wages, more health problems and other social impacts (for example, greater risk of justice system engagement and ‘lower lifetime satisfaction’).

Victoria should continue to build on the good work that’s been done since the 2017 Victorian Ombudsman’s report into school expulsions. The government should take further steps to ensure all students have a supportive learning environment and access to a high-quality education pathway that meets their needs.

Specifically, in the next four-year term, the government should:

  • Provide more prevention and early intervention support to ensure students can remain engaged at their local government school.
  • Ensure expulsions are only used by schools after all other options are exhausted. This is inferred in the Department’s process for expulsion and suspension. The government should amend the ‘Ministerial Order’, so there is an unequivocal statement of expectation. Crucially, it should also provide additional support to principals, to assist them to align school culture and practice with the policy objective. (This investment would complement existing government investment in initiatives such as the School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support program.)
  • Prevent ‘informal’ expulsions and suspensions. Building on recent investments, the government should boost the capacity of Department of Education and Training (DET) regional teams to track informal expulsions and suspensions, quickly support affected students, identify trends and address systemic issues, and assist schools to ‘catch’ students beginning to disengage.
  • Increase the Department of Education and Training’s accountability to students and families. DET Regions should track the progress and needs of students who move to a special assistance school or some other form of flexible learning. This must involve Regional Directors stepping in to actively partner with the alternate provider where the enrolment is at risk.
  • Recognise the value of flexible learning options in the broader education landscape, and fund them accordingly. Government should provide sufficient resources for alternate settings (for example, flexible learning options and special assistance schools) to meet the learning and wellbeing needs of students who choose to continue their education in this part of the education system. It should ensure special assistance schools are included in wider reform initiatives.

Give students industry insights and life skills

Every Victorian school student should be exposed to a variety of careers, jobs and industries.

This will open their eyes to different possibilities and motivate them to keep engaged with training or learning.

‘Industry tasters’ are a great way of achieving this. Different models exist, but most involve students visiting a workplace or training facility and participating in guided activities.

In the next term of government, Victoria should:

  • Fund ‘industry tasters’ for all Year 8, 9 and 10 students. These tasters should be delivered in partnership with local communities, TAFEs and others. They would complement, not replace, existing career guidance and work placement schemes. (This is a key recommendation of the 2020 Firth Review into vocational and applied learning pathways.) Creating these opportunities for students in the current COVID-19 environment will be challenging. Industry bodies, employers and schools will need support. Local Learning and Employment Networks (LLENs) should be resourced to play a central role.
  • Support LLEN programs that start careers education even earlier – for example, in the Goldfields region of Victoria, the LLEN is providing hands-on learning experiences for Grade 5 and 6 students with local businesses. 

Teaching general life skills – including basic financial concepts, work rights, digital skills and consumer rights, etc – is another critical way of preparing students for success.

Support disadvantaged adult learners to engage in education

Learn Local providers play an important role training adults in community settings. This includes basic reading and writing, maths, digital literacy and employability skills. Graduates are empowered to tackle new things, such as further training, skilled volunteering and work.

These programs are highly effective, with graduates being more likely than other people to complete a subsequent TAFE course.

However, providers are struggling for funding. Many are closing their doors.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Design a more generous funding model for Learn Local providers. This new model should cover the full cost of course development, promotion, delivery, administration and student support. Under this new model, TAFEs and Learn Locals should be encouraged to coordinate and collaborate more.

Support learners to complete VET (TAFE) qualifications

A strong economy is underpinned by a high-quality, accessible training system that enables people to gain the right skills to secure meaningful employment. The training system also needs to be responsive to the needs of Victorian industries, including growth industries like community services. 

Free TAFE has removed some barriers to training, particularly for Victorians on low incomes or who are facing financial hardship. Since the inception of Free TAFE there has been steadily rising take-up in priority industries by groups who are usually underrepresented in our training system.

However, some learners still face economic barriers to participating in Free TAFE due to costs such as transport, learning materials and childcare. Learners who are unable to absorb these costs are at risk of dropping out.

Government can ensure cost is not a barrier to getting the rights skills for a good job by:

  • Maintaining Free TAFE for training courses in priority industries.
  • Establishing a bursary program for students on low incomes.
  • Establishing paid placement support for students undertaking a placement in the community services sector.

Provide learners with wraparound support and accessible, high-quality training

VET completion rates remain stubbornly low across Australia, including for Free TAFE.

Many students can’t complete their course because of other life challenges, such as mental ill health, financial distress or homelessness. Inaccessible learning materials, course delivery and training facilities are also barriers.

Proactively identifying and addressing these challenges early will boost course retention and completion.

The Victorian government should:

  • Establish Mentor Teams at every TAFE campus. These teams would proactively connect students with necessary social supports. These supports would include accredited and pre-accredited language, literacy, numeracy and study skills training. The mentors would also provide ‘warm’ referrals to specialist supports like disability, mental health or housing services. This would be complemented by the bursary program for students on low incomes and paid placement support (refer above).

In addition, the Victorian government should:

  • Provide funding to implement all recommendations from the Victorian Parliament’s Inquiry into access to TAFE for learners with disability.

Support place-based training to meet local community needs

In some parts of Victoria, people have local job opportunities but must travel great distances for pre-job training. This costs money, and may dissuade some people from pursuing a job.

Making training difficult to access increases the risk of people disengaging.

To address this, the Victorian government should:

  • Explore innovative ways to deliver TAFE training in local areas. This might include using existing community facilities, like Learn Locals, Neighbourhood Houses or town halls. TAFEs, local businesses and community leaders would need to form strong, place-based partnerships to support this model, and ensure course delivery is responsive to local needs. This could be supported by a strengthened community service obligation on TAFE, which champions the importance of place and partnerships.

⦿ Victorians in work

Target help to people locked out of good jobs

Victoria’s employment growth is strong, with unemployment at 3.1 per cent.

Yet we know that headline unemployment data doesn’t tell the full story, or correspond to the reality of many Victorians’ lives.

High levels of insecure work and poor-quality jobs are trapping working people in poverty. Under-employment leaves people unable to pay the bills.

And many people — like older women, people with disabilities, young people, carers, Aboriginal people, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds — struggle to secure any work at all.

Dedicated policies and programs are needed to ‘wrap’ support around these jobseekers.

VCOSS calls on the Victorian Government to continue to resource Jobs Victoria to deliver this work. This should include a further four years of funding to:

  • Provide personalised support to disadvantaged jobseekers. This means providing advocates, mentors and career counsellors, and other forms of flexible support that help people overcome whatever is making it hard for them to get a job.
  • Match jobseekers to good jobs and fair employers. The Jobs Victoria Partners program and Online Hub should continue, with strong quality oversight to ensure people are matched to good jobs with employers that provide a fair and safe workplace, ensuring that minimum employment entitlements are met. The focus should be on achieving sustainable employment outcomes.

In addition to helping people find and obtain existing work opportunities, VCOSS believes the Victorian Government should play a more proactive role creating new employment options.

Victoria should:

  • Deliver a series of bold, large-scale job creation programs. The power of government to create meaningful jobs was on display during COVID through the successful Working for Victoria scheme. This kind of ‘hands on’ intervention should not be reserved for times of crisis. Victoria should design new job creation schemes that funnel workers to growth industries, such as the community services industry. These schemes should have a strong focus on assisting vulnerable and disadvantaged jobseekers.
  • Provide incentives to take on disadvantaged jobseekers. Wage subsidies encourage employers to create jobs for workers they wouldn’t normally consider; for example, a young person who’s never been employed, a person with a disability or an older woman returning to paid work after raising children. Government should continue to provide these incentives to employers via the Jobs Victoria Fund. However, VCOSS advocates for the rate to be increased for community sector jobs, to a cap of $50,000 per position. (The current subsidies tap out at $20,000.) This increase would boost the rate of take-up in the community services sector, and respond to feedback from employers that they need greater support.

 

Develop local strategies to tackle unemployment and skills shortages 

Victoria has pockets of both high unemployment and high demand for workers.

Geography, skills requirements, housing shortages and other factors can make filling jobs difficult.

Local communities are best placed to solve these challenges and support people into meaningful work.

But they need government coordination and support to make a difference. Victoria should:

  • Fund local skills and jobs taskforces. These taskforces would be grounded in their local community and be responsive to local need. One might focus on assisting a local industry find suitable workers (from within their community, and beyond), while another might focus on helping a specific cohort of jobseeker. There are existing models that could be adopted and expanded, such as Community Investment Committees.
  • Back the Work and Learning Centres network. Centres in central Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong, Morwell and Shepparton help social housing tenants, people experiencing homelessness and other local jobseekers find work. The government should provide these centres with the long-term funding certainty. It should also establish five additional sites in areas of need in regional Victoria.

Deliver Victoria’s first Youth Guarantee 

COVID lockdowns disrupted traditional job pathways and increased mental health challenges. Many young Victorians disengaged from school or dropped out entirely.

Almost 60,000 young Victorians (aged between 15 – 24 years) are not studying or working.

Victoria can restore hope and opportunity to our young people.

  • Victoria should develop and offer a Youth Guarantee. This would ensure that all Victorians aged under 25 are offered an employment, education or training opportunity within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education.

    Put simply, all young people would be given the opportunity to work or learn. The Victorian Government – in partnership with employers, educators, unions and social service groups – would see that it happens.

A central pillar of the offer must be flexible wraparound support, delivered by youth workers, that removes barriers to a young person taking up the offer of a job or training place. Where a young person needs highly specialised support, the youth workers would link them up to services that can help address homelessness, family violence, mental ill-health, substance use or other areas of need. 

This is a smart investment that can leverage existing Jobs Victoria infrastructure and expertise, Free TAFE, mental health reforms and school reforms.

A similar scheme already operates in the European Union. This scheme includes comprehensive job support. The EU reports that over 24 million Youth Guarantee participants have now either started a job or continued learning.  

Advance women’s economic equity

Economic inequality starts early in a woman’s working life and has a long tail into old age.

A flagship of the next four-year term should be a package of measures that uses state levers to remove gendered barriers to labour market participation, makes headway on unequal pay and workplace barriers to women’s success, and addresses the support needs of older women who’ve given a lifetime of unpaid and low-paid work.

This package should be informed by the findings and recommendations of the expert Inquiry into Economic Equity for Victorian Women.

It should include (but not be limited to) action to:

  • Make early childhood education cheaper for working women. VCOSS calls for bipartisan support and the full implementation of the Best Start, Best Life initiative, which will deliver Free Kinder (including a Pre-Prep year) to all Victorian children and places in 50 new low-cost government-run childcare centres. This will make early childhood education and care more accessible for working women with caring responsibilities.
  • Maintain the Carers Employment Support Program. One in five people who provide unpaid care give up work to do so. The majority are women, and there are lifelong effects on their economic security. The Carers Employment Support Program provides mentoring, job and training opportunities, access to respite and help with study costs.
  • Use state power to reduce insecure work. Victoria doesn’t have the power to eradicate insecure work practices from all workplaces. But it does have authority or influence over the public service, the wider public sector, and government-supported industries such as the community services sector. Addressing low and unequal pay and intentionally creating longer-term contracts that will, in turn, provide employment security in the community services sector should be a priority.
  • Make sure all women have a secure home. It’s extremely difficult to keep a job or build financial security without a home. Safe, affordable and well-located housing is the cornerstone of women’s economic participation. Government should increase the supply of social housing and ensure an appropriate portion is reserved for women. And it should continue to enact measures that support safer, fairer renting.
  • Target jobs growth to women. Victoria needs sustained investment in employment support and job creation initiatives. A portion of these programs should be targeted to women, including community services sector employment.
  • Invest in women’s lifelong learning and women’s leadership. Victoria should continue to embed gender impact assessments in all areas of government policy and budget development – including education, skills and training, and employment – so that girls and women have equal opportunities to learn and lead. The government should also provide new, targeted and ongoing investment in gender equity programs.
  • Provide greater access to financial capability programs that assist women to navigate financial challenges that often stem from structural issues. More women need access to programs that enable them to build additional skills, self-worth and confidence.

Create more jobs for people with disabilities

The official unemployment rate is at a record low, and many businesses are struggling to recruit staff. There is an economic imperative – as well as a social imperative – to create pathways to participation for people under-represented in the labour market.

People with disabilities are a key source of untapped talent. Currently, just 53 per cent of people with disabilities are employed, compared to about 84 per cent of people without a disability.

Some of the barriers to people with disability finding employment include employers not understanding disabilities, lacking the confidence to hire a person with a disability or having low expectations of what tasks they can perform. Inaccessible workplaces, a lack of workplace support and limited visibility of people with disability in public roles are also barriers.

These barriers can and must be overcome. Employers who take on a worker with a disability reap significant benefits. People with disability take fewer days off and stay in jobs longer than other employees. Employing people with disabilities is also good for business, as it fosters a more diverse workforce and delivers greater savings through lower staff turnover, recruitment and retraining costs.

Victoria should continue to invest in ‘supply side’ measures that help jobseekers with disabilities find, apply for and secure good jobs. But it should also ramp up ‘demand side’ measures targeted at employers.

In the next term of Parliament, Victoria should fund a new package of measures that improve the hiring and job retention for people with disabilities. Specifically, this package should include:

  • Online resources and training activities for employers to build skills and knowledge, and develop the confidence to recruit and retain staff with disabilities.
  • Wage subsidies to encourage employers to hire people with disabilities.
  • One-on-one support for employers who need assistance redesigning jobs and making reasonable adjustments across their workplaces, and other capacity-building initiatives.
  • Embedding inclusive practices in the attraction, recruitment, retention and career development of disabled job candidates and existing disabled employees.

COVID has revealed the benefits and popularity of flexible work practices, including people working from home when possible. Flexible work arrangements are of particular benefit to people with disability. Victoria should build on this experience to drive up the employment participation of people with disabilities.

 

Provide a pathway into work – or back to work – for carers 

Full-time carers are overwhelmingly excluded from the paid workforce. Compared to non-carers, they’re less likely to have a full-time job and more likely not to work at all. Many rely on inadequate Commonwealth support payments, but these payments are so low that people struggle to afford decent food or other essentials.

Part-time carers doing some paid work fare little better, essentially juggling two jobs for a small wage.

During the pandemic, about half of all Victorian carers either quit or reduced the hours of their paid job to accommodate their caring duties. They haven’t returned to their old level of paid work.

We need pathways that support carers who wish to return to paid work, and those seeking paid work for the first time.

Victoria should:

  • Help carers engage in paid work. The Carers Employment Support Program is a successful government program offering employment support, mentoring and vocational training to carers. Currently, this initiative is only funded for one year. This program needs steady and recurrent funding to better support carers and jobs growth in Victoria over the long term.

Help people with lived experience become community service workers

The 10-year Community Services Industry Plan (CSIP) and Royal Commission into Mental Health both noted the important role played by peer workforce and peer support. People with lived experience can bring greater empathy and understanding to services, and service users often reflect on the benefits of having this additional support as they navigate a system. 

Peer workers from diverse backgrounds – for example, Victorians who are LGBTIQ+ and those who are culturally and linguistically diverse – can help mainstream services establish trust with people. 

Over the past term of government, Victoria has produced workforce strategies covering the consumer mental health workforce, the family carer mental health workforce and the alcohol and other drug peer workforce.

However, Victoria needs an overarching workforce strategy dedicated to peer workers.

Victoria should:

  • Develop a lived experience workforce strategy for the entire community services sector. This strategy must be designed in partnership with the sector and lived experience groups, and include a focus on career development pathways. Appropriate funding will be required for good supervision and support.

Support the community sector as Victoria’s jobs engine room

The community services industry is a massive part of Victoria’s economy.

It employs more people than any other industry, and is the third-largest contributor to GSP.

Over the next term of government, an additional 58,000 Victorians are forecast to be working in the wider healthcare and social assistance industry. This strong growth is being fuelled by the NDIS, increased demand for childcare and our ageing population. 

However, community service organisations are struggling to attract and retain workers. Shortages are most acute in regional areas. As a highly feminised industry, the impacts of understaffing (when organisations can’t fill roles) are mostly felt by women.

COVID has exacerbated these workforce pressures.

Insecure or inadequate funding and the proliferation of short-term contracts represent significant handbrakes on community sector employment growth.

Targeted measures are needed to address these key sustainability challenges.

Victoria should:

  • Fix structural issues constraining jobs growth. This must include steps to provide fair and adequate funding and secure contracts.

  • Fund annual rolling action plans that enable government and the sector to deliver the 10-Year Community Services Industry Plan. Strategic industry and workforce development projects, funded by government, would be identified through the Human Services and Health Partnership Implementation Committee, which is co-chaired by VCOSS and the Departments of Health and Families, Fairness and Housing.

Back to top.

⦿ A healthy climate supporting resilient communities

Cut emissions rapidly and equitably 

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C will save lives, avoid inequality and preserve our natural environment.

The alternative is horrifying. More bushfires, heatwaves, droughts and floods, and all the hardships they fuel: deaths, illness, property destruction.

Rapid and equitable action is critical, especially for Victorians already experiencing disadvantage, who can’t prepare as thoroughly for the effects of climate change, are hardest hit by its impacts, and need the most help to recover.

For Victoria to do its part to limit global warming we must cut emissions faster than currently planned.

Specifically, Victoria should:

  • Bring forward the timeline for net zero to 2035, and boost the 2030 emission reduction target to 75 per cent. These bolstered targets are ambitious – but necessary and feasible. Approached and implemented correctly, the measures required to hit these new targets will save money by stimulating the economy and avoiding climate-related disasters.

As part of Victoria’s transition to a net zero economy, support must be targeted at people in most need. This should include measures to make solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles more affordable and accessible.

 

Upgrade poor quality homes into comfortable havens 

Victoria is inadvertently creating a two-tier housing system, with new homes required to meet defined energy efficiency and insulation standards, but older homes not always offering the same protection.

This means that renters, people on low incomes and other disadvantaged groups boil in summer and shiver through winter, and generate huge power bills because of poorly-insulated homes and a reliance on old, energy-guzzling heaters and coolers.

Victoria needs an ambitious, long-term renovation program. Specifically, the government should: 

  • Expand the Social Housing Energy Efficiency Program to include all public housing. Currently, only some of Victoria’s public housing stock will be upgraded under this scheme. Expanding the scheme to all government-owned housing will increase health and social benefits, while boosting the relevant workforce and supply chains. 
  • Require air conditioning in rental properties. Victoria has recently committed to expanding minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties, to include ceiling insulation, draught proofing and high-grade hot water systems. Property owners should also be compelled to install air conditioning before advertising for tenants.
  • Provide cash grants so low-income earners can afford energy efficient products. Grants of $5,000 should be offered to community housing providers and directed to low-income households. While the Victorian Energy Upgrades program and other schemes are helping many households, upgrades that would save the most energy are still too expensive for people on low incomes. These targeted grants would help cover the gap.

Free Victorian homes from the outdated gas network 

Reaching net zero emissions will require all Victorian homes to be powered by clean electricity.

We need to free Victorian households from the ageing gas distribution network and the health impacts of indoor gas use. This won’t just help the environment and boost health, it will slash power bills by up to $1,250 per year.

But the cost of disconnecting gas and replacing household appliances is significant.

To lead this transition away from gas, the Victorian Government should:

  • Make all public housing properties fully electric. This change is completely within the remit of government. As part of this measure, solar panels and batteries should also be installed on all suitable properties.
  • Offer financial assistance for upgrades and rewiring. Low-income households and community housing providers will need assistance to replace gas appliances with electric models. This could be in the form of direct subsidies, rebates and no-interest loans.
  • Abolish gas disconnection penalties. Currently, households are slugged about $300 in fees and other charges for withdrawing from Victoria’s gas network. This unfair cost burden should be removed. The Victorian Government should instruct retailers to offer ‘no cost’ disconnections.

Renters would also benefit from minimum standards that require certain appliances to be electric in the short term, before mandating that the home is entirely disconnected from gas down the track.

Make all schools heat-smart 

Extreme heat harms students and impedes their learning. But only some schools and classrooms have air conditioning. 

Summer temperatures in non-air-conditioned classrooms can rise above 30oC, causing headaches and nosebleeds. It’s even worse outdoors, with asphalt and artificial grass hitting 70oC during heatwaves. 

Victoria should:

  • Build schools better. All new schools and major upgrades in existing schools should be ‘heat-smart’ and energy efficient for thermal comfort, meeting at least the 6-Star NatHERS energy rating indicating “good thermal performance”. Solar panels and batteries should be made standard.
  • Upgrade cooling facilities. Better insulation and window shading should be installed in all existing school buildings, and air conditioning in every classroom. Solar panels and batteries should be installed where possible.
  • Plant more trees in school grounds. Tree canopies provide shade, lower outdoor temperatures and help prevent skin cancer. They would increase the energy efficiency and amenity of school playgrounds and recreation areas.

Help children and young people manage climate

Climate change is shaping the lives of young Victorians in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

Their lives will likely be punctuated by extreme weather events and other damaging effects of global warming. This will affect their family relationships, social wellbeing, emotional development, education outcomes, standards of housing, employment opportunities and mental health.

As adults, these young people will navigate the public policy challenges of climate change long after the current generation of policymakers has moved on.

We need a comprehensive approach that supports children and young people on this journey.

Victoria should:

  • Develop a Climate Resilience Framework for Children and Young People that assists children and young people to navigate eco-anxiety, by building knowledge, hope and their capacity to take action.

The Framework would catalyse all parts of government to engage with children and young people, assisting policymakers to deeply understand the impacts of climate change.

It would establish participatory approaches for children and young people to express their concerns, identify their needs and aspirations, and drive change across government. It would establish mechanisms that ensure this engagement is not ad hoc.

Importantly, the Framework would assure that children and young people consistently have a voice – and are heard by government – before, during and after climate events. The Framework would also support children and young people to develop skills and confidence to take action in their local communities.

This initiative will deliver benefits now, but also help train the climate leaders of tomorrow.

Build climate resilient communities

As the climate changes, Victoria needs communities with comprehensive support networks and strong leaders.

Communities that have resilient structures, established relationships and well-funded support services in place before a crisis hits are better equipped over the long term.

Community sector organisations are the grassroots safety net keeping Victorians strong and protected. They provide personal care, material aid, advocacy and other support services.

These roles will become even more critical in regions and communities that will be hit the hardest by climate change. But climate change also depletes community sector organisations’ capacity to do their job.

Already, more than half of Victoria’s community sector organisations forecast that climate change will make it difficult for them to provide services at some point in the future.

The community sector needs government help to adapt to climate change. 

The Victoria Government should: 

  • Upgrade state-owned buildings that house community sector organisations. These buildings are often old and rundown, but organisations can’t afford improvements. As tenants, organisations also lack the power to make substantial changes. This measure could take the form of direct expenditure, grants or other types of partnerships.
  • Establish a Community Sector Climate Adaptation Fund. Examples of initiatives that could be funded by the program include hands-on and tailored training to improve business continuity, or a dedicated staff member to assess an organisation’s future climate change risk.
  • Fund local resilience programs. These programs would identify and train existing community leaders in resilience and emergency responses, so they can pass this knowledge back through their networks and communities. The training would be designed with community service organisations, psychologists and emergency management experts, and have a strong focus on supporting the leadership of culturally and linguistically diverse people and people with a disability. 

Develop cool spaces that offer refuge from the heat

Cool community spaces that offer refuge from the heat – like shops and libraries – are vital for people who live in poor quality housing or can’t afford air-conditioning.

However, access depends on where you live and whether you have the means to get there. And access can be unreliable due to private management, limited opening hours or the risk of being harassed by security.

‘Heat refuges’ are most effective when they are operated specifically for that purpose, with advertising, extended hours of operation and affordable transport connections for people experiencing disadvantage.

Victoria should:

  • Formalise a network of ‘heat refuges’ so everybody has a safe and reliable place to shelter from the heat. These facilities should be operated directly by the Victorian government or local councils, with local community organisations funded sufficiently so they can send a social worker to the refuge on hot days or in emergencies.

Cool spaces have significant co-benefits. Community members can socialise with others and be linked with additional services.

Support multicultural communities before, during and after disasters and emergencies.  

Migrant and refugee communities in Victoria are disproportionately affected by emergencies and disasters. For instance, data shows that there have been almost three times as many COVID-19 deaths amongst people born overseas as amongst those born in Australia.  

Culturally-responsive engagement is key to building resilience in multicultural communities early and ensuring good outcomes in the event of an emergency or disaster.  To be most effective, emergency preparedness should always be created or co-designed by emergency management agencies and diverse communities.  

Government and the emergency management sector should recognise the role of formal and informal leaders in multicultural communities, and the need to support and engage them in emergency management protocols.  

Victoria should: 

  • Fund VCOSS and the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria to sustain the cross-sector Multicultural Emergency Management Partnership (MEMP). The MEMP includes 16 community leaders from a range of multicultural communities, as well as representatives from the peak emergency services organisations in Victoria, working together to lead emergency preparedness in multicultural communities. The MEMP has made a significant contribution during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, but requires ongoing funding to continue its important work. 
  • Fund local resilience programs (refer above).  

Ensure all Victorians are financially protected with insurance 

Insurance plays an important role in protecting Victorians against shock and harm, but premiums are increasing as the risks created by climate change continue to grow. 

More Victorians are struggling to find affordable and accessible insurance products. This is particularly the case for low-income households in disaster-prone areas.

Up to one-third of homes destroyed in the 2019-20 bushfires were underinsured or uninsured.

The average home insurance premium costs almost four times as much as it did in 2004, and one in 20 Australian homes will be uninsurable by the end of the century.

In the wake of a crisis, underinsurance and non-insurance can entrench poverty, impact mental health, and increase demand on the community sector.

As the climate continues to change, extreme weather events will be more frequent and more intense. In this increasingly risky future, we need to ensure that all Victorians are financially protected with insurance.

VCOSS calls on all parties to commit to: 

  • Extending concession entitlements to insurance products. 
  • Working with insurance providers to understand the scale of risk and reform the industry to meet the needs of vulnerable Victorians. 
  • Working with the Federal Government to support people who are living in uninsurable areas to relocate. 

Back to top.

⦿ A safe place to call home

Finish the job started by the Fairer, Safer Housing rental reforms

In March 2021, extensive changes were made to Victoria’s renting laws to make renting fairer and safer. Many renters now have more protections around rent increases and evictions, and new rights to make minor modifications to their home. There are also higher standards for amenity, thermal comfort and energy efficiency.

The task of implementing 130 ambitious reforms is mammoth. This means:

  • Some of the most complex ‘Fairer, Safer Housing’ changes have a longer lead time for implementation.
  • Some renters who stand to benefit most from the reforms aren’t accessing the new protections available to them.  
  • Implementation has highlighted some inadvertent gaps and inconsistencies between housing types. For example:
    • Long-term public housing tenants have very few new benefits under the changes.
    • How the changes apply to share houses, student accommodation and housing provided for education or work is ambiguous.
    • Some short-term, medium-term and supported accommodation types are excluded from the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) altogether, making the renters’ rights and providers’ obligations in these settings unclear.

VCOSS calls on all parties to stay the course on Victoria’s nation-leading rental reforms.

This should include pre-election commitments to:

  • Provide Consumer Affairs Victoria, VCAT, community sector peak bodies and service providers with the funding they need to continue to embed the reforms in the next term of government.
  • Sustain investment in community sector initiatives that communicate the Fairer Safer Housing changes to hard-to-reach groups and help vulnerable renters assert their new rights.
  • Take action on emerging, unforeseen gaps and inconsistencies, to ensure equitable rights for all renters. This should involve close work with community sector experts to identify anomalies and design solutions – such as amendments to the Residential Tenancies 1997 Act and new regulatory guidance as needed. 
  • Coordinate the Fairer Safer Housing reforms with other intersecting reforms across government, such as the Social Housing Regulation Review, which has identified the need for stronger and more targeted protections for people who are eligible for social housing but instead live in shoddy private rentals because of supply constraints.

Make renters rights a reality

Effective dispute resolution means renters can enforce their rights or seek compensation. While many disputes between renters and providers can be resolved between the parties, others need outside assistance. This generally means going to VCAT.

But VCAT is overwhelmed.

In June 2021, it had more than 16,000 cases pending, three times as many as the preceding year. Cases are also taking longer to resolve, due to the challenges of virtual hearings, more parties experiencing severe hardship, and additional complexity where matters relate to the COVID-19 Emergency Measures and transitional arrangements. VCAT itself has noted that, in this environment, only the highest priority applications can be heard. It can take 12 months to resolve matters relating to bonds, compensation and non-urgent repairs.

VCOSS urges all parties to:

  • Establish an independent Housing Ombudsman to provide a swift and more accessible dispute resolution option for simple issues. This would allow VCAT to focus on more complex matters. The Housing Ombudsman would also help educate renters about their rights and available dispute resolution pathways. They would share data with Consumer Affairs Victoria and the social housing regulator, so these bodies can identify and address systemic issues. Clear rules would govern what data can be shared.
  • Continue funding programs that support renters to assert their rights. This should include providing adequate and secure funding to community sector peaks, industry and consumer bodies to provide tailored information and training to frontline community workers. This will support renters who have often been missed by high-level government communications campaigns. This model of direct renter empowerment will prevent some disputes developing and reduce demand for dispute resolution.

Deliver a contemporary social housing system

Victoria’s social housing system is growing and changing. Community housing is now a bigger part of the system. Amidst this change, it’s important the relevant regulations are contemporary, fit-for-purpose and appropriately centred on the rights of tenants.

Last year, an independent panel reviewed Victoria’s social housing regulation. The panel engaged deeply with renters, the social housing sector and the broader community sector. This engagement was reflected in its recommendations.

VCOSS urges all parties to commit to:

  • Fully deliver the reforms recommended by the Independent Panel, including action to:
    • Establish formal mechanisms (such as advisory committees and renter panels) to put renters at the centre of policy development, legislation formulation, decision-making and operations.
    • Introduce strong, equitable standards across both public and community housing.
    • Establish a well-resourced, independent regulator with a strong mandate for continuous sector development.
    • Provide swift, accessible dispute resolution, where common issues are identified and addressed at a systemic level.
    • Support the growth and development of a healthy, professional workforce, well equipped with knowledge and skills to support renters to thrive.
  • Partner with renters and the community sector on implementation design and rollout. This unique opportunity for reform requires careful implementation. The government should develop mechanisms for meaningful engagement and collaboration, including the establishment of a forum for government and community sector stakeholders to jointly plan and monitor the implementation of the reform agenda.

Build at least 60,000 new public and community homes by 2032

Despite significant recent investment in new social housing, our state has the lowest proportion of public and community housing stock in Australia.

This shortage has pushed many low-income people into the private rental market. While renting laws are helping disadvantaged Victorians overcome discrimination and stigma in the market, many low-income renters simply can’t afford market rents. Increasing numbers of low-income private renters, who are eligible for social housing but can’t access it, are in housing stress or tipping into homelessness – for example, couch surfing or living in tents or caravans.

The Big Housing Build is a record investment in social housing in Victoria, delivering 9,300 new social housing properties over four years (plus 2,900 new affordable and low-cost homes). But the scale of the challenge requires sustained investment that will increase the supply of both public and community housing over the long term.

VCOSS urges all parties to commit to:

  • Deliver at least 60,000 new social housing properties by 2032. Taking account of commitments already made under the Big Housing Build, this would mean an additional net increase of at least 51,000 homes. Parties should confirm they will invest in new public housing stock, as well as community housing.

To gain the most benefit from this investment, there should be:

  • Strategic use of government data to guide decision-making, including existing data from the Victorian Housing Register and specialist homelessness services, data from child protection, justice and corrections, NDIS data, and local labour force projections.
  • A strong focus on equity. Authorities should work to reduce access barriers and simplify the application process. These changes will assist groups that are currently missing out on social housing, including: young people, LGBTIQ+ Victorians, people with disabilities, people who have been involved with the justice system, and people with health issues. Ten per cent of all new homes should be targeted to First Nations Victorians.
  • Monitoring and public reporting of progress to provide insights about the impact of different measures and help to guide the investment approach.

Lock in long-term funding for public and community housing construction

Growing social housing is a smart investment. Research shows that providing stable housing for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness cuts health service use, saving the health system and wider government budgets. It’s also a boon for employment.

In the next term of government, VCOSS urges all parties to commit to:

  • Establish ongoing and predictable funding streams to support long-term social housing growth. This would include a sustained and predictable level of direct government investment in new public housing and a program of sustained and predictable grant funding to Community Housing Agencies.

    In the first instance, VCOSS is calling for at least 51,000 new social housing homes to be constructed by 2032 (on top of the new stock that has been committed under the current four-year Big Housing Build). To achieve this target, the government will need to raise money through new and existing revenue streams (with the funds raised increasing the Social Housing Growth Fund).

In the next term of government, key steps should include:

  • A crackdown on owners of empty homes who are not paying the existing vacant residential property tax.
  • Tightening the regulation of residential holiday accommodation, such as Airbnb.
  • Making sure any land tax offset for Build-to-Rent (or other similar schemes that receive concessions) is used to support social housing growth.
  • Earmarking a set amount of money from all government land sales to support social housing growth.
  • Legislating a mechanism for the development industry to contribute to social housing. This would need to be done through engagement with the development industry and other stakeholders – including the community sector. Contributions could be financial and/or property (such as inclusionary zoning). Enshrining the measure/s in legislation would maximise provider and investor confidence.
  • Switching from stamp duty to a land tax. Stamp duty holds Victoria hostage to the fluctuations of the property market, and is a massive cost burden on lower-income earners trying to buy a home. Switching to a broad-based land tax would provide fairer and more predictable revenue and encourage mobility in the housing market. Any new scheme would need sensible exemptions, and to be implemented carefully. Victoria could learn from the experiences of New South Wales and the ACT, which have both gone down this path.

Prioritise early intervention support

Victoria’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Homelessness found the support needs of people experiencing homelessness become more acute and complex (and therefore more expensive) the longer they are homeless. The best approach is to help somebody stay in a home, rather than help them find a home once they’re homeless.

However, due to growing demand and no commensurate increase in funding, homelessness services often struggle to intervene early. Instead, they’re forced to deliver crisis-oriented support.

To systematically reorient the support system from crisis to early intervention, VCOSS urges all parties to commit to:

  • Deploy new multidisciplinary homelessness prevention teams across the specialist homelessness system for when people first need help. This initiative would build upon existing models such as the Tenancy Advocacy and Assistance Program and include flexible funding (brokerage) as part of the homelessness prevention toolkit.
  • Provide funding for intensive case management – to enable workers to deliver a greater amount of early help to people with complex needs.
  • Invest in specialist case management for key groups, including young people and victim survivors of family violence.
  • Require universal services to engage more proactively with specialist homelessness services. This would include making ‘warm referrals’ to specialist supports and sharing appropriate client information at the time of referral.
  • Deliver adequate funding for community legal and tenancy advocate services.

Embed a Housing First approach

‘Housing First’ is a best-practice model of homelessness support. It means giving people experiencing long-term homelessness a stable home first. Supports to sustain housing and recover from the experiences of homelessness often follow, but housing is not contingent on the person engaging with support.

While a ‘high-fidelity’ model of Housing First is yet to be implemented in Victoria, Housing First is already becoming an important part of our homelessness response. Most recently, the Homelessness to a Home program supported about 2,000 people to shift from emergency hotel accommodation into permanent housing.

However, funding for Homelessness to a Home is limited. And other programs that are delivered using elements of Housing First have been restricted to helping rough sleepers only. This excludes other groups with complex needs, such as people experiencing poor physical or mental health, people with a disability and people involved in the justice system. These groups would benefit significantly from a Housing First approach.

There is an opportunity in the next term of government for Victoria to build on existing initiatives and fully embrace a Housing First model. This would entail commitments to:

  • Sustain current Housing First-like initiatives including Homelessness to a Home.
  • Introduce a comprehensive Housing First model in the specialist homelessness system. This must be done in partnership with the sector, and designed to include support for groups who have previously missed out on earlier initiatives, such as young people, people with disability and people living in regional and rural areas.

To deliver Housing First effectively, this would require:

  • Adequate funding that reflects the cost of service delivery.
  • Training of the specialised workforce.
  • Access to long-term, suitable housing.

Keep moving towards Victoria’s bold Aboriginal housing vision 

The scale and significance of Victoria’s Aboriginal Housing and Homelessness Framework, Mana-na worn-tyeen maar-takoort, cannot be understated. Launched in 2020, the framework – developed by the Aboriginal community – details the necessary steps for every Aboriginal person to have a home.

A 2021 report cardconfirms there have been early steps to achieve this vision. These include the establishment of a new partnership between the Victorian Government and Aboriginal leaders, a series of funded ‘first-year actions’ and a mechanism to track future progress. 

But high levels of homelessness and housing distress among Aboriginal communities remain, and will only be solved by a sustained commitment. 

Victoria must stay the course on the effort, partnership and investment established in the first years of the Victorian Aboriginal Housing and Homelessness Framework. 

To this end, in the next term of government, Victoria should: 

  • Continue to reserve 10 per cent of new social housing stock for Aboriginal people.
  • Maintain tailored support for Aboriginal people experiencing homelessness, including by embracing Housing First models.
  • Enhance safeguards protecting Aboriginal people from eviction, by guaranteeing long-term funding for the More Than a Landlord program and expanding the Aboriginal Private Rental Program.
  • Tailor rent-to-buy and shared equity schemes for Aboriginal people, to give Aboriginal Victorians a secure pathway to home ownership.

Develop a Youth Homelessness Strategy

One in five people seeking assistance for homelessness are either teenagers or in their early 20s.

The causes of homelessness for young people also tend to be age-specific. These include leaving state care, family breakdown, family violence, mental ill-health, and challenges arising from exploring gender or sexual identity.

Current service delivery relies on crisis response. The support methods best suited to young people are rarely used (for example, intensive case management, youth-specific trauma-informed care and person-centred approaches that recognise the person’s unique development stage and pathway).

VCOSS urges all parties to commit to:

  • Deliver a Youth Homelessness Strategy, co-designed with young people. This strategy would encourage better coordination between youth homelessness services and other support systems, and ensure the best possible outcomes for young people.
  • Bolster homelessness support at risky transition points in a young person’s life. These transition points include starting a new school, leaving education, or exiting a state system such as youth detention or out-of-home care.
  • Provide greater help to young people to get housing and stay housed. This should include removing barriers to accessing social housing (for example, by adjusting the social housing rent model, in consultation with the community housing sector, and reserving spots for young people in new developments), expanding medium-term supported housing models (on top of the welcome Big Housing Build/Mental Health Royal Commission commitments), and supporting the development of other new youth-specific housing models.

Back to top.

⦿ A Victoria free from violence

Stay the course on family violence reform 

Victoria is halfway through a decade-long transformation of the family violence system, implementing reforms proposed by the 2016 Family Violence Royal Commission.

Building an integrated system that makes family violence everyone’s business is complex work. It will take many years to shift more entrenched drivers of violence, like rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity.

The volume of government investment, so far, has been unprecedented.

However, demand has also increased as more people feel empowered to seek help. As the Family Violence Reform Implementation Monitor puts it: “All parts of the system – support services, police, courts – are overwhelmed by the number of family violence incidents now reported.”

These challenges can be fixed with political commitment and government resources.

To stay the course on family violence reform, VCOSS calls on all parties to: 

  • Recommit to fully implement the Royal Commission’s 227 recommendations
  • Continue to progress the Ten-Year Plan for Change. 
  • Make rolling action plans fully inclusive. Each plan should include strategies to address unique barriers to seeking or receiving help for victim survivors who are Aboriginal, LGBTIQ+, culturally and linguistically diverse, young or have a disability.
  • Act on Implementation Monitor advice. Take action to resolve implementation challenges identified by the Family Violence Reform Implementation Monitor reports.
  • Plan ahead. Establish the foundations for ongoing system improvement beyond the Royal Commission recommendations. 
  • Deliver the funding needed. 

Ensure victim survivors can access specialised support

Family violence is everyone’s business, but specialist services are at the heart of Victoria’s family violence reforms. Once a person seeks help, these are the services that provide ongoing, comprehensive risk assessment and case management.

The Victorian Government boosted funding during the pandemic. This support was welcome.

However, a more sustainable solution is necessary to meet community need.

In the next four-year term, the government should immediately act to:

  • Increase base funding for specialist family violence services to match current and projected demand for case management and recovery support. 
  • Give services financial certainty with long-term funding contracts. (See page x). 
  • Improve access for under-represented groups. For example, extra funding is needed to allow the Disability Family Violence Practice Leader initiative to expand state-wide, and Victoria should pilot new models of support for young people. Multicultural organisations should also be resourced to provide culturally-appropriate responses to family violence.

This reform area will require government action to fix workforce shortages. 

Support victim survivors to remain safe at home 

Every day, people flee their home to escape violence. Many seek help from homelessness services.

This represents a fundamental flaw in our support systems.

Victim survivors should feel safe at home. It’s the perpetrators of violence who should leave.

To support this shift, Victoria should:   

  • Increase funding for community legal centres so they can meet demand from victim survivors needing legal advice and representation. 
  • Integrate legal assistance into the family violence support system, including embedding community legal services in the state’s Orange Door network.
  • Provide additional funding to legal services to support the seven new Specialist Family Violence Courts. The government should also fund family violence training for lawyers and court staff across the entire Specialist Family Violence Court network.
  • Invest in evidence-informed programs that support perpetrators to change their abusive and violent behaviour, and ensure these programs have enough places to meet demand. Currently there are notenough funded places to meet the volume of court referrals. 
  • Better use police to hold perpetrators to account and support victim survivors. Police officers should proactively manage breaches to intervention orders and stay in contact with victim survivors.

When an abusive partner does move out, the victim survivor can be left to manage big rental and mortgage payments alone. This can lead to debt, dangerous borrowing or default. It’s one of the reasons victim survivors currently feel compelled to leave.  

Specific measures are required to support victim survivors to live safely and comfortably, without the risk of homelessness.

Victoria should:

  • Continue to provide flexible support packages that victim survivors can use to stabilise their housing.
  • Establish new multidisciplinary homelessness prevention teams that support victim survivors to remain housed.
  • Improve economic security for victim survivors. This includes funding more employment support and job creation programs, making childcare cheaper, taking action on toxic insecure work that traps people in poverty, and increasing access to financial counsellors skilled at managing family violence matters.
  • Ensure victim survivors who rent in the private market can access new protections introduced by the Fairer Safer Housing reforms.

For some victim survivors, homelessness prevention will involve moving into social housing. The Victorian Government must increase social housing and ensure that victim survivors are one of the groups prioritised for access. Policymakers should also consider suitable housing options for perpetrators, so more victim survivors can stay at home. 

More places of refuge for those who need it

Over the past five years, Victoria has invested heavily in family violence refuges that provide emergency accommodation for people escaping violence.

But there are still not enough refuge places to meet escalating demand.

Support services are forced to place about 100 people in unsuitable motels, caravans and rooming houses every night.

People fleeing violence need a safe place to go. Victoria should:    

  • Boost crisis refuge capacity. Services can currently accommodate about 200 people and their children each night. This capacity should be increased to at least 320 families. It is vital that these facilities all provide the highest level of disability access.
  • Provide more standalone properties for refuge providers so they have flexible options to safely house victim survivors who have multiple and complex needs that aren’t well met in a typical refuge environment. 

Drive community responses that prevent family violence

Primary prevention is about stopping gendered violence before it occurs.

It means changing the behaviours and norms that excuse, justify or even promote violence.

To effect meaningful change, this work must be broad and sustained.

But prevention funding is often short-term. Activities are run for one or two years, then end. This makes it difficult to attract and retain skilled practitioners, and drive real change. 

To eliminate violence against women, gender diverse Victorians and their children, Victoria should: 

  • Increase the spend on primary prevention. To determine exactly what’s needed, government investment decisions should be guided by the independent statutory authority Respect Victoria and other subject matter experts, who can provide evidence about the scale of the problem, what interventions work and the funding required for success. This should be supported by community insights and lived experience perspectives.
  • Invest in more monitoring and evaluation of what works in primary prevention, to build the evidence base and drive future investments. 
  • Build the prevention workforce. This includes addressing the shortage of qualified and accredited trainers to meet the demand for training and capability building. Learning and understanding about the prevention of gendered violence must be embedded across all industries and all workforces. Prevention must be everyone’s business.
  • Deliver funding certainty. Ensure that all prevention activities are backed by long-term funding contracts. 

Strengthen sexual violence prevention and responses

A greater understanding of what constitutes sexual assault, driven by better education and more media exposure, has increased demand for sexual assault services.

In Victoria, more than 17,000 ‘therapeutic sexual assault services’ are now delivered each year.

But help isn’t always readily available. In some areas, victims wait up to six months to access critical support.

Sexual assault services have welcomed top-up funding in recent years to help manage demand. 

But the sector needs predictable and sustainable funding to do its job properly.

Victoria should:

  • Better equip the specialist sexual assault sector to lead efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence, by providing increased, reliable and ongoing funding.  

Improve access to justice for sexual assault survivors

Despite much progress, many Victorians who’ve experienced sexual violence still don’t report this crime to police.

Fewer still proceed to court.

And those who do go to court may not get the outcomes they need. Many find the process retraumatising.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) has provided a roadmap for effective change in the state’s justice system. Its 2021 report, Improving the Response of the Justice System to Sexual Offences, tabled in the Victorian Parliament, makes 91 recommendations. There has been good progress implementing some of these, but progress on the full package has stalled.

In the next four-year term, the Victorian Government should:

  • Implement the remaining VLRC recommendations in partnership with the sexual assault and harmful sexual behaviours sector.
  • Support system transformation by fully funding actions in Victoria’s whole-of-government Sexual Violence Strategy

“Effective change requires attention to many parts of the system which deal with sexual violence at the same time. [The] system is only as good as its weakest part”.

Victorian Law Reform Commission

Stop elder abuse 

All Victorians should enjoy a life of dignity and safety as they age.

But up to 14 per cent of older Australians are abused either emotionally, financially or physically.

For aged care residents, the figure is closer to 40 per cent.

Services are ad-hoc at best. Access to help depends on where you live.

Seniors Rights Victoria (SRV) is the only integrated legal and advocacy service specialising in elder abuse that covers the whole state. But it’s struggling for adequate funding to meet demand.

To fix this, Victoria should:

  • Boost core funding for Seniors Rights Victoria so it can:
    • Broaden the reach of elder abuse prevention programs. 
    • Answer more calls to the Elder Abuse Helpline. This free assistance service recorded a 60 per cent increase in demand from 2014 to 2019.
    • Ensure the ongoing availability of specialist workers who are best placed to respond to cases of elder abuse in the community. 
    • Strengthen SRV’s monitoring and evaluation work to enable them to track the scope and impact of services delivered. 

Back to top.

⦿ Fair and equal justice

Make communities strong and safe

There’s a clear link between disadvantage and involvement with the justice system. People in the system are more likely to have untreated health problems, including mental ill-health, and have experienced homelessness and family violence.

One smart approach is to re-direct resources that would normally be spent on prisons towards local, community-based initiatives that combat disadvantage and steer people away from criminal offending. This is called ‘justice reinvestment’. It’s a proven approach to tackling community and neighborhood-level disadvantage.

A justice reinvestment approach uses data to identify local needs and provides communities with the resources, time and space they need to build resilience and cohesion. This makes communities safer, stronger and healthier. It’s a true investment in keeping people out of our justice system.

This approach is highly compatible with the wellbeing economy model. Both involve local communities helping government to determine investment priorities.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Establish a justice reinvestment framework for Victoria in 2023.
  • Fund local communities to identify where justice reinvestment would work in 2024.
  • Begin implementing justice reinvestment programs in at least one metropolitan and one regional area in 2025, as part of a pathway to state-wide justice reinvestment.

Ensure all Victorians can access legal help

Targeted legal help, delivered at the right time and the earliest possible opportunity, is a smart investment. It resolves problems before they escalate.

However, many people can’t get legal help when they need it.

Sometimes this is because of barriers to seeking help. This is where community legal education makes an important difference, connecting people to their rights and giving people the confidence to seek assistance.

However, the biggest barrier to accessing legal help is systemic.

Community legal centres lacked the resources to meet demand before the pandemic. This pressure has only continued to grow. Demand is surging at the same time as courts experience significant backlogs in hearing matters.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Formally model future demand and fund organisations to meet this demand, supported by long-term contracts. This modelling must be done in partnership with the community legal sector.
  • Provide ongoing funding for integrated legal and non-legal supports, to address service gaps, silos and access issues. This measure aligns with the recommendations of the government-commissioned Access to Justice Review.

Prioritise health responses to alcohol and drug use

Punitive, police-led responses to alcohol and other drug (AOD) use are ineffective at reducing the individual and social harms AOD use can cause. In fact, they increase stigma, which discourages people from engaging with health and social services that could make our community safer and stronger.

Victoria must divert AOD users safely away from the criminal justice system, towards treatments and supports that will promote health and wellbeing.

Steps to decriminalise public drunkenness in Victoria are a positive start, as they acknowledge the challenge is a health issue that requires a health response.

VCOSS urges all parties to:

  • Finalise the repeal of public drunkenness as a criminal offence. This will require the government to continue to work closely with health and social services, including Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, as well as people with lived experience of AOD use.
  • Increase the capacity of health and community services to support diversion of AOD users from the criminal justice system – in particular, this should include greater investment in the AOD treatment sector to address current funding and workforce gaps. The publicly-funded system does not currently have the funding or workforce it needs to meet demand.
  • Increase AOD training for police, the judiciary, court staff and corrections officers. This instruction should cover AOD trends, harms, responses and available support services, using both professional and lived experience insights.

Empower Aboriginal communities to address systemic overrepresentation

More work is required to combat systemic racism, discrimination and racial profiling in policing. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely than others in the community to be denied opportunities for diversion, charged with public nuisance offences and targeted for offences like public drunkenness.

To effect genuine progress, Aboriginal voices must be at the centre of conversations with government to surface systemic problems and identify solutions.

VCOSS calls on all parties to commit to action to:

  • Embed the right to Aboriginal self-determination in Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
  • Deliver adequate and secure resourcing to Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations so they can play their part in driving and delivering change.
  • Boost Aboriginal involvement in government decision-making ahead of Treaty. Aboriginal people must play a role shaping the laws and administrative measures that may affect them. The government should embrace mechanisms consistent with the right to self-determination and free, prior and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples.
  • Implement recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and coronial investigations into the deaths of Tanya Day and Veronica Nelson.

Stop women from becoming criminalised

Most women who are drawn into the criminal justice system are victims of trauma. This usually includes childhood and adult victimisation, sexual abuse, involvement with child protection and family violence.

These experiences can drive women to engage in offending behaviour. For example, a woman may self-medicate with drugs, or resist violence with physical force and then be mistaken as the original aggressor. These experiences place women at risk of criminalisation, and make it harder to get help.

Victoria can help to disrupt this cycle through a combination of:

  • Law reform (see earlier reccomendations), and
  • Increased investment in prevention, early intervention and voluntary programs.

The program investment should include:

  • Increased funding for the primary prevention of gender-based violence, including family violence and sexual violence
  • Increased funding for long-term recovery supports for victim survivors of family violence and sexual violence – and ensuring this funding is long-term.
  • Increased funding for gender-responsive AOD treatment and harm-reduction services.
  • Enhanced trauma and violence-informed practice in government agencies and funded services. This would include:
    • Making sure the new Statewide Trauma Service (recommended by the Mental Health Royal Commission) is gender-responsive.
    • Funding relevant community sector peak bodies and advocacy organisations with specialist insights to deliver training (and other forms of capability building).

Raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14

Currently, Victorian children as young as 10 experience the full force of the criminal justice system. These kids should be in primary school, not a courtroom or prison.

Victoria must:

  • Raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 in all circumstances
  • Raise the age of imprisonment to 16 in line with UN recommendations.

This would:

  • Ensure that children who are too developmentally immature to be justly held responsible for offending are not criminalised. 
  • Align Victoria with international norms and human rights standards.
  • Reduce the likelihood that children experiencing disadvantage will have early engagement with the criminal justice system, and therefore reduce their risk of further offending.
  • Help address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in the criminal justice system.

It is vital that we invest early to stop children entering the quicksand of the justice system, and support them to change their life trajectory for the better.

To make this shift a success, VCOSS urges all parties to:

  • Boost funding for therapeutic programs that meet the needs of children. These programs provide a safe, suitable and proportionate response to child offending. Presently, not enough children can access appropriate programs. Fixing this is the right thing to do for children and families – and a smart investment for government, in terms of avoiding long-term costs.
  • Get communities to co-design and help implement therapeutic programs. In particular, Aboriginal and culturally-diverse communities should be involved in this process. This would boost program effectiveness by addressing community-identified problems, drawing on community strengths and resources, and ensuring interventions are culturally responsive.
  • Improve collaboration and coordination across government. Areas requiring urgent practice alignment include child and family welfare, education, disability, health, police, legal and the youth justice systems.

Stop criminalising poverty and disadvantage

A range of offences turn people who are experiencing poverty and disadvantage into criminals.

For example, people experiencing homelessness, who use drugs or have mental health challenges are commonly penalised for ‘public space offences’, such as begging, public drunkenness, public nuisance or offensive behaviour.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Introduce a Bill to reclassify offences that criminalise poverty. In particular, amendments are needed to the Crimes Act 1968 (Vic), the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) and the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1991 (Vic), in order to prioritise health and social responses.
  • Deliver a new ‘Protecting vulnerable Victorians’ police and justice training package. This would improve practice amongst public authorities in dealing with people experiencing poverty, disadvantage and other trauma. Specifically, this package would include:
    • Establishing a protocol for police and local law enforcement to prioritise support-based responses to people experiencing homelessness in public spaces.
    • Expanding models where police and local health and social workers (including youth workers) attend callouts together.
    • Training all justice system personnel – including police, magistrates and judges – in trauma-informed practice.
    • Establishing an independent police complaints body.

Make human rights a reality

Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities is an important tool to promote and protect human rights. The COVID pandemic highlighted this, with the Charter providing the yardstick for government to make swift public health decisions while upholding fundamental rights.

However, as the 2015 review of the Charter found, there is more work to be done to make human rights a reality in people’s everyday lives.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Amend the Charter to include social, economic and cultural rights. For example, the Charter should include the right to housing. To support this in practice, the government should formally recognise community housing providers as public authorities and allow VCAT to consider whether evictions from social housing comply with the Charter.
  • Give people the power to defend their own human rights. Currently, individuals who believe their human rights have been breached cannot take the matter to court themselves. The Charter should be revised to include a direct right of action. This would encourage services and authorities to always consider human rights.
  • Clarify the responsibility of public authorities and institutions to uphold the Charter.

Address the current bail crisis

Changes to Victoria’s Bail Act in 2013 and 2018 have made it harder for people to access bail. The 2018 changes introduced a reverse onus test, with authorities hoping fewer serious or violent offenders would be granted bail.

But these changes have not made our community safer. Instead, they have trashed the presumption of innocence for all accused offenders, and sparked a damaging and expensive remand crisis.

About 44 per cent of Victorian prison inmates are unsentenced. The rate amongst incarcerated women is even higher (55 per cent), despite most women being involved with low-level, non-violent offending.

Aboriginal women are faring the worst under these settings. Not because they pose a greater risk to the community, but because the circumstances that lead to their offending – such as poverty, homelessness, drug use and experiences of family violence – currently make them ineligible for bail.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Replace the reverse onus test with a presumption in favour of bail. Such a presumption could only be overridden by a specific and immediate risk to the safety of another person. This call to action is consistent with a long-standing recommendation by the Victorian Law Reform Commission.

Make incarceration a genuine last resort

In recent years, there’s been an alarming increase in the use of incarceration to respond to offending, for both unsentenced and sentenced people.

Over the past decade Victoria’s population has grown about 18 per cent, but our state’s prison population has increased by more than 30 per cent. This prisoner growth has been uneven, with a roughly 50 per cent increase in the number of incarcerated women and a shocking 200 per cent increase among Aboriginal women.

The total budget output for the Corrections portfolio for 2021-22 was $1.675 billion, compared to $639 million in 2010.

Given the clear link between disadvantage and involvement with the justice system, this obsession with incarceration only makes the problem worse. Put somebody in jail and they can lose their home, become estranged from family or miss treatments for health challenges. In the long term, prison can lead to homelessness, family breakdown, long-term unemployment, more offending and re-incarceration.

Incarceration is ineffective and inhumane. It’s also a poor use of government resources. It is more cost-effective for government to wrap support around a person than imprison them. The cost of imprisonment is approximately $270 per prisoner per day, compared to non-custodial supervision by community corrections officers at around $27 per offender per day. And that doesn’t take into account other social and economic costs for individuals, families, government and the broader community following a period of incarceration.

Incarceration should be a genuine option of last resort.

This can be achieved by:

  • Directing Victoria Police to issue more ‘caution notices’ as an alternative to other enforcement actions.
  • Updating the Victoria Police Manual to clarify when ‘caution notices’ are an option.
  • Encouraging police and prosecutors to seek diversions in the first instance.
  • Expanding the use of community corrections orders, and better supporting people to comply with these orders by addressing the true causes of their offending.
  • Introducing a presumption against short terms of imprisonment in favour of community-based sentences or other therapeutic alternatives.
  • Providing adequate funding for health and social services to provide early support to people in their communities and address the issues that underlie offending. This will give people the best opportunity to succeed and ensure government money is spent on keeping people out of jail, rather than in.

Keep fines out of the courts

The Fines Reforms Act, which took effect in 2018, has made Victoria’s fines system fairer. It’s now easier for vulnerable Victorians to prove special circumstances and ‘work off’ their fines.

However, people who are issued fines for infringements can still be brought before the Magistrates Court. This creates court backlogs, and wastes the time of lawyers, court staff and clients dealing with unnecessarily lengthy matters.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Amend the Fines Reform Act to make ‘enforcement cancellations’ binding. Under this proposal, enforcement agencies couldn’t refer a matter to court if Fines Victoria determined that a person’s special circumstances – such as disability, health issues, or alcohol and other drug use – caused them to incur the fine. This reform would ensure fairness, expedite outcomes for fines recipients, and ease court system congestion.

Make courts and tribunals modern and accessible

The COVID pandemic fundamentally transformed how Victorians accessed court.

Temporary measures like shifting pre-court engagements and formal hearings online made the court system easier to access for some people, especially victim survivors of family violence and people living in remote locations. But for those without a reliable phone, computer or internet connection, the court system became less accessible.

Service delivery approaches must be modernised to meet the needs of all people.

Victoria should:

  • Transform courts into high-tech Community Court Hubs that all people can access. Under this plan, courts would be fully equipped to support remote hearings for all participants. Video-equipped computer facilities would be made available for people who need to ‘appear’ at another court. Court staff would be trained in how to use this equipment and help others. An ‘in person’ option would remain for people who prefer it.

Done right, these measures should reorient courts from an institution to a service, help the legal system to interact more seamlessly with health and social services, and assist Victoria’s court system to manage demand.

Create more problem-solving and therapeutic courts

Problem-solving courts deal with the behaviours that cause offending, and are more effective than traditional, adversarial approaches. For example, Victoria’s Drug Court has cut recidivism by 34 per cent and people who attend Collingwood’s Neighbourhood Justice Centre are less likely to breach a community order or reoffend. Local crime has dropped 12 per cent in two years.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Adequately support the expansion of the specialist problem-solving and diversionary court network.
  • Align new problem-solving courts with need and local social services. The Victorian Government expects to open an additional seven Specialist Family Violence Courts this year, providing a total of 12 Specialist Family Violence Courts across Victoria. However, no additional funding has been provided to legal services to support these new courts. To improve safety outcomes and strengthen perpetrator accountability, additional resourcing is required for legal services to provide a more intensive, specialist and therapeutic service.

End the cycle of prison and disadvantage

Poverty, disadvantage, criminal offending and incarceration are inter-related.

Victorians should get appropriate health and social support early, and close to home, to prevent them offending and entering the prison system.

Those who are sentenced to prison should be provided with high-quality health and social services while incarcerated.

VCOSS calls on all parties to make a pre-election commitment to:

  • Give the Department of Health formal responsibility for improving the health and social outcomes for people in prison. Health would be tasked with coordinating all necessary services to ensure inmates’ needs are met in a holistic way. This includes education, training, family connection, financial counselling, and reintegration supports.
  • Publish linked data on people who move through Victoria’s prisons to support system improvement. Access to this data would improve understanding of the impact of programs and servicesfor people in prison.
  • Implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). This is an international human rights agreement to help prevent torture or ill treatment of detained people. Unlike other similar treaties that deal with rights violations after the fact, the OPCAT is focused on preventing violations. Implementation should occur in consultation with the community, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and community-controlled services.

Guarantee a home for people leaving prison 

Many Victorians leaving prison shift straight into homelessness or insecure housing. This sets people up for failure. Without the stable foundation of a home, they are at significant risk of reoffending and drug use on release.

While Corrections Victoria offers some transitional planning and support programs, 80 per cent of people leaving prison don’t have access to any supports pre- and post-release. For those who do, there are usually significant gaps in discharge planning, support and continuity of care that stymie their recovery and reintegration.

Norway has a ‘Reintegration Guarantee’. People leaving prison are guaranteed support to obtain housing, find work, attend school, access healthcare and manage debt. A framework exists to coordinate all relevant government and community stakeholders. This model has resulted in Norway’s recidivism rate being one of the lowest in the world at 20 per cent (Victoria’s recidivism rate is 44 per cent).

VCOSS calls for Victoria to:

  • Establish a ‘Reintegration Guarantee’ for people leaving prison. This should be based on the Norwegian model and incorporate health and social supports – most critically, a guaranteed home so nobody exits prison into homelessness.

Back to top.

⦿ Growing revenue fairly

Generate revenue the right way

Governments can make a positive difference in people’s lives.

With the right balance of revenue measures, governments can deliver policies for inclusive growth while ensuring the sustainability of public spending.

It’s all about choices. The right choices.

Social services – both those funded and delivered directly by the government, and those delivered by the community sector with government support — are of vital importance.

Other government services are also critical: education, justice, health, transport and so on.

This document makes repeated calls for increased, recurrent and new funding for a variety of programs, services and reforms. Programs, services and reforms that prevent disadvantage, intervene early to make a positive difference, and support care and recovery when harm has occurred.

To deliver the best social and economic impact, we need the right resources for the job.

In different parts of this Platform, VCOSS proposes direct revenue measures. For example, we urge stamp duty and land tax reform, advocate for legislated developer contributions to grow social housing, and continue to back the Mental Health Levy to ensure the Royal Commission reforms can be fully delivered

We also put forward the following guiding principles for fair and equitable government revenue:

  • Any new taxes or levies (etc) should be designed fairly, so the burden falls most heavily on high-income earners.
  • Appropriate carve-outs, exemptions or discounts must be created for people on low incomes or with an inability to pay.
  • Broad increases in government service fees (or similar) should be avoided, as these will hit low-income earners the hardest.
  • Discounts for full, upfront payments of government charges should be abolished, as they essentially discount fees for people with the most cash. Any budgeted savings from these charges should be provided to those on the lowest incomes to assist them with paying their bills.

Back to top.

VCOSS acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country. We pay respect to Elders both past and present, and to emerging leaders. Our offices are located on the sovereign, unceded land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.