The NSW Labor Government’s first budget was a good first step but bolder action is needed if we are to address growing inequity in Western Sydney.
With the unveiling of the first Budget by a NSW Labor Government in 12 years, I—like many others in Western Sydney’s community sector—watched with interest for signs that the new government was committed to taking the bold steps needed to address the challenges facing the region. However, what I witnessed this week was a budget that did not step up to those challenges.
The Budget comes amid a backdrop of challenges brought on by the considerable debt in NSW, high-interest rates and significant cost of living pressures affecting Western Sydney communities. As noted previously in the NSW Council of Social Services’ (NCOSS) Mapping Economic Disadvantage in NSW report, the poverty and disadvantage experienced in Western Sydney not only remains – it is getting worse. Western Sydney Community Forum’s member organisations tell us that they are seeing unprecedent levels of demand for their services. Greater number of people are reaching out for assistance to pay their bills, feed their families and deal with issues of mental health and wellbeing. This week’s Budget offers little for the many families experiencing these challenges in Western Sydney.
I can appreciate some of the reasons why the Government chose to adopt a more restrained budget this year. NSW is still recovering from the blowouts of the last few years and perhaps this year’s Budget represents an incoming government’s first tentative steps to redraw the economy in its own image. In this sense, the Budget was not without its positives. Western Sydney communities will be pleased at the promise of three billion dollars for new hospitals in Bankstown and Rouse-Hill as well as upgrades to Fairfield, Blacktown, Mount Druitt and Canterbury hospitals. Likewise, those with children will welcome the 3.5 billion dollars committed to Western Sydney school development and upgrades.
This investment in schools and hospitals across Western Sydney is long overdue and will play a critical role in ensuring that communities have access to some of the essential social infrastructure they need. However, investments in bricks and mortar cannot be delivered without commensurate support for local trusted place-based community organisations that provide the vital day-to-day support that allows communities to survive and thrive in the face of ongoing challenges.
As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, in times of crisis it remains the local community sector and community-based structures that are relied upon to maintain the health and wellbeing of people experiencing vulnerabilities and disadvantage. Place-based community organisations have the trust and connection with communities that allows them to reach the most vulnerable and isolated in ways that larger institutions simply cannot.
More action is needed to support these organisations and allow them to continue to deliver for communities during this time of urgent need. The recent announcements of grant indexation and portable leave for the community sector were good steps but more significant change is necessary to ensure the sector remains sustainable. Local trusted place-based community organisations need funding that has longer cycles and is allocated based on need. Our sector needs this to provide the stability of operations that enables continuity of critical services and supports to communities.
Another area of unrealised opportunity in this week’s Budget was housing. We remain in the middle of one of the most severe housing crises in living memory. Access to safe, affordable and appropriate housing is a fundamental human need and right. We know that a lack of stable and secure housing has far reaching social and economic costs that affect individuals, families and whole communities. And yet, in Western Sydney, access to safe and affordable housing remains out of reach for many of the region’s most vulnerable. Those living in rental accommodation continue to experience rising rates of poverty—both private renters and those living in social housing alike. The current housing crisis requires urgent investment in social and affordable housing and action to support communities facing rental pressures.
NSW’s housing crisis is an issue that has faced decades of underinvestment despite the major impacts being felt by communities. While it is pleasing that it is finally receiving the attention it deserves in this Budget, when confronted with the monumental challenges of housing, the Government has settled for a softly-softly approach. The Budget’s $2.2 billion Housing and Infrastructure Plan—which forms the centrepiece of the Government’s response to the housing crisis— simply does not match the scale of the housing crisis experienced acutely in Western Sydney. While we welcome the commitment of increased funding to extend access to temporary accommodation and support for specialist homelessness services, these are band-aid solutions at best and will not address the fundamental causes of the housing crisis.
We therefore support NCOSS and other peaks in the call for increased investment in social and affordable housing, improved protections for renters and enhanced support to help place-based community organisations meet the rising demands for their services.
The NSW Government has made a good start on delivering real change for the people of Western Sydney but has stopped short. This is not a time for trepidation. The communities of Western Sydney are at breaking point and bold action is needed which not only responds to the crises at hand but also addresses the underlying factors that have caused them. While this week’s Budget is a step in the right direction the longer-term inequity and economic disadvantage experienced by communities such as Western Sydney due to years of under investment seems to have been overlooked once more. I can only hope that this is the stepping stone to greater investment in the social needs of people in Western Sydney so that our communities survive and thrive, now and in future generations.
Acting Chief Executive Officer