Bob Burns was a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s State Council for six years prior to his election as Western Australia State President in July 2014. He gives this assessment of challenges faced by the Society in Perth in a post-mining boom era.
The economy in general in Western Australia is in recession at the moment. There is a lot of unemployment. The state went through a boom period with the mining boom. But that has very much run its course. And a lot of people are now out of work.
There is a lot of mortgage stress. During the good times people bought houses and cars and that sort of thing. Then suddenly they are out of work. There are repossessions.
There is also the situation here where people have come from interstate to find work in Western Australia, and now the work has fallen through. And so they are stuck here because they haven’t got enough money to go home or they don’t want to, or the kids are at school here and they can’t just pack up and go. So recession after the mining boom has caught a lot of people out.
In the case of New Zealanders, if they come here and then find themselves out of work, they are not entitled to Australian social security—they are not eligible for any government assistance at all. So a couple of conferences are supporting them.
I think the type of people who need help hasn’t changed much. But the volume of people needing help is much greater because of unemployment.
Another challenge is that it is becoming harder to raise funds, partly because businesses are less willing to provide income through initiatives like the CEO Sleepout. Money raised through that event is down on what it has been in previous years because businesses are reluctant to spend money if they are not doing well.
As such, our finances are quite tight. We have sent out instructions to conferences to watch what they are spending money on. We are not there to support people over a long period of time. We are there to help them through an emergency relief period.
In the last year we have expanded our work in the area of migrants and refugees. We have set up a conversational, drop in English language centre at Nollamara (10km from Perth’s CBD) where people can drop in, socialise and practice their English. We have retired teachers and other volunteers who are helping us with that.
It’s been going for about three months and has turned out to be quite successful. The initiative is led by former Western Australia State President Clem Astruc. He has a team helping him, including migrants who are mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Bob’s thoughts on Congress 2017
I would like to see some sort of direction for the future. One of the things I would like to see the congress achieve is for different sections of the Society to have more integration, such as in the areas of mental health, emergency relief and youth.
It is important for us to work in unison, rather than in silos. That is one thing that I would very much like to see the Society achieve.
I don’t feel isolated in Western Australia. We swap ideas with other states, particularly in the area of shops and advertising. And I go to National Council meetings and exchange views with the other presidents. So I think communication is quite good.