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Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment



Issue: Community Wellbeing

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What has changed in our community?

Statistics suggest that not much has changed during the reporting period (2000–03). On average, Canberrans are still as healthy, wealthy and well-educated as ever.

Most social and demographic statistics suggest that life continues to be better in the ACT than elsewhere ( ACT in Focus , Australian Bureau of Statistics). ACT household income is 40% above the national average and unemployment is 25% below the national average.

The statistics also show that many changes in the ACT are part of a wider national trend. The property boom and the crisis in the health care system are but two examples.

However, many of the things that have changed in the ACT community during the reporting period are not easily seen in statistics of this type.

Are you a typical Canberran?

The statistics show us that, compared with all Australians, the average Canberran is:

  • 32 years old, which is three years younger than the typical Australian
  • better educated, having finished at least year 12 at school and probably a bachelor’s degree
  • more likely to have a job, with unemployment rates 20–25% below the national average, but the job could well be part-time
  • more likely to drive everywhere, especially to work, rather than catch a bus
  • richer, with household income 40% more than the national average
  • in a household with children, with both partners working
  • finding it hard to access a family doctor, especially one that bulk bills
  • expected to live about a year longer than a typical Australian, with women living to 82.9 years of age and men 78.5 years
  • generally healthier
  • better able to afford a home loan, and more likely to have one
  • more likely to have a computer at home
  • more likely to participate in voluntary work

But the not so well-off may be:

  • Aboriginal and more likely to experience poorer health
  • young and unemployed
  • mentally ill and receiving inadequate support
  • having trouble finding an affordable house, and unable to quickly access public housing
  • in a single-parent family
  • qualified to year 10 level only
  • disabled

A tragedy for people and place

The January 2003 bushfires destroyed 488 houses, killed four people, damaged a lot of public infrastructure, and saw the loss of natural and cultural heritage. It has become clear that the natural setting of the ‘Bush Capital’ cannot be taken for granted.

The bushfires did bring out the sense of community amongst ACT residents. It was brought out by people’s need to rely on each other to survive, and later to cope with the trauma on a community-wide scale. The generosity and support shown by the ACT community towards people who were directly affected is something that the cynics would never have predicted, but many Canberrans always knew was there.

The impacts of the fire are still being felt throughout the entire community. Some pine forests will never be replanted, with resulting changes to Canberra’s setting and the loss of some types of recreation areas.

Fire and storm damage to the ACT’s catchments left only one of the ACT’s four dams usable for domestic water supply. Despite the damage, drinking water quality has actually improved over the reporting period.

Almost a year after the fires the fate of the rural villages is not certain. Some icons such as the Tidbinbilla Education Centre, Mount Stromlo Observatory and Mount Franklin chalet may be re-built, but the timing is unknown.

An unexpected outcome of the fires was that many previously unrecorded Aboriginal and historic sites were located, while some known sites were found to be more extensive than previously recognised.

The ACT is still recovering economically, with the ACT Government forced to divert funding to manage a difficult and complex recovery operation. People are still recovering emotionally.

A less direct but significant impact of the fires was the sudden need to find housing for fire victims. This may have at least partly contributed to increasing housing and rental prices.

But apart from the fires...

There is good and bad news for community wellbeing in the ACT.

For heritage, the good news is that changes in Commonwealth heritage legislation afford extra statutory protection for many natural and cultural heritage places. New ACT heritage legislation has also been drafted and, if passed, will bring the ACT into line with other jurisdictions and strengthen the profile of heritage in line with community expectations and interest in heritage issues.

Aboriginal heritage management is also on the agenda, including cooperative management of Namadgi National Park and inclusion of Aboriginal membership on advisory boards and panels.

The ACT Heritage Places Register is now more comprehensive as a result of expanded survey and assessment during the reporting period.

Economically, the news was good with the ACT economy growing faster than that of the rest of Australia through the early part of the reporting period and towards the end of it. Some of this was generated by an increase in value of construction work associated with the property boom. Business confidence in the ACT was also higher than elsewhere. Property and business services continued to head the list of private employers, followed by construction then retail.

A significant change in the community has been the decline in property offences during the reporting period, although ACT community crime surveys suggest that people are still concerned about illicit drug use and housebreaking. The actual increase in crime was in offences against people.

Unfortunately the growth in the economy has not been matched by growth in the health and community care sector. Despite the increasing value of this sector to the economy, the trend in services has been one of decline.

There are no longer enough general practitioners to meet the needs of the ACT population – a trend signalled in the 2000 State of the Environment Report. Furthermore, few practitioners bulk bill and there are fewer beds available for acute care in public hospitals.

Some costs of the good life

A downside of the good economic story is the continuing pressure placed by land development on biodiversity, particularly lowland woodland and grassland communities.

The issue is shaping up to be significant because the ACT Government continues to rely on land as a major source of ‘one-off’ and continuing revenue. It could be argued that with the economy performing so well, the ACT community can afford to forgo some of this revenue to preserve a natural treasure.

The demand for land will only increase. The ACT population continues to increase – it was 312,000 at the 2001 Census – and average household size is declining. These issues will be addressed in the Canberra Plan, which will coordinate the Spatial Plan, the Social Plan and the Economic White Paper.

A partial solution could be to convert to residential use some former pine plantations that were lost in the 2001 and 2003 bushfires. Even so, there is only so much land and eventually the ACT Government may have to take a regional rather than territorial approach to land development.

The demand for land is not the only environmental issue facing Canberra’s increasing and affluent population. The lifestyle of choice is one that generates significant amounts of waste, relies heavily on the private motor vehicle, and uses increasing amounts of energy.

Many decisions that favour the environment – such as incorporating the environmental cost of supplying energy, water, transport and land – are likely to result in higher charges and different lifestyle options.

The challenge is to do this in a way that does not increase the already significant inequity in our society.

Are we looking after our people?

If the real measure of a society is how well it looks after its most disadvantaged citizens then the ACT is not doing well in some areas. Average statistics mask significant inequities in the community, with perceptions of a widening of the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged and the levels of support they receive.

For example, with increases in housing prices, the availability of affordable private rental housing has been reduced by two-thirds during the last few years. If these trends continue, they are likely to have significant implications for inter-generational equity.

In response, demand for less costly public and community housing has increased. At the same time public housing stock has decreased (although still higher than the national average). There has also been a decrease in the number of people supported by rental rebates.

Other gaps are evident from a study of disadvantage in the ACT published in 2003 (Anthea Bill, Rachel Lloyd, Ann Harding 2002, Locating Poverty in the ACT , National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, University of Canberra and ACT Government), which highlights the incidence and distribution of poverty – linked primarily to unemployment – and draws attention to the need for support services.

Programs are being put in place to provide early indicators of potential disadvantage in education, beginning in kindergarten, and to provide additional resources for literacy and numeracy support programs to schools with high proportions of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Resources, and the fact that there is never enough to go around, is an ongoing problem for governments.

Nevertheless, it has become clear during the reporting period that many groups are not receiving an appropriate level of health care or support. The circumstances of the mentally ill, the aged, the disabled, the homeless, the drug addicted, young adults and children, and Aboriginal people, have been the subject of a number of reports and inquiries 1

Children with mental illnesses were identified as being particularly at risk because of a deficit in services. Many studies have recommended that dedicated age-appropriate acute care, day and long-stay accommodation in the ACT be provided for children and adolescents. This would significantly improve the wellbeing of mentally ill children and adolescents, and their families (Office of the Community Advocate Annual Reports 2000–01, 2001–02).

The level of support provided is falling behind the demand generated by the needs of this group and many others. If Canberra has indeed discovered that it is a community, then the challenge is to directly connect with, and to address, the needs of the most needy among us.

What does this mean for the future?

As in the past, the wellbeing of the ACT community is expected to benefit from the surrounding built and natural environment.

While a tragedy, the January 2003 fires have given the ACT Government the chance to set a new direction for the Territory into the next century.

It is expected that the Canberra Plan will take advantage of that opportunity.

The Canberra Plan will also address community expectations of high environmental quality, and perceptions of safety and community needs in health, education and transport. Options to increase residential and employment density in town centres and along transport routes may make a significant contribution, alleviating sprawl and promoting sustainability.

With community participation fundamental to the wellbeing of any community, the lack of routine data collection to allow the ACT to assess its performance is problematic; although this information is very hard to collect without ‘double-counting’ the people who are part of a number of community groups. This shortcoming should be redressed.

Finally, the ACT community cannot ignore the plight of the disadvantaged. It is expressed across the sustainability spectrum – in social, economic and environmental terms. It is seen in health outcomes in which the entire community shares, and in the access afforded to everyone to shaping Canberra’s collective future.

In consultation with the Commissioner for the Environment, the ACT Government should:

  • ensure lower income groups have access to appropriate affordable housing
  • implement programs aimed at reducing gaps in health outcomes for Aboriginal people
  • assist support services and facilities to keep pace with the increasing demands of an ageing population
  • increase professional development and employment opportunities for the young and disadvantaged
  • improve access to support services and provide dedicated acute care, day and long-stay accommodation for children and adolescents with a mental illness
  • implement the Sustainable Transport Plan 'principles for managing change' in The Draft Canberra Spatial Plan and manage parking to assist in achieving sustainable transport outcomes
  • develop data records for Community Participation and Heritage that meet needs for reporting purposes, including State of the Environment and State of Heritage reports.
End Notes
1
Examples of inquiries include: the Patterson Inquiry ( Investigation into Risk of Harm to Clients of Mental Health Services ); the Gallop Inquiry ( Board of Inquiry into Disability Services Final Report ) and associated implementation reports and the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee Report Number 3, The rights, interests and well-being of children and young people .

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