There’s nothing more “Melbourne” than the AFL finals. I know this might be controversial, especially for this WA audience, but ask any fan who visits Victoria in September and there is a thrill in the air generated by finals madness.
As well as the games, the Brownlow and the banter, there are also the BBQs, lunches and, my favourite, the Grand Final Parade.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited along to the 10th birthday of the Magpie Nest Cafe in the Salvation Army Melbourne Project 614 building at the top of Bourke St in the city, just a hop away from the MCG.
As the name suggests, the Magpie Nest Cafe is affiliated with my club Collingwood and it acts as a central, safe spot for vulnerable people to drop in day and night.
To celebrate the cafe’s birthday, the club and the Salvos put on a sit-down launch for hundreds of Melburnians.
Big TVs played classic Pies’ AFL games, as the guests dined on party pies and hot dogs, served by volunteers, AFLW players, Commonwealth Games champions and myself. There were seconds or thirds for anyone who wanted it.
What was special about this crowd is that they were either homeless or had fallen on hard times.
The reason I got a guernsey to the lunch was because I was there to launch a new Services Australia Community Partnership Pilot that will put a full-time social worker in a small number of community organisations who help homeless and hard on their luck Australians.
As Minister for Government Services in the Albanese Government, it is my job to ensure all Australians can access services they need to live even the most basic life.
Project 614, where the Magpies Nest Cafe is situated, is also one of Melbourne’s busiest homeless services.
The Salvos Commanding Officer Major Brendan Nottle and his team at Project 614 give people a warm place to drop in night or day, a hot meal or coffee anytime and someone to talk to.
I joined Major Nottle and Father Bob Maguire, another staunch advocate for the homeless through the Father Bob Maguire Foundation, to officially kick off the Community Partnership Pilot.
On any given night in Australia there are more than 116,000 people experiencing homelessness and sleeping rough.
More than half are under 35.
No one in our country wants to see anyone bedding down for the night on a cardboard box mattress on a cold, hard footpath. Or a mum getting her children ready for school after they’ve spent the night sleeping in their car.
No one needs Australia’s welfare safety net as much as those without a roof over their head.
Many people who experience homelessness have mental health, drug and alcohol problems, and other medical issues. Many have experienced family violence, are isolated from their families or loved ones. Many may not have any support to get back on their feet or even to access the most basic of what life offers.
Something many of the people the community organisations, like the Salvos and Father Bob’s Foundation, help also often don’t have easy access to is government services like Centrelink or Medicare.
When you are homeless you don’t just waltz into a government office or use an app on a smartphone you don’t own — many don’t even have credit to make a phone call.
So with that in mind, as the new Minister for Government Services, I asked Services Australia to look into establishing the Community Partnership Pilot, which puts a full-time worker into some of our community organisations who help homeless people.
Phase one of the pilot also includes The Rev. Bill Crews Foundation in Sydney and St Vincent de Paul Society Ozanam House in Darwin.
The pilot will be expanded nationwide in the second phase and I expect to see one up and running in WA soon.
The Services Australia staff chosen for the pilot are tireless workers with deep connections to their communities.
These staff have the experience needed to work with Australians in tough circumstances, who are living in vulnerable situations and dealing with complex issues including mental ill-health, family and domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse.
Within weeks of the pilot launching at Project 614, the Services Australia staff member had already helped more than 100 people who needed immediate access to crucial government support, including Centrelink payments.
Across my working life as a union rep, a lawyer and as a Member of Parliament, but also as a dad, I have been aware of the work and impact community organisations have and the importance of linking people with government support quickly and efficiently.
I don’t want Australians treated as outcasts unable to seek help.
And that work will only continue when this new pilot expands to 12 other community organisations later this year, bringing the total to 16 partner organisations around the country.
It’s truly putting into action one of my key priorities as Minister — tackling vulnerability and working with Services Australia to put people experiencing or at risk of homelessness at the centre of government services.
This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 7 September 2022.