The Morrison Government, already making a name for itself for its knee-jerk, reactionary approach, managed to excel itself recently when it decided to slash annual funding for not-for-profit charity Foodbank, from $750,000 to $427,000, just weeks before Christmas.
While it is not unusual for governments to review their funding programs, it is highly irregular, even negligent, for any government to go about this process on which many people depend, without due diligence, considerable research or even enough information to form an educated guess.
And it is downright cruel to renege on existing commitments in the middle of the financial year — with only six weeks notice.
This decision – one which literally affects the ability of Australia's most vulnerable families to put food on the table – represented the third funding cut Foodbank had been dealt by the Coalition since 2014 and was made just weeks after the charity released its 'Foodbank Hunger Report 2018'.
The report exposed, among other things, the reality that:
'... food insecurity is on the rise and people in the bush are 33 per cent more likely to experience it than their city counterparts.'
There is simply no way Foodbank's work can be underestimated – including in drought-affected rural areas – as both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Social Services Paul Fletcher would know, had they had bothered to do any research at all prior to making arbitrary cuts.
FOODBANK'S FUNDING WOEFULLY INADEQUATE
Foodbank's funding is already woefully inadequate at best, given it is Australia's primary food relief organisation providing (among other things):
... 67 million meals a year to over 2,600 charities and 1,750 schools [via its breakfast program]. Each year it distributes over 37 million kilograms of food and groceries with a retail value of more than $200 million — that’s the equivalent of over 183,000 meals a day.
It is fair to say that this financial decision, then, was made in a complete vacuum. It's also pretty clear that while the decision was reversed and the funding reinstated, no attempt to right this wrong would have ensued without the overwhelming pushback from the community.
Indeed, Foodbank’s General Manager Sarah Pennell told IA:
When the announcement of the funding happened, Minister Fletcher’s office contacted us to say they would be issuing a media release and requested a quote.
We were in shock and said something like, ‘We can provide you with a quote but it's not one you would want to use in your media release.’
There was no consultation, no prior warning and no opportunity for discussion. We tried expalining why Foodbank's services are not replicated elsewhere in the sector and that we underpin the other agencies' work, but they pretty much said, "Tough".
We had no option but to go public with the news.
FOODBANK STORMS SOCIAL MEDIA
Foodbank's decision to "go public", in fact, created a social media storm.
So swift and so vehement was the public outrage to this mean-spirited move to slash $352,000 from such a vital cause, that almost as fast as the announcement was made, so was the retraction and reinstatement.
The PM even tweeted a bizarre and ambiguous statement in the Trump tradition:
Yesterday I promised to review the Foodbank decision. I have listened and decided to increase the Food Relief budget by $1.5 million over the next 4.5 years and have asked the Minister to place more focus on relief in drought affected areas. ...
Important that food relief in drought areas is delivered in a way that does not undercut local businesses. Minister will work with providers to get the right plan in place.
How exactly local businesses would be undercut by charities providing food for people who have no money to purchase food is puzzling, to say the least.
IA contacted Minister for Families and Social Services Paul Fletcher with a list of questions including why Foodbank was singled out for funding cuts in the first instance. We also asked why, although its funding is now to be maintained, it was not increased in proportion with the staggering rise in national food insecurity, despite the subsequent (modest) increment in funding for the sector?
IA received a response from Mr Fletcher's office, which included the following:
The Government will increase funding for food relief by $1.485 million over the next 4.5 years, to $5.985 million. This means that Foodbank’s funding will be maintained at $750,000 per year over the next 4.5 years. After a rigorous, competitive selection process managed by DSS, three organisations, Foodbank, OzHarvest and Second Bite, were found suitable to deliver Food Relief to Australians. Two of the successful organisations, Foodbank and Second Bite, are existing providers. The selection panel considered that the introduction of a new provider would complement existing arrangements.
Not to be too picky, but the 'rigorous, competitive selection process' had been 'managed by DSS' at the beginning of the funding period, well before they made the decision to slash funding and then reinstate it, so perhaps someone could have read over the notes from this rigorous process first?
(IA also approached both the Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services Linda Burney and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. We received an already published media release, which condemned the Government's decision.)
Why would a Government purporting to be concerned about Australian families, be looking to do anything other than increase funding in this sector? Where are these decisions coming from?
This is the same Government that has no trouble finding half a billion dollars for a war memorial (not for fallen soldiers and their families).
This is an administration that is able to spend an extra $4.6 billion on independent schools but cuts $1.9 billion from public schools.
This is a Prime Minister who is content to fly in a Royal Australian Air Force VIP jet on the campaign trail while pretending to be riding on a bus.