Thursday, June 28, 2007

MP's allegations cast shadow on public forum

Tuesday night's public forum on the Roberts Street Northcote public housing redevelopment was marred by allegations of 'bullying and intimidation' of tenants by support workers from 'competing' community organisations. The allegations were raised by Fiona Richardson, State Member for Northcote, in front of an audience of 30–40 people, including Upper House Greens MP, Greg Barber, and Federal Greens candidate for Batman, Priya Carey.

In raising the allegations, Richardson was responding to questions challenging her on the lack of independent advocacy for tenants in the recently completed interviews to determine their relocation needs. Some 90 per cent of the tenants were without independent support in the interviews, which will influence the offers of accommodation from which they must choose as the flats are progressively vacated pending demolition.

Richardson portrayed a tug-of-war, with tenants caught in the middle, leading, she said, to the claims of bullying and intimidation. She further claimed that complaints that independent community advocates had been shut out of the process were politically motivated, with a particular group wanting to represent all the tenants, but supposedly having been refused that role by the tenants themselves. The clear implication was that the involvement of independent community advocates had been limited by the choice of the tenants and not the flaws in the relocation process itself.

Richardson refused to identify the organisations at the centre of the allegations.

Those unfamiliar with the Roberts Street issues would do well to ask themselves which scenario is on its face more reasonable and plausible – that a group of disempowered elderly tenants has been denied adequate and independent advocacy because it will highlight their complex needs and render their relocation more difficult for the government, or that the advocates themselves, with a record of sustained but under-resourced support of those same tenants, should intimidate and bully them to gain a more prominent role in tenant support.

Since the forum, I have spoken to a wide range of people working directly with the tenants, and have satisfied myself that the allegations raised by Richardson at the forum are an unwarranted attack on community support workers and a distraction from the real issues. The distinct impression I have formed is that the community organisations working with the tenants have their trust, and in fact work very cooperatively across the various organisations, uniting to ensure as much support for the tenants as is possible within the constraints of the available resources. I leave any more detailed response to the organisations concerned given that I speak independently and not on their behalf.

An additional concerning aspect of the forum was that none of the Roberts Street tenants were there, a fact reflecting the quarantining of the tenants in the consultation process. Instead, the focus was on the nature of the planned redevelopment, with a small number of surrounding residents attending who would have been substantially outnumbered by the tenants (who are in fact also residents) currently living in the 47 flats on the estate. Despite contributing a good number of well-intentioned and positive suggestions about the development, including ways the tenants could be more successfully included in the community by a better design, the residents' discussion was the poorer for the lack of the tenants' own perpective. This was a direct result of the pre-determined focus of the forum, for which the agenda was made available only on the night. A more appropriate format for the Office of Housing consultation would not submerge the tenant consultation below the level of public scrutiny.

Despite these issues, there were some positives to emerge from the night. Apart from the constructive ideas contributed by residents to inform the initial design, there was a sentiment of general acceptance that the site should continue to be used for public housing for the elderly. There was also a public reassurance by Richardson that the site would be exclusively public housing, managed by the government; there will be no private or social housing on the new estate.

The key aim now is that the development not proceed until satisfactory alternative accommodation is found for the existing tenants. This will be difficult within a public housing system already stressed to its limit, with more than 35,000 people on our public waiting lists. Nevertheless, the logistical difficulties should not be used as an excuse to ignore the tenants' complex needs or the fact that the relocation will sever community connections and supports built up over years. To ensure appropriate support through the relocation, the tenants need independent advocacy, and that means community support workers must be brought more effectively into the process, not attacked for attempting to advocate in spite of it.

Fiona Richardson no doubt has a different view of these issues, and I invite her comments here as part of an open dialogue on the Roberts Street redevelopment. She cannot retract the allegations she raised at the forum; indeed she must explain them.

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