In the early months of 1987 I was appointed Director of ACT Council of Social Services where I remained until March 1993. Just before I started, Margi O’Tarpie, the outgoing COSS Director, had invited me to her place in Narrabundah for lunch. Over a couple of bottles of wine she shared some of the secrets of ACTCOSS’s soul. A real estate agent had agreed to pick me up from Margi’s to show me houses in Downer. By the time he arrived I had become so enamoured with the views of Narrabundah that I had decided I wanted to buy a house in that suburb. I went with him, in a somewhat intoxicated state, to see the only house in Narrabundah he had listed in my price range. Four walls, a roof and what more could you want. I signed up on the spot. The next time I visited the house I was a bit surprised to realise that it was not in Narrabundah Heights and there weren’t any views. I was soon to find out that this was of little concern because life as a COSS Director does not leave much time for sitting and looking out over balconies anyway.

When I started ACTCOSS was based on the second floor of the Griffin Centre next to the Welfare Rights Legal Service office. We were later to move down stairs to a shopfront on Bunda St. Irene Hannon, by then an energetic woman of indeterminate years, was typist, receptionist and resident ACT history keeper. Irene had worked as a volunteer and helped keep ACTCOSS afloat when they had been defunded. She loved her IBM golf ball typewriter. Anne Rawson was editor of ACTCOSS News and had a Cannon electronic typewriter with a 250 word memory. Ken Fraser was a project officer working on housing and disability issues and Dr Mary Edmunds was doing some part time project work. It was not long before Melissa Freeman joined us to help with secretarial tasks. Melissa was used to working with computers, she soon convinced us that ACTCOSS needed to join the computer world. Irene, though doubtful at first, to her credit mastered the new technology. Although for a year or so when things would go wrong with a program she was working on, Irene would relocate to the IMB golf ball and gleefully retype the whole document.

The first major campaign we became involved with was the fight to retain the police hostel Havelock House in public hands. The police had planned to shift out for several years and ACTCOSS had been campaigning to have the community take over the site to accommodate people on low-incomes. There had been demonstrations and arrests but the ACT Administration and particularly the Housing Commission did not want to hand it over to the community. The land on which Havelock sits was valued in 1988 at over $3 million. Eventually ACTCOSS won the public debate and set up a working committee, under the auspices of the Housing Taskforce, to run it until it could become an autonomous organisation. The hostel was subdivided into units that housed 108 people who received low-incomes.

ACTCOSS had a number of task forces each with a Chair selected from the General Committee and a project officer and volunteers from the membership who had a particular interest in an area of concern. Most of the Taskforce meetings were held in the Griffin Centre. Often people would belong to more than one task force. I remember one day running into one of our Taskforce members as I was coming out of one meeting where I had expected to see her as she was making her way into the next meeting. Deanne Proctor our long serving President was immediately behind me. I said to the missing taskforce member “Where were you” to which she replied “I’ll come next time”. Deanne, who was at that time Director of National Family Planning, quick as flash whispered to me “ I suppose every woman tells you that”.

The next major campaign in which we became enmeshed was the Child Poverty Campaign instigated by ACOSS following Bob Hawke’s promise that “By 1990 no Australian child will live in poverty”. Kass Hancock who had joined us as a project worker was given the job of running the Child Poverty Taskforce. I enjoyed one meeting in particular at which a Catholic Priest said he was troubled by continuing poverty in the ACT saying something like “I don’t know why they can’t pull themselves out of poverty. I was born poor but I dragged myself out of poverty.” Kass rebuked him, saying “Father, when you took your vows you pledged to accept not only poverty but chastity and obedience as well.”

The first time the Old Parliament House was given over to a community function was when Kass managed to get Kings Hall to set up a Welfare Maze structure to demonstrate just how many difficulties low-income earners encountered when attempting to navigate their way through the confusion of welfare programs. Over 800 people played the Welfare Maze Game that day. There were busloads of school children and members of the public pouring through the Maze. Janine Hayes, Leader of the Democrats, Ian Sinclair, Father of the House, David Connolly, the Liberal Shadow Minister for Social Security, and other members of the ACT and Federal Parliaments. Brian Howe, the then Minister for Social Security, visited but refused to enter the Welfare Maze saying “ I don’t want Tomlinson proclaiming that the Minister is lost in the welfare maze.” ACTCOSS followed this event with a two-day workshop on Poverty in the Territory. Fifty buses were fitted with huge stickers bearing the slogan “Child Poverty Canberra’s Hidden Problem.” Similar two metre by 1.5 metre signs were located on many bus shelters. The cost of the stickers and posters was met by private sector donations and the ACT Labor Government met the cost of putting them on buses and other places. The public response to the maze game was astonishing and we had hundreds of requests to run it again. This was not feasible so we produced a Monopoly like Welfare Maze board game that we sold to the public. It was also used in schools, TAFEs and universities.

The Federal Government funded ACTCOSS prior to self-government in 1988. Mrs Hawke was our patron. I had a long friendship with Netta Burnes who had been the Principal Private Secretary of every Labor Minister for Social Security from Bill Hayden to Brian Howe. Netta and I had been particularly fond of Howe’s predecessor Don Grimes. Brian Howe in the run up to the1987 election had begun to denounce social security recipients as “becoming dependent upon welfare’ or as being “welfare dependant”. After discussion with the ACTCOSS executive, I rang Netta and said that unless Howe stopped speaking about welfare dependency ACTCOSS would campaign against the Labor Party. Howe met with Deanne Proctor and myself and indicated he would refrain from the use of this term in the campaign. He did exactly that but returned to his depressing “dependency” rhetoric immediately after the election.

When the Canberra Casino was being proposed ACTCOSS opposed it. One of Howe’s senior staffers rang me and indicated that ACTCOSS would be defunded if we continued to oppose the development publicly. We did a deal in which I undertook not to initiate press contacts, but indicated that if approached by the press, ACTCOSS would continue to state its opposition to the Casino. Not surprisingly, given the amount of press coverage, which we received during that period, we had several opportunities to state the grounds on which we were opposed to increased gambling options.

During the late 1980s early 1990s ACTCOSS worked without success to convince the Federal Government to introduce a guaranteed income policy to provide real security within the Social Security system. We had much more success with the ACT Government in getting them to rethink their low-income concessions and to pay ACTCOSS to produce booklets that publicised those concessions. This process was part of the ACT Labor Party’s Social Justice strategy. ACTCOSS, not surprisingly, actively supported the increased concentration upon social justice in the ACT. We played a part in the improvements to ACT Hospitals. On several occasions we published a list of doctors who bulk billed. We worked with the Consumer Health Forum supporting Medicare and campaigning against the NSW Ophthalmologists refusal to treat public patients. On one occasion, I had written a health article in ACTCOSS News under the pseudonym of Dr. Colon Oscopy. A journalist from one of the ACT’s suburban newspapers rang to speak to Dr. Colon Oscopy. At the time, I was attending an ACOSS Board Meeting in Sydney. The journalist had rewritten the article quoting Dr. Colon Oscopy at length in the lead article on page one of the paper. I returned just in time to set the record straight which was just as well otherwise there would have been some very red faces at the paper.

One of the ACTCOSS taskforces chaired by Graeme Evans looked at the public / police interface, particularly accusations of police harassment in all its manifestations. This did not endear us to the thin blue line. At one stage in the campaign I had asked for and received an interview with the then officer in charge of the ACT Police Service to discuss with him accusations of police moving on young low-income earners from the ACT.  Upon being shown into his office I felt I was in a time warp, transported back to Bjelke Peterson’s Queensland of the 1970s. There was an overweight man whose uniform struggled to fit around his immense beer belly, “Always nice to speak with Social Security” he declared. I twice attempted to explain that I was from the ACT Council for Social Services but he seemed to think it was the same thing as the Department of Social Security. Explaining why I had come to see him I started by saying  “I’ve come to discuss moving on young homeless people by expelling them from the ACT.” “Yes, it’s been working well for years” He replied. “We drive them out to the New South Wales border and threaten to give them a thick ear – we call it the Gundaroo Express.”

“That’s why I’ve come to see you, ACTCOSS is concerned about the practice.” I responded. There was consternation, which increased when I explained that we did not want bigger and better floggings to make sure that these young people did not come back, rather we wanted the practice stopped.

ACTCOSS took an interest in the treatment of prisoners at Belconnen Remand Centre and insisted on the most stringent safeguards being in place prior to the construction of a private prison in the Territory. We worked closely with Welfare Rights and the ACT Legal Aid Commission.

Our interest in justice in the ACT extended to a desire to promote peace abroad. We opposed the first Gulf War in 1991; we were active in the struggle for a Free East Timor and generally wanted increased foreign aid. Many ACTCOSS staff and General Committee members demonstrated against the weeklong AIDEX arms fair. I was convicted and fined for hindering police trying to crash their way into a Kevin Carmody concert on the last night of AIDEX.

During the time I was at ACTCOSS  the Territory was governed by both Labor and Non-Labor administrations. The General Committee was comprised of members of all the political interests represented in the ACT Legislative Assembly. This gave us the capacity to discuss issues of concern with the government of the day, irrespective of their politics. One person, not on the ACTCOSS Board, who helped make life easier for me as COSS Director was Bill Harris, the Leader of the ACT administration for most of the time I lived in Canberra. Bill was described to me as an “unreconstructed Whitlamite”. We got on well at a personal level and whilst we did not always see eye to eye on issues, we were always able to discuss them – often over a good bottle of red.

At the party celebrating my leaving ACTCOSS the Chief Minister, Rosemary Follet, presented me with a large coffee plunger which the staff had bought as a farewell present. When I unwrapped the present I noticed that it was inscribed “ACTCOSS 1987-93” Rosemary was quite perplexed when I announced that I would not be able to use it if I had company. Rosemary asked “Why not?”  I replied “Well with that inscription they’ll think I stole it”.

The average life of COSS directors in Australia in the early 1990s was 18 months. This was and still is because never a day goes by when the organisation is not confronted with a new challenge which all too often becomes a crisis. Everyday seems like you are going 18 rounds with Mohamed Ali. The difference between a good COSS and a bad COSS as far as a director is concerned is the amount of support provided by the General Committee and the staff.  The 6 years I spent at ACTCOSS were some of the happiest and most productive years of my life. Every day we were handling real issues affecting real people. The support I received from most of the members of the General Committee and the staff made it possible to survive.  In 1992, I gave a paper a National Legal Aid Conference in which I set out the components of the ideal committee to run a community group [See the last section of this article]. On the whole the ACTCOSS General Committee came closest to this idealised version of all of the many committees with which I have worked.

We should be working to help the intended victims of Social Security rather than having to spend most of our lives assisting those whom the social security system just ran over accidentally.

The reality

Ok, we are not funded to address the big questions in our society like ending racism and class exploitation, housing the homeless, creating employment for the workless, finding meaning for the alienated, abolishing military machines, providing a decent guaranteed minimum income for all, developing universal affordable child care nor working towards a system in which we would aim to take from each according to their ability and provide to each according to their needs.

We will in the short term just have to be content to do what we can with what we have.  But if in the process we come to forget the larger agenda then it can really be said that community management has succeeded for the economically powerful but failed the people.

So what makes a good committee?

A good committee:

(1) pays attention to detail without getting lost in the minutiae,

(2) sets a clear agenda, sticks to it but not in such a rigid way that prevents community or staff inputs being built in as circumstances emerge, oversees what paid employees are doing,

(4) takes an interest in improving staff salary and working conditions.

(5) is involved and works co-operatively with staff, helps out when there are back-logs, assists with fund-raising,

(6) is supportive of staff efforts but prepared to be constructively critical, accepts that the capacity to be extraordinarily insightful after the event should be part of a review process not criticism. Backs staff in when things get hot,

(7) has the capacity to care about the issues and outcomes in hand without losing sight of the main game, is committed to social justice and natural justice,

(8) is directed to finding a way forward, conceptually orientated without being lost in some academic wank, basically accepts Glasser and Strauss suggestion, outlined in The Discovery of Grounded Theory, that it needs to express what it aims to do in language and concepts which will be understood by the bulk of community members,

(9) involves clients of the service in management, speaks the language of the community and is committed to simplifying conceptual complexity.  This is basically a process of doing with rather than doing for,

(10) is partisan with the community,

(11)  involves people with disabilities and disadvantage in management,

(12) is committed to a liberationist approach,

(13) is composed of members with a breadth of ideas,

(14) acknowledges the importance of funders without being captured by funders,

(15) publicly defends the organisation whilst working on constructive ways to improve it.

(16) is open to review without that degenerating into constant change,

(17) has an appreciation of difficulties without letting that circumscribe ideas of where the organisation might finish up,

(18) develops an appropriate/open/friendly complaints mechanism,

(19) finds legitimate ways of rewarding community members, and, finally and most importantly,

(20)     finds ways to rather than reasons why not.