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“Aren’t you worried your funding will be cut?” Talking about the role of peak bodies.

June 2019

“Just wondering how you’re managing to criticise government consultation periods without being worried about funding cuts?”

This was a question we received on the Families ACT Twitter feed, and it prompted an office discussion about the role of peak bodies in the ACT, and what this means for us, and our co-located peaks, the Youth Coalition of the ACT and ACT Shelter.

The question was sent in response to a Twitter post criticising the number of ACT Government consultations that were taking place over the Christmas break, which goes against the Government’s own guidelines on policy consultations. We responded that, as a peak organisation, it is our job to advocate in the best interests of the people served by our members – children, young people and families – and that our Deed of Grant recognises this as one of our roles. We wrote that the ACT Government expects us to provide constructive criticism, which includes advocating for adequate funding for services and arguing for transparent and comprehensive consultation and community engagement. 

The term peak body is uniquely Australian: in the UK and USA they are known as advocacy groups, federations, coalitions or umbrella organisations. While there is no official status attached to peak bodies, they are widely recognised as a legitimate voice of a particular sector, and are generally established to act on the behalf of members in representing their interests to government. A national study of peaks defined them as non-government organisations “whose membership consists of smaller organisations called allied interests. The peak body thus offers a strong voice for the specific community sector in the areas of lobbying government, community education and information sharing between member groups and interested parties”.[1]

Homelessness Australia, the national peak body for homeless services, describes peak bodies as a “one-stop shop for government and the sector to share information and experience”, whilst conducting timely and cost-effective research and development for the sector, and educating the community about the sector and the people it supports.[2]

So peaks don’t provide services: their role is to support the organisations that do. Historically, those organisations joined together as communities of interest, and their need for a shared voice in representing their interests to government led to the creation of peak representational bodies. Members generally pay an annual membership fee to belong to a specific peak, although it is not uncommon for community organisations to belong to several peaks. In some ways peak bodies are similar to unions: the point of paying to belong to one is less about advancing your individual organisation’s interests, and more about strengthening your sector as a whole. 

We approached ACTCOSS for their thoughts, and director Susan Helyar noted that peaks are distinct from other voices like lobbying and consulting firms: “Peaks represent views that are broadly based, and can move beyond vested interests and provide visibility to both group and individual experiences.”

Susan also pointed out that peaks have “the natural leadership and respect that comes from being formed from, and by, a specific community of interest, with accountabilities to a constituency”.

In an excellent paper about the role of peak organisations, the Youth Affairs Network of Queensland noted that community services peaks generally have two main areas of functioning. The first is outward-looking (social reform) roles, including policy development, feedback on policy and programs to government, advocacy and representation to government and the wider community, networking with allied groups, consultation, lobbying and community education. The second role is inward looking (industry development), including member support, dissemination of information, coordination, infrastructure development and networking between members.

Established in 2006, Families ACT is a comparatively small peak body, especially in comparison with ACTCOSS or national peaks, but with two part-time staff we nevertheless manage to cover a lot of ground in a year, and stay in constant contact with our members. Will Mollison joined Families ACT as its Executive Officer (and sole staff member) in 2011, bringing with him a wealth of experience from the government and not for profit sectors, including youth work, child protection, juvenile justice, teaching social work students and management. In 2016 Families ACT celebrated its 10th birthday, and now has two staff, with Karen Hall, who has a journalism and community development background, working on policy, research and media. We work hard to maintain good relationships across government, and Will points out that not all Australian jurisdictions are as positive as the ACT about the role of peak bodies: “I think we are fortunate in the ACT that we have a Government that not only tolerates different policy views and voices, but understands their value, knowing that policy outcomes will always be better when different perspectives are embraced.”

We approached the Minister for Children, Youth and Families, Rachel Stephen-Smith – who has herself worked for a peak organisation – to ask her views on the role of peaks in the ACT and more widely. She said peak bodies played a crucial role in giving a voice to those who may not otherwise be able to advocate for themselves and contributing to the policy debate at both a local and national level. 

“Peak bodies provide a channel for collaboration and create important conversations,” Minister Stephen-Smith said. “My experience working for a health consumer peak body brought home to me the enormous value peaks can have in bringing consumers, service providers and governments together to work through complex issues – but also the essential role of an independent voice that can speak truth to power.”

This last point is especially important because, as Susan Helyar notes, peaks are in the position of being able to be an honest and constructive advisor to governments in ways that organisations delivering outsourced government programs often can’t.

“While frank advice can sometimes seem confronting, in practice peaks seek to be a trusted source of independent advice and a system saver to ensure that the right decisions are being made in the long-term interests of the community,” she says.

Travis Gilbert, the chief executive of ACT Shelter, says peaks provide a vital conduit for governments by developing and sustaining networks and relationships across the community sector, including at the national level. But this role, he says, can be both an asset and a liability. 

“Peaks offer bang for buck, offering a feedback loop to and from Government, industry, workers and consumers,” Travis says. During processes such as competitive tendering, peaks can be a voice for service providers who are fearful of speaking frankly, but he warns that peaks can find themselves at risk of being co-opted into some procurement and reform processes that “do not land where their membership has been advocating”. Peaks, he argues, are at their best when they are pro-active and representative, setting their own policy priorities that address the full range of issues affecting their constituencies, and engaging directly with political processes.

Returning to the question that prompted this discussion, are we ever afraid that being critical will endanger our funding? No, but using our voice to critique and to question, whilst maintaining good relationships with government, is a balancing act. Calling out the Government for not honouring its consultation guidelines means believing that they genuinely support the values set out in The Social Compact: A Relationship Framework between the ACT Government and the Community Sector, such as respect, open communication, engagement and continuous improvement.

As Will notes, “So many of our ACT Government counterparts really do embody the spirit of The Social Compact, and they are as committed as we in the community sector are to improving life for all Canberrans. 

The Social Compact calls on us to plan, learn and work together, and I genuinely feel confident that Government will respect the right of community organisations to comment on, and challenge, the Government’s policies and programs wherever necessary.”

  • By Karen Hall


ACT Government 2012, The Social Compact: A Relationship Framework Between the ACT Government, Community Services Directorate, Canberra, http://www.cmd.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/521486/The-Social-Compact_web-version2.pdf

ACT Government 2011, Engaging Canberrans: A guide to community engagement, Chief Minister and Cabinet Directorate, Canberra, https://s3.ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/hdp.au.prod.app.act-yoursay.files/2614/6724/4263/communityengagement_FINAL.pdf.

Homelessness Australia 2016, The Role and Importance of Peak Bodieshttps://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/sites/homelessnessaus/files/2017-07/Peak_bodies_JAN16.pdf.

Melville, R 2003, Changing Roles of Community-Sector Peak Bodies in a Neo-Liberal Policy Environment in Australia, Institute of Social Change and Critical Inquiry, University of Wollongong.

[1]Melville 2003

[2]Homelessness Australia 2016

March 2018

Fireworks, fines and the statistics of disadvantage

Canberra’s recent birthday fireworks display provided an unexpected catalyst for a burst of discussion about disadvantage in the nation’s capital. The decision by the National Capital Authority to close several car parks closest to the March 17 Skyfire event, claiming adherence to anti-terrorism guidelines, resulted in a record number of fines issued for vehicles parked on nearby grassed areas.

Many complained in letters to The Canberra Times that the $97 infringement notices turned a free event into a costly one for low income families. Veteran Canberra opinion writer Ian Warden called for the ACT to implement a policy similar to the Scandinavian countries, where motoring fines are means tested.

In Finland, for example, the police who pull a driver over for speeding will log into a national taxpayer database to determine the motorist’s income, and fine the driver based on his or her annual earnings. One driver, who was found to earn equivalent to AUD$10.5 million a year, was fined $87,000 for doing 15 miles above the speed limit. Similarly, infringement notices for those on lower incomes reflect their capacity to pay a fine without it having too strenuous an impact on their ability to manage financially.

Many online comments about the Skyfire parking fines made the pertinent point that the best way to avoid fines was to avoid breaking the rules, but quite a few supporters of Warden’s argument pointed out that the amount charged for fines was determined by a calculation around average incomes, and that this failed to account for the many disadvantaged Canberrans who struggle with the capital’s high cost of living. These Canberrans, for whom a $97 parking fine may be a massive hit, are rarely taken into account in discussions that use the average ACT income as a measure.

This is the central point of the Hidden Disadvantage in the ACT report, issued during National Anti-Poverty Week 2017 by NATSEM (the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling) and ACTCOSS. While the ACT has a higher median income than the other states and territories, there are pockets of disadvantage in the ACT that are hidden by statistics analysing population averages. For this reason, the Hidden Disadvantage report uses Census data to drill down on small area demographics (a small area is a cluster of around 150 households, the second smallest measure of Census data available). The study’s findings may be surprising to many who see Canberra as a comparatively rich town. Plotting ACT small area data against national capital city averages, the study reported that more than 37,000 Canberrans lived in low income households (where the household income was less than $25,999 a year) including 7,867 children, or 12 per cent of all children in the ACT.

An analysis of the number of households living with multiple forms of disadvantage illuminated how different stressors – such as low income combined with low education and high rent – could make it very difficult for Canberra families to move beyond poverty. Thirty-eight of the ACT’s small areas had at least one indicator of disadvantage where the rate was above the national capital city average, while close to 20 per cent of total small areas in the ACT, or one in five, experienced two or more indicators of disadvantage above the capital city average. Alarmingly, there were two small areas in Canberra – that’s 300 households – that experienced five measures of disadvantage at higher than capital city average levels.

Even broken down into small areas, it can be hard to see the people behind the statistics, but some of their stories were captured by ACTCOSS in its Stories of Home report, which illustrated the ways in which homelessness and housing pressures were compounded by other forms of disadvantage, such as mental illness, domestic and family violence and unemployment. For example, one woman on a low income left her violent partner, but Canberra’s high rents meant she and her young child had no choice but to live in a house with no heating or cooling, and she would regularly go without food to ensure her son was fed. In another story, a young asylum seeker was unable to find secure housing in Canberra because the conditions of his bridging visa meant he was not permitted to work more than a small number of hours. The situation had a negative impact on his studies and his ability to establish a new life in Canberra.

The Australian Child Wellbeing Project, a national survey of 5,440 children aged 9-14, found that children who experienced disadvantage were more likely to have lowered levels of wellbeing, including higher levels of health complaints and bullying, and lower levels of engagement at school and social support. The children most likely to experience lower wellbeing were those already recognised as marginalised or disadvantaged: young people with disability, young carers, those from low income households, culturally and linguistically diverse young people, Indigenous young people, and those living in remote Australia or in out of home care.

Surprisingly, the study found one in five young people went to school or to bed hungry, and that children in a marginalised group were more likely than others to go hungry and to experience the flow-on effects of hunger – missing school, increased health complaints, bullying and low engagement at school.

Realising that a proportion of Canberra’s children go to school or bed hungry is an immensely sobering thought, and belies the national image of Canberra as a wealthy town filled with well-paid public servants. Understanding more about the families in which those children live is key to discussions around tackling disadvantage in Canberra. We need to find a way to identify and support disadvantaged families and households, without passing on the stigma that can come with identifying poverty. As the Hidden Disadvantage report pointed out, a strength of our community is the level of collaboration between the Government, community, business and research sectors, working together to address disadvantage. Working together, we do have the power to ensure that no Canberrans are left out, or left behind.

  • By Karen Hall