Published: 16 September 2023

Legislative Council, Thursday 14 September 2023

Ms FORREST (Murchison) - Mr President, over the last few years it has been a privilege to watch the emergence of a remarkable piece of new community infrastructure in my community on the north-west coast. The Watershed, on the banks of the Inglis River, has thrived, delivering a range of much sought-after programs. It has been a privilege to attend many events and engage with many of my constituents at sold-out evenings, all run by young people employed in training programs delivered by well-known community organisation Big hART. I commend the minister, Mr Jaensch, for his foresight in funding this and other Big hART projects such as Project O over recent years.

With this in mind and with the many valuable outcomes delivered by Big hART, many of which I have spoken about in this place, it is mystifying and disappointing to hear the state Liberal Government has decided to cut Big hART's funding, promised by Mr Jaensch, for the successful Watershed programs. This commitment was provided in writing and stated it would cover three years. After lengthy discussions and verbal communications to that effect, the communication that I was provided with, sadly, notes that only the first year of funding has been approved. The three-year funding has been reneged on and only one year's funding will be provided.

Sadly, more than 2600 residents and participants from Wynyard and towns along the coast will now be both disappointed and bewildered at the loss of the highly sought-after and sold-out programs that are provided at this facility. What makes it worse is that Big hART's Watershed programs are inclusive and reach out to the whole community. They aim to break negative cycles amongst young people experiencing disadvantage, as well as people living with a disability.

It appears funds for this highly sought-after organisation were not cut because of negative evaluations. Clearly, that could not be possible. Rather, government and departmental inefficiency dragged on for months, and in the end gave this exemplary organisation just three weeks notice that the contract was to end, leaving employees in a vulnerable position. All this, when dealing with a home-grown organisation which delivers in many of the key areas of disadvantage that this Government should be targeting. It is a pity to see Mr Jaensch's wise investment in his electorate get cut off at the height of its success, although I am sure it would have had a lot further to go.

Mr President, this is a massive loss to our community. In case some members are unaware of the scale and longevity of Big hART's work on the north-west coast, I will provide a little bit of background as that could be useful to help understand the size of what is being lost here. Over the last three years, Big hART has delivered award-winning programs in my electorate for young people with high levels of need. Currently, 260 young people engage with Watershed programs. These innovative and award-winning projects have provided employment, education, digital literacy, primary prevention and new opportunities for young people. Those are all the things our regional communities need and the Government says they want to provide; and they have a proven positive impact on community wellbeing and inclusion. But it is not only the local product. Big hART, this organisation I am so proud of, is internationally renowned as the best in the community and cultural development field. Its projects and approaches are sought after and have been exported across Australia and the Pacific. This is a Wynyard-based organisation, although it started in Burnie.

Since its establishment in Burnie in 1992, the organisation has grown to become one of the largest arts organisations in the state and the biggest in its field, nationally. It provides vital employment for Tasmanian artists and art workers shaping many young careers. Its work features in many studies and research, and its many projects shine a positive light on Tasmania, with events bringing many visitors to the state. I have attended and witnessed many of those events.

Fortunately, there is still time for the Government to respond to this departmental inefficiency and rectify this situation before this important organisation and its programs are damaged. I call on the minister, Mr Jaensch, to follow up on his good initial work, re-examine the issue and follow through on his letter of offer for funding.

Mr President, I will read a copy of the letter received by Big hART late last week, from the Minister for the Arts. For context, it provides no comfort for the staff in employed. It was addressed to Ms Angela Prior, one of the main leads in Big hART, and said:

Thank you for your email to the Department of Premier and Cabinet dated 13 July 2023 regarding the Big hART 2023-2024 community consultation budget submission.

They believed they were they were getting three years' funding. The letter indicated that, and they were then told they had to go back into the process, which they did in July thinking that they should not need to.

The Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts goes onto say:

I would like to thank Big hART for its work in the Tasmanian community and for providing a submission as part of the community consultation for the 2023-2024 Budget. I note that the submission was received and considered as part of the 2023-2024 Budget development process. The Government was required to make extremely difficult decisions during this process due to the ongoing challenging fiscal environment, and was not able to fund your request for years two and three of the Watershed this year.

Significant expenditure has gone into the development of this project and here we are, on 8 September this year, being told, you will not have the money after all.

While additional funding was not included in the May 2023 budget, I encourage you to participate in the 2024-2025 community budget consultation process, which will allow you to provide evidence of the achievements of the program to date.

That will be hard if they cannot deliver them because there is no funding.

I would also encourage you to explore other funding opportunities such as the Tasmanian Community Fund and their upcoming Education, Employment and Learning program.

Thank you and Big hART again for the important work you undertake for the community.

That is good it was recognised.

Mr President, I fully appreciate the Government does not have a bottomless bucket of money. But seriously, we are talking about $250 000 to support the youth, those with disability and the broader community of the north-west, particularly Wynyard and surrounds.

It seems completely counterproductive and wrong to me to defund a successful organisation, two-and-a-half months into the financial year, after it was committed for a full three years - an organisation that has proven to be effective in promoting and providing employment, education, digital literacy, primary prevention and new opportunities for young people, and where the programs have turned the lives of many young people around.

We should be funding programs that make a real difference to the lives of young people, including those exposed to family violence, which is one of their main projects through Project O, those at risk of falling behind in their educational attainment, and providing employment opportunities, including to those who need support with digital literacy and access.

Mr President, these things really matter to our community, especially to the youth of this community, and I call on the Government to fulfil that commitment and to fund the work of Big hART, as agreed, soon before those working at the Watershed and other roles within Big hART will no longer be able to be kept on.


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