Brotherhood head dismayed by 'hard-hearted' Australia

BSL's new executive director Conny Lenneberg wants to help break down the "fears and myths" surrounding poverty.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence's Conny Lenneberg.

By Emma Halgren

September 2 2018In a climate where attitudes to the poor and disadvantaged seem to be hardening, Conny Lenneberg wants to help break down the “fears and myths” surrounding poverty, and enable Australians to respond more generously to people who are struggling.

The new executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, who took up her role in January, said that the organisation’s twin approach of advocating for policy change to address the root causes of poverty, while also offering practical help – “being on the ground and being with people who are experiencing deep and persistent disadvantage” – was about helping people to fulfil their potential and lead lives of meaning and dignity.

“That Brotherhood philosophy around building capability, around all of us having the right to define our own lives and live a life of dignity and contribute to our community, I think is a very powerful thread that started with Gerard Tucker and continues to inspire us in the Brotherhood today,” she said.

Ms Lenneberg was born in Germany and emigrated to Australia as a child, but says that she remained very close to her German grandmother, and grew up on the stories that her grandmother and parents told her about the hardship of wartime and post-war Germany.

“It was stories of kids, of fear, of hunger, of not knowing where the future was,” she said. “I knew very early on that I wanted to work on issues that made a difference… because both of my parents were, in different ways, unable to achieve their potential and their aspirations in life because of the disruption of war and because of the impact of that war on their lives and into the future.

“And what I know from my own family background is that that legacy of conflict and fear in children actually plays out in family dynamics.”

Before taking up her role at the Brotherhood, Ms Lenneberg was based in Cyprus as World Vision’s regional leader in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, overseeing aid and development programs in 14 countries. Here she saw the impacts of war on children and families first hand – the Syrian conflict broke out a month after she started.

“That was a really major defining element of my work in the region,” she said. “By the time I left, we were helping, in the last few years, almost 2.3 million people. So it was a massive response that we were delivering – water and sanitation, a lot of work with children, what we call child-friendly spaces which are places where, in camps and in communities, you provide a place for kids to come, to try and provide a safe place for them to be children. To engage in play. To be able to express themselves and to be able to tell their stories in their own way, and through that process, actually release those stories, hopefully. That’s been shown by evidence to be quite a powerful way in which you can circumvent long-term post-traumatic stress disorder in children.”

Her work in the Middle East saw her travel with Archibald Prize-winning artist Ben Quilty and Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan to Jordan, the Greek island of Lesbos and Serbia to give them an insight into the response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

One result of that trip is the book Home: Drawings by Syrian Children.

“Ben just started drawing with the children; we’d be sitting in the tents talking to families and Ben would just be playing with the kids and drawing with the kids and getting the kids to draw for him,” Ms Lenneberg said.

Spending time with children in child-friendly spaces, he invited them to express through art their stories of home.

“Some of them had happy memories [about reaching refuge, but] some of them [had] the most devastating memories of the conflict,” she said.

Back in Australia, Ms Lenneberg says she has been disheartened by what she sees as a “real sense of fear that there isn’t enough to go around, and so we have to ensure that we protect ourselves”. In a wealthy country that consistently sits among the top countries in the world in the Human Development Index, she says that this fear is not justified: rather, it is a “political narrative” which posits that poverty is either inevitable, or involves an element of personal responsibility, “instead of recognising it’s a policy outcome”.

The Brotherhood is “extremely concerned” about the impact that the low rate of Newstart is having on people who are unemployed. The maximum payment for a single person is about $40 a day and the allowance has not increased in real terms for 24 years.

“It’s intended as a participation allowance [but] it’s very clear that Newstart is not an enabler of entry into the workforce,” she said.

“If you can’t afford to buy the tram ticket, get your hair cut, find a decent thing to wear… just the corrosive effect of that over months and years of not being able to find work, and not really being able to participate in the life of the community because you just never have the money to go to the café with your friends for a coffee. It’s extremely corrosive.”

The low rate of Newstart has received widespread criticism.

Ms Lenneberg said, “We’ve now even got not just the united voices of the not-for-profit sector but also the Business Council of Australia.

“And we know that the low rate of Newstart is linked to increasing homelessness.”

She said one recent study had shown that around 30 per cent of people who are accessing homeless and food services are on Newstart.

“So they simply cannot survive without additional support.”

And Anglicare Australia’s Rental Affordability Snapshot, which reviews the rental properties available on a single weekend, found this year that of the more than 67,000 rental listings across Australia, only three were affordable for a single person on Newstart.

Ms Lenneberg said that she was very concerned at the way many of the most vulnerable in the community were no longer being provided with a safety net.

“I’ve been so shocked coming back to Australia by the hard-heartedness I see around some of the discussions [about] people who are unemployed,” she said. “Our experience is that people are really anxious to find work. Young people are enthusiastic when they leave school to be grownups, to find a place in the world to make their contribution and to be able to be independent. People who’ve lost their jobs because of changes in the workplace are really keen to get back into the workplace.”

Ms Lenneberg was raised in the Lutheran tradition, but is now a confirmed member of the Catholic Church. She and her husband worship together at a Catholic parish in Parkville. She said her faith helps to sustain her in the face of the difficult issues the Brotherhood grapples with, as does an innate belief in the goodness of people.

“I have a very strong faith that people are good, and that God has a plan for all of us in terms of the talents that we’ve been gifted with.

“In my experience, when shown that they can make a difference, the vast majority of people want to make a difference… And it’s up to us to be helping people understand how they can.”

Home: Drawings by Syrian Children by Ben Quilty, with a foreword by Richard Flanagan, is published by Penguin Random House this month.