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Forecast Forum: Good health, wellbeing and resilience

Reshaping society following COVID-19 and bushfires

Academics, industry leaders and government discuss how individuals, organisations and communities can respond proactively and productively to disruption.

Faced with the consequences of climate change and the knock-on political and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, how will these twin crises alter the way people live, work and socialise?

Post-pandemic, how will we reshape our society to improve people’s lives and livelihoods, especially for the most vulnerable? Do we need to consider how to balance short term gains and long-term resilience?

Bringing academics from mental health, economics, business and disaster response, together with industry experts, government, civil society and philanthropists, the University of Sydney hosted a special Forecast Forum in August 2020 as part of the Connect For: A Better Future program.

We share some of the ideas, including a keynote on 'What do we mean by resilience?', delivered by Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of Resilience NSW and former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner.


Key insights

  • Systems need to respond to both acute and chronic crises. The mental health of individuals is reflective of the mental health of broader society.
  • Connection with community is essential for personal wellbeing as well as to help develop the building blocks of social cohesion.
  • Everyone is both vulnerable and resilient at any one time. Empowerment occurs when people can recognise and apply their own strengths. 
  • Working directly with communities to determine actual needs, is more valuable than projecting.

The roadmap to recovery

"When we think about crises and risk responses, we often think about acute crises like floods and bushfires, which we've seen devastated parts of New South Wales. But there are also chronic crises like the drought the pre-existed, and now, the ongoing massive dislocation associated with COVID-19, which does not play out equally for all people. Not everyone is equally affected, and that's by the community living but also by other factors such as gender, socioeconomic status and age.

In the mental health world, there's a perception of resilience as an individual characteristic, something inside your own head. But most of what we're tied up with in resilience is actually a group characteristic, a community characteristic. Communities have a capacity to respond to many different challenges, be that acute or chronic; and have the governance and service structures, and the fundamental values and attitudes. While we're all each individually vulnerable, in different circumstances, as a group, we're more likely to actually do well in the face of these particular disruptions.

We need to shift to fundamentally different ways of doing things. We also need to adopt as a national attitude that of our fundamental owners of these lands – the Indigenous people – a concept of social emotional wellbeing rather than individual mental health to guide our national mental health policies." 

– Professor Ian Hickie, Co-Director of Health and Policy, Brain and Mind Centre

What do we mean by resilience?

Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of Resilience NSW

Speaking about the current pandemic, Commissioner Fitzsimmons, observed that staying connected is key. While we are trying to limit the spread of the virus we still need to stay connected so we don’t exacerbate challenges around isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression. 

MARC STEARS

Many of us in New South Wales will probably, all of us in New South Wales this summer just passed, were extremely grateful for the leadership that Shane Fitzsimmons showed us during the bushfire season.

An extraordinarily reassuring figure for many of us on the TV news, but also demonstrating that ability to lead and to be in touch with the communities on the ground at the same time, to bring together the expertise from the top with the experience of people living face-to-face with catastrophe in their own communities.

Shane is now the Commissioner for Resilience NSW. And he's going to give us a keynote today to reflect on his experience and where he thinks we may go, as we all try to build back after the crisis. Thank you so much for joining us, Shane. 

SHANE FITZSIMMONS

And thank you, Marc, and thank you for the invitation to join on this very important discussion. The reality is, of course, we are living through the greatest health challenge we have endured in more than a century. And it's impacting all of us, everybody businesses, workplaces, governments, individuals, families. We are all being affected by the extraordinary implications of this COVID-19 pandemic.

But as indicated, Ian [Hickie] indicated there earlier on, on the first of May of this year, a new organisation in New South Wales was established, Resilience NSW. And through the extraordinary and devastating bushfire season, the government along with the unprecedented response to unprecedented conditions with the fires, identified a need to do something significantly different when it came absolutely to the recovery, the rebuilding, the repair and the healing of so many communities affected by the bushfires. They established Resilience NSW.

And whilst we're still in our formative stages, we're still working through our formal remit and our role and our function, the guiding principles are pretty fundamental. We are the lead agency for disaster management across New South Wales, all aspects of recovery and building resilience across communities right across New South Wales.

By doing that, the government has established the organisation as an executive agency in the department of Premier and Cabinet. It's deliberately in Premier and Cabinet to ensure that rather than being an agency or a function in one of the directorates or one of the departments, it's actually in the executive agency structure at Premier and Cabinet.

We have reporting lines to the Premier herself and the head of the public service, Tim Raiden. And of course, the Minister for Emergency Services who leads emergency management and coordination. At the moment, we're also reporting to the Deputy Premier who's got the lead responsibilities for the bushfire recovery out of the 19-20 bushfire season. So, reporting in that arrangement is critical. But I think more significantly, it's being able to be in a position where we can reach right across all of government, all of the state government, no matter the department, no matter the organisation; to ensure that we are we are leveraging, facilitating and supporting with complimentary strategies and programs as much as we can.

So we're bringing the weight of effort right across government, but also reaching down through government out to local communities; local councils, a fundamental conduit into local communities; community organisations; not-for-profits; significant charities; business; industry; right across that local landscape around New South Wales. But also as the principal conduit up through to the Commonwealth across the jurisdictional borders and elsewhere to collaborate on learnings, insights, policy formulation and practices when it comes to understanding, identifying and, and contemplating the sorts of disasters, disruptions, emerging stresses and challenges that exists across our communities; what those vulnerabilities are; what those priorities are; and what we can do to invest in preventative measures mitigants or mitigation strategies; obviously dealing with and responding to in the very best way we can to disasters and disruptions and stresses.

But importantly, the critical work, the focus work, of recovery of rebuilding, of healing and mending, which is a significant remit of Resilience NSW and as Commissioner of the organisation, I've also got the statutory responsibility as the state's recovery controller to ensure that we oversee and coordinate the collective the individual and collective efforts of recovery.

So we are absolutely dealing with extraordinary times, and for many, the most challenging and difficult times in memory, we need to be mindful that it's on the back of one of the worst periods we've experienced in New South Wales in our history. And for many communities, we've got a varying degree of underlying circumstances and situations and predisposition leading into what was an extraordinary, protracted and profound effect of drought implications.

And leading into the last fire season, there is no doubt the absence of moisture in the landscape – that moisture deficit resulted in in vegetation, particularly across the Great Dividing Range of the mountain range out to the coast – the drought was so effective, we didn't have fire risk or fire threat in far western areas. So, we had communities on their knees with drought. That laid the foundations for the worst ever bushfire season in in the state's history. The most protracted, the most damaging, the most destructive bushfire season we've ever seen in our state's history, and indeed, the most deadly. Over 5.5 million hectares of area burned and destroyed. Nearly two and a half thousand homes destroyed, along with all sorts of other community infrastructure, buildings, bridges, community facilities, churches, schools, loads of infrastructure – an extraordinary toll.

But there were also 26 lives lost and those lives were lost. Two lives lost in October, seven lives lost in November, another five in December, and then twelve in January. In that arrangement, we also saw six firefighters, three aviators crashing their plane down in the Southern Highlands; Southern High Country just near Cooma in New South Wales. And of course three volunteers who died as a result of awful accidents whilst they were out there serving and protecting their local community, two in southwest Sydney, and one down near the Victorian border just to the east of Albury.

Coming out of the very protracted, difficult, damaging and deadly fire seasons, with communities affected stretching from the Queensland border all the way to the Victorian border and right out two parts of our coastline – we then saw, when we finally saw a break in the weather, one of the latest onsets of monsoonal activity to break up the hot air mass dominating weather across New South Wales. We then saw drought affected communities, fire affected communities now being terribly affected with floods and storms and landslides and additional debris and erosion and what have you, throughout their communities, throughout their properties and their local environment.

And then of course, as we've turned into the calendar year of 2020, we've seen the extraordinary implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the significant implications associated with managing and responding to the deadly virus and, and with that response effort, has compounded an already very compounded and stressful period of time for people right across New South Wales, and elsewhere.

And then on top of COVID only in recent weeks, we've seen more storms and more floods, adding to inundation damage, erosion and landslides and what have you. So, the reason for just that price is we cannot, I don't believe, overstate the challenges that we are all facing as individuals, as families as business, as different communities, as collective communities, right across New South Wales, when we talk about the compounding effect of disasters.

And if we look at resilience and there's – resilience means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and it goes hand-in-hand with vulnerability and exposure and risk. But at the core of resilience, it's at the individual level, at the family level, the business level, at the community level – it's our ability to anticipate, endure major disruption or stress or impact in our lives; how we deal with that; how we respond to that; and how we seek to rebuild, repair and heal out the other side. So, in that remit, there's an extraordinary focus, and there's a lot talk about when it comes to preparing and hardening up our infrastructure; building things and planning things and preparing things.

The toll out of this last season, whether it's homes, whether it's buildings, whether it's bridges, whether it's roadways, whether it's power infrastructure, telecommunications, infrastructure – it doesn't matter what you're talking about. I don't mean to be insensitive to those that have that have lost homes, that have lost communities and indeed, have lost loved ones and everything. But behind every statistic when it comes to the damage and the destruction, are people. It's the human social, societal dimension, that is that is profound and is profoundly affected right now across New South Wales. And whilst there is a record program of repair and rebuilding in that infrastructure, in those homes and extraordinary programs about helping people clean up and, and repair things, there is equally an extraordinary and unprecedented level of commitment to responding to the emotional, social, psychological, health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities right around the disaster affected areas, compounded by the extraordinary implications of COVID.

You won't find me using in public dialogue, the phrase social distancing, even though I respect and understand where it came from, and how it came to be in our vernacular, as we talk through today. I use the term physical distancing because the last thing we want to do, whilst we are all focused on limiting the spread and trying to save lives, is actually exacerbate challenges around isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression. And what is pleasing as I visit and travel and connect with, with communities that are on their repair and healing and recovery journeys, is that people are more conscious and pleasingly very focused on connecting with family, on connecting with loved ones, connecting with workmates, connecting with friends and neighbours and community members during this COVID period more than they ever have been. And, and I think that's really really important and actually fundamental to helping us all build our resilience and and see if we can come together and endure these these, these very challenging and stressful times as best we can.

No one individual, no one organisation, no one government has the answers or has the capacity to get us through the sorts of challenges and stresses and implications that we're experiencing right now. So, it genuinely takes the individual and collective effort of all of us to look; to look how we can help ourselves, how we can help our family, our loved ones, our neighbours, our communities. And I'm really proud with Resilience NSW and the new role in Resilience NSW to be very much a part of supporting and sponsoring and facilitating the very best recovery efforts. And those very best recovery efforts are the locally led, the locally driven, the nuanced, tailored, different requirements for different communities.

Whilst everyone's experiencing implications from similar events or similar impacts, no one's individual circumstances, no one's community circumstances is exactly the same. It requires nuance, it requires detail. It requires specificity to the to the challenges to the individuals, to the families, to the businesses, to the communities, right up and down our impacted areas around New South Wales as we endure through what is, in my experience in the decades of my experience, the single biggest ever effort in response and recovery to compounding, consecutive – very closely compounding and consecutive disasters and disruptions to the people of New South Wales.

So, we've got a long way to go. There's a lot of partnering, organising and connectedness that we need to maintain. We need to build resilience through making sure that we all know it's okay not to be okay during these very difficult times. The conversations, the connectedness that we can have, with loved ones, with neighbours, with strangers, asking about how they're going, asking the person in the mirror about how we're going, and having an honest conversation with ourselves and honest conversation with listening for their response and furthering that response, we've got to destigmatise this idea that the good old Aussie spirit of endurance and getting through can be done without the support, without the cohesion, without the connectedness to others. While I saw I've seen the very worst of mother nature, the very worst of circumstances and challenges unfold in the last six to 12 months; what that's been balanced against is the very best of humanity.

We've seen an outpouring of love, support, compassion and care of a scale and a magnitude that I simply can't recall. And whether it was people opening their doors to neighbours who have who have lost everything; or whether it's whether it's connecting through conversation and messaging; or whether it's a provision of goods and supplies or the generosity of funding, to seek, to make a difference to those that are doing it tough or those that are more worse off than them. I think we should be very proud of how our communities are coming together.

While there's an extraordinary amount on our plate, it is that individual and collective effort that will help us get through as communities, as the state of New South Wales and indeed, more broadly as a nation and a world during this, during this particularly challenging COVID environment. And I'll finish there for questions.

MARC STEARS

Thank you so much. You know, the covering the whole area, again, showing the interconnected nature of the crisis that we've faced of late – you know, there's the natural disasters, and then we've had the impact of COVID. And as Shane says, impacting on communities all across New South Wales, very different communities, but each responding with a kind of compassion, and social solidarity that we were hoping to talk about today. And I just want to take a moment to reflect on who's with us on the call today. Again, we've got people from very different perspectives. Thank you for clicking on the buttons. As you can see there, we've got people from business and commerce, civil society, government, health sector, philanthropy, and unsurprisingly from the University of Sydney, a large chunk from academia too. And we want to make sure that we draw on all of these different perspectives in the discussion period that we go forward into now.

Before we go into our breakouts, I just want to put one or two questions directly to Shane. You have an opportunity to write those in on the screen. If you want, you can click on that Q&A button and they will appear on an iPad next to me. So, if I look down, it's because I'm trying to read them off the iPad as they come in. But let me kick off with, with one question for you Shane, as somebody coming into a new position in government. I mean, you spoke very powerfully and very passionately there about the importance of a sort of local community response.

So, we’re talking about the human dimension, both of, you know, responding to crises in the immediate but also about building resilience in the long term. Could you tell us a little bit about your reflections on the connection between government on the one hand; and sort of on the ground community work on the other, because I guess, to the sceptics amongst us, people will think well, you know, government can seem very distant, you know, technical expertise, people in offices and with computers; and on the ground expertise, you know, it feels very different. And you know the division we've heard a lot about, between those people who are in formal office on the one hand, and then those people who are actually on the ground.

So, what have you seen about that division? Is it overstated? Is it real? And what might be done in the future to bring those two more closely together?

SHANE FITZSIMMONS

Oh, look, it's a really good question Marc. I would say in a generalised answer, a simplistic answer. I think it's very much overstated, in so many ways, but it's not without some justification, because there are things that happen, and things that just don't work. And when you see some of the details, you think, what was somebody thinking? And then you kind of say to yourself, Well, clearly they weren't thinking. But I suppose, in coming into this role, one of the single biggest pieces of feedback that I got from impacted communities over and over again, was our inability as a government to facilitate this.

You only need to talk to us once from somebody that's been terribly affected by a disaster event. So, when somebody has just lost everything, and is wondering how they're going to take the next step, every time they interact with a government representative. To then have to tell their story again, to tell have to tell their details, again. So, there is absolutely something we can do to improve that, that initial contact, that initial interface, and then have a much more considered and cohesive linkage with some of our big charity organisations as well, who then do the same thing. And don't get me wrong. They're all very much well intentioned in terms of seeking to clarify and support and sponsor assistance. We made some pretty significant inroads with our one-stop shop through the Service NSW website. And, and we are, we've been dealing with something like 11,000 people in the bushfire stuff alone. And that's just a whole new scale in the COVID era, of course.

But I think, I think getting back to the core of it, as a government member or as a government representative, I can't impose myself on somebody. I, my people can’t impose themselves on somebody to get that support or assistance. And Marc, one of the profound realities is, even 12 months on, here we are in August, we're well and truly 12 months on with some of the impact in the fires in in areas up in northern New South Wales from the fires.

In the last couple of weeks, we've had hundreds of people coming forward, who are now reaching a point where they're comfortable that feel okay to say, I think I need some assistance, I think I might need some support. So, (pardon me) everybody's experience, everyone's individual circumstances are different and unique. Their individual predisposition is different leading into disaster, their level of impact and what's going to do is going to be different. But I can say with confidence the cohesion across government and through government connecting with local communities, we've seen policies announced and programs announced that when they hit the ground, may not be, may not be lining up appropriately in every level. But, as a mature leadership group, we've seen those guidelines, all those eligibility requirements adjusted on the run, because there's recognition that it's not lining up. So absolutely, we've got to learn and we've got to proceed.

There will always be the cynics out there. There will always be the sceptics out there. Skepticism is healthy, but cynicism is unhealthy, particularly in times of disaster, tragedy and healing and repair. What we need to do is look beyond the, the cynics and go to where go to where the work is actually happening on the ground. And, and those local community, community-led recovery teams, principally through local government, but also community organisations, and our resilience and regional New South Wales officers are all working side-by-side to make sure they properly understand what individuals and local communities need and feel are the priorities and then seeking to get the delivery and completion on those programs and those priorities at the local level. And what happens in one area will be somewhat different to another area.

MARC STEARS

Yeah, fantastic. Thank you so much. And we've had a question come in on the online system, you know, following on from that, in a way, so Jesse Evans asks, when you're looking up at a national level from the state sort of perspective, what is the single most important thing that you're asking for, if you were to bump into Scott Morrison on the street? And then when you're looking down to the smallest possible level, the very individual level, again, what are you looking for us all to do as individual citizens or as family members and neighbours?

So just imagining those two conversations, you're one, looking up to the national level and one looking down to the very micro, the very neighbourhood level – what's on the top of your list of requests?

SHANE FITZSIMMONS

So, look, I think I've been pretty public with this, even in some of the publicly heard inquiries recently. We've really got to collaborate; and make sure our policy architecture and frameworks are contemporary.

We know during, during these disaster seasons, and even right now, whilst, and I describe it in the firefighting sense, I'm sorry to default to there, but I've done it for decades. But under certain circumstances, there is only so much you can do with the firefighting effort when it comes to saving and protecting and supporting people in the path of fires. So the next big lever you pull, is the capacity to communicate, inform, and warn people so that they can understand what we're doing, why we're doing what we know what we don't know, and most importantly, what we want them to know.

Now, things like telecommunications, they are national, they are a nationally legislated environment. So being able to collaborate jurisdictionally and with the Commonwealth, to make sure we've got the best resilience in our infrastructure. And in order to get the best resilience in infrastructure, we've got to share and understand data and operations.

We've got to have systems and programs that can facilitate the provision of information and the reliability of that infrastructure to, to sponsor and ensure that communication, other frameworks around disaster support and funding programs. You know, for decades past, when we've repaired and replace things, if the old timber bridge burned out, we'd replace it with another timber bridge, even though we knew it was going to burn down the next bloody fire we had. So, how do we make sure we've got betterment going into our repair, and that's about building resilience Marc.

So, when we come to resilience, right up front, when we're coming in and responding and repairing and rebuilding and helping people heal, how do we make things better than they were prior to that event, as much as we can? And the classic example is, and I'm using the timber bridges, this season round, which is really pleasing from my perspective. And I visited areas up on the mid North Coast, only a month or so ago, there was a number of bridges that burnt out, and we're replacing those bridges, now, the timber bridges with concrete bridges. But at the same time, we're lifting those bridges up by half a metre, because when fires aren't on local river, floods are on and completely isolated some of our some of our remote communities which exacerbates you know, challenge and disruption and then disturbs those communities. So policies that are contemporary, policies that go to the heart of preparing ourselves, giving us a greater capacity to respond and deal with things and, and ensuring that we are repairing and coming out the other side better than when we went in. So it is about that true issue of building resilience. And I can say confidently in my conversations with the Prime Minister to date and indeed, the national leadership and the bodies at the national level, there is absolutely an appetite and a commitment to head down that path.

So, there is a lot of learnings coming out the inquiries that are going I think are all singing in that way as well. Out into the communities, my single biggest message is, we don't know what we don't hear or learn. So the best thing we can do, is have local communities, individuals, families, businesses, working with their local recovery teams, with their local leadership groups about, about saying, you know, this our priority, these are the reasons why. Because when we know what the challenges are, when we know what the issues are, we can help. And nobody despises more, somebody who sits remotely in the comfort of their office in the CBD of Sydney sitting there and pontificating about what's best for a small community up the back end of Kempsey, or down in the southern ranges of New South Wales. We need to make sure the very best planning response and recovery is locally led, locally prioritised. And our role in resilience is absolutely about facilitating sponsoring, empowering and endorsing those local efforts in a collaborative way.

And most importantly in the process, whilst we identify learnings along the way, and in a reflective process, whilst we always default necessarily so, to where the gaps were and what we can do to improve into the future. What we've also got to do as communities is identify and capture those things that worked really well and, and why did they work well, try and understand why they worked well. But most importantly, emulate them and share them in other communities, in other circumstances. So we can individually and collectively learn from the very individual level, to the family, business, community level, state level, national level, learn about how we can go on and improve and support our, ourselves, each other in the process.

MARC STEARS

I mean, I think what's so – what's so exciting about that sort of manifesto you just sketched out is the collaborative spirit, you know, that sense of each different partner having something to bring to the table, you know, different kind of expertise or knowledge or experience. And that's very refreshing, I think, in policy terms, because we're used to kind of, more competitive parties and divisive, you know, sort of approach in many policy areas.

So, you've explained I think, really well why resilience needs that more collaborative spirits. You know, everyone having something to bring. And we've got a question coming in from Lee Cooper who asks, Okay, totally buy that and understand that. But it requires a new skill set, at least for some folks, you know, to become more collaborative to become more committed to the to finding common solutions, rather than to have one group sort of be prioritised or get one up on another. And, you know, in your own experience and thinking about the, the months ahead, what should we all be doing to engender that spirit of collaboration, to make sure that we don't go back to the bad old ways of us versus them – we actually create a kind of partnership model going forward?

SHANE FITZSIMMONS

Oh Marc, I could talk about the philosophy of this for a long time. But if I could truncate it down, I would say that there's a couple of things at the core of it. A lot of our own individual life skills are critical. And that is the art of communication, negotiation and this word compromise. You know, like, just because Shane thinks it, doesn't make it right. You know, when someone smarter and there's lots of them that are smarter than me come in and say, Shane, what you've got isn't the right thing to do, here's a better way of doing it. Having the ability to compromise and accept that, that your idea may not be the prevailing and necessary one. So, coming together is really important. And that goes to the core of – look, I've had the benefit mark of growing up in a volunteer organisation and like many online I'm sure would say the same thing. There is something about volunteer organisations that forces you to sharpen those skills around communication, influence, listening, understanding, argument, prosecution of cases, and then settling on the best fit for that team for that community for that issue. So those life skills are really really important. And at the end of the day, volunteers are at the core of our, our communities as well. So, collaborating together and understanding that we've got to come up with a right solution.

Similarly, though, how do we ensure it happens? It's around the frameworks. It's around the policy, architecture or infrastructure, if you like. So, for example, in my new role, I chair every month, the state's recovery committee to track where we're up to. Pretty much every function of government's on that committee. We've got connections with local government. We've got people out every day of every week, connecting with local communities to understand. We've got local recovery committees occurring, and we've got people being employed to ensure that facilitation occurs that there is, there are discussions occurring that there are considerations being captured and, resolutions being captured and activity being followed up because something that's pretty disheartening is if people investing time, but if they don't see where it goes or what the outcome is, they wonder if there's anything actually being achieved.

So, establishing the mechanisms and the frameworks, and following those and delivering on those is really important. And I could talk so much more on that space. But as a general rule to answer that question, without talking for too long, it really starts at the individual level about basic skills and an understanding. But it also centres around leadership, committing to making sure the frameworks and the mechanisms are in place, and the, as best we can, getting the right people around the table recognising their contribution or their worth in that process. And don't get me wrong, you can't have everybody at the table. It just doesn't work that way. But you've got to make sure you've got the, the representation as right as you can, if you want to affect the best result in that, in that local community.

MARC STEARS

I've been to areas that are just – its an incredibly exciting plan. Final question comes from the university staff amongst us. So, you know, there are clearly a huge number of potential questions for research here. I mean, things you wish you know, that you currently don't know. But just you know, try stretching your imagination a little bit. You know, if you imagine coming into work one morning and there's a new sort of one pager on your desk answering like, one research question that you really want to know the answer to, and you think, yeah, hallelujah I really was looking for that – what would that thing be? You know, what questions do you go, and research questions do you go to sleep, wishing that you had an answer for, that you currently don't?

SHANE FITZSIMMONS

Well, that's, that's an interesting question Marc, and I haven't been asked it that way before but I'll answer it this way. I can remember going back a few decades, where the Fire and Emergency Management community were pretty reluctant to reach out for research, particularly around questions they didn't know the answers to, right.

Over the last couple of decades, what impressed me enormously is, there's been an investment, a record level investment in, in the sciences around things like fire behaviour, weather, climate change, all those sorts of things. There's an extraordinary amount of money being spent on the science of disaster and the natural environment and, and even in the human induced environment. But what's also emerged, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years, is the incredible investment in the social sciences, in what makes people think and what makes people react in a way that they do. And I've talked about it a lot in my previous role. There's a great old Aussie culture of, "She'll be right mate, that won't happen to me". But when it comes to disasters, big stressors, disruptions in our lives, it's one of the biggest challenges we've got around apathy and complacency. And when it comes to things like natural disasters, when it comes to things like bushfires, or storms and floods, there are some areas where the frequency might be a little bit more than others.

But in a bushfire sense, the very nature of the landscape and how the fuel regenerates and those sorts of things, you're unlucky if a fire impacts your backyard, you know, once every six to 10 years. You know, like in New South Wales is people that have been living in the most at risk areas for decades, and they've never seen a fire at the back door so you can understand why complacency builds up. But when the bad day happens, everyone says, Where did this come from? Why did this happen? And the research we've done in the past shows that even in the most at-risk areas, you know, 90% of people recognise they live in the most at-risk areas. But after they've been impacted, the vast majority of those people also concede that they knew they should have done more, and they knew they could have done more to prepare themselves, to prepare their property to be better able to withstand the impact. So if we can't stop people from smoking, and if we can't stop, you know, people from, from having a, an unhealthy lifestyle that we all know will kill us, then how do we get people to take action? And hear the messages and appreciate the risk when it comes to disasters and disruption? So, for me, I think the biggest question is, how do we break through? And how do we get action? And how do we stop this? How did this happen? Question after the event, when we know disasters are going to happen.

MARC STEARS

Fantastic. Thank you so much. Well, one of the advantages of doing these things online, of course, is that you can reach many people who are having to work from home or socially isolating or disconnected.

One of the disadvantages is you can't see the smiles on people's faces, and you can't hear the applause at the end. But I'm sure there are; there's many smiles and there is much applause. So, thank you so much for joining us, Shane. It was a tour de force.

And there are huge numbers, I think, of opportunities for people, as you were saying to collaborate and connect, and to provide, you know, sort of answers so that we build back better from the really difficult year that 2020 has been. So, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a pleasure.

SHANE FITZSIMMONS

Thanks, Marc. It's my pleasure, and all the very best for the rest of the conference.

Risk reduction

Risk, vulnerability and complex systems

Dr Emma Calgaro, human geographer and Sydney Research Fellow at the School of Geosciences

To reduce our risk to disasters, and build resilience of our communities, we really need to understand the factors and processes that make us vulnerable, or resilient, to multiple and sometimes compounding events, says Dr Calgaro.

Hi, everyone. My name is Emma Calgaro and I'm in the School of Geosciences here at the University of Sydney.

So, to kick things off today, I'd like to give a quick overview of disaster risk reduction, vulnerability and building the resilience of our complex human environmental system, which is better known as the world we live in today.

So, to reduce our risk to disasters, and build resilience of our communities, we really need to understand all those factors and processes that make us vulnerable, or resilient, to multiple and sometimes compounding events. And we hadn't seen this so strongly as in the last seven, eight months with our summer of drought, then fire storms, then heat waves, then flood and now we have COVID-19 as well to cope with.

But first, there are a few things, key terms, I just want us to briefly look at before going any further, so we’re on the same page.

The first one is disasters. This refers to any event that destabilises our communities, to the point what we can't cope by ourselves without outside help.

The second two key terms that we'll be discussing today of vulnerability and resilience. These essentially refer to the weaknesses, vulnerabilities and the strength, resiliencies, of our households, our communities in our system.

Something I really want to stress though; is everyone is both vulnerable and resilient at any one time. That balance really depends on what hits us, when it hits us and the resources we have in that moment to respond and recover effectively.

What are those key requirements for building strong, resilient communities that we want to see? So, I have this tree diagram here to try and break it down in a simple way.

So, first looking at the green part of the tree, the top part of the tree. The first thing we absolutely need is knowledge. So, for community members, this really means knowledge of risk. So where to get help from, how to access the resources we need to respond effectively? But also, it means how to contribute to DRR processes, Disaster Risk Reduction processes. So how can we become agents of change in this process?

Now for Disaster Risk Reduction duty bearers, there is this means something different. For them, they need to know what different subsets of our community need in times of disasters. They also need to know, and have information to drive decision making, that's effective. And they also need to know what works, what doesn't, so they can tweak the system and make our responses better.

The next thing we really need is strong social networks and connections. I'm sure this has been very apparent to everyone over the past seven, eight months. When we're in stress, we go to our close contacts and connections. So, the more of those that we have, the stronger we're going to be. And the more likely we are to be able to get ourselves up off the ground and keep going and that includes mental support as well.

The next thing I want to talk about is a no brainer, and that is access to financial capital. This means liquid and fixed assets, strong credit histories and adequate insurance. A lot of Australians are actually under-insured and they don't know it so when they're hit by things, they have a bit of a shock.

The next thing of course, is job security and adequate welfare safety net systems as we've seen with COVID it's been a shocker for everybody. So, having those nets there and knowing we’ll be caught it's imperative.

The next thing we need is actually, shared ownership responsibility and to the co-creation of solutions.

We're all active agents in this, and we're not here to be rescued. But this then comes to my next point, which is we need inclusive engagement, so that multiple voices and perspectives and people are sitting around the same table, and their ideas are heard, respected and actually, commonalities are found. Because at the end of the day effective action needs a shared vision, an end goal that people can buy into and work towards, by a structured pathway of action.

So the question becomes, what do we collectively want to be? What do we want our future to look like? But to get to that point, we also need strong and transparent governance structures and processes that underpin us and to support these conversations and collaborations. And this means clear responsibilities, trusted leadership, supportive laws, policies and standards to support that and also integrated action across sectors, because often we still sit in silos between government actors, civil society, and business, and those silos need to come down.

And finally, we also need proactive instead of reactive processes and actions that are often multi-scaled. So, Disaster Risk Reduction, isn't new. We have been talking about this for 30 years in different guises. But the bulk of the resources and access is still spent on immediate response and recovery to events. So, we need to change the equation to focus on people-centred actions that focus on us.

Risk is part of our lives. It's always been there. So, we have to find ways to build strong communities to cope with whatever hits us. It’s is critical to know that this is not about that actual events that hits us. It's about us and our community.

But finally, success in achieving this requires acknowledgement and engagement with root elements that shape our everyday lives. You can't change or transform something if you don't name it, understand it and engage with it, even if that's unpalatable and politically fraught. So the roots of the tree that you can see on the screen are power systems and ideologies that shape every aspect of our system, cultural norms, values, cultural interpretations, and actually religious doctrines that often underpin cultural norms even if we're not aware of them. Competing agendas and expectations. We're always pulled in different directions depending on who's talking. But we have to find a way to come together to get that common goal. And risk perceptions, interpretations and experiences, which are very individualistic.

Now, my final point to wrap up is, this sounds a lot but actually, the foundations are already there. What is needed is a reassessment or reconfiguration of processes that aren't working for us and then filling in the gaps where they exist. Thank you.

Acute crises

Impact of disasters on community resilience

Professor Ross Bailie, Director of University Centre for Rural Health in Lismore

Professor Bailie shares insights from our work in the Northern Rivers, which involved collaborations with local health service and community organisations.

Good morning, I have the privilege of being the Director of the University Centre for Rural Health, which is an academic hub based in Lismore, Northern New South Wales, and managed by the University of Sydney.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work, the people the Bundjalung nation and pay respects to elders and acknowledge the valuable contribution made by Aboriginal people in our region, to the life of this community and by our Aboriginal staff to the work of this organisation.

Our work in the Northern Rivers involves collaborations with local health service and community organisations. And with several other universities, we have a major focus on rural health and workforce development.

So following the extensive flooding in the Northern Rivers in 2017, we initiated research to understand the impacts of flooding on mental health and wellbeing of people in our region, with a particular interest in reaching people who are most likely to be affected. For example, people of low socioeconomic status, homeless people or those in transit and housing, elderly and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In our analysis and reporting, we've also looked at the impacts of the flood for people who identify as LGBTQI, for people living with disability and their carers, and implications of their experience for disaster response recovery and preparedness. We've published several papers and submissions to royal commissions of parliamentary inquiries, and these should be posted in the resource section of the webpage for this seminar.

But rather than talking about the findings reflected in our publications for the purpose of this seminar, I want to make a few points about local community engagement in the response and recovery process based on our observations of the unfolding process after the flood. So, in doing this, I aim to stimulate thinking and discussion about how local engagement can be effectively promoted and supported.

So, the first point I want to make is about the experience of spontaneous local volunteers as distinct from the all so very important established NGOs that rely on volunteer effort. The digital and social media revolution has dramatically enhanced the potential to mobilise and organise spontaneous volunteers. However, in the immediate aftermath of the flood, these local champions of this type of volunteer effort, had difficulty in [engaging] getting engagement with the formal emergency response organisations. But it was due to the initiative of a few key people in our local government that enabled local support for this volunteer movement. And within days, there was very strong community engagement and contribution through the spontaneous volunteer movement with subsequent strong community feedback on how this movement met a very important local need that was not or could not be as effectively addressed through other organisational processes.

The second point I want to make is about the feedback that we obtained through conversations with our community advisory group and with other stakeholders on how, on the things that local community members found most helpful, and this feedback highlighted the importance of casual conversations with fellow business owners, local farmers, neighbours, colleagues. With these conversations are exchanges taking place through informal networks gathering neighbourly connections, there was a very clear reluctance to take up formal counselling. And there was a very low uptake of the counselling services that were made available. Nevertheless, there was a clearly expressed need for opportunities for informal debriefing, sharing mutual support. The third point that I want to make is about equity and diversity. The great majority of people affected by flooding incurred the greatest risk of mental health impacts or in marginalised groups. This was very clearly evident in our research in northern New South Wales and is consistent with other Australian and international exchange.

Our response systems seem to become increasingly centralised, with less local decision-making authority, greater difficulty ensuring local knowledge informed local response efforts and less reliance on an ability to support local formal and informal community efforts. So, diversity within local communities is very evident in northern New South Wales. It's one of the things that contributes most to the richness of community life in our region. There many dimensions to diversity in the region, including some of the highest levels of income disparity in New South Wales, a relatively large proportions of Aboriginal people, people living with disability, people who identify as LGBTQI and a diverse economy.

Local knowledge and local networks are vital to engaging with a range of groups who are impacted by natural disasters and social disruption. A key challenge for us all is therefore, how to enable local government and local non-government organisations, local networks and spontaneous and organise volunteers to contribute most effectively to design and delivery of local response and recovery efforts and ongoing planning and development for community permit preparedness or resilience.

So, I'll stop here and perhaps we can pick up on these questions in our breakout session. But I do need to acknowledge the excellent team who are leading the work in the important area of climate change, disasters and resilience at the University Centre for Rural Health. Thanks.

Indigenous resilience

Case study: Aboriginal community experiences

Associate Professor Megan Williams and Professor Melissa Haswell, from the Office of the Deputy-Vice Chancellor, Indigenous Services and Strategy

Associate Professor Williams and Professor Haswell reflect on the disaster of incarceration, the layers of impact, and how families affected when one person is affected.

MEGAN WILLIAMS

I'm coming to you from the land of the Gadigal and pay my respects to their ancestors, current elders and leaders and think about the many generations still to come.

Now, our starting point today is the disaster of incarceration, which is underscored by systemic bias and racism, as well as the disaster that is colonisation.

And so we'll tell you a bit of a story today and show you some of our excellence because we are all about rewriting that discourse of us as disadvantaged, instead to be an asset for this country with much to learn from. In terms of incarceration, there are – we have the highest rates in the world here in Australia. But we miss that point because we aggregate data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's incarceration with the mainstream. When we separate it out, we see that Aboriginal women's incarceration rates are the fastest growing and an extreme risk because we know that when a mother is in prison, when a mother has poor mental health, then children suffer. They're more likely to be removed in out-of-home care, which is itself known to be a risk for juvenile detention and in turn, adult incarceration. So, whilst on the one hand, that is a disaster, we know that we have the solutions for our communities. And we've been working for many years on that.

But as is our way, it's about putting First People's first, and I'd like to share this story with you. It's about a woman we call Tiny Mum because she's a tiny mum, but with such power.
‘In jail, I was in anger management. They asked me to do anger management, and I done anger management. And I ended up having a fight in anger management. So, then I had to keep repeating, repeating about six times, seven times. I've still got that anger in me. I'm trying to get rid of it. So, alcohol was making me worse. I've got to stay off the alcohol. That's my worst drug, is alcohol. I say to myself, What's wrong with you? You've got to be strong. You're a black woman. Backbone, you know. That's what I know. And a lot of (people) people do say to me, you're a very strong woman. I can't be getting into trouble all the time in and out. That's not going to solve anything. That's going to push me away from my own children. I have some goals for me and the girls. When I stopped drinking, those others all used to come up to the house with the grog and I used to chase them all away, I used to say, you fellas have got no respect for a person trying to give up drinking. Since I've grown up, I've believed in my dreamtime, it makes me stronger. I talk with the old people all the time. I'm better when they're there, because there's healing there too. If you're strong enough to believe in being able to do things, maybe you might get stronger and stronger, and be able to do them.’

So, within that we just see so much of what's being shared today. All the layers, that action is required as individuals and within systems and we see whole families affected when one person is affected. And so that brings us on to wanting to talk to you about the Aboriginal family wellbeing program. And I'll hand over to Melissa to give a rundown on that.

MELISSA HASWELL

Thank you, Megan. It's a privilege to speak with you at this forum today. So, I will very briefly just take you through a few crucial learnings that we've had that have emerged through this family wellbeing empowerment program.

This is an incredibly powerful program. It was developed by and for Aboriginal people. And it has spawned about 30 years of research. It was developed 30 years ago. But we have learned so much from this program. And just a few key points on the principles of the program.

We've learned even in the most desperate of situations, there is always something a person can do to make things better if provided with a healing environment. And empowerment occurs when people can recognise and apply their own strengths and their inner qualities, their best qualities and their choices. Change starts from within, and skills and little successes makes this change sustainable. And finally, empowered individuals can be supported to use this personal change as a basis for participatory and leading organisational and community level change that we've heard so much about this morning.

In our research, we also found it that there is very much an emotional journey that people go through as they go, potentially from very difficult spaces such as incarceration, as Megan has pointed out, and we can hear so strongly from the story of Tiny Mum. But we also know a lot about healing spaces now from a whole a vast array of, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. We know what it takes to enable healing and the ability to move from very difficult and dark spaces, places where people can get stuck, and take them into places where their lives are very enriched through enabling them to live their values and their authentic identity.

We've also developed a measure of this journey of healing and into empowerment. We call that the 'Growth and Empowerment Measure'. It was developed from stories and people who did go from dark places become healed and actually understand what it means truly to become empowered at individual level in working in organisations and groups and contributing to others, as well as pushing towards structural change, enabling the best outcomes across all groups in society.

And so we have this this tool called the Growth and Empowerment Measure; [it] has helped us to look inside. What are the processes that enable people to reach out to heal, recover, and then find themselves contributing to a better situation for themselves and their communities? So, these are some of the aspects that are measured in the growth, and I’ll share the measure has made itself around the world and is now being translated into Mohawk and Inuit in Canada because those groups have recognised that this is a measure that actually allows (proper) monitoring or demonstrating of movement from very dark places to much better places in people's lives. So, I'll hand back to Megan now to continue.

MEGAN WILLIAMS

Great, thank you, Mel; and measurement is incredibly important to us, to get it right from our perspectives in order to inform action. We use this multi-level empowerment model or socio-ecological model. And this helps us to clarify exactly what's going on in the situation. They're not new, but it's actually quite new for us to have one that's so specific to, particularly Aboriginal urban contexts. And you'll see here that (we have) we must have action with self and healing within a family context, support from services, and with the broader system. And for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there are cross cutting factors that also must be addressed. That's obviously the socio-political environment. The hostility that we experience on a daily basis from other people. That ignorance and the lack of understanding and the sheer fear that people feel in relation to not knowing how to deal with us, not knowing how to address the issues, not knowing if they're going to say the wrong thing about us or not, that erodes our ability to work together and to together forge a healthier future.

So, this socio-ecological model's vital to help clarify what's going on, what factors are at play and that is essential for us for truth telling. And we do hear about that need for truth telling from the Uluru Statement of the Heart. And so that; this also asks of us, what roles do we play within each of these levels and the power that we each might have, whether we're Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or any other cultures. And you'll see in the next slide (Mel), further to that point about how essential it is, that measurement of issues includes Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander perspectives, we have at our fingertips, our own, for example, framework for a program evaluation. Now this Ngaa-bi-nya framework includes a series of prompts under four domains to help from the outset of a program's life, consider what data from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person's perspective or organisation's perspective is going to be useful to understand the impact and outcomes in the short and long term.

So, these types of things and the next slide as well (Mel), are not to be explained to you today, there are references to these things, but to bedazzle you, basically, to show you what strength Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do have and to help us to shine through putting First Peoples first in this country.

So, we started out with Emma [Calgaro] showing a tree and trees have great significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This one is from a suite of resources by The Healing Foundation. Note that it's not called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing foundation. That's the healing foundation for all Australians with First People's first and this is about collective healing; Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander cultures being collective, that collective identity. And that includes place because our identity is not separated from the environment. But we're part of the environment and part of all that there is. And so you'll see in this tree, that Elders have identified clearly for us exactly what to do in order to make progress. That very big, strong root base, are all the upstream determinants, and then all of the activities to grow a strong trunk that produce the outcomes in the leaves, and you'll see that they're all the same size and shape and they're all moving in the right direction toward the sun and able to produce seeds for the next generations.

So, there are a lot of answers are provided to us. If only we know, basically, how to get out of the way, and listen and enact what they instruct us to. So, I think I'll leave it at that. That touches on the issue of power, and the locust of power in this country, and also with empowerment. Thanks for having us share today.

Responding to disruption

Designing gender equality into the future of work

Professor Rae Cooper from the University of Sydney Business School

Women are overwhelmingly at the frontline during COVID; more women than men work in industries that have the highest expsoure to COVID (such as healthcare and aged care) and the industries that are affected most financially (such as hospitality and retail). 

Good morning everyone. I'm Rae Cooper. I'm Professor of Gender Work and Employment Relations here at the University of Sydney.

I'm on Gadigal land today and I'd like to acknowledge traditional owners past, present and emerging and pay my respects and as we do at the University of Sydney to thank them for the use of the land which was never ceded.

I was a little worried when I was asked to do this presentation because I was worried about the connections I may be able to make with my amazing colleagues. But I think there's a bit of a thread that's going through our presentations today, and perhaps we might talk about these in the conversations in the group, so I think Emma [Calgaro], Ross [Bailie] and Julie [Sturgess] have all had a thread running through them. I was worried that I was going to in the – the word for 2020 – "pivot" too much to somewhere else. But I think that we have some connections to make here.

I am the Director of the Women Work and Leadership Research Group here at the University along with my colleague, Professor Marian Baird, and between us for 20 years we've been researching women's labour market experience. As many academics have during the period of COVID, especially those of us who are looking at workplaces, we sort of felt, "Okay, let's rip up all the studies and let's start again" – because what's COVID gonna mean for all of this research? But I think what you'll see from the brief presentation I'm going to make is that what's happened with women's labour force engagement, and also their unpaid work is that we've seen an exacerbation of some of the gaps that we saw that were pre-existing COVID and that the situation in which women find themselves is no surprise but it's on a continuum of where we were previously.

Okay, so to the issue of disaster and how my presentation might align up with that. We had a dreadful summer. And the summer that we saw was with many people associated with the commissioners work, and many wonderful people working in the emergency services through RFS and other services on our televisions in our communities keeping us safe over summer. That was a very different frontline to the frontline that we are seeing in COVID.

At the moment, I think you'll all agree that the frontline during COVID is absolutely feminised, which is a little different to what we saw over summer. Our frontline workers at the moment are our health care workers. They're our ancillary care workers. They're our nurses, doctors. They are early childhood educators and there are teachers and even I would say retail workers. Most of those occupations and professions are highly feminised, and most of them are highly undervalued relative to the what is being exposed as the enormously important and useful social and economic role that they play. And we have some work to do to better value people who work in those sectors.

So, I think the second issue that I raise is that we have seen a million Australians being made unemployed as a part of the COVID crisis. And this is obviously an absolute disaster for all of us, for our economy, and for long term resilience of the economy. But we are seeing a very strong gender defect in terms of job loss, hours loss and therefore earnings losses. The majority of the million people who've been made unemployed 55% and in fact, this seems to be getting worse because men's jobs are snapping back faster than women's are, 55% of those unemployed are women. We're not having a conversation so much about that gendered impact. And I think that's a really important thing that we need to start to do. And it's not just the job loss, it's actually hours loss. So, we're seeing women who we know before COVID were more likely to work on a part time basis or non-full-time basis and also to be working in more precarious roles have lost hours. So, they've come down from, you know, less than full time basis and moved even further back in terms of earnings. Now this is a worry for us in terms of earnings and poverty right now, and we know that a lot of people, a lot of Australians, but among them, a majority are women are in severe financial distress. And we can see this through things such as access in emergency census to, to superannuation, for example. So this is a worry for us now in terms of earnings right now, but I think it's a long term resilience issue for us, looking at things such as retirement savings, and looking at what we know is already a really critical issue about women's retirement savings. We know that women already in Australia retire with Half the savings that their male colleagues retire with.

The final thing that I'll raise is the issue of unpaid work. And this, of course, underlines everything that goes on in paid work. Women stepped into COVID already doing double the amount of work in the home that men did. And this has doubled again, during COVID; mostly during the period when we've had children at home and homeschooling. So I guess the, what I would say, just to conclude, is that I think what we need to do is to understand that what's going on in COVID, is absolutely gendered. And we need to apply a gendered lens rather than to talk simply about snapping back to where we were before.

There were real fault lines in the labour market. And from my research, that's, I would suggest it's around gender, as well as many other fault lines, but I think we need to think about building back better. And in order to do that, I think we really do need to apply a gendered lens to what sort of economy, what kind of labour market and what kind of society we wish to build. Thanks.

Building healthy communities

Julie Sturgess, CEO of North Coast Primary Health Network

Ms Sturgess shares insights from the Healthy Towns initiative. Taking a place-based approach involving community as partners in deciding, what their problems were, how they needed to bridge the gaps, and have a role in deciding the future of their community.

So really, I wanted to share a bit of a story on the North Coast around how we're trying to put some of those principles into practice and what we've seen.

So, a little bit of context around the North Coast for those online, although probably everyone is very familiar with our famous tourist spots like Byron Bay. That's the very tiny green bit in the top of that map that you can see, in fact, the North Coast of North New South Wales is highly disadvantaged.

And you will see, you know, across the National SEIFA scores that we are in the very lowest deciles as a region. And you know, there's reasons for that very high ageing population, large Aboriginal populations, lots of remoteness and lots of unemployment.

And so, as a consequence of that, actually, our outcomes really reflective of, you know, the disadvantage that we see in our communities. And so, look, we went through a process of not only looking at that level of disadvantage, but the investment that was going in particularly from a health perspective to see how we could change some of those things. And what we saw in some of those areas is that, despite the fact that we had really significant investment, we weren't seeing a change in outcomes. And so it really led us to try and develop and understand an approach that would recognise some of the other critical things. And you know, as you rightly say, and Emma’s mentioned it, that we actually have to understand the problem that we're trying to solve.

And so for a lot of the things that we were doing, we were investing in a lot of high-end services, to deal with probably the symptoms of the problems, and we wanted to take it a little bit further.

So, you know, one of the key things that we've done over the last few years is we've developed a program called Healthy Towns across the north coast. And Healthy Towns was really based on you know, some of our understanding and you know, there's certainly some learnings from Sir Michael Marmont, and people like that in in the development of this program, and that is that sometimes loneliness and lack of social connection actually is worse leads to worse outcomes then the traditional things that we focus on like smoking and, and those sort of things.

So, the focus of Healthy Towns was a place based approach that was determined in involving community as partners in deciding, first of all, what their problems were, how we needed to bridge the gaps in community and have community had a role in deciding the future of community. So, it was really about empowerment, and at the very highest level, community being partners and drivers of their future.

And so, you know, critical to this, you know, social connection we know leads to improved social capital, and social capital is recognised by the World Health Organisation, as you know, a key determinant of physical and mental health outcomes.

And so, look, this program was implemented. It went live in the beginning of 2019. With really specific community lead groups that involved all of the partners. So health services, councils, community centres, a whole lot of people that actually came together to create a system.

And it, you know, was funded, nicely, through funding that PHN had from the federal government to actually test this. I think the great thing for us is that we've done an initial evaluation already. And you know, what we saw from the initial evaluation is that there was absolutely an increase in social capital across communities, a lot of facilitation of new relationships and new partnerships and new pathways through the Healthy Towns approach. But I think importantly, the communities identified and you know, the scores were in the 90%, that they felt welcome and encouraged to be engaged. That they felt listened to. And I think one of the greatest things we saw is that over 80% of those people that responded in that evaluation said that they felt that their input shaped the program and shaped the future of their community. And, you know, there is well recognised evidence around the fact that when people feel like they own the future, they contribute more and have more ownership about the way that that goes forward. So, you know, the initial response to that program for us has been extremely exciting. And while it's across... you know, I should also highlight that that evaluation was carried out in those towns. Some of them had been severely impacted by bushfires at the end of last year and during some of the work that was happening around COVID. So, we felt really positive about seeing that approach in a context of, you know, not only extreme disadvantage in our community, but you know, with all the disasters that we were focused on as well.

So look, concurrently that has really led us to be looking at how we understand our complex system better. How we understand the things that actually contribute and actually getting to the root cause of that problem.

And so concurrently over the last year, we have worked with the University of Sydney, Mind & Brain Institute around developing a complex and dynamic system model to really start to draw out the imperatives that we need to be focusing on to achieve better health outcomes.

And it won't surprise anyone on this to understand that when we worked with communities, and people with lived experience that they called out all of the other social determinants that were so important in achieving those outcomes. And I thought I would just give you a view of some of the things that we found through that process. And particularly, in this model, there is an ability for us to, you know, actually predict into the years forward what things will drive the best outcomes based on the work that we've done and we have validated this model. So, we've had an enormous number of people involved in building and delivering it and collating all the evidence that goes into it.

But what we did find is that if we continue to invest in services as we are, that really probably over time, and this is in relation to mental health, you will see suicides on the screen, that we weren't going to see a lot of outcomes. And, you know, I guess the next thing we we looked at was, well, if we invest in a lot more health services and a lot more of those interventions, what are we going to see over time for this massive investment? 

But what we critically saw in this is that in fact, the thing that drove the most outcomes for us was a focus on increasing social connection and driving outcomes that way. So obviously, for us, it doesn't mean we don't invest in other services, but there needs to be a focus of reinvesting back in the root cause of the problem versus always fixing the symptoms.

So, you know, our process moving forward is focusing on an approach to that. So, all of our new services including our disaster recovery, and our mental health, all our health services focused on a collective approach in our communities around how we will drive those outcomes.

And critically, I suppose the thing about that collective approach is that all of the organisations work together with some focused outcomes rather than working disparately towards a disjointed approach.

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