Former Labor candidate for Goulburn, Parliamentary Secretary and Senator, Dr Ursula Stephens is again back in a leadership role as the new CEO for Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA), the Catholic Church’s peak national body for social services in the country.
Dr Stephens spoke with Region media about “filling the large shoes” of retiring CEO Jesuit priest Fr Frank Brennan who has been a long-time advocate for human rights and social justice in Australia, and the CSSA’s advocacy and research agendas.
Back in Federal Parliament when it reconvened recently to meet with MPs and Senators about CSSA’s work, Dr Stephens believes there’s a strong role for CSSA to provide evidence-based research to government.
“CSSA has the biggest footprint of social services across Australia. Our Catholic service organizations operate in 650 locations,” Dr Stephens said.
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“We are able to provide information to the government on how programs and services are working on the ground and use our extensive network to undertake research to help inform government policy.
“Importantly, our role is to support and advocate for our members who are delivering these services and for a fairer, more inclusive society .”
The peak body is developing a number of significant research projects with various member partners and the ANU Centre for Social Research Methods. The Countering Entrenched Disadvantage research project under the direction of Dr Brenton Prosser, aims to develop a nationwide comparison of poverty drivers with most impacts across suburbs. The outcomes of this research have the potential to influence and target service delivery design and implementation.
“Our aim is to be able to provide governments and agencies with real-time evidence of the social impact of their policies…We have a large membership network of Catholic organizations and a significant capacity to generate stronger collaborative impact for those in need,” she said.
Her experience in government and campaigning and her lifelong rural communities focus has given Dr Stephens a good window view into current social issues. Improving access to palliative care, homelessness, Indigenous issues, an ageing population, increasing healthcare costs, and how the NDIS is working for consumers are among the big issues for government.
“There is also an increasing number of older women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, following dramatically changed family circumstances …Many women over 55 who haven’t built enough superannuation and don’t have a financial or social safety net,” Dr Stephens said.
“In general, mental health is an issue in rural communities, particularly those that are drought-affected where there are growing reports of the oppressive level of financial stress.
“CSSA will continue to be critical of government policies that we see the impact on the dignity, equality, and participation of people most in need. We will advocate strongly for a fairer society, however, I will be working to build a constructive relationship with all sides of politics to promote the profound breadth and depth of community work that our members do.
Aside from research and advocacy, and government relations, the new CSSA CEO would like to continue Father Brennan’s vision, and she has at least three priorities for the immediate future.
“Mine is an opportunity to transition the CSSA to the next stage of research and advocacy, stepping into the shoes of Father Brennan to crystallize the vision he and the CSSA Board have developed for the CSSA,” she said.
“In the immediate future I’d like to meet as many of the CSSA member services as I can, and I’ll be drafting the next strategic plan for the organization. I’ll also be working on building the profile of the CSSA as a robust and respected research entity.”
You can find out more about the CSSA here.