In an emotional discussion, the 14th Assembly sought to understand the reasons behind the changing circumstances of the Uniting Church’s valued remote area ministry, Frontier Services.
Frontier Services is changing tack, re-directing its work to community support activities and resourcing patrol ministry. Less than a year after Frontier Services celebrated its 100th anniversary and the 13th Assembly reaffirmed its commitment to the people of remote Australia in 2012, the ministry found itself under severe financial threat due to the high costs associated with the delivery of aged care services in remote areas.
The major financial burden caused by sanctions, and the need to spend significant amounts of money to rectify major deficiencies in systems and services, took a great toll on Frontier Services, and particularly its people. It was recognised that Frontier Services’ commitment to filling a need in remote Australia was the catalyst for the difficulties. As a growing number of small aged care service operators proved unable to fulfil demanding accreditation standards, Frontier Services increased the number of aged care services it operated by about threefold.
Past president of the Uniting Church in Australia, Rev Prof Andrew Dutney, told the Assembly that Frontier Services never planned to increase its operations.
“Rather than see people in remote Australia deprived of aged care services, especially Indigenous communities, Frontier Services took on these difficult operations with the intention of restoring them to financial viability and handing them back to the communities they served,” he said. “It was a risky, heroic undertaking reflecting the can-do, havea-go attitude that has been so characteristic of Frontier Services.”
Over time, about 80 per cent of Frontier Services’ business was directly linked to aged care, accounting for about $60 million per annum. The Assembly Standing Committee has stressed that the wider church has fulfilled the commitment to remote Australia and continues to express this in a variety of ways. These have not diminished since the transition of aged care and community services from Frontier Services to other providers in the UnitingCare network.
In answer to a question from the floor, Rev Prof Andrew Dutney said the Assembly Standing Committee recognised that there were failures in governance and all agencies now operated with an appropriate risk matrix structure. He said the Assembly accepted that it did not have the capacity to oversee patrol ministries well, and was in consultation with synods and presbyteries to transfer oversight of the operations to them.
Grahame Ryan, national director of Frontier Services, advised the Assembly that there will be a national consultation held in August 2015 to further consider the future shape of the Uniting Church’s ministry in remote Australia.