I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Frontier Services for as long as I can remember. So I was personally delighted that the very first invitation I received upon becoming President-Elect in 2009 was to preach at the Frontier Services centenary celebration in 2012. I was looking forward to making support for this wonderful organisation a central part of my term as President.
And so it has turned out to be, although not in a way that I expected.
On July 1 Frontier Services reached an important milestone in one of the most difficult periods that it has experienced in its long journey of ministry in remote Australia. On that date the aged care facilities formerly operated by Frontier Services were transferred to two other UCA agencies. The facilities in Western Australia were transferred to Juniper, the aged care agency of the Western Australian Synod. The residential aged care services in the Northern Territory were transferred to a new service group of UnitingCare Queensland, called Australian Regional and Rural Community Services (ARRCS).
Every Synod has contributed to achieving this outcome. It represents the whole of the Uniting Church coming together to ensure that ministry and community services in remote Australia will be sustained into the future. Not only has the future of these regional and remote residential aged care services been secured, but the remainder of Frontier Services has been put back on a sustainable footing – the iconic Patrol Ministries, the valuable Outback Links program, and the more than 60 community service programs operating in remote regions of Australia.
But it has taken a tremendous amount of work and commitment from across the Uniting Church to make it happen. Let me offer some background to the story.
In recent years Frontier Services accepted responsibility for a range of aged care services in remote Australia – primarily within the Northern Synod. It did not actively seek to extend its ministry in this area but, on the strength of its reputation for ministry in difficult areas, Frontier Services had been approached to take on operations that providers found they could not sustain. 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.
It was a risky undertaking driven by passionate commitment to maintaining Flynn’s vision of a “mantle of safety” in remote Australia in the changing circumstances of the 21st century. Over time, about 80% of Frontier Services’ business was directly linked to aged care (approximately $60 million per anum).
In the event, however, Frontier Services did not have the financial capacity, the systems, or the specialist expertise to achieve its goals. Early in 2013 two of the residential aged care services failed to meet government requirements and had their accreditation status removed. Sanctions were issued. In this situation the facilities began to lose income very quickly and to incur significant expenses in the effort to restore accreditation and have sanctions removed. This soon resulted in the accrual of a worrying level of debt. There was no quick or simple way out of this situation and it was clear that millions of dollars would be lost in the process – putting at risk, not only the residential aged care services themselves, but the rest of Frontier Services’ ministry and the community services it delivers too.
In addition, the fact that another of Frontier Services’ aged care facilities had received sanctions in the previous two years meant that the responsible government department (the Department of Health and Aging at the time, but the Department of Social Services now) advised the Assembly that if we did not take the aged care facilities out of the hands of Frontier Services and find a suitable alternative service provider they would move to revoke Approved Provider status altogether. The Assembly Standing Committee began managing the matter from April in 2013 – initially at the request of the Frontier Services board and subsequently by introducing a new, interim system of governance for Frontier Services while the crisis was worked through.
It has been a costly process on many levels – not just financially. Individual church members with the necessary expertise have contributed thousands of hours of work. So too have the resilient and dedicated staff of Frontier Services nationally. Other activities and projects have had to be given less priority in order to meet the demands of this challenge. Overworked, stressed and anxious people have sometimes bumped against each other, putting a strain on relationships. Once again we have some of that Romans 12 “body work” to do.
Even so, the outcomes are ones we thank God for. Firstly, residential aged care services for the people of remote Australia have been secured. That really matters – to all Australians, and to we who have inherited Flynn’s vision especially. Secondly, the broader ministry of Frontier Services has been maintained, including the community services it delivers. It is now on a footing which should see it strengthened and refreshed for the years ahead. To this end the ministries of Frontier Services continue to be reviewed, refined and re-focused in order to more effectively and efficiently serve the people of remote Australia. And thirdly, we have discovered in a time of great difficulty that we are a truly national church – and that the people within our agencies and the rest of the church are all genuinely committed to working together in ministry and mission in the Australian nation.
The 13th Assembly resolved to “commit the Uniting Church in Australia anew to the people of remote Australia” (12.13). It has been testing, but truly heartening to see that commitment in action over the last eighteen months.