A Catholic leader born and raised in New England has become the first president of the NSW St Vincent de Paul Society to hail from regional Australia in the institution's 140-year history.
The St Vincent de Paul Society was founded in Australia in 1854 at St Francis' Church, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, by Fr Gerald Ward and was established in NSW in 1881.
On Saturday, April 23 2022, Paul Burton was commissioned as NSW State President by Bishop Kennedy in the De La Salle Chapel at O'Connor Catholic College in Armidale.
All preceding presidents in the 140-year history of the society have resided in the metropolitan areas of Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong.
Mr Burton currently lives in Manilla but attended De La Salle College when it was a boys' school - and he said he would not have wanted the ceremony to take place anywhere else.
It was also special because the presentation was made next to a WWI Honour role that listed several of his family members.
"My grandfather was in the 7th Light Horse Regiment, and he took up a property in Kentucky and handed it on to my father, who was also a serviceman in World War II," Mr Burton said.
Born and raised in Kentucky, Mr Burton worked on the land across the New England region before joining the Australian Wool Corporation and moving to Sydney in the 1970s, where he met his wife, Jennifer.
Mr Burton said those who approached him to stand for election said the society needed a 'grassroots' Vincentian with a business background.
"I reflected on my history with St Vincent de Paul, and my top-shelf choice was to have the formal commissioning service in the de La Salle Chapel," Mr Burton said.
And with an extensive resume of logistics management behind him, Mr Burton believes his country background and former city-based career mean he can 'diversify' more than some previous presidents have been able to and bring a 'hands on' approach to what many see as a mainly administrative role.
"My rural heritage and having to completely readapt and make my living in Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra probably grounds me a little better in some aspects," he said.
While he is honoured by his recent appointment, Mr Burton said within the society, people say the NSW president role is the most formidable job within St Vincent de Paul Australia.
"NSW probably has the greatest concentration of our most concerning problems," he said.
"The affordable housing crisis is not confined to the city centres anymore- it is affecting all of regional NSW and other states. And that is certainly testing us at the moment.
"And the rising cost of living has always been an issue for those on a low income and will continue to be in the future."
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His comments were reinforced this week by the president of St Vincent de Paul Australia, Claire Victory, who issued a media release which said more than three million Australians living in poverty desperately need additional support to survive as surging inflation puts household necessities out of reach.
Ms Victory said ballooning household costs come during an election in which the most vulnerable people in the community have largely been forgotten.
"This neglect was shown by the brutal decision of both major parties to leave JobSeeker at $46 a day, which holds recipients well beneath the poverty line and exposed to rising cost of living pressures," she said.
"Expecting people to survive on $46 a day is cruel. It demonstrates a lack of understanding, or care, for people doing it tough and the growing challenge of making ends meet as prices for basic goods surge."
Mr Burton said after being with the society for 35 years, there are still three fundamental challenges facing many people in need of St Vincent de Paul's help.
"Lack of education, lack of living skills and lack of self-esteem are the basic things we need to address," Mr Burton said.
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Across New England, Mr Burton wants to work with St Vincent de Paul regional director Phil Donnan to engage more with local First Australian Nations.
"It was indicated to me that there were people out at Walgett who were doing a great job, but they were dependent on some support from St Vincent de Paul," Mr Burton said.
"So, I went out to Walgett, and I sat with a lady who was in the forefront of utilising whatever resources she could get her hands on to accommodate some of the needs in that area, and it was one of the most humbling experiences of my entire life.
"I learned a lot from it, and I intend to use what we've learned from that experience and implement it wherever it will be accepted across New South Wales."
The St Vincent de Paul housing division sits within Mr Burton's remit, and he is also one of ten St Vincent de Paul central council presidents in New England. All of them are actively lobbying their local members of parliament to address the affordable housing crisis.
"Our housing division has just finished completing 502 independent living facilities in Sydney, and we'll be looking to do as much of that around the state as we possibly can," Mr Burton said.
"It won't solve the problem, but just a little bit here and there can help."
In the Northern Rivers area, St Vincent de Paul has the opportunity to buy land in Lismore that is not flood affected to build up to 100 independent living units.
"The unverified estimate is that 14,000 people are now homeless, so the recovery process up there is going to take some years, so that is just a drop in the ocean of what is needed, " Mr Burton said.
"But we will be looking to partner with government to get that up and running because it will also bring some employment opportunities to the area.
"It is just the first initiative we have come up with to address that disaster.
"We're committed for the next however long it takes, and it won't be months, it will be years, but we intend to do that.
"We are a faith-based organisation, and there is a difference between charity and welfare.
"We regard ourselves as a charity, and we like to engage personally with the people we are helping and not just issue them with resources and let them go."
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