ACOSS National Conference 2008,10 April 2008 Melbourne
Thank you for that warm introduction.
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri People, and pay my respects to their elders and their laws.
On an occasion like this, when we’re coming together to discuss inequality, this act of recognition is more than just symbolism.
Because, as the Prime Minister said in his Apology to the Stolen Generations: acknowledging the original material dispossession of our Indigenous people is the first step crucial step towards addressing their economic and social inequality.
I want to also acknowledge:
- Parliamentary colleagues, of which there have been many here, including Brendan O’Connor and Bill Shorten today;
- Lin Hatfield-Dodds, President of ACOSS, Dr John Falzon, National CEO of St Vincent de Paul, Pam Cahir, CEO, Early Childhood Australia, Therese Sands, Acting CEO of People With Disabilities Australia, Professor Dan Finn from the University of Portsmouth, UK, and so many other distinguished guests.
I want to thank ACOSS for bringing this broad collection of people and organisations together to renew the fight against inequality and disadvantage.
It’s my intention to get to know you better because together we have a huge job ahead of us.
And I want to thank each of you for keeping the ideal of a more inclusive Australia alive over the last decade – when at times it must have seemed that few in Canberra were listening.
It was a time when you were working mostly at cross purposes with a federal government that did not want to hear the contribution of the third sector, the not for profit sector, and deliberately took steps to silence your voice.
It was a time where the public policy debate was not enlivened by an understanding of the nature of entrenched disadvantage and its continued existence despite economic growth.
The result is there for all to see: the continued existence of poverty alongside plenty.
It’s a situation in which, as Tony Vinson has told us, the people growing up in Australia’s poorest postcodes are up to seven times more likely than the average to suffer from low incomes, long-term unemployment, early school leaving, physical and mental disabilities, prison admissions and to be at risk of child abuse and neglect.
The Social Inclusion challenge matters in all parts of Australia. It matters in remote communities. It matters in regional centres. It matters in the inner city, where entrenched exclusion is all too familiar.
And it matters in many of our new and growing communities, often on the edges of major cities, where economic and population growth have outstripped the growth of social infrastructure and community services, and where isolation and exclusion are a serious problem.
I want all Australians to imagine what growing up in such circumstances means for a child:
- Being chronically behind other children in school;
- Being constantly on the move, from one rental home to the next, unable to easily hold down friendships or even worse cycling in and out of homelessness;And missing out on the small but important things that other children take for granted – clothes, holidays, trips to the movies and school excursions.
For too many Australians, access to experiences and opportunities that are fundamental to their wellbeing and dignity are simply not available.
In a nation as prosperous as ours this is both morally and economically unacceptable.
And reversing it should –and now will– be one of the principal objectives of every level of Australian government.
I haven’t come here today to promise you that social exclusion can be abolished overnight – or abolished at all.
But I can promise you this: under the Rudd Government, national economic and social policies will no longer be working at cross purposes.
They will have a single purpose – creating prosperity with fairness for all Australians.
In fact, we believe that fairness and prosperity are inseparable.
In the modern global economy – increasingly dependent on the application of knowledge and skill – leaving individuals and whole communities behind means we are not putting our human capital to its best use.
Consider Australia’s current economic circumstances.
The labour market is tight. Economic growth is strong. And these are combining to produce inflation and put pressure on interest rates. We have to find ways to make growth more sustainable.
Plainly, part of the answer is to increase the supply of labour. With unemployment low and participation rates high, this is not easy.
But there are still many people – individuals and communities - excluded from the workforce as a result of poverty, low educational attainment, inadequate skills or disability.
We have to bring them back into the fold.
Unless we address their needs, we will be paying a high price for their marginalisation in the decades ahead.
Simply put: our long term prosperity depends on securing the full social and economic participation of all Australians.
That is why social equity matters.The importance of social innovation
We have to find new ways to create this equity.
So when it comes to social policy we have to be innovators.
It would have been easy in the face of Commonwealth inaction over the last decade for the welfare sector to have become defensive, putting its energy into defending hard-won past gains.
Happily, this wasn’t the case.
Instead, the last decade was marked by continuing policy innovation.
In recent years we’ve had a stream of new ideas:
- Like the National Housing Affordability Summit’s NARI scheme;
- New programs like the Smith Family’s Learning for Life;
- Intelligent employment initiatives like the Brotherhood’s social enterprises;
- New research, like the Jesuit and Catholic Social Services’ landmark publications on postcode poverty and
- New advocacy, like the ACOSS Australia Fair campaign
A new policy framework – Social Inclusion
All of this, combined with overseas experience, has led to a new framework for national policy based on the powerful idea of social inclusion.
And I’m proud to be the first ever Federal Minister for Social Inclusion.
I don’t need to tell you at length what social inclusion means – after all, it was you who brought it to the public spotlight.
From the Government’s perspective, it means coordinating policies across national, state and local governments and with the community sector to ensure no Australian is excluded from meaningful participation in the mainstream economic and social life of the country.
It won’t be an easy task.
Especially as many of the socially excluded suffer serious and multiple disadvantages that are difficult to address, and have specific problems which do not always command public sympathy.
But together we can make a huge difference.
So what are we proposing?
Our starting point is recognition that while economic policies are important they are not enough on their own.
We all know that a rising tide will not lift everyone up and even when it does lift people up many will struggle to stay afloat.
Some communities will miss out because they lack the capacities and investment to take advantage of economic opportunities.
It’s no good, for instance, trying to solve one problem in isolation from others. Hunting for a job for a homeless individual requires you to address their homelessness. Gaining employment for someone with children requires you to address their need for stable, affordable child care. Maintaining employment for a person with chronic ill health requires access to the best of health care to manage their condition.
Our economic policies and our social policies have to be integrated, so that the right support is offered to the right individuals, groups and postcodes.
Our overall goal is to give all Australians the opportunity to:
- Secure a job;
- Access services;
- Connect with family, friends, work, personal interests and neighbours;
- Deal with personal crisis such as ill health, bereavement or the loss of a job; and
- Have their voice heard.
To achieve this, we will need action on many different fronts.
We have already made challenging policy commitments on several of them.
Early childhood development
The first priority must be in early childhood development – because we know that this yields the greatest returns.
Australia needs to join the 21st Century by creating a new network of early childhood services that can reach out to the children who need help the most.
That’s why we’ve committed to introducing a universal right for all children in the year before formal school to be able to access 15 hours of early learning programs a week, for a minimum of 40 weeks a year, delivered by degree-qualified teachers.
This includes the commitment the Prime Minister made in the Apology to the Stolen Generations that, within five years, every Indigenous four year old in a remote Aboriginal community will have access to a proper early childhood education program, and be engaged in proper pre-literacy and pre-numeracy programs.
To make this a reality, we’re going to work with the state and territory governments and child care providers to support the establishment of up to 260 new or expanded long day care centres on school and community sites – including 6 autism-specific centres – all incorporating early learning features.
In co-operation with the Brotherhood of St Laurence, we are extending the Home Interaction program to 50 disadvantaged communities to help the parents of 8,000 at-risk children prepare their youngsters for school.
And in co-operation with Fiona Stanley we are rolling out the Australian Early Development Index to help identify school populations facing special risks and challenges.
And to help parents we are going to extend eligibility for JET child care fee assistance from one to two years of study.From school to university
While Australia’s education system generally performs well, its weakest point is equity, with weak literacy performance in the bottom layer of school students and high drop out rates.
Richard Teese’s invaluable work has described how few teenagers from disadvantaged suburbs and regional and remote Australia score highly enough at Year-12 to enter our leading universities.
Given the importance of higher education to Australia’s future, it’s hard to believe that participation rate of lower socio-economic background students in higher education actually fell from 15.1 percent to 14.6 percent between 2001 and 2006.
We have to turn this around.
To address this, COAG last month agreed to a new National Partnership to boost school education, focussed on the particular educational needs of low socio-economic status schools.
The partnership will improve teacher quality and resourcing, and demand higher standards and expectations of all students.
Crucially, it will examine funding options for schools in the most disadvantaged communities.
We’re also going to create 450,000 new vocational training places to create opportunities for post-compulsory education which boost people’s skills and economic participation. 175,000 of these places will be for people who are currently outside the workforce.
And at the university level, we’re going to make equity an important goal by abolishing full-fee degrees, doubling the number of Commonwealth undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships, halving HECS for students in key disciplines and establishing a new National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at the University of South Australia.
One of our greatest moral challenges is homelessness.
This is something that has animated the Government from Day One.
The Prime Minister has been willing to say: "I don't want to live in a country where we accept people begging on the streets as somehow acceptable to the Australian way of life."
And Australians right around the country are saying the same thing. I am sure many Australians were surprised and appalled to hear about the shocking data contained in the National Youth Commission’s ReportAustralia’s Homeless Youth. And I am equally sure Australians said to themselves they want this nation to do better than that for the approximately 22,000 teenagers homeless across our nation.
I am sure tonight many Australians will watch the ABC to learn about the Oasis youth refuge. This program will give an opportunity for Australians to put a face to the statistics, particularly the faces of Owen, Emma, Trent, Haley, Darren, Beau and Chris, the seven young people at the centre of the show.
And many Australians will nod in agreement when Salvation Army Captain Paul Moulds of the Oasis says "Australia isn't the lucky country for every kid. There are heaps of them out there, living on the streets, in squats, under bridges. That's the reality. The challenge is, what are we going to do about it?"
To Paul Moulds question the Rudd Labor Government says we have made a start with $150 million to create 600 new houses and units for homeless people.
But we need to do more and to build on this start, we are preparing a long-term strategy to reduce homelessness, through a White Paper prepared with the involvement of the Brotherhood’s Tony Nicholson and others from the sector.
Assisting people with physical and mental disabilities
Reducing social exclusion means supporting those with physical and mental disabilities in their daily struggle against prejudice and misunderstanding.
In particular, we have to connect them with employment and training opportunities and with the wider community.
To do this, the Minister for Employment, Brendan O’Connor, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, Bill Shorten, are developing, with your input, a comprehensive National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy.
They’ll be talking about it here at this conference. It is a crucial component of our social inclusion plans.
Setting national targets and improving policy coordination
Even if implemented independently of each other, these programs would make a huge difference to so many lives.
But to work most effectively they need a new approach to policy coordination and to service delivery.
To ensure this, we are building new ‘whole of government’ capacity: a new Social Inclusion Committee of Cabinet has been created, chaired by the Prime Minister, co-chaired by me and including senior members of the Government.
The involvement of those outside government is equally essential. To maximise that involvement, we are establishing an Australian Social Inclusion Board to advise the Government on what works and what doesn’t; on what the priorities should be, and on how to connect with the concerns of wider communities.
Interest in involvement has been high and membership of this Board will be announced shortly. I’m sure that you would like me to share the details now. But there is a reason why we’ll have to wait a little longer: the end of next week will see the 2020 Summit in Canberra, in which social inclusion will be an important theme and some of you will be participating.
Before we absolutely finalise the Board’s brief, we will be looking closely at the submissions and other input to the summit, and thinking about how best to reflect the long term priorities that will be discussed there.
But can I say it is a measure of how much our national dialogue is changing that social inclusion is so visibly on the agenda of a major national ideas event.
Pursuing national targets
Federal, State and local government co-operation is needed to end social exclusion and so much of the action will also come from COAG.
We are now beginning to implement a radically different approach to funding and reform through Commonwealth-State collaboration.
Our new approach to funding services reshapes so-called Specific Purpose Payments and introduces National Partnership agreements to fund priority reforms.
The emphasis will be far less on the input controls favoured by the previous Government, and far more on the outputs and outcomes that meet real need.
This new approach will combine greater transparency and flexibility with independent evaluation and benchmarking of results.
To make this work you need social inclusion targets and incentives to meet them.
I have already mentioned some of our new national targets. They also include:
- Lifting overall attainment at Year 12 or equivalent from 74 to 90 per cent;
- Closing the gap in life expectancy, and halving the current gaps in literacy, numeracy and employment for indigenous Australians.
- Halving the number of homeless people turned away from shelters within five years.
I find it very encouraging that, as this week’s ACOSS survey shows, the public strongly supports the idea of targets for reducing inequality and social exclusion.
When asked ‘Should the Federal Government set targets to improve the living standards of low income and disadvantaged Australians, or not?’ more than 88% replied that we should.
That is exactly what we are doing.
Education, Health and Housing were most likely to be named as the areas where targets should be set.
In the same survey, more than 70 per cent of people said that they support Government plans for a more inclusive society.
This is an important signal of the public expectations that we must meet.
As we develop our social inclusion policies, I expect that we will set further targets.
Where relevant they will be embedded, through the COAG process, in the funding agreements between the Australian, State and Territory Governments.
At their best these goals can help to inspire and galvanise, can help a community to challenge the status quo and to create new possibilities. That is exactly what we intend to do with social inclusion, and we need your support and your partnership to achieve it.
As I said, reducing social exclusion will not be easy.
It will have to be a nation-wide effort:
- Led by the Prime Minister, me as the responsible Minister and the Cabinet Sub-Committee;
- Backed by the state Premiers and territory chief ministers; and
- Involving you as leaders in the community, giving advice and running key programs.
But I’m confident we can achieve a great deal.
If we are innovative and ambitious, but realistic and attentive to each other’s views, we can go a long way towards meeting the nation’s pressing social and economic priorities.
Most importantly it can go a long way to making a real difference for disadvantaged and marginalised Australians.