Remarks to the Centre for Social Impact, Launch of the Australian Social Innovation Exchange, Sydney
Let me start by thanking Peter Shergold and the University of New South Wales for hosting us here, and congratulating Peter on his new project, the Centre for Social Impact.
I think it is significant that, after such a long period at the top of public administration in Australia, Peter should choose to pursue this project of creating a centre which can bring together research, teaching and cross-sector partnerships to create positive social impact at the intersections between government, business and community life. I am confident that the centre will be a great source of answers and of practical initiatives.
Let me also acknowledge Cisco as supporters of this event, and say that the work they are doing with Geoff Mulgan and others to develop an Australian
Social Innovation Exchange is of great interest to the Rudd Government. Why it should be of interest is perhaps best explained by setting out some of our priorities in relation to social inclusion.
Some of you may have noticed that my responsibilities as a Minister include Workplace Relations… And while the Work Choices issue has figured prominently in Parliament in the last few weeks, of course the work leading up to the introduction of our Forward with Fairness legislation has been going on for more than a year.
A large part of that work, as it should, has involved consultation with employers about the kinds of industrial relations that would underpin sustained growth in output, employment and productivity. And as I progressed around the boardrooms of corporate Australia last year, I began to notice an interesting trend.
What many of those people actually wanted to talk about was social inclusion. They saw it as a moral imperative – part of ensuring that Australia is a decent society – but also a highly pragmatic need. They recognise, as we do, that Australia cannot afford to ignore the marginalisation of large numbers of Australians on the fringes of community life.
We are now at an important junction point in our national dialogue. We face the urgent challenge of sustaining our economic prosperity.
We know that, to reduce inflationary pressure in the economy and sustain our growth rates, we need to lift participation rates beyond their current record levels. We know that if we want Australia’s long term future to be competitive, we have to invest more in human capital – the skills and talents of our population.
And we know that if some areas of the country, some parts of our communities, some groups of people within Australia, are not well served by the opportunities
and the services that they experience, then collectively we will be paying a high price for that marginalisation in the decades ahead. Our long term prosperity depends on securing the full participation, economic and social, of all Australians. We have to find new ways to support that participation. That is why social inclusion matters. And that, in turn, is why social innovation matters.
For example, 1 in 7 Australian children is currently growing up in a household where no adult works. Some of these will be lone parent families where it is appropriate that a parent stays at home with young children. Nonetheless, for these children, I think we should be seriously concerned about their prospects for the future, the relationships and opportunities they are able to access, and what we can do as a community to support their development and learning.
We should also be concerned about their parents, and about why it is that, while the unemployment continues to go down, there are still significant numbers of adults who are economically inactive, or under-employed, or whose connection to the labour market is fragile and interrupted. A gulf between everyday life and economic activity is also created for those Australians who have a disability or who battle mental illness.
We have commenced a National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy, bringing together different Commonwealth Departments, states and territories and partnership with employers and the community sector, to tackle these challenges.
Just as important, there are local communities that are currently being left behind by economic growth. The work done by Professor Tony Vinson has shown how just 1.7 per cent of Australia’s postcodes currently experience up to 7 times more than their fair share of intergenerational poverty, including low income, limited computer and internet access, early school leaving, physical and mental disabilities, long-term unemployment, prison admissions and substantiated cases
of child abuse and neglect. These problems, and their underlying causes, cluster together in ways which are not always recognised by the separation of agency and portfolio responsibilities, and by the different roles of Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments.
I could talk about the Community Renewal project at Laverton, in my electorate, where the Victorian Government has funded an effort to bring together residents and community organisations with the key agencies responsible for employment, housing and other services, to focus on refreshing the opportunities available to people who live in the area. We need to learn from projects like this, and build on them.
The inclusion challenge is not just restricted to a few places, urgent as that challenge is. There are communities in all parts of Australia, where population growth is at risk of outpacing the growth of services and social networks. Where people do not have the right opportunities to come together and take part in community life, and where growth in income or in public spending therefore has limited impact.
One striking feature of the Vinson research is that it reinforces the value of informal relationships and social networks alongside the basic material goods and services that everyone also needs.
It shows that, even in the worst off areas, people are significantly better off if they can rely on basic norms of mutual trust and respect, on what you might describe as ‘community resilience’. People’s long term wellbeing depends on their access to these informal support networks, and on their ability to shape, through active participation, the circumstances of their own lives. This basic insight is what gives social inclusion its definition beyond reducing poverty or ensuring minimum income standards.
It is why we said, in our pre-election policy, that to be socially included, all Australians must be given the opportunity to:
- secure a job;
- access services;
- connect with others in life through family, friends, work, personal interests and local community;
- 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. For example, we have committed to closing the gap in health and education outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The Government has begun developing a White Paper on homelessness led by Tanya Plibersek.
We are currently considering the membership of an Australian Social Inclusion Board, whose membership I plan to announce soon. Our call for expressions of interest generated a very encouraging response. We have also established a Social Inclusion Unit at the heart of the Government, in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Those structures will be pivotal to our drive to connect better policy with the best of wider knowledge and experience, from research, from business, and from the community sector.
We will also establish a Social Inclusion Cabinet Committee, which will be chaired by the Prime Minister with myself as Deputy Chair. Cabinet Committees necessarily do not receive much public exposure, but they are essential for bringing together major decisions and integrating our actions as a Government.
These decisions are part of creating a strong platform in Government from which to pursue social inclusion. I also know that a strong, vibrant non profit and community sector is essential. I have already acted to request the review and amendment of Commonwealth contracts with non-profit organisations, to insist that clauses which might in the past have been used to discourage criticism of the Government or to secure compliance with its policies, will be removed. We need a robust, diverse and confident non-profit sector. We need those organisations to be partners in innovation and reform.
The issue that I want to conclude on is not at this broad level of national policy. It is the challenge of generating effective, practical solutions for social inclusion at the level of local communities, of service providers, of employers and of families and individuals themselves.
As a Minister and as a Member of Parliament, I get to meet many people who are busy working on practical solutions. I could describe the work of Adult Migrant Education Services, in my electorate of Lalor, and in Western Sydney. They work, not just to meet the immediate needs of people who are newly arrived in Australia, but also to find new ways in which they can make a contribution to social and economic life here.
I could describe the Community Kitchen program run by Bethany Community Support in Victoria, which brings together a group of people with similar backgrounds who meet regularly to cook healthy, nutritious meals and to socialise together. These groups may be for young parents, for men who may be alone and socially isolated, for busy mums, or for older people. But they combine both a social and a material need, and respond to the specific interests and circumstances of their members.
Similarly, I could mention the Men’s Sheds movement, which is spreading rapidly across Australia. Many people will still laugh at the idea of men and their sheds being a public policy objective. But the reality is that the situation of many men, over 50, with skills which are not properly valued by the labour market and limited opportunities for recreation that they really enjoy, has become a serious issue for health budgets and for workforce participation rates. For what seem to be very small outlays, Men’s Sheds provide a focus for work that uses the skills and knowledge of their members, creates direct community benefits and which, according to the evidence, also achieves many of those other goals associated with social contact, improved health outlook and greater wellbeing.
I’m told that there are now more than 150 Men’s Sheds across Australia, from Salisbury in Adelaide to the Western Plains of NSW, and that they are still spreading fast. That seems to me the kind of social innovation that might initially begin under the radar of government but is highly relevant to our objectives.
What interests me about today’s event is that we have an opportunity to accelerate the development of innovative solutions to the problems of social exclusion.
We are committed to ambitious policy reform. I believe we can also create a new level of partnership between government, business, and the community sector, working to create real and lasting solutions that will enhance our productivity and our wellbeing as a nation.
So I look forward to hearing more about social innovation, and to an ongoing dialogue about how it can help us to achieve social inclusion.