Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Opening Address – Australian Government Social Inclusion Conference

Location: Melbourne

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I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Kulin nations, on whose land we are meeting today.

It is a great pleasure to be here with you.

In a room full of like-minded people who spend a large proportion of their waking hours advocating and advancing the values of fairness, tolerance and compassion.

Many of you I’ve grown to know over the years in various roles but always united by shared values – held fast despite the ups and downs of social and political change.

All of us here today see only too often the human face of social exclusion – the life crippling disadvantage and isolation.

You just have to think back to November last year, when we said sorry to the Forgotten Australians – half a million Australians who grew up in foster homes and institutions – many of them cold, authoritarian places.

Not only loveless, but cruel and punishing with a terrible physical and emotional legacy still endured by people who are now well into their fifties, sixties and seventies.

Many of them told me that, robbed of a childhood and abandoned without any support when they left these institutions, they still struggle to connect; to hold on to friendships and relationships; to be parents themselves.

Struggling still to be included.

As one Forgotten Australian said to me after the event:

‘All my life I have felt I didn’t deserve the kindness of strangers … I still can’t shake the notion of why would you bother with me.’

I don’t have to tell you why we will always bother. Why it’s at the heart of what we do.

Or how much there is to do.

To turn around the high levels of disadvantage that still exist in our prosperous country.

Because despite decades of strong economic growth, too many people have been left behind, shut out and ignored.

Those who are trapped by family circumstances, unemployment, intergenerational welfare dependence, sub-standard housing.

Those who are most vulnerable – people with disability, mental illness, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, children who are neglected and abused, and the homeless.

And those who are new to our country – migrants and refugees struggling to find their place.

Of course it’s important for people to take responsibility for their own lives, but the playing field is never level.

Everyone has a different starting point in life.

Which is why we must give all Australians the opportunity to have the best possible chance at life by replacing obstacles
with opportunity.

For example, the obstacles to financial security and community involvement faced by the nation’s millions of carers who struggle every day to meet the round the clock responsibilities of caring.

The obstacles to employment and independence faced by one in five Australians who live with disability.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacles faced by a child growing up in poverty or in a violent or dysfunctional family – unlikely to finish school and over time more likely to be unemployed themselves and suffer poor health.

Helping people overcome these obstacles demands a concerted, coordinated effort from government, business, not for profits and community organisations.

All working in partnership to give every Australian the opportunities and resources they need to develop their own skills and capacity recognising that people, families and communities are best placed to shape their own futures.

We can help them by building their capability and capacity, but in the end all of us have responsibilities – responsibility for ourselves, for our families and the responsibility we have to treat others with respect and tolerance.

For a Labor Government, creating a society where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential, where everyone shares in a strong economy – is a moral imperative.

I remember when we first came into Government how people told me their relief that once again there was a government that saw social policy as part of the currency of a strong prosperous country; integral to boosting participation and productivity.

Because for 11 years in opposition, social policy was sidelined.

No Commonwealth Minister for Housing, and yet an escalating crisis in affordability, supply and homelessness.

Disability policy ignored.

A complete breakdown in the relationship with Indigenous Australians.

No investment in early childhood and early intervention services for children at risk.

Paid parental leave so far removed from the agenda that in 2002 the then Workplace Relations Minister, now Leader of the Opposition, said it would happen ‘over this [Howard] government’s dead body’.

More and more Australians excluded and marginalised. With an intolerable human cost counted in wrecked and wasted lives and the lost potential of those left stranded and isolated.

And a cost to the national economy – measured not only in lost productivity – but in the huge financial strain on social,
health and welfare services.

The next Intergenerational Report, due to be released soon, shows the increasing pressures to be placed on our health and welfare systems due to the ageing population.

Clear evidence that social inclusion is not only a fundamental issue that goes to our values and character as a nation – it’s also a matter of responsible economic management.

I know the Deputy Prime Minister will have more to say about this when she launches the Social Inclusion policy here later today.

The principle of social inclusion has been the mainstay of the comprehensive reforms achieved in our first two years of government.

It’s at the heart of our reforms to invest in early childhood education and schools, to make workplaces fairer and to cushion the impact of the global economic downturn with employment, training and stimulus measures to protect jobs.

It underpins the biggest investment in social housing in Australia’s history – the construction or refurbishment of more than 70,000 public housing dwellings.

Expanding the affordable housing market with the addition of up to 50,000 low-income dwellings through the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

It’s central to our commitment to halve homelessness by 2020.

It guided the long overdue reforms of the pension system to give millions of age and disability pensioners, carers and veterans a decent standard of living.

Increasing pension payments by more than $70 a fortnight for singles on the maximum rate as part of the most significant reform to our pension system in its 100 year history.

And it’s there in our determination to give every child the best start in life through a comprehensive, government-funded paid parental leave scheme.

Essential and long overdue reform which I’ve been beating the drum about for decades.

To me it’s a very simple proposition. It’s about giving babies the best start – time to bond with their mothers in those early months which are so important for a child’s social, cognitive and physical development.

Next year Australia at last catches up with the rest of the world.

So working mothers, especially low and middle income mothers and casuals – aren’t forced back to work earlier than they’d like because of financial pressures.

And for the most marginalised Australians – Indigenous Australians – we are re-setting Indigenous policy to build new relationships based on respect and trust.

We have acknowledged and said sorry for injustices of the past; acknowledged too, the decades of failed policy with the terrible legacy of intergenerational poverty, despair and hopelessness.

And set ourselves specific and measurable targets to close the gap – in housing, health, education and employment – understanding that closing the gap requires a sustained commitment, and one we need to share across the political divide.

We have backed these goals with unprecedented spending – more than $4.6 billion – and a concerted national effort to improve health and education, to get people working and to get houses built.

Empowered for the first time to take responsibility for their future, new Indigenous leaders are emerging – recognising that if there is to be real and lasting solutions they must be owned and driven on the ground

Looking back on the past two years, the global economic downturn was the defining influence on our nation.

The impact of the crisis was swift, and so was the Government’s response.

A decisive response – the first stimulus package in late 2008 and the second in early 2009 – that helped cushion Australia from the global recession’s most severe effects.

Part of our response was to double funding for emergency relief and provide more financial counsellors.

We worked with the leaders of the not for profit sector on how to respond – through the Community Response Taskforce – to get feedback from the coalface on what else we could do.

Your advice helped shaped our actions and by working together we have been able to support thousands of Australians in need.

The economic crisis also created an opportunity to try new approaches to helping the financially vulnerable.

Financial inclusion goes hand in hand with social inclusion which is why financial independence is critical.

We need new approaches that go beyond immediate assistance to promote capacity and build confidence in managing money.

We need to give people not only the financial resources to participate but the opportunities and capabilities they need to build their own financial security.

We also want to make sure that people have access to safe and fair credit that is appropriate for their means and reflects their ability to repay.

That’s why we provided around $33 million over two years for no and low interest loans, and matched savings schemes already on the ground in disadvantaged communities across Australia, working in partnership with community sector and the banks.

We also want to ensure that, where possible, financial inclusion services are a stepping stone to mainstream financial services and greater financial and social inclusion.

Today I can announce that the Australian Government is providing an additional $7.5 million to pilot approaches for developing a Community Development Financial Institution sector in Australia.

Community Development Financial Institutions are independent financial institutions that have the primary aim of providing people and organisations, excluded from mainstream banks and services, with access to appropriate and fair financial products – mostly loans.

They typically leverage not only government support but also philanthropic and private investment to cover the costs of lending – a true government, business and community partnership.

Currently our Community Development Financial Institutions sector is small compared with other countries and until now has largely lacked government support.

We have around 10 Community Development Financial Institutions with a loan portfolio of around $150 million compared with more than 1000 in the US, with a loan portfolio of around $20 billion.

We look forward to working with the major banks and the philanthropic sector to tap the potential of this innovative financial service.

Financial inclusion services are vital to help more Australians participate in education and work – something the Deputy Prime Minister will expand on this afternoon.

2010 will be a big year for social policy reform.

Landmark legislation introduced into Parliament last November, will deliver comprehensive reform of the welfare system and re instate the application of the Racial Discrimination Act to the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

Over time, a new income management system will be rolled out nationally aimed at fostering individual responsibility; providing a platform for people to move up and out of welfare dependence and to tackle the destructive, intergenerational cycle of passive welfare.

This legislation is not without controversy.

However I believe it is a fundamentally important reform.

Governments cannot shy away from taking difficult but necessary reform decisions.

Income management can help people regain control over their lives – rebuilding financial capacity where this capacity has been broken down by addiction or when lives spin out of control.

These reforms reflect the Government’s determination to put the safety, health and wellbeing of children and families at the centre of our welfare reform agenda.

We are working with the states and territories to drive a national effort – through the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children – to reduce the terrible levels of child abuse and neglect.

It’s the first time an Australian Government has acknowledged it has a role in child protection and has taken national leadership.

Improving the life chances of children at risk is a reform priority under our social inclusion framework.

Last year alone, there were 55,000 substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect.

And the safety and welfare of 32,000 children living in their own families was so severely compromised they had to be removed.

Thirty-two thousand children whose families could not meet their most basic responsibilities – to care for their children in a loving and safe environment.

It is our national responsibility to make sure that every child who cannot live with their family grows up safe and well.

To meet this responsibility, we are introducing national standards for out of home care and improving the simple sharing of information between agencies like Centrelink, Medicare and state child protection agencies, so at-risk children don’t slip through the cracks.

Another social inclusion priority is the participation of people with disability and mental illness.

Too many people with disability and mental illness have to battle for the opportunities others take for granted – basic services and equipment, the chance to work or study, the right to live their life to its full potential.

This year the Productivity Commission begins a detailed and considered inquiry into a national long-term care and support scheme for people with disability.

Because we need to rethink how we support people with disability; we need to provide some certainty for people with disability and their families no matter where they live or how they acquired their disability.

In 2010 will continue the hard work to build the social infrastructure that underpins social inclusion.

Cementing the essential Labor values of compassion, fairness and equality of opportunity as the drivers of social policy.

Anticipating and preparing for the shifts that drive the social and economic life of the nation – with responsive, progressive policies that look beyond the election cycle to prepare Australia for the challenges of the future.

At the same time, making sure there is always a safety net in difficult times – as well as life’s predictable transitions.

Building the capacity of all Australians to provide for themselves and care for their families with the opportunities and support they need to be part of community life and to participate in the economy.