Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Opening Address – Communities in Control Conference

Location: Communities in Control Conference, Melbourne

The challenge you have set yourselves at this conference is considerable – building, sustaining and nurturing pathways to social inclusion in the political, environmental, social and economic context. I know this is something that all of you here are passionate about – for many it has been your life’s work.

For the Australian Government, working with you to develop these pathways is more than a challenge – it is an absolute imperative. Particularly in a society undergoing rapid and comprehensive structural, social and demographic change.

Complex change that has implications for all Australians.

For example, the incidence of lifestyle diseases and mental illness is increasing and at the same time more of us are living longer – with the shocking and unacceptable exception of Indigenous Australians.

The shape of our families is changing – the number of single parent families on the rise and many, from the young to the elderly, living alone.

We work differently – trying to achieve some semblance of work/family balance in a labour market hungry for skilled workers but at the same time increasingly casualised. And even as unemployment hovers at a record low and the economy is constrained by labour shortages, there are still areas where long-term and youth unemployment are unacceptably high.

And while we live in prosperous economic times, many people are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. I hear this from them directly – from the Australians I meet – the pensioners, carers and families on modest incomes who are feeling swamped by financial pressures.

For the poorest and most disadvantaged, complex and rapid change brings with it even greater social isolation. Powerless to manage and deal with external change, they are at risk of being swamped by hopelessness and the feeling that they have no control over their lives.

Already isolated, they turn even further inwards – moving further and further out of reach of the support network provided by community groups.

Surviving and, more importantly, thriving in times of rapid change requires individual strength and resilience; innovative and responsive government policy and robust support networks. Support networks like those provided by the 700,000 community organisations which those of you here today represent.

I risk preaching to the converted when I say that belonging to something, whether it’s a footy club, the school P &C, a charity, or a choir, gives us a sense of wellbeing and identity. It’s a place to belong, where we can feel in control.

And at a time when external global forces have the potential to make us feel increasingly powerless, the companionship and inclusion inherent in community groups, become even more valuable.

But for too many people this sense of belonging and security is something they never experience.

The sad reality is that those who are the most socially isolated are the least well-equipped or motivated to join a community group – further exacerbated by the fact that disadvantaged communities are least able to initiate and develop community organisations.

So we find in the poorest communities on the fringes of our cities, in struggling regional areas and small towns a debilitating absence of the capacity, guidance and leadership necessary to establish and sustain the community organisations which are so desperately needed.

As a Government, it is our responsibility to develop the strategic, local programs and funding structures that can overcome these constraints.

These include practical, grass roots measures that work at the local level.

For example, one of the things we are doing is supporting an initiative developed by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and Our Community aimed at connecting people to community organisations across the country.

And today I can announce that Telstra is adding its considerable support by partnering with the Government, the Pharmacy Guild and Our Community to roll out this nation-wide initiative. Telstra will be a key player in the marketing and communications campaign – significantly extending the reach of information dissemination.

The Join In Join Up program will operate in five thousand community pharmacies – in suburbs, cities, the urban fringe, regional centres and country towns.

Trained pharmacy staff will have access to a comprehensive national data base, profiling the 55,000 community groups that already subscribe to Our Community.

Using this data base and their training to recognise people at risk or in need, staff will be able to provide advice on local community organisations that best suit the needs, interests and life circumstances of their customers.

It has the potential to build pathways between the disadvantaged and the vulnerable to the groups which can give them support and help.

We know that pharmacies are an important source of professional advice and assistance and are used by almost everyone. Building on this existing resource, they will now have the capacity to link up the people coming through their doors with relevant community groups.

New parents can be linked with playgroups, people with chronic illnesses put in touch with health support services, young people on methadone programs connected to rehabilitation organisations and the elderly with seniors clubs and associations.

Again it’s a great example of using a place, in this case the local pharmacy, which people already rely on for advice and help.

It demonstrates how we can build pathways to social inclusion and I congratulate Our Community, the Pharmacy Guild and Telstra on a program that is both practical and innovative.

We all know that social isolation is enormously detrimental. Some of the flow-on effects include poor health and higher levels of mental illness and depression.

Just today, I’m releasing a new report from the Australian Institute of Family Studies and my own Department, which defines the high levels of isolation and physical and emotional disadvantage among one group of Australians – the more than 470,000 primary carers who look after their frail parents, their disabled children, their elderly partners.

This representative survey of more than a thousand carers not only looks at the health implications for carers, it also tackles the previously unexplored issue of the impact constant caring has on other family members.

The findings reinforce what we all intuitively know – that carers are more likely to have higher levels of mental illness; more likely to be in poor physical health and more likely to be separated or divorced. And their families are adversely affected too.

As I said, up until now there has been relatively little research into the social, emotional, physical and financial impact that caring has on families. This report begins to fill in the gaps.

Among other things it tells us:

  • That carers’ relationships suffer; one in three women carers aged under 50 have separated or divorced since they began caring;
  • That carers worry about the impact on other family members particularly the brothers and sisters of a child with a disability;
  • That even when carers have supportive people around them, there is frequently disagreement and conflict:
  • That apart from carers themselves having significantly higher rates of mental health problems, their partners and children also experience high levels of depression:
  • And that caring for children with disability or those with high care needs can be most stressful of all.

The report also delineates and quantifies the carer’s role. It finds that the burden falls unequally on women – seventy-one per cent of primary carers are women. And they care mostly for children and young people with intellectual and developmental disorders and elderly relatives.

It’s no surprise that the traditional, gender-determined division of labour permeates the distribution of caring responsibilities. For example, when older parents are caring for an adult child with an intellectual disability, women shoulder most of the care-giving tasks.

Little wonder then, that we find that more than half of the women carers surveyed suffered depression, were in poor physical health and reported that their caring duties – often more than 100 hours a week – left no time for a paid job or a social life let alone community involvement.

Financially, carers and their families are far worse off than the general population. Many have to stop working because of their caring responsibilities but a large number want to get back into the workforce.

A significant proportion reported that they couldn’t pay their gas and electricity bills on time and found it difficult to pay the rent or mortgage; some pawned or sold personal items and others were forced to turn to family and friends for financial help.

Just paying for the essentials can be struggle so there’s precious little left over for anything else – sporting activities for the kids, going to a movie, just getting out of the house.

And so the cycle of social isolation spirals down.

Carers and their families are just one cohort among many in danger of becoming permanently marginalised.

At risk of becoming invisible to mainstream society – isolated by their circumstances and financial hardship.

As a Government, we are determined to deliver the policies and services to help turn this around.

The first important steps are being taken.

Under measures announced in the Budget, 19,000 more carers will have access to the Government’s Carer Payment for children.

Previously, many carers of children with a profound disability or medical condition missed out on financial support because they did not meet excessively stringent eligibility criteria. We are replacing this with a system that is fair and equitable.

So that instead of only 3500 families receiving the payment, 19,000 families will now benefit.

Like the parents caring for their two year old child – diagnosed with severe and lifelong multiple disability. Unable to sit or walk without support, unable to feed himself and suffering hearing loss he was previously turned down for financial support. Now this little boy will be eligible.

The Government is also delivering carer bonuses to benefit 433,000 carers before the end of this month. Carers receiving Carer Payment will receive a $1,000 bonus and carers receiving Carer Allowance will receive a $600 bonus for each eligible care receiver for whom they provide care.

And we are extending the Utilities Allowance to Carer Payment and Disability Support Pension recipients to help pay the bills as well as increasing the Telephone Allowance for those with an internet connection.

And recognising that one of the best ways we can support carers is to give them a break from their constant caring responsibilities, respite services will be a top priority for the extra $900 million the Government is investing into the Commonwealth States and Territory Disability Agreement.

State and Territory Governments have agreed to match that funding bringing the total to more than $1.8 billion for additional support for disability services across Australia.

This agreement, signed a little over two weeks ago, will deliver more than 24,000 places that will begin to ease the anxiety of people with disabilities, their families and carers, many of whom have been waiting too long for support.

This will be in the form of more home support, extra supported accommodation and individual care package and more, much needed, respite.

That meeting also gained agreement to progress a National Disability Strategy, to deliver a whole-of-government, whole-of-life approach to disability planning, in consultation with people with disability, carers and other stakeholders in the disability sector.

This is in addition to $100 million in capital funding to provide over 300 places in new supported accommodation units for people with disability whose ageing parents can no longer care for them at home.

We are also examining ways to remove the barriers to social participation and help carers find jobs and stay in the workforce through the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth inquiry.

And we are providing $27 million to boost respite for Australia’s young carers and for carers of young people with a severe or profound disability. Twenty million dollars has been allocated over three years for respite support for around 6,000 carers of young people with a severe or profound disability. And young carers will receive more than $7 million over the next year to help them juggle completing their education with their caring responsibilities.

I know how important this is. Just last week I met Josh, 16 years old who, with his Mum, cares for his father. A remarkable young man who is balancing his caring duties with going to school and growing up but who, like all of us, can feel like it’s all too much at times. When that happens he has a support person he can call – someone to listen, to offer advice, to organise a home tutor if he’s falling behind at school. Someone Josh can connect with.

Carers are just one group at risk of social exclusion.

Often whole communities suffer social exclusion through a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, sub-standard housing, high crime levels, bad health, disability and family breakdown.

As well, they lack what Rhonda describes as the participative community infrastructure essential to encourage and maintain thriving community organisations.

They simply don’t have the people with the skills, experience or motivation to get an organisation up and running and to keep it going.

I’ve seen this for myself where my local baby health clinic also runs playgroups for new mums, many of them barely out of childhood themselves. The clinic staff organise the playgroups, buy the glue and coloured paper and make the play dough.

So we have functional communities where a range of sporting clubs, volunteering groups, playgroups, service clubs and senior citizens’ centres all flourish – and then the disadvantaged communities where it’s a struggle to sustain even the most basic services.

The more disadvantaged the area, the harder it is for community groups to gain traction.

To better understand why this happens, my Department looked at projects funded by the Australian Government in the 57 most disadvantaged postcodes.

What they found was that the greatest frustration and obstacle was engaging initially with people and then keeping them involved.

There were also huge problems recruiting staff and volunteers, managing issues outside the scope of their activities project, and finding qualified interpreters.

I’m sure these difficulties will be very familiar to you all.

However, our research shows that the challenges are not insurmountable.

Creating an accessible and safe environment for participants, giving them a sense of ownership of the activity, developing good management practices and being flexible, all contribute to successful community engagement.

For example, last year, in Nubeena, Tasmania, the Tasman District School couldn’t field a school swimming team for the interschool swimming carnival because there weren’t enough students who could swim competently.

So the community got together and decided to organise a Learn to Swim program.

It attracted 47 people from the ages of 3 to 50 years, including children with disabilities. Their confidence and ability in the water flourished and now they have the foundations of a swimming team.

Of course getting positive results depends on more than just delivering funding to establish and operate the organisations.

The challenges are found not only within communities but also in the culture of community organisations delivering the services.

More needs to be done within community groups themselves to encourage social inclusion at the grass roots level. By that I mean, reaching out and welcoming people in – not turning them away.

One example of this would be helping sporting clubs adapt their approach to include children with a disability.

The Government’s volunteer grants program, which our recent Budget expanded by $15 million, is a funding source available for volunteer groups to purchase new equipment.

I’d encourage sporting, community and other groups to take up the challenge and this year apply for funding to buy new equipment that helps bring new people into the club – to use the grants to bring new people into the fold.

We, as a government, can help break down the barriers of exclusion by providing a little bit extra, and our Volunteer Grants Program is just one way we can help.
Of course, for people who have lived all their lives feeling socially isolated, taking that first step can be tough.

Going along to playgroup, turning up for canteen duty at school or volunteering for Meals on Wheels can be daunting if you’ve never done it before. Taking that first step through the door, going along to your first meeting can be intimidating.

That’s why organisations need strategies that first of all connect them with people who may not be clearly apparent as potential participants and then make newcomers feel welcome.

One of the most successful and effective ways of doing this is to establish groups at familiar, reassuring locations – places where people already routinely interact in small, everyday ways.

For example schools, pre-schools, child care centres, playgroups are all places where parents and families meet and mingle. We need to go a step further and use them more inventively to reach out to the isolated and disadvantaged.

The Prime Minister’s 2020 vision for universal, high quality, affordable Parent and Child Centres for all young Australian children can be the model and the goal, but we can work towards this vision today.

We can start to use the existing maternal health centres, where all mothers take their babies for check ups, as a place where they can learn more about how to get involved in their community.

We need to make the best possible use of the community locations and facilities that already exist as pivotal places for out-reach to begin.


I want to conclude by returning to the question of how governments can tackle and overcome entrenched social isolation in our poorest and most disadvantaged communities.

As I said, it is the responsibility of government to develop effective strategic policies and funding structures and to work in partnership with community organisations to implement them.

To succeed, our social inclusion agenda needs to operate effectively across the range of governance levels. The newly established social inclusion board, advising the Deputy Prime Minister, will provide expert leadership as we rethink how policy and programs across portfolios and levels of government can work together to combat economic and social disadvantage.

Equally important is the task we have in regenerating our community sector, investing in the capacity of non-government organisations to rebuild our social capital. Close to the ground these groups are often the best placed to make a difference to people’s lives. To thrive, our community sector must be supported and assisted.

The Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion, Senator Ursula Stephens, is leading the negotiations for a new community compact between the Australian Government and not for profit sector.

Government, through my portfolio and others, has an important part to play in the regeneration of our community. We can do this through re-examining small but important issues like how we better manage our funding contracts and grants processes and strengthening governance and group resilience.

As the shape of our community changes – demographics, work habits, family structures, the environment – so too must government’s relationship with community groups.

I want a new focus on social inclusion. The vital role of community groups in not just tackling but also preventing social exclusion cannot be over-estimated.

That’s not to say that the only worthy community groups are those that deal with people on the margins, but that community groups are in an unequalled position to help bring a sense of belonging and control to the socially isolated.

In so many ways community organisations are already central in the fight against social isolation. They are at the very frontline. Building community spirit, reaching out to others, epitomising great community values like friendship, connection and inclusion.

I want to give community organisations the recognition they deserve in the Government’s social inclusion agenda.

And to make sure they have the support they need to keep get the job done.