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Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Connections Seminar – ‘Social Inclusion – the opportunities and challenges moving forward’

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Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this evening.

Tim Costello’s speech just now has reminded me of just how far the social inclusion debate in government has moved since 2007.

Tim spoke of people asking themselves the question “do I matter?” This poses another question for policy-makers, which is how do we prioritise our energies and programs to address long term and complex disadvantage in these difficult economic times.

Tony Vinson’s seminal work Dropping off the Edge revealed a very confronting fact – a postcode can determine the quality of a person’s life. His report concluded that disadvantage is intergenerational, stubbornly persisting in the same geographic locations over time.

We in government want to know why the approaches that have been taken to date have not worked. We continue to have intergenerational joblessness, low levels of home ownership and low levels of income concentrated in specific locations. Why has this not been fixed?

Answering this question is what the social inclusion agenda is about.

We have decided that a fundamental change we will focus on will be putting people at the centre of the approaches we take to addressing these problems.

This is a difficult task because traditionally government approaches have been mainstreamed, institutional and administered in silos. We have tended to compartmentalise people – people with a mental illness, people who are homeless, people with a disability – rather than recognising that people are multifaceted and will need approaches which are collaborative and innovative and that ‘wrap’ services around individuals.

The Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs has been leading work on a citizen-centred policy approach and I have been talking with her about the opportunities to develop this in sync with our social inclusion agenda. Its unfortunate she couldn’t be here tonight to talk about this vital work. We recognise to change the way policies and programs are designed we need an enriched and effective public service which doesn’t just manage contracts, but can work nimbly in a joined-up way towards the best outcomes for our public citizens.

So our social inclusion agenda coalesces three key Government priorities:

  • – The longing for connection
  • – Entitlement to work, whether it be an hour a week, part-time or full-time
  • – Encouraging people to have a voice, to be involved in the decision-making around them. It is so important to have the person at the table to explain what would work well.

At the 2020 Summit last year we spent a lot of time at the beginning of the social inclusion session identifying what was different about the social inclusion approach. Once we had determined this we realised that we would need a social inclusion action plan.

The government has begun work on this action plan. It will be one of the biggest projects the government will progress during our time in office. Already you might have noticed elements of this filtering through in the various work programs the government has been progressing. For example, the whitepaper on homelessness that was released last year with its promise of “no exits to homelessness” is an enormous step forward.

Previous mental health policies have seen people discharged from mental health facilities with no place to go. This is appalling and unacceptable, and is why our new approach to homelessness will work hard to ensure that there are no such “exits’ into homelessness.

To progress our social inclusion action plan, we’ve set sup several structures. The Australian Social Inclusion Board is a varied group of eminent Australians such as Chris Sarra, Fiona Stanley Executive Director of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth and John Falzon CEO of St Vincent de Paul.

We have also established the Community Response Taskforce to provide the government with information on the impacts of the Global Financial Crisis. This is a group of representatives from the non profit sector. They have been telling us about how the economic downturn is brining new types of clients to their services – people who have never before needed to turn to welfare providers for support.

The GFC has seen a real shift in the landscape that is influencing our social inclusion work. One example is the impact on philanthropic funds which has flow on effects to the capacity of non profit organisations to undertake their activities.

However, rather than detracting from this agenda, the Australian Government’s commitment to social inclusion is only going to gain momentum in view of the challenges facing us as a nation and as a global community.

This is because we know that only the social inclusion approach has the ability to effectively minimise hardship, particularly for people who were doing it tough before the economic downturn became apparent.

So I thank you for the commitment to social inclusion that your presence here today demonstrates and encourage you to use your positions within the public service, and as thought leaders in academia, to partner with us in government in working towards our social inclusion goals.