Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Social Inclusion, Vision 2020 Australia 6th National Member Forum

Location: University of New South Wales CBD Campus



  • The Gadigal people, traditional owners of the land on which we meet today

Thank you Jennifer for your introduction. I remember the early conversations I had with Jennifer during the initial set up of Vision 2020 in Australia in 2004. So it’s great to be here this morning.

I’m so delighted that you’ve chosen social inclusion as the theme for your forum.

The concept of social inclusion has become more prevalent in Australia as people in all walks of life come to grips with the concept and explore the issues.

I believe social inclusion is about walking the talk on equity.

And I strongly feel that the social inclusion approach is the only way that we will achieve lasting change for the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our community.

So, in order to set the scene for the social inclusion workshop that follows my time with you this morning, I thought that I’d explain to you my own understanding of social inclusion and how this vision and approach to social policy is directing the government’s work.

The UK Charity Commission provides a useful starting point with its observation that “Social Inclusion usually results from positive action taken to change the circumstances and habits that lead, or have led, to social exclusion.”

This is quite a profound statement. And whilst changes to circumstances are quite manageable for governments, changing habits are far more difficult.

The Commission concludes that social inclusion is about enabling people or communities to fully participate in society. And that’s what we here today are all about.

This UK framing of the issue is the staging platform for our own uniquely Australian approach. In our Australian context, we see social inclusion as being about ensuring all Australians have the opportunity and capacity to learn, work, engage and have a voice.

Social inclusion is therefore a vision for the kind of Australia we want to create, the kind of Australia we want to live in.

But social inclusion is not only an aspiration that inspires us to action. It is also an approach to designing policy and programs that are effective in minimising hardship and creating real outcomes for people who are struggling at the margins.

It’s clear that the old ways of applying individual treatments to deeply complex problems haven’t worked. We know this because even at the height of the economic cycle two years ago, people were nonetheless dropping off the edge.

Professor Tony Vinson’s report in 2007, with that very title – dropping of the edge, chronicled almost a decade of life in our most marginalised communities. Vinson found that despite the prosperous times, severe disadvantage was stubbornly persisting in the same geographic locations over generations.

How confronting to have your future determined by your post code. Profoundly disturbing.

The message in Tony Vinson’s work is that social exclusion will stubbornly persist when addressed by isolated activities that reduce individual problems such as poverty or homelessness, or increase employment and education opportunities.

Real change can only be achieved when creative policy and program design enables all these things to happen in unison – or as I like to say, when we wrap the services around the individual.

So the social inclusion way of working requires a more sophisticated and collaborative approach to policy and program design.

The Rudd Government has inherited a public service that has been focused on contract management and siloed models of service delivery. We are driving reform within the public service to a new social inclusion approach to policy design and program development.

This approach is fundamentally a strengths-based approach – recognising an individual’s and community’s existing resources and skills, and then working with these.

It’s about tailoring programs and ensuring they are sufficiently flexible so they can be adjusted to meet the specific needs of the individual.

And working in a coordinated and collaborative way that draws on a broad range of disciplines and brings all our services together in the place where they are needed. Adopting a commitment to holistic service delivery where we put people back at the centre of the services we provide.

And lastly, social inclusion is about ensuring that we actually make a difference, that our efforts achieve an outcome. And that’s why the last important component of the social inclusion approach is the need to develop evidence based policy. To draw from what works. And at times, this will mean challenging traditional policies, programs and platforms that are not meeting the needs of excluded and at risk groups.

So the social inclusion agenda is a transformational one – demanding change within government away from the siloed approaches of the past and towards coordination and collaboration. And also requiring changes in service delivery and the organisations that deliver them.

To this end, we in government have been working to coordinate our policies and actions across national, state and local governments, and with the business and community sectors. This means working together with a unity of purpose through established mechanisms such as the Council of Australian Governments, and creating new partnerships to ensure ‘joined up’ efforts and broad ranging expertise.

To ensure effective policy we need to work with specialists in the field, drawing from their expertise and partnering on development and implementation.

And this is why Vision 2020 Australia and its member organisations here today are so central to our social inclusion work.

Low vision can be one of the factors that, individually or in combination with other problems, can lead to exclusion from community life. We know that low vision increases our chances of injury, hospitalisation and depression. I talked about this just this morning when I met with some eye health professionals who are members of Vision 2020 Australia.

Social Inclusion Agenda

So I can think that we could say, if you pardon the pun, that we share the “vision” of an Australia where everyone has the capacity and opportunity to participate in our community.

In fact, the government’s social inclusion priorities and those of Vision 2020 are quite closely aligned in many ways.

One of these priorities is closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

We are determined to end the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that is reflected across a variety of indicators such as life expectancy, child mortality, access to early childhood education, educational attainment, employment outcomes and health.

And of course, one extremely concerning indicator, especially in remote Indigenous communities, is the prevalence of trachoma-a completely preventable form of blindness. Trachoma affects approximately 20 000 Indigenous children – a stunning statistic and one that is confronting to government.

I know that many of Vision 2020’s member organisations are dedicated to outcomes in this area.

Professor Hugh Taylor, the Chair of Indigenous Eye Health at the University of Melbourne laments the incidence of trachoma in Aboriginal communities. He says ‘it remains as staggeringly high as it was 30 years ago, and in some areas, is equal to the highest in the world.’

When you think about it, it’s a pretty shameful statistic and demands action from all of us.

That is why the Prime Minister announced $58.3 million over four years to fight chronic eye and ear diseases, including trachoma, in Indigenous communities. That funding started this month.

We are also expanding the Visiting Optometrist Scheme; increasing services to address trachoma and concentrating on improving hearing and eye health.

We are supporting the National Indigenous Eye Health Survey that will assess the prevalence, causes and impact of vision impairment. The survey will also investigate the use of eye care services and the barriers to healthcare for Indigenous Australians.

The survey will be an evidence base for planning and prioritisation of effective eye care service delivery, in line with the evidence-based approach to social inclusion policy that I discussed earlier.

Another of our shared social inclusion priorities is ensuring that people with a mental illness or disability have the capacity and opportunity to participate in the economic, social and cultural life of our nation.

It’s so lovely that you’re going to a gallery for your welcome reception this evening. Betty Churcher’s story has really highlighted the impact of vision loss on cultural life, and I think her story can be of great assistance to your cause of raising awareness about eye health.

Participation in working life also brings with it connection, engagement, experiences and friendship. This is why employment participation is such a strong part of the social inclusion agenda.

As part of our social inclusion agenda, we are developing a National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy. It will identify the barriers to employment faced by people with disability and set out a number of priority actions to ensure Australians with disability are not held back from pursuing their desired career path.

There has been extensive consultation with people with disability, carers, peak bodies, employers, service providers and trade unions during the development of this strategy. And I know that some Vision 2020 members, such as Vision Australia, have been involved too.

Effectively increasing workforce participation for people with a disability is going to require a three way cooperative effort between government, business and organisations such as yours in the community sector.

I know that my parliamentary colleagues Minister Arbib and Parliamentary Secretary Shorten will be relying on your advice and assistance as we look to launch and implement this strategy later this year.

This collaborative work highlights an important point about social inclusion- it is not something that government can achieve on its own.

The complex problems of exclusion defy individual treatments by individual actors.

Social inclusion is only achieved through collaborative and active partnerships.

An inclusive Australia will only be realised by the combined efforts of business, the community and broader third sector, and all levels of government working together to tailor their services to the needs of the individual rather than the convenience of the service provider.

And fundamental to this way of working are strong links and partnerships between governments, service providers, non profit and community organisations.

This is why I see the government’s development of a national compact with the third sector as a crucial component of our social inclusion agenda.

The objective of the national compact is to move to a new way of working together – a way that is based on mutual respect and trust that will enable the sector and government to more effectively build stronger communities, stronger more targeted services and build a space where we can have lively and frank discussions.

We recognise that the raison d’ĂȘtre of both the sector and government is ensuring the well-being of all Australians, and that when we work in partnership we are more likely to achieve this. We’re not competing, not conflicting, but working together.

So it is the social inclusion vision that inspires and underpins the compact.

I know that some of you here this morning have been involved in the development of the compact to date. Some of you may have attended the compact consultations held all over the country last year, which ACOSS was commissioned to carry out. Or you may have made a submission during this time.

Since that time, we have been working in partnership with sector leaders and public service representatives – which in itself has been a different process to the past – to develop a discussion paper of principles and potential actions for a compact. The discussion paper will be central to the next consultation phase, to begin next week.

I would like to encourage all of you to get involved. There will be a wide-variety of ways to contribute to the discussion:

  • Online forum that will run discussions on several key compact themes and enable us to prioritise issues.
  • Written submission
  • Targeted face-to-face consultations for difficult to reach groups
  • There will be a 1 800 number for people who have difficulty accessing the information
  • And an accessibility strategy that will include documents in brail and audio format.

We are also developing a learning circle kit for small group consultation that will include materials to assist with leading a group discussion.

As leaders in your own organisations, I hope that you will make use of these kits to guide discussion with your members and the people who you serve.

This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had this conversation between representatives from both sides. Whilst government needs to be able to accept criticism from the sector, the sector needs to honest and accurate in its feedback if we are to be able to build a trusting and respectful relationship.


I know that I don’t really need to encourage Vision 2020 to engage with government. It’s been a very active relationship.

Your fringe event at our National Conference this Thursday makes that quite clear. I see that you’ll be sparking a lively discussion about the role the Australian Labor Party can play in supporting that shared vision of eliminating avoidable blindness by the year 2020, looking particularly at the issues of social inclusion and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health.

I expect you’ll be coming up with some great ideas that you’ll be bringing before government.

I look forward to being challenged and inspired.

In turn, as I officially open this forum this morning I would like to leave you with a challenge for today.

One of Australia’s most well known and best loved ophthalmologists, the late Fred Hollows, once said ‘I believe that the basic attribute of mankind is to look after each other.’

And that’s what social inclusion is all about. We all have an obligation to look after people who are more vulnerable than we are – to “look after” and empower the people you serve with capacity and opportunity to learn, work, engage and have a voice.