Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Social Inclusion Policies – Annual Australian Workplace Conference, Sydney

Location: Hilton Hotel, 488 George St, Sydney



  • – Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people the traditional owners of the land.
  • – Barry Hughes, Chief Economist, Credit Suisse
  • – John Buchanan, Director, the Workplace Research Centre
  • – Paul Smyth, General Manager, Research and Policy Centre, Brotherhood of St. Laurence


What a different world we now live in since Julia Gillard opened last year’s Australian Workplace Conference.

When Julia spoke to you last year we were in the middle of prosperous times: the dollar was almost at parity with the green back, interest rates were on the increase and we were struggling with skill shortages in a tight labour market.

We had only just started the work of dismantling the previous government’s pernicious WorkChoices and replacing it with a fairer system, and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme had yet to take shape.

And in terms of the social inclusion agenda, we were trying to work out why despite all the prosperity, grinding intergenerational poverty stubbornly persisted in our communities.

Around this time I remember receiving Anglicare Australia’s “State of the Family” report that said the following:

The general case for social inclusion is that at a time of unprecedented prosperity it is unacceptable – and inefficient – for significant sections of the population to be marginalised from mainstream social and economic participation.

The report then went on to question the assumption about Australia’s prosperity – how far had it really spread throughout Australia’s community? It spoke of the changing faces of the people who were coming to Anglicare’s doors for support – a new group of clients facing severe financial hardship because of the rising cost of day-to-day living and credit extended too easily. The other major church welfare providers echoed these observations.

The next month, the US financial system collapsed.

This might all seem like a light year ago, but I wanted to take us back to the moment in time – less than one year ago – to highlight the very different context in which we started our social inclusion work. And to use this as a starting point in talking to you about how the social inclusion agenda has grown and matured as the environment has changed.

When we first began our term, social inclusion was about recognising that stubborn disadvantage persisted despite the prosperous times and despite past attempts to address it. It was about understanding that such deep disadvantage could not be fixed by single, isolated treatments of individual, uncoordinated actors.

To truly include people on the margins in the richness of community life, we would need services that focused squarely on the needs of the person, rather than the convenience of the service provider. To develop services that “wrap” around the person in the place where they live and at the time that they need them.

With the help of the Australian Social Inclusion Board appointed by the Prime Minister, we identified six priority groups at particular risk of exclusion:

  • – Jobless families
  • – People living with mental illness or disability
  • – Homeless people
  • – Indigenous Australians
  • – Communities experiencing concentrations of disadvantage and exclusion; and
  • – Children at risk of long term disadvantage

We stated that social inclusion is about ensuring that all of these groups – all Australians – have the opportunity and capacity to learn, work, engage and have a voice.

So from the outset, social inclusion was both the vision for the nation and also the blueprint for a new way of working. A way of working that recognised the complexity of the problems and the need for strong partnerships not only within governments, but across governments and with the business and non profit sectors too, if we were to truly make a difference for the most marginalised Australians.

Our vision didn’t falter when the economic crisis hit.

In fact, you could say that social inclusion was the guiding principle for much of the government’s quick and effective response to the impending economic storm.

From the moment the seriousness of the financial crisis became apparent, the government’s first priorities were to secure the financial system, stimulate the economy, and most of all, to preserve jobs.

Because in the words of a parliamentary colleague, we knew that unemployment is not just a symptom of an economic crisis, it is the crisis itself.

We know that having a job is much more than an income. A job represents the opportunity to connect and participate, and is a source of self-respect and dignity.

This is why preserving and creating jobs has been the driving purpose of the government’s economic stimulus response.

The Local Employment Coordinators funded as part of the stimulus package are an example of how the social inclusion approach has influenced the government’s actions to minimise the impact of the economic downturn.

These coordinators are being placed in 20 specific localities across the country that have been selected using the Australian Social Inclusion Board’s methodology for identifying communities experiencing severe and complex disadvantage.

The role of these coordinators? To preserve and create jobs in any way they can. Their brief is to be a link between business, non profits, government at all levels and people in need of a job.

This location-based approach is a new way of working. Sending government assistance directly to the places where there is most need and placing the focus on making the links and developing the partnerships through which success is most likely to be achieved.

It’s also about respecting that local communities often know best what they need.

We also recognise that people need different services at different stages of the life-cycle. People can be particularly vulnerable at the transition points from home to school, from school to work and from work to retirement.

So we have been extremely concerned about those young people who are on the cusp of completing their education and will be looking for work in a difficult employment environment.

These are the people who have been at the heart of the Youth Compact that was announced by the Prime Minister a few months ago.

Statistics tell us that young people who come of age in tough economic times and who don’t get a foothold into the labour market struggle to find employment not only during the economic downturn, but even when the economy returns to growth.

These vulnerable young people risk becoming long-term unemployed – part of the long tail of disadvantage – from where they will struggle to participate fully in the economic and social life of our nation.

We are determined that these young people will not have to carry the burden of the present economic downturn for the rest of their lives. The Youth Compact is the government’s compact with them that says “we will find you work or training to ensure that when recovery comes you will have the skills for new employment opportunities.”

So the social inclusion approach of tailoring services to individual needs has been a guiding principle in the government’s swift action to minimise the impact of the global economic downturn on Australians. We know that the one-size-fits all approach doesn’t work and for the past 19 months we’ve been steadily reforming the programs of the past to be more responsive to individual needs – and ultimately to be more effective.

We have created a new employment service – Job Services Australia – that is better able to provide individualised assistance to people looking for employment. The new system is focused on matching training, skills development, work experience and job placement to people’s particular needs. And there are specialist streams for people who face specific obstacles to employment.

There is also our $41 million Innovation Fund that funds innovative place-based projects aimed at overcoming barriers faced by the most disadvantaged job seekers, such as the long-term unemployed.

People with a Disability or Mental Illness

But perhaps those who experience the most exclusion of all from the workforce are people with a disability or mental illness.

I’m not sure if any of you have had a chance to read the report launched by Minister Macklin and Bill Shorten two days ago entitled Shut Out: The experience of people with disabilities and their families.

It makes for some harrowing reading.

It tells the stories of people with a disability and their carers. Many of whom, to quote the report, “live desperate and lonely lives of exclusion and isolation.”

The report goes on to relate that discrimination and exclusion are frustrating features of daily life for people with a disability, where many find that their qualifications and competency as candidates for jobs are rejected because of their disability. And, in an echo of one of my earlier comments, the report concludes that the prosperity of recent times has not been shared equally.

This grim reality is simply not acceptable in a country that prides itself on equality and a “fair go.”

At a time when discrimination is not accepted on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity, it is astounding that, as the report found, the majority of people with a disability feel excluded from community participation.

So we are tackling the exclusion of people with a disability on numerous fronts, simultaneously and with passion.

For starters, we have invested $5 billion into a National Disability Agreement with the states, doubling the funding we provide to states for disability services. This money will provide specialist disability services, including respite, supported accommodation and early intervention.

Then there is the National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy to be released later this year. Bill Shorten and Brendan O’Connor spent much of last year travelling the country listening to the hundreds of people with a disability or mental illness and their carers.

The strategy will map out how we can remove the barriers faced by people with disability or mental illness that make it harder for them to gain and keep work.

And then in the broader scheme of things, we have a new workplace relations system, brought into law in the last sittings of the Senate. A system that actively promotes equality and decency in Australian workplaces and brings dignity back into the work place.

I know that many people here today were instrumental in building the evidence base around WorkChoices that made clear its destructive effects on the working lives of so many Australians. And I would like to thank you for that valuable work that helped us build the case for a fairer system that respects the rights of all Australians.

Third sector workforce

But the government’s call on your expertise hasn’t ended with the passage of the Fair Work Act.

Our social inclusion work requires a different skill set to that of the past. Recognising this, we’ve begun an internal transformation across the Australian Public Service – away from mainstreamed, institutional and siloed service delivery and towards approaches which are collaborative and innovative, that ‘wrap’ services around individuals.

At the same time, we need to look at the workforce capacity of our major partner in our social inclusion work – the non profit, or third, sector.

As most of you would know, the last ten years saw systemic and long-term underinvestment in third sector workforce capacity. The previous government simply wasn’t interested in investing in the sector’s capacity or sustainability. And there was a profound lack of trust and respect in the relationship.

I have been tasked in government with fixing this.

I am leading the development of a national compact with the sector – to help repair the broken relationship and find new ways to work together to support each other’s contribution to our society.

We are now a year and a half into the journey of developing a compact. During this time, there’s been a lot of discussion about sector sustainability, and specifically the sector’s capacity to attract and retain staff with the skills and capability to deal with the complex problems of social exclusion.

Earlier this week I launched an online forum that will be home to the final stages of these discussions. I would really value your input in this debate – to work in partnership together to shape up a set of actions for both the government and the sector. We need to ensure that staff on both sides have the skills they need to really be able to turn exclusion into inclusion.

This is obviously a complex proposition. We need your expertise.

So it would be great if you could join in on the online forum ( www.socialinclusion.gov.au/forums) – write a submission or be a part of, or even run, a guided discussion with the discussion tool kits we’ll be providing.

My hope is that we can work together in an active partnership. Collaboratively shaping the action plan outlining how we build the capacity of the people who we’ll rely on to help us reach our social inclusion vision.

You once helped us battle the WorkChoices threat to our way of life. Now’s the time for us to work together to finish the job of creating an inclusive, fairer Australia by ensuring the people who are dedicated to this mission are equipped for the task.