Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Speech to the Political Parties and Civil Society Forum

Location: Canberra

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  • The Ngunnawal people – traditional owners of this land
  • Mr George Anderson – President and CEO of the Forum of Federations
  • Professor Brian Costar – Professor of Victorian Democracy, Swinburne University, Melbourne
  • Dr Norman Abjorensen – Policy and Governance Program, ANU, and forum organiser.

Thank you for the opportunity to come and speak with you this afternoon on a topic about which I have a particular passion – the interrelationship between the concepts of civil society and social inclusion.

Like any complex construct, confusion abounds on the exact definition of these two terms.

Despite civil society being the much older of the two, there is surprisingly little agreement on the exact meaning of the term.

To quote an academic from the London School of Economics and Political Science “One thing that helps to explain the present universal popularity of [the term] civil society is its very fuzziness – it can be all things to all people.”

So I thought I’d begin by outlining my view of what constitutes civil society, before moving onto a discussion of social inclusion and how the government perceives the dynamic between the two.

In my view civil society refers to the in between space – “the space between the state and the market,” as Antonio Gramsci put it in his political and social writings.

This space is inhabited by a collection of groups that in many cases have little in common with each other, apart from the fact that they are neither business nor government – and with the emergence of the social enterprise movement, even this commonality is becoming a little blurred.

But in general, the kind of organisations found in civil society are professional associations, religious organisations, community groups, labor unions and citizen advocacy organizations that speak out for various sectors of society. The common factors between these diverse groups being their non-profit nature and their facilitation of public participation in the social or civic life.

Social Inclusion, on the other hand, is quite a different beast. Whilst civil society is a collective term for the organisations and activities in the non-government, non-business space, social inclusion is instead a concept that speaks of the state of being of an individual.

Social inclusion takes as its starting point the reality that some people in our community suffer entrenched disadvantage, a deep disadvantage that is not just limited to poverty but also prevents engagement in any facet of Australian life – whether that be economic, social or civic.

Social inclusion is about addressing this and ensuring everyone has the right and the opportunity to seek to fulfil their potential. It recognises that this potential can be fulfilled in any number of ways according to the interests and talents of the individual. It could be through learning in academic or vocational institutions, working in paid employment or participation in the life of the community. Social inclusion also demands that people have a voice, and that it is heard.

Whilst quite distinct, there is a definite relationship between the two concepts of social inclusion and civil society. In fact, one could argue that a flourishing civil society is a vital prerequisite of social inclusion. After all, civil society organisations are often the vehicle through which people seek out opportunities to learn, work, engage and have their voice heard.

And civil society is also the place where connections are forged between people – connections that can hold them together when times get tough.

Of course, the advocacy role of civil society has meant that the relationship between it and government hasn’t always been comfortable.

And governments have not always accepted the sector’s role of speaking out for those who struggle to be heard.

As you know, under the Howard government we witnessed the silencing of the third sector through particular clauses written into funding contracts. These clauses, also known as “gag clauses,” prevented organisations from speaking out against policy at the risk of loosing their funding.

This was an insidious undermining of the integrity of third sector organisations. And one of the first actions of the Rudd Government was to amend these contracts to remove these clauses that stifled the sector’s advocacy role.

Friction between civil society and government has also played out in the form of distrustful relationships between government agencies and third sector organisations: government mistrust manifesting as increasingly burdensome reporting arrangements and gag clauses, and sector mistrust leading to a cautious and secretive approach when dealing with government.

Apart from this hardly being a mature way to behave, the ultimate losers from this dysfunctional relationship are the people who are doing it tough, the people living on the edge who both sides want to assist.

This is because government and civil society need to work well together if the vision of social inclusion is to be realised. Government needs the deep reach of third sector organisations to be able to connect with people living on the edge, and in turn, third sector organisations need the resources and support that government can provide to sustain their work.

So when the relationship breaks down, those in greatest need suffer.

Which is why building a more functional relationship between the third sector and the Australian Government, through developing a national compact, has been a central component of the government’s social inclusion agenda.

For the past two years, I’ve been leading the government’s work on developing a national compact. This has involved a process of extensive consultations across Australia with a range of organisations from different parts of the third sector, including the arts, community, environmental and welfare.

This has been an absolutely intriguing experience. The diversity of organisations that constitute the sector and the conflicting dynamics that characterise it are quite fascinating. And attempting to forge an agreement between such a kaleidoscopic grouping, and a government that can be equally fragmented across its various portfolios, has required some creative thinking and a few departures from more established routes to a compact.

The journey has seen us arrive at the agreement that a common vision and shared high-level principles are the best foundations for our national compact.

Principles like: respect for diversity, and a commitment to enduring engagement with marginalised and disadvantaged Australians. The need for innovation, and an agreement that, on the basis of the “no harm” principle, we need to be able to measure the outcomes our efforts achieve.

In time, these principles will be built upon with a suite of actions that both sides commit to undertake. These action plans will sit underneath the compact, and enable discrete parts of the sector to raise their specific issues directly with the relevant arm of the government, whilst the overarching compact principles will guide how these actions will be carried out.

Whist the national compact is a central part of the government’s re-engagement with civil society, we also recognise that third sector organisations alone don’t make-up its totality. The volunteering movement plays an essential role, giving life to the third sector by filling out the spaces within and between non profit organisations.

The Australian Government recognises the value of volunteering as an essential aspect of civil society, and we have embarked upon developing a National Volunteering Strategy to recognise and support volunteers.

The Strategy will emphasise the value of volunteering to Australia and outline a framework to support this valuable work, this will include the role of volunteering:

  • in contributing to our vision of an inclusive society, and
  • in creating social cohesion, facilitating networks to build social capital and engendering a sense of belonging.

The strategy will be released ahead of 2011, which marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Year of Volunteering.

The work on the national compact and volunteering strategy recognise that it’s mostly in civil society that people begin to feel included. Whether it be the non profit employment agency that finds them a job, the local footy club whose weekly games provide companionship, or the human rights advocacy organisation who champions their cause.

Civil society has a powerful capacity to include people in activities that are meaningful to them.

So we are a government that is passionate about engaging with civil society, recognising that we don’t have all the answers to addressing deep disadvantage. The multifaceted nature of social exclusion defies single responses by single institutions and demands that we work in partnership across governments, with the business sector and perhaps most of all with civil society.

So we are working with state and territory governments through such institutions as COAG and are examining new ways to partner with the business sector to bring its particular strengths and expertise to the task. Our work in engaging with civil society through the compact and volunteering strategy is part of this broader approach of creating partnerships across government, business and civil society in pursuit of our social inclusion vision.

As Ban Ki-moon recently observed,

Our times … demand a new constellation of international cooperation – governments, civil society and the private sector, working together for a collective global good.

The government’s social inclusion agenda is our vehicle for implementing this approach. And I look forward to hearing the views from the other members on the panel today as to how we might best engage civil society as we work together for the collective Australian good.