Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Social Inclusion Week Launch – Sydney

Location: Macquarie University, North Ryde, Sydney


Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal people on whose land we meet today, and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

I would like to particularly acknowledge Dr Jonathon Welch AM, the founding Music Director of the Choir of Hard Knocks (now Choir of Hope and Inspiration). I saw Jonathan launching Social Inclusion Week on Sunrise this morning – and I must say I was very impressed by his ability to be so passionate and enthusiastic at that time in the morning! Which is, of course, an indication of the kind of energy that Jonathan brings to his work with people who are going through rough times.

Many Australians have been inspired and moved by Jonathon’s work with Choirs. His new project, the ABC series of ‘Jail Birds’ working with women prisoners demonstrates his ongoing commitment to bringing hope and dignity to the lives of some of our most marginalised people.

So I would like to acknowledge and honour this work, and also thank Jonathon and the organisers from Macquarie University’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion for inviting me to launch the inaugural Social Inclusion Week.

I am so pleased that this exciting initiative has become a reality. We have Jonathon to thank for this terrific idea – a Social Inclusion Week – and I congratulate him and his team on their vision and hard work in making it happen.

Social Inclusion Week starts today and will run until Sunday 29th November with community barbeques, neighbourhood street parties, sporting events and musical performances. Jon didn’t want to pontificate, he wants to do something about loneliness and exclusion.

These events will bring people together to enjoy themselves, to have fun.

The week includes celebrating and building positive and resilient communities, focusing on people and relationships, breaking down ‘them and us’ attitudes, and instilling a greater sense of belonging and shared community. But there is a lot more to it than that.

At tonight’s forum we have the chance to consider some critical questions, such as: What does social inclusion mean to Australians? How important is it to feel included? What do we mean by community resilience? And how is social inclusion achieved?

To help set the scene, let me tell you a little about the Australian Government’s work in this area.

Social Inclusion Agenda

Our approach to social inclusion acknowledges that the old ways have not worked.

Severe disadvantage was in our communities before the global financial crisis reached our shores, despite the decade of prosperity that preceded it.

When we came to office, we made a promise to the Australian people to work towards a stronger, fairer and more inclusive Australia.

This promise struck a chord with Australians who had become increasingly uncomfortable about the growing inequalities in our society.

The Government identified these early priority areas on which to focus its social inclusion work:

  • Addressing the incidence and needs of jobless families with children
  • Delivering effective support to children at greatest risk of long term disadvantage
  • Focusing on particular locations, neighbourhoods and communities to ensure programs and services are getting to the right places
  • Addressing the incidence of homelessness
  • Employment for people living with a disability or mental illness, and
  • Closing the gap for Indigenous Australians.

We are acutely aware that many Australians experience long-term and complex disadvantages like low income and assets, housing stress, poor health and difficulties finding and keeping a job.

These disadvantages can and do affect our community – as much as they affect individuals – and can lead to increased health expenditure on preventable disease and mental illness, higher justice and policing costs, and increased social welfare expenditure.

Recent international evidence has found that when governments focus on making society fairer, it produces benefits for everybody, even those who are not disadvantaged.

And it follows that when societies are made fairer, communities become more cohesive and people become more trusting of each other.1

We say that we want to move from problem to potential.

We saw a little of this at last week’s deeply moving apology to the Forgotten Australians and the symbolism of bringing these people to Canberra to the Great Hall.

As one Australian said “I never experienced the rich routines of everyday life with a much-loved adult. Without this bonding and learning I was unable to give and receive affection. I saw adults as powerful, strong brutes to be feared.”

Building Community Resilience

Supporting Australians who find themselves on the margins is a challenge for all of us, best done if we can walk a mile in their shoes and imagine for a moment the impacts of their realities.

It is a task we cannot tackle alone, so communities, businesses and governments need to work together.

Not-for-profit organisations are often able to do this well. Working “on the ground” they are able to build trust and relationships that foster community wellbeing and address disadvantage.

The Government recognises this and we are now in the final stages of developing a Compact or agreement with the not-for -profit sector.

It will be an agreement that will support a more respectful, productive relationship, so that we can work together to tackle the key social, economic and environmental challenges today and of the future.

There is so much more to social inclusion than reducing poverty or ensuring minimum income standards – as Jon says – it’s about us being more and showing more. It’s all about we.

It’s also about building positive and ‘resilient communities’ – so that they become places where we can trust and respect each other, embrace diversity, get help when we need it, participate in activities and organised groups, develop a sense of control over our own destiny and work at solving local problems.2

People are be empowered by a sense of belonging to community.

One way we build that sense of belonging is by volunteering.

Volunteers are vital contributors to the wellbeing of our society, enabling people to build their confidence, build up social networks, and become involved and valued in our communities.

Volunteers continually remind us through their contributions that every single Australian, whatever their background, has a role in building a more inclusive Australia.

More than 5 million volunteers help out regularly in Australia by fire-fighting, delivering meals on wheels, participating in festivals and fires, engaging in fund raising, running sausage sizzles, teaching English to immigrants – and much more.

The monetary value of their combined efforts is an estimated $42 billion per year, but their worth is so much more in our society.

In recognition of the important role of volunteers, I am driving the development of a new national volunteering strategy to guide Australia’s vision for volunteering into the future.

This is about celebrating, acknowledging, inspiring, affirming, supporting and encouraging our precious volunteer movement.

But tonight it’s about social inclusion. So this evening, it is with great pleasure that I officially launch the inaugural Social Inclusion Week.

  1. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, Allen Lane, 2009, 330 pages
  2. Extracts from Australian Social Inclusion Board, ‘Building inclusive and resilient communities’, June 2009