Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Social Inclusion Conference, Melbourne

Location: Melbourne

*check against delivery*


  • The traditional owners of the land on which we meet – the people of the Kulin Nation
  • Our speakers and special guests:
  • Deputy Prime Minister
  • Minister Macklin
  • Patricia Faulkner AO, Chair of Social Inclusion Board
  • Sir Michael Marmot
  • Christine Davies
  • Most of all, I’d like to thank all of you for coming to take part in this national conversation on social inclusion.

This has been an extraordinarily rich and challenging day. We have been presented with provocative evidence about what it means to be social excluded in Australia today, – in terms of personal, social, economic and policy impacts.-  moments- of hope, enlightenment, ‘light bulb moments , and policy conundrums.

So my task this afternoon is to draw together some of the threads of today’s discussions and reflect a little on where we’ve been – and where we’ll be going tomorrow- and then we can retire to the cocktails.

We began with a vision – the government’s vision for an inclusive, fairer Australia. And a discussion about what we value as a government and what we value as a society. An Australia where everyone has the opportunity to learn, to work, to engage and to have a voice – and to have that voice heard. We took this vision outlined by Minister Macklin with us to our conversation later in the morning on what an inclusive Australia might practically look like.

Sir Michael’s presentation this morning injected a sense of urgency into our discussions and challenged us to think in terms of gradients, not just the baseline indicators, and why these issues matter personally to all of us. It is impossible not to feel spurred to action in the face of the weight of data connecting social inequality to health outcomes, which have ramifications for government policy across the board. There are many public servants here today and this was invaluable evidence to inform their policymaking.

These are some of the complex problems that the Australian Social Inclusion Board has been grappling with. This group has risen to the challenge presented to it by government, and in her State of Social Inclusion in Australia report, the Chair, Patricia Faulkner provided us with a snapshot of how we’re faring –  and how we now have the baselines from which we can begin constructing our own gradients.

We heard that while most Australians live well, some are doing it very tough.

And the Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company nailed it for all of us. Such a powerful presentation. I heard over lunch that it moved some of us to tears – and not just the representations of the experiences of young people, but also the predicaments of teachers, social workers and other adults trying their best to help.

Regardless of where we live, whether we have a job or not, what our life circumstances at any one time may be, as the Deputy Prime Minister so simply but powerfully stated – “We are ultimately made of the same stuff.”  This is the moral imperative that drives the government’s social inclusion agenda.

Last year I  helped launched a great campaign “Imagine a life,” developed  by Taskforce here in Melbourne which invites Australians to do just that – to put themselves in the shoes of others – to, “imagine a life in conflict, a life without a home, a life without an income and a life without a voice.”

We have had a glimpse into some of these lives today and they’re not easy places to be. I know that many here today are engaged in working with the people who live these lives ( you don’t have to imagine them) and I’d like to acknowledge the enormous challenge of this work and the incredible value of the jobs you do.

During her speech, the Deputy Prime Minister launched the government’s Social Inclusion Statement that outlines the compelling case for social inclusion – to make Australia a fairer and better place and a more prosperous society overall. Supported by international evidence, we know it to be true – fairer societies always do better on almost every major indicator of social and economic life. In other words, everyone benefits.1 If you haven’t read the Spirit Level it makes for compelling reading on this topic – building an irrefutable case for ensuring that everyone has a place in our community. That’s why we as a government will not leave anyone behind as we recover from the global financial crisis. 

For those people who have at times wondered about the objectives, plans and actions of the government’s social inclusion agenda, this will be essential reading! It provides the rationale for this different policy approach, why we need to take action and what the government plans to do. It is a very rich document, and it echoes much of our conversation today.

One of the key themes in the Statement has also been a recurring theme in today’s discussions -the importance of developing, nurturing and supporting effective partnerships and collaborative approaches.

Today’s conversations have reemphasised what we all know – that governments need to build sustainable and respectful relationships with individuals, organisations businesses and communities to effect real change.

And in this context I mentioned the government’s commitment to engagement with the third sector and the work I’ve been leading on a National Compact.

This compact is about transformation – not only in the way we work together, but also in the positive change that our joint efforts can achieve.

So before we head off to our cocktails, some final observations.  We couldn’t have had the discussions we’ve had today two years ago, such as this morning’s open conversation in which a member of the social inclusion board John Falzon was able to voice his views on government policy in respectful open policy debate. I also found our constructive panel exchange about rights, advocacy and personal agency gave us plenty to think about.

And this all comes back to the point that government is elected to govern, but that no government has all the answers to intractable disadvantage.

This approach is a quantum leap from the old ways to the government’s purposeful social inclusion approach. These are the kinds of policy debates that have been missing in Australia for too long.  

Even the things we’ve touched on today leave a lot of people invisible and some of our shared policy challenges in Australia still unframed.

To provide some examples, our morning’s discussions touched on the possibility of a disability insurance scheme, but who is thinking about the service models of this scheme and how this might benefit people with a disability?

Another question is who is thinking about the policy challenges and service models for meeting the needs of ageing gay and lesbian couples? This is another policy challenge coming down the pipeline that I haven’t heard anyone talking about.

Further, as Pat McGorry and David Crosbie have said so compellingly in recent days – we have to confront how systems can meet the needs of people with a mental illness. And in the words of David, how can we ensure people with a mental illness can flourish and not languish?

I said earlier today, the status quo isn’t good enough. So how do we change? There are important policy challenges for all of us in this room that will give us plenty to think about in the year ahead.

Which leads me to tomorrow – our second action packed day. A day that’s focused on innovation and action planning.

So just to finally wrap up, President Obama a year ago said this – and I was thinking about this quote as Bill was recounting his experiences of his recent journey through America:

… a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous.  The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

And in his state of the union address today, he reiterated his commitment to these principles.

To quote another of my favourites – and as many of you know I’m a Leonard Cohen tragic – “Forget perfect – nothing’s perfect. There’s a crack in everything and that’s how the light get’s in.” This is what we need for tomorrow – a fresh light to shine on our discussions, policymaking and planning around social inclusion.

But today’s quotable quote went to Tony Vinson – “The Rudd Government’s Social Inclusion Agenda is a brief opportunity to institutionalise a good impulse” – so let’s use tomorrow to the full!

  1. Richard Wilkinson & Karen Pickett , The Spirit Level, Allen Lane, 2009