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Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Catholic Education Sandhurst Gathering of Leaders Conference – Bendigo, Victoria

Location: Bendigo, Victoria

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I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, past and present, of the land on which we meet, the Jaara People. And congratulate the FIRE carriers who we saw commissioned today.

I am delighted to be with you today. Thank you for Phil for your invitation.

Like many Catholics I’m descended from good Irish stock and I’m grateful to my parents for nurturing me on a diet of activism and participation. We were a feisty Irish catholic family in country NSW and I was sent to school in Grafton with the Mercy Nuns.

It was those great Mercy nuns who introduced me to the issue of social justice in a formal way and taught me the importance of being a critical and independent thinker.

I started my working life as a teacher and today, as the Government’s Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion, I work every day to overcome social inequality in Australian society and strengthen our communities.

So if you were to ask me what Catholic education can bring to Australian society my answer is this: A strong sense of social justice.

Catholic schooling draws on a long lineage of Christian activists and develops young adults with a conscience and capacity to contribute to society.

Pope Benedict XVI told students gathered in 2006 at the Pontifical Gregorian University-where students have studied since 1551:

Only in reference to God’s Love…can man find the meaning of his existence and live in hope…Hope ensures that man does not withdraw into a paralyzing and sterile nihilism but opens himself instead to generous commitment within the society where he lives in order to improve it. This is the task…that fills every human being with the greatest possible dignity, but also with an immense responsibility.

Far be it for me to correct the Pope’s gender language….but yes, Catholic education can produce young men and women who are informed, tolerant, open and just.

Who have developed an open mind on contemporary issues.

Who value diversity and promote social justice. And who are well equipped to ‘bring hope’ to their communities and the world at large.

As Catholic educators you are educating the leaders of tomorrow. I know that everyone in this room takes this responsibility very seriously indeed.

But imparting good education to your students is only half the story. Producing young adults with a social conscience and a strong understanding of the ‘common good’ is just as important.

Education without values, or knowledge without ethics, is an incomplete education – something we all discovered in the fallout from the global recession.

By educating students to respect and safeguard the ‘common good’ the Catholic education system can have a profound impact on Australian society.

President Obama a year ago had this to say about the common good:

… 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.

I’ve had reason to ponder the meaning of the phrase the ‘common good’ on two occasions this year.

Most recently when Bishop Pat Power launched the Catholic Social Services Australia’s Social Inclusion Agenda Paper. Perhaps some of you were at the launch earlier this month at Parliament House?

It captures the economic, sociological, spiritual and psychological perspectives of the social inclusion debate in Australia.

It has much in common with the Government’s own Social Inclusion Agenda.

As part of this agenda we’re asking what can we do to keep children engaged in their learning, especially if they live in a jobless family.

In Australia we still have some families characterised by intergenerational disadvantage – where dad, mum and even grandparents have never had a job.

Our social inclusion agenda is about finding ways to break this cycle of disadvantage.

For many, life’s obstacles are formidable – and often insurmountable – without support and help.

The Government recognises that despite Australia’s high economic growth of the last decade, many Australians have been left behind. Despite 10 years of prosperity, there are still many Australians who lack the opportunity to realise their potential and participate fully in Australia’s economic and social life.

We want all Australians to have the opportunity to learn, work, connect with others, and to be able to speak up and have their voice heard in their community. And you are the best people to bring these voices to the debate.

The Social Inclusion Conference last month brought together representatives from government, business and the not-for-profit sectors. We shared ideas on how to make practical changes to ensure every Australian gets a fair go.

We asked: What can we do to make our vision of a fairer Australia where no one is left behind, a reality?

The Deputy Prime Minister suggested some answers when she launched the Australian Government’s National Statement on Social Inclusion: A Stronger, Fairer Australia, which is available on the social inclusion website.

It sets out our vision and strategy for social inclusion both now and into the future. It recognises the impact that disadvantage has on the lives of many Australians and their capacity to participate and contribute to their communities.

It also acknowledges that disadvantage is caused-and often perpetuated across generations-by a complex interplay of factors like poverty, mental illness, living in a disadvantaged area and a lack of educational opportunities.

The Social Inclusion Statement will guide governments, business and not-for-profit sectors. It suggests ways to work with disadvantaged Australians – and with each other – to reduce disadvantage and build stronger and more resilient communities.

When I look at Bendigo, such a beautiful town, I know that there would be pockets of disadvantage. And if you want to know where they are, ask the parish priest or school principle. It’s important to work with these leaders on identifying these children and finding ways to bring them back and keep them engaged.

At the social inclusion conference, Michael Marmot talked about the impact of socio-economic status on health. We’ve learned that you can almost determine a child’s life outcomes by looking at their postcode.

We’re about challenging this – about ensuring the gap between the haves and have-nots does not widen but indeed is diminished.

And isn’t it fabulous that the Australian Government has invested over $25 million into Catholic schools in the Bendigo area. I know this has moved school master plans ahead by several years. And we’re introducing trade training centres and bringing broadband to schools.

This is a real affirmation of the importance of the work you do.

As a government we say we want to put people back at the centre of policy-making – and there are no more important people than our children.

Your students are the future and we rely on them to bring hope to the world in coming years.

Working together, with hope, to overcome inequity and injustice, is what we – the Government and the Catholic educators of our country – are called to do.