Above: Penny with artist, Kathie Curtis and her wonderful painting "Flowers" (acrylic on canvas).
As we are marking this year’s Social Inclusion Week, it is a good time to think seriously about those members of our community who are living in the margins and not fully on the page.
While many of us are blessed, and can be thankful for that, there are many who are not. During this special week in the calendar we are reminded of those people who are not as fortunate, who are disengaged, disadvantaged and unable, temporarily or more long term, to find a way back in.
People who are doing it really tough are frequently drowned out in the melee of modern life. But today I have moved a motion in the Senate to commemorate this important week in our calendar; it’s a chance for us to say, collectively, ‘we know you’re part of our community’ and ‘you belong’.
Australia has often been referred to as the ‘Lucky Country’ and perhaps we are. Certainly, our wealth, per capita, is high compared to many other countries, especially many of our neighbours. But that’s not the whole story. Despite our relative affluence, there are many people in our community who are facing isolation and exclusion and don’t get a ‘fair go’. The distribution of wealth and access to resources (financial and social) within a country is an important marker of the fairness and fortune of that nation.
There are many reasons a person can become isolated and excluded from the rest of the community: loss of a job, poor physical or mental health, family troubles, unexpected expenses leading to escalating debt, poor education, insecure housing, lack of transport and difficulties making ends meet in the face of rising living costs. Any and all of these can contribute to a person being left out of the mainstream, stranded on the sandbanks. And ‘person’ often means ‘people’ - with families caught up together and many children now experiencing intergenerational disadvantage and poverty.
Often these problems are not distinct - they are usually interconnected. So unemployment results in low income, low income can be linked to housing stress, homelessness can lead to physical and mental health problems and so it goes – the links are varied and complex.
Having grown up in the 60s and 70s, at a time of relatively low disparity in incomes and wealth, I have some difficulty recognising the Australia I see today. The 80s brought the “greed is good” ethos and since then various recessions and financial shocks have done little to slow the widening gap between those who have a lot and those who have very, very little.
In 2011 there are more than one million Australians living in poverty while some of our biggest corporations are posting record profits and advancing million dollar pay packets to their CEOs. There is an increasing recognition across the board that some social security payments are grossly inadequate to enable a person to live in a dignified way and participate in community life. For example, a single person on Newstart with rental assistance receives just $295 a week. Recently an economist from the University of New South Wales told the Tax Summit that, after renting the cheapest possible housing on the fringes of Melbourne or Sydney, this would leave them with $16.50 a day to pay for everything else. How to survive and look for work? Food, clothing, transport? Nothing at all for medical or dental bills. No holidays, nothing remotely resembling a luxury. This makes for a hard, relentless slog. And shifts people to the margins.
Social inclusion is about your kids being able to go on school excursions and have uniforms like everyone else, having access to buses or trains, being able to afford to go to the doctor, having access to a cheap supermarket, and not having to move home every year when the lease expires... But it’s not just about money. It’s about feeling entitled to be in the public space, not having to rely on hand-outs to make ends meet and your kids seeing you hold your head up high because you feel valued and respected. A community which acknowledges the worth of all its citizens is a rich community indeed.
To ensure that all Australians can share the same story, having access to well-planned and reliable infrastructure and social structures is crucial. The Greens believe that everybody has a right to adequate resources to allow them to participate fully in society and achieve their full potential. Secure housing, good transport for mobility and autonomy, quality education, access to health care, healthy food and culture – these things all go a long way to creating a liveable, inclusive community for us all.
We are working across our range of portfolios to achieve this kind of community. So, Scott Ludlam has great initiatives on dealing with the housing crisis and Richard di Natale is working on our Denticare policy in order to address the shame and social disadvantage which comes from poor oral health and rotten teeth. Strong mental health services, a fair go for people with disabilities, quality school and university education and social security allowances which allow people to live with dignity... All Greens policies.
This year’s Social Inclusion Week theme, ‘Collaborate, Connect and Celebrate,’ is a strong call for Australians to address the root causes of social exclusion and isolation. It acknowledges the benefits of having everyone on the page so that we can have a national story we are proud of.
This is everybody’s responsibility – the best outcomes will be achieved if governments, non-government organisations, businesses and communities work together to value and promote inclusion. But farsighted and fair policies are needed to lead the way in addressing current inequalities.
For each of us, this week is a perfect opportunity to think about what we can do to make another fellow Australian feel they are a valued and respected member of the community. And we can also make lots of noise about our vision for an inclusive and fair society. In the end, we all stand to benefit.
My motion called on the Senate to note that
The 19th to 27th of November 2011 is Social Inclusion Week
Social Inclusion Week aims to help Australians feel valued and to give people the opportunity to participate fully in society,
Building relationships and networks within local communities, workplaces, families and friends can address isolation and exclusion by supporting people who may be unable to help themselves
Many Australians face isolation and exclusion associated with financial disadvantage, poor educational attainment, poor health and mental health, lack of infrastructure, unemployment, rental stress, the rising cost of living
The entire community will benefit from addressing poverty, improving educational, transport and employment services and enabling people to participate fully and with dignity in community life
And called on the Government to
Collaborate effectively across all tiers of Government to encourage people who are otherwise isolated and excluded to connect with networks and groups within the community
Address the needs of marginalised people through equitable provision of basic services and adequate levels of welfare.