Towards an Authentically Australian Approach to Social Inclusion
22 September 2008 at 3:19 pm
Australia has a huge opportunity and challenge to systematically reform social policy over the next decade, according to the executive Director of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence.
BSL’s Tony Nicholson spoke recently about the way ahead for an authentically Australian approach to social inclusion at a symposium called Social Inclusion Down Under, at Melbourne University.
He says such an approach will require resolution of some of the our fundamental issues.
Here is an edited extract from his speech:
Firstly, we need to nail down what we mean by social inclusion and lay out a set of principles that will guide policy and practice. Too many people are tending to simply re-badge as ‘social inclusion’ their well-established ways of thinking and doing.
The BSL’s working definition is as follows: ‘A social inclusion approach involves the building of personal capacities and material resources, in order to fulfil one’s potential for economic and social participation, and
there by a life of common dignity.’
It stresses personal capacities – health, education social networks, material resources – adequate housing transport, income and access to services, to fulfil potential for economic – work- and social participation – recreational, cultural, sporting and everyday living activities, and thereby a socially valued lifestyle.
A matter for all Australians is that new cross-sector partnerships will be needed, involving business, all levels of government and the community sector.
Economic and social participation will be at the top of the hierarchy of outcomes we seek.
People will have a voice at the local level in determining the priorities for assistance and the way in which it is delivered. A joined up service delivery will be matched by joined up policy.
This list is a starting point. No doubt other principles could be added. My point is that without a set of guiding principles that we sign up to and take seriously, we won’t get the systematic reforms to
social policy and practice that I’m looking for.
And an authentic Australian approach to social inclusion will require resolution of some fundamental issues that have been with us for some time.
The first is rigor in human capital investments.
We need to understand with greater precision this relationship between investing in disadvantaged people – their education, their health and their housing – and the economic returns it can produce.
And where the return on investment is a moral one and not an economic one, we need to be transparent about it. Many have adopted the rhetoric of investment without truly understanding the critical metrics to the investment necessary to bring the disadvantage into the mainstream economic and social life of the nation.
I believe this lack of certainty leads us to invest the least we can and accept outcomes that may be far less than what could be possible.
The second is the need for a strategic approach.
We need a strategic plan that tells us not only where we want to go in the longer term, but where best to begin allocating resources now. The strategy period will need to be a decade (that is, ten Budgets).
Morality and common sense tells us that we need to begin by giving priority to certain groups of people and to certain places – most notably, people in remote indigenous communities, young homeless adults and their children, people with physical and mental disabilities, and the postcodes and neighbourhoods with the highest concentrated disadvantage.
In the first stage of the strategy this means that these people and places will be given privilege over others – a difficult electoral bullet to bite but better than spreading resources thinly to no effect.
The third is getting governance right.
We live in a diverse country – with each community having its own mix of economic base, cultural difference and social problems. Uniform national programs run out of Canberra will not meet local needs. Only devolved governance structures can hope to maximise the effective allocation of resources and integrate programs at the local level without involving a labyrinth of bureaucracy.
Finally, of course, it will take money.
It’s time for decent tax reform to ensure our taxes are raised in the most transparent and progressive way. We need to change the way we view taxation: we have to stop seeing it as a device for churning tax back to taxpayers, and start see it as part of the new ‘nation building’ agenda for government, involving investment in human capital, infrastructure and social inclusion.
We need to strengthen our tax base to give us the wherewithal to invest in people and to encourage and enable greater workforce participation, as well as to maintain a fair and just society.
We should be looking to broaden the income tax base, eliminating some of the more outrageous deductions, concessions and loopholes, like the massive capital gains tax concessions and negative gearing deductions that almost everyone concedes have given us some of the highest house prices in the world and provoked a rental crisis that is causing homelessness.
The opportunity is before us. We need to be grasping it in very practical ways through policy formulation and through demonstration.
And we must keep in mind that serious reform of this nature is hard work for governments – particularly during extraordinarily tricky times in the international economy. We must be ready to lead as well and support each incremental step the government takes in establishing an authentically Australian social inclusion strategy.