Julia Gillard launched my book Disconnected in Parliament House yesterday. Here’s her speech.
Disconnected by Dr Andrew Leigh MP
SIR FREDERICK HOLDER ROOM
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
Tuesday 26 October 2010
It is a real pleasure to be here today to launch this book and I again congratulate you Andrew on your election to parliament.
You bring great gifts to public life and I know you will make a great contribution for the people of Fraser and for the people of Australia.
The publication of this book continues a long Labor tradition of elected represent-tatives taking seriously the job of inquiry and analysis though the written word.
Think of Barry Jones, John Button, Craig Emerson, Lindsay Tanner or Wayne Swan; and in an earlier generation Race Mathews, Gough Whitlam and Jim Cairns.
Andrew Leigh now joins that long tradition of Labor intellectuals and he is a very welcome addition to that pantheon indeed.
Like his mentor Robert Putnam, Andrew Leigh has for a decade or more patiently collected data on the trends and patterns that map the state of our social capital over the past 60 years.
And the result is this new work, Disconnected, which I am honoured to launch today.
Like Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone, Disconnected is a revealing snapshot of where Australian society stands in 2010.
Revealing and disturbing because it clearly shows that our incredible accumulation of wealth and personal freedom has been accompanied by a loss of community.
Andrew’s research quantifies something we’ve all suspected for a
- That there has been a widespread decline of participation in activities such as sport, religion, culture and volunteering, representing a worrying erosion of our social capital.
Those over 40 will be tempted to suggest that we’ve felt a shift from a way of life geared towards building social capital to a way of life where social capital is too often degraded and taken for granted.
As Andrew shows, that temptation is not without foundation.
Australians in the immediate postwar era were a nation of ‘joiners’.
More often than not we were active members of churches, unions, sporting clubs and political parties.
We volunteered in any number of community groups like the Lions Club or the Country Women’s Association.
We went ‘out’ to the movies instead of sitting in our home theatres.
We dropped in on friends and relatives and saw them face-to-face over
a cup of tea.
We visited the green grocer, the butcher and the bakery along a strip of main
And the elderly were much more likely to be cared for at home and indeed to live
in households containing three generations.
Today, as Andrew notes, we use self-service check-outs and online banking.
We buy our bus or train tickets from a machine and no longer get to say g’day to
a toll booth operator because we’ve moved to electronic tags.
We’ve even replaced the luxury of browsing a bookstore with uploading books online.
It would be easy to simply blame technology which of course has a part to play.
And it is all too tempting to romanticise a past which hid many problems behind a facade of civility and cohesion.
But the truth is that social capital is declining, and while many people have the capacity for adaptation, large numbers of our fellow Australians are at risk of falling through the cracks and being left behind.
As that happens, the ambit of government is forced to expand to fill the gaps in our social fabric which, contrary to the views of some commentators, is not something anyone on the progressive side of politics wants to see.
Because we know that however worthwhile transfer payments and other government interventions are, in the end they cannot replace the fabric of a healthy and vibrant community.
Nothing we do in the public sphere can ever substitute for having a good friend who can look after your kids when you suddenly have to work a night shift.
Or a local footy coach who gives a kid that extra sense of belonging because he knows things are tough at home.
Or the neighbour who checks in on an elderly neighbour because they haven’t been around for a few days and they’re worried.
These things are the essence of a good community, and Andrew’s book shows that regrettably such bonds are getting weaker, a conclusion reinforced by the Australian Social Inclusion Board in its report released in January How Australia is Faring.
Andrew’s findings suggest that this decline is not the result of any conscious decision but a by-product of new patterns of work and life that have emerged in recent years; and he lists them:
We work longer hours.
We spend more time commuting and those commutes are often more frustrating due to congestion.
We’ve suffered from the impact of television, which Andrew shows has had a corrosive effect on civic life wherever it has been introduced.
We spend more of our lives using impersonal technologies.
And Andrew indicates two factors that he believes have served to reduce social capital even though they are otherwise beneficial:
- increased female participation in the labour force, which Andrew shows has diminished the social capital of our communities although it has obviously brought many other advantages to women and to our wider society;
- and ethnic diversity, which the book shows can reduce the bonds of trust and cohesion, even though it also brings enrichment to our community in so many other ways.
Of course these sources of change are not going to be shifted quickly.
Indeed some should not or cannot be changed at all.
Nor is it the case that all of us will feel the decline of social capital equally.
A member of Generation Y who can invite 150 friends to their party via Facebook probably won’t feel they live in an uncaring society.
They may even feel an expanded sense of possibility in this new world of flexible workplaces, multiple career options and limitless technology.
But certainly there are those in our community for whom the decline in social capital has taken a real toll, and if Andrew’s book prompts our concern, it is to them our thoughts must first turn.
That includes those suffering from social exclusion because of chronic illness
From living with disability or mental illness.
From a lack of skills or self-esteem to engage with the workforce.
From geographic isolation, often compounded by poor public transport.
Or perhaps from being a new migrant without the language skills or cultural knowledge to fully participate in the community.
No matter the cause, all of these fellow citizens have a claim on our understanding and on our compassion as they negotiate a society ever more complex and less cohesive.
For many, inclusion begins with the security of welfare assistance and a place in public housing, the most basic elements of our social contract.
But a worthy agenda of social inclusion requires so much more.
It means investing in early childhood development and incentives to encourage better parenting.
It means giving people access to the transformative power of skills and education.
It means lifting our fellow Australians from dependence on welfare to the benefits and dignity of work.
And it means equipping our non-profit sector with the tools and confidence to craft new responses to meet changing needs and demands.
I would also add that broadband will open up now possibilities for the socially isolated such as the elderly and home bound, a good reminder that the NBN is as much a social investment as an economic one.
All of these things are absolute priorities for my government and profound personal commitments for me as Prime Minister as well.
But in the end, as Andrew’s book itself concludes, building community is not something that can be left to government or its partners in the non-profit sector alone.
It is a job for all of us.
It is a job for each of us.
As Andrew argues, we need to value our communities by doing the small things
than can help rebuild social capital step by step, day by day.
And he gives a range of simple examples like patronising your local small businesses or holding a street party.
Donating to charity or sharing your time through volunteering.
Trying to ensure you eat lunch at work with others rather than alone.
And getting involved in a some kind of sporting group, activity or hobby.
He also adds this interesting idea: “Contact two politicians”, a suggestion I’m sure
he wrote before being elected to parliament!
As Andrew freely admits, this list is “just for starters”.
But more importantly, and this is his concluding note, it starts with us.
All twenty-two million of us.
Government can’t do it alone.
We can do much.
But we can’t do it all.
Margaret Thatcher may have once said that there is no such thing as society.
I would put it very differently and say: there is no substitute for community.
We cannot be the nation we want to be without the web of cooperation and trust that comes from a healthy accumulation of social capital.
As this book shows in sobering factual detail, that reserve of social capital has been degrading for 40 years.
It’s time to pause, take stock and rebuild.
And I thank Andrew for giving us a roadmap of how we might begin that journey in our own lives, just as this government has commenced that same journey at the policy level through an ambitious agenda of social inclusion and reform.
I congratulate Andrew on this wonderful achievement.
It’s a great way to announce your arrival in public life and to signal that your formidable gifts of insight and intellect have been placed squarely at the service of the common good.
I also take this opportunity to thank Andrew’s family for their forbearance because the creation of a book is never easy at home.
Finally, I commend Andrew’s editor Phillipa McGuinness and the publishing team for bringing this work so handsomely to life because you have not only printed a book but helped sustain and enlarge a conversation that is vital to our nation’s future.
With these thoughts in mind, I proudly launch Disconnected –
Written by Dr Andrew Leigh and published by the University of New South Wales Press –
And wish it every success.
Thank you very much.