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Better Together

At my community forum in Belconnen today, I kicked off with a speech about the importance of community life, what’s happened to civic activity in Australia over recent decades, and what we might do to improve Australia’s social capital.

Better Together: Ten Ways to Revitalise Community*

Andrew Leigh
Federal Member for Fraser

Belconnen Labor Club
20 April 2011

There are many reasons to love Canberra, but the number one reason is its social connectedness. Since time immemorial, people have enjoyed the simple pleasure of sharing time with friends and neighbours; of working collectively together in clubs, groups and associations; of strengthening the social ties that bind us together as a people.

In this speech, I will refer to these ties as ‘social capital’, by which I mean the networks of trust and reciprocity that link multiple individuals together. These bonds exist between two friends who meet on Friday night for a beer. Such networks link together the members of a local cricket team, who know that trusting teams win more games. And social capital joins together co-workers, who find that working together gets the job done faster.

Social capital is the idea that the ties that bind us together have a value in themselves. The other main types of capital are physical capital – such as machines and roads, and human capital – such as knowledge and skills. Social capital is a bit controversial in some circles, but that was once true of human capital too. In the 1960s, people debated whether you could place an economic value on people’s skills like the value that you placed on a bridge. Eventually, we agreed that human capital had economic value. More recently, people have been debating whether social capital like interpersonal ties are economically important. My guess is that in a generation’s time, social capital will be accepted as just as important as any other form of capital.

It is easy to see how trust greases the wheels of commerce. A plumber who turns up on time and charges the quoted price is a guy you’ll hire again. The barista with a smile helps ensure that her customers will come back for their next day’s coffee. A boss who encourages workers to knock off early on quiet days is more likely to find employees willing to stay a little longer when times are busy. As Adam Smith once pointed out, when two people are repeatedly interacting with one another in a market, they are more likely to behave well towards one another in their society.

Of course, social capital isn’t invariably good. Criminal gangs rely on trust, and so are a form of social capital. But equally, such gangs have human capital and physical capital. The world would be a safer place if Osama bin Laden had fewer friends – but that doesn’t negate the general rule that societies are healthier if they have more social capital.

My interest in social capital came while I was working as a researcher for Harvard Professor Robert Putnam. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, showed that social capital in the United States had declined from 1960 to 2000. The more I read about Putnam’s research, the less confident I became about the notion that the social fabric of my own country was as intact as a brand new pair of Speedos.

To test the theory, I began collecting snippets of evidence from Australia. How had community organisations fared? Were people more involved in politics? What about workplace engagement? Were churches emptying out? How about sports? Do we volunteer more or less? Can we drop in on our friends without calling to make an appointment?

Just as some people collect coins and others collect Pokemon cards, I collect pieces of data. Through dusty libraries, emails, telephone calls, and online, I have been steadily accumulating as much evidence as I can about community life in Australia. In a decade of on-again/off-again research, I have compiled a mountain of statistical evidence about social capital in Australia since about World War Two. The result was a book called Disconnected, published last year by UNSW Press.

What Has Happened to Social Capital in Australia?

The data clearly point towards certain conclusions. When it comes to organisational membership, surveys show that we are less likely to be active members of any association today than we were in the 1960s. This is partly because organisations themselves have gone out of business. There are fewer associations in Australia today than in the late 1970s, and the average age of members of organisations has risen. This is also because existing organisations have shed members. As a share of the population, mass membership associations peaked in the late 1960s and have declined markedly since then.

As to people giving their time, Australia saw a rise in the share of people volunteering in the late 1990s (perhaps because of the Olympics), but volunteering rates are probably still below their post-war peak. And the proportion of us who give money to charity has stayed stable over recent decades.

One of the forms of civic activity that has suffered most over recent decades is religious participation. This is partly because Australians are becoming less religious over time. But it is mostly due to declining attendance among believers. Among the faithful, the share who attend a church, synagogue or mosque today is substantially lower than in the past. Younger Australians are considerably less likely to attend a religious service than their parents or grandparents.

Political life has also taken a hit. Since about 1960, the share of Australian citizens who cast a valid vote has fallen. Across all major parties, official membership numbers have collapsed. Among those who remain, many are inactive. Australians have low levels of confidence in politicians, which will make it difficult to reinvigorate our democracy.

In workplaces, unions have traditionally been one of the main forms of social capital. In three decades, the share of the workforce in a union has dropped from around 50 per cent to under 20 per cent. The institutions that have emerged to replace unions – such as employer-sponsored telephone helplines – make little attempt to perform any social capital function.

When it comes to sport, Australians are about as likely to watch a live sporting match as in the past. But we are substantially less likely to play an organised sport. On the cultural front, moviegoing rates are substantially lower than in the 1950s and 1960s, and rates of participation in cultural events (such as museums, art galleries and botanic gardens) have dropped since the early 1990s.

In tracking informal socialising, I found evidence of a decline in the number of close friends and neighbourhood connections from the 1980s to the 2000s. On average, Australians shed two friends who would keep a confidence, and half a friend who would help them through a difficult patch. Compared with respondents two decades earlier, the typical Australian in the 2000s has one and a half  fewer neighbours of whom they could ask a small favour, and three fewer neighbours on whom they could drop in uninvited. We are also more likely to live alone. In response to those who claim that informal socialising has merely moved online, I argue that new technologies may end up reducing trust and reciprocity rather than increasing it.

The last set of indicators are those relating to trust and honesty. Here, the picture is more positive. Interpersonal trust has risen slightly, and ratings of the ethics and honesty of professionals have improved (though bankers and lawyers have slipped backwards). It is also true that the best long-run measure we have of crime trends – the homicide rate – peaked around 1990 and has declined since then.

To the extent that social capital has been eroded in Australia, I conclude in Disconnected that there are several plausible explanations. The share of people working long and unsociable hours has made it more difficult for people to participate in community life. The feminisation of the workforce – on balance a terrific development – has meant that organisations historically run by housewives have struggled to stay afloat. Ethnic diversity – again a development that I think has been on balance a great strength for Australia – tends to be associated with lower levels of social capital.

Technologies have also played their part. With the growth of television, many of us have replaced friends with Friends and neighbours with Neighbours. It’s handy to be able to use ATMs and scanners rather than bank tellers and checkout staff, but that’s two more human interactions that we miss out on each day. Lastly, the growth of car commuting not only saps hours from our day, but makes us more frazzled when we return home.

The difficultly with these explanations is that we can say good things about most of them. Australia is clearly better off on balance for being a more ethnically diverse nation, in which more women participate in the paid workforce than in the past. Long working hours mostly reflect the preferences of workers, not bosses. Few of us would voluntarily relinquish cars, televisions or ATMs.

What this means is that any attempt to increase social capital in Australia will not involve a backlash against the causes, but new and innovative strategies to make us more socially connected. We need to shape a better future, not simply try to revive the past.

In thinking about how to boost social capital across Australia, it is worth asking the question: Where is social capital strongest? In which Australian city are people most likely to give time and money, engage in the political process, and participate in local sports?

Canberra: the Social Capital

I’m proud to say that on virtually every social capital measure, Canberra is at or near the top. Canberra has the highest share of charitable donors and the highest volunteering rate. In a given year, 85 percent of Canberrans give money to other causes, compared with 73 percent of those in NSW. When it comes to giving time, 38 percent of Canberrans volunteer in a given year, compared with 33 percent of Victorians.

What do we know about attendance at sporting events? According to the latest data, 47 percent of Canberrans attended a sporting event in the previous year, compared with 44 percent nationally. There’s an even bigger difference when you look at those who actually take the field. 41 percent of Canberrans say that they play organised sport, compared with around 30 percent in the rest of Australia.

On the cultural front, Canberrans are twice as likely to attend an art gallery or museum than other Australians, more likely to go to the movies, and significantly more likely to go for a stroll around the botanic gardens.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. What’s the point of those poor souls interstate watching live sport when they can’t cheer for the  Raiders, the Brumbies, the Canberra Capitals, or the Prime Minister’s XI? Why should they go to their local gallery when they know that Canberrans are choosing between seeing Alfred Deakin’s portrait at the Museum of Australian Democracy or Ned Kelly’s death mask at the National Portrait Gallery? Sure, you’re saying, interstate residents would probably go to the botanic gardens more often if they knew that the cool solitude of the National Botanic Gardens was no more than a half-hour drive from their front door.

Fine, let’s look at a few kinds of activities that other places pride themselves in. It’s true that we don’t have a Sydney Opera House, but we’re significantly more likely to have attended a musical or opera than NSW residents. We don’t have a Melbourne Arts Centre, but we’re more likely to likely to have gone to a theatre performance than Victorians. For that matter, Canberrans are more likely to have gone to a zoo, a pop music concert, or a dance performance than other Australians.

Perhaps less surprising is the fact that Canberrans are also more engaged in the political process than most other Australians. Across the country, 7 percent of enrolled voters failed to show up, while 5 percent showed up but voted informal. Put those two figures together, and you get a worrying 12 percent of the electorate who failed to cast a valid vote. Canberrans are both more inclined to show up, and less likely to vote informal. So the share of Canberrans casting an invalid vote is 10 percent.

Don’t get me wrong about this: 10 percent of the electorate failing to cast a valid vote is 10 percent too many.  In my own electorate of Fraser, I’m especially concerned that the number of informal votes rose from 2679 in 2007 to 5171 in 2010.  That’s more than five thousand people whose vote didn’t get the chance to affect the outcome of the poll. But it’s nonetheless true that people in the ACT are more likely to cast a valid vote than in most parts of the country.

So why has the ACT cracked the secret of social capital? One answer is urban design. In other Australian cities, you have to burn a litre of petrol to buy a litre of milk. But plenty of Canberrans can walk down to their local shops. Canberrans don’t have to choose between living in the suburbs or having walkable access to neighbourhood shops. Many of us have both.

Another part of the answer lies in commuting times. The typical city-dweller in Australia with a full time job spends 270 hours a year commuting to work – the equivalent of 11 days a year. For Canberrans, it’s 182 hours a year, or more like 8 days. For Sydneysiders, the number is 13 days. That means Canberrans who work full-time have 5 more days a year than Sydneysiders to spend with their friends. We need to work hard to make sure that a growing population in Canberra (particularly on the northside) doesn’t leave us spending more time in our cars and less time catching up with mates.

Ten Ideas to Boost Social capital

But it’s not enough to pat ourselves on the back for the fact that Canberra has more social capital than the rest of Australia. The fact is that it’s quite probable that just as Australia’s civic fabric has weakened over recent decades, so too the same thing has happened in Canberra. The same factors that drove a decline in social capital across the nation – impersonal technologies, shifting work patterns, and changing demographics – have affected Canberra. So it’s worth considering how we can improve community life in our nation’s capital.

Now given that I’m a politician, you’re probably expecting to hear about ten pieces of legislation that I hope to move on the floor of parliament. But my view is that while some things can be done by governments, a social capital renaissance, is more likely to occur through grassroots action than legislation. To help it happen, here are ten simple ideas for building social capital.

1 Hold a street party

When asked, ‘Do you mix socially with your neighbours?’, 28 per cent of people answered, ‘Never’. No-one is suggesting that you spend every Saturday night listening to Mrs Botswell from next door complain about the weather. But shouldn’t you at least know her name? Hosting summer drinks for your street one Saturday afternoon in December provides a chance to get to know the neighbourhood.

Over the past six years, my wife Gweneth and I have run a street party on four occasions. Can I let you into a secret? It’s almost no work to organise. A few weeks beforehand, we print off an invitation and drop it into people’s letterboxes. And thanks to the magic acronym ‘BYO’, we simply provide the venue. It so happens that we quite like our neighbours, but even if we didn’t, there would be good self-interested reasons to host a neighbourhood gathering. Knowing your neighbours makes life easier when you decide to replace the fence, host a noisy party, or hit a cricket ball into their yard. You’re also less likely to get burgled if your neighbours know you. If someone carries your television out the front door, who do you think is more likely to shout ‘stop thief’: a neighbour who came to the party last year, or one you’ve never met?

2 Reclaim the footpaths

One of the things that marks out strong communities is the number of people strolling the streets. One marker of healthy neighbourhoods are those where elderly couples pound the pavement in the morning, parents push their prams around the block at lunchtime, teenagers walk with their friends after school, and professionals go for a jog after work.

Good footpaths are the lifeblood of a strong community – as essential to social capital as powerlines are for electricity, telephone lines for communications and sewerage systems for hygiene. Yet in too many communities, people have taken to parking cars on footpaths; discouraging walkers and runners alike. Social capitalists should send a simple message to car owners everywhere: footpaths are for feet.

3 If you have a local store, use it

At the end of 2009, writer Andrew Norton told his blog readers the tale of his local Melbourne milk bar. ‘Last Saturday, as I have almost every Saturday over the last decade, I went into the milk bar at the corner of Barkly St and Canning St in Carlton to buy the papers. On the verge of tears, the owner told me that this would be the last time I’d do so.’ In the 1950s, Norton observed, milk bars sold three-quarters of Melbourne’s confectionary, ice cream and soft drinks. Today, many are struggling to stay in business.

What makes local stores different from the supermarkets and mini-marts that have replaced them is that their owners are an integral part of the community, immersed in its passions and problems. Keeping them around is an integral part of maintaining a more connected Australia.

4 Be selfish: donate

Recent research has shown that when you put a subject in a brain scanner and ask him or her to think about giving money to charity, the same parts of the brain that become active are those that light up when thinking about food, sex or drugs. Giving money away can be a great way to help others, but it also comes with its own hedonistic rewards.

Of course, that’s not to say that you should open your wallet to the first person who knocks on your door. There are large disparities in effectiveness across charities, as well as substantial differences in how they go about their work. Doing a bit of homework first can help you find the one that’s best suited to your tastes.

5 Use new technology to build face-to-face connections, not replace them

Recognise that emailing and web-surfing can become addictive. If you’re sick of answering email, try checking a few times a day rather than a few times an hour. And before you post that a comment on your friend’s Facebook status, have a quick think about whether she might prefer a phone call.

But be quick to embrace innovations that make it easier to meet old friends and find new ones. GPS-enabled mobile phones now allow you to give friends access to your current location, making it easier for them to drop in on you when you’re at the local café (you can always turn it off). And for groups, Meetup.com helps to connect like-minded souls.

6 If your organisation is dwindling, revive it

If you are involved in an association that seems to be withering on the vine, then think about how you might bring it back to life. Sometimes a guest speaker can help, whether it’s an expert from the nearby TAFE or university, or a local expert with a compelling story to tell. Perhaps the venue could be better – have you asked the local council whether it provides space for community groups? Maybe people are a bit peckish – could members take it in turn to bring some biscuits along?

Another valuable step can be to run a simple survey (ideally, one that can be answered in 5 minutes), asking people what they like and don’t like about the organisation’s meetings. And make sure you survey people who don’t regularly come to meetings as well as those who do.

7 Give time

There are myriad volunteer associations that need your skills, and can be found at websites like VolunteerMatch.com.au, GoVolunteer.com.au and fido.com.au.

Why should you become a volunteer? The late Herb Feith was the founder of what is now Australian Volunteers International, which sends 500 Australians overseas annually to help in developing nations. He once said ‘Volunteering is symbolic of human solidarity, of human equality’. It’s true, of course – but the quote makes him sound awfully earnest. In life, Herb was anything but earnest. As a child, I remember his infectious laugh, his engaged eyes, and his whacky sense of humour. Herb volunteered not only because it was important, but also from the sheer joy of helping others.

8 Contact two politicians

Are you infuriated about something that a politician has done lately? If the answer is no, please check to see that you still have a pulse. Regardless of your interests, you almost certainly have a hot-button issue. Whether it’s global warming or foreign policy, potholes or the postal service, participate in the democratic process by phoning, emailing or writing to a politician.

But like dogs and small children, we politicians need praise too. So while you’re chastising one pollie, find another who is doing a great job and tell them about it. For members and senators, time is extraordinarily scarce. If you want them to stay the course, a pat on the back never goes astray. And of course, if you don’t have time to make two phone calls, just contact one politician, and tell them what you most like and dislike about what they’re doing.

9 Break bread with others

Do you work in an office where lunch consists of a sandwich at the desk? Break the cycle by being the one who initiates a group of people going to lunch. A former work colleague of mine, Paul Frijters, used to walk the ANU corridor each day at noon, knocking on everyone’s doors and shouting ‘The lunch train is leaving! The lunch train is leaving!’ (Paul is a six-foot Dutchman with a shaved head, so the invitation was hard to miss.) If there isn’t the culture of a social lunch at your workplace, you may find few takers at first, but persist and you may be the next Paul Frijters.

If you have children, do your best to keep up the tradition of eating dinner together. I was unable to locate any statistics on the share of families who regularly sit down to an evening meal, but my suspicion is that long work hours and rising television viewing have made it less common than in the past. According to one survey, favourite family television programs are a more common form of bonding than shared family dinners. If you can, eat with your kids.

10 Try a new activity

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to learn to swing dance, take up lawn bowls, or join the State Emergency Service? Put aside a few evenings and take the plunge. You’ll meet people and learn something new. It’s possible you won’t enjoy the experience, but hey, you can always quit. On the off-chance that this becomes your avocation, it’s worth spending a few hours to find out. For that matter, you can build social capital without joining a formal organisation. The global ‘Random Acts of Kindness Day’ movement attempts to build bridging connections by encouraging small spontaneous gestures of generosity to complete strangers.

Recent health research backs this up too. There is some evidence that new activities can help your brain stay supple – perhaps staving off dementia or Alzheimer’s for a few years. Different activities, challenging tasks and provocative conversations create new neural pathways, which can ultimately create new synaptic connections. Social capital can be good for your brain.

This list is just for starters. Depending on your inclinations, you might also opt to join a union, political party, church, mosque or temple. You might join a neighbourhood action group – or start one. Or you might start with something as simple as smiling at the next person you pass on your morning walk.

Conclusion

One of the things I love most about Canberra is introducing this fabulous city to friends visiting for the first time from interstate or overseas. I live in Hackett, so the first thing I’ll often do is to take them for a walk in the Mount Majura reserve. If we time it around dusk, the rosellas will swoop over our heads, the kookaburras will be letting out their belly laughs, and the kangaroos will be coming down to the edge of the reserve to graze on the thicker grass. After seeing the wildlife, we’ll probably stroll down to Wilbur’s, our new local café in the Hackett shops, which serves macchiatos and muesli in the morning, before switching in the afternoon to Coopers and gourmet pizza. The café is run by the three sons of James Savoulidis, a Greek entrepreneur who opened the first pizzeria in Canberra in 1966, and taught Gough Whitlam to dance the Zorba a few years later.

If we wanted different cuisine, we could easily enjoy terrific Ethiopian in Dickson, fabulous Chinese in Campbell, delicious Vietnamese in Griffith, or great Turkish in Barton. Or for that matter, we could pick up some fresh-baked pastries at Cornucopia or Silo, and have a picnic on Aspen Island, at the foot of the National Carillion. If it’s a weekend, we might take the visitors to our favourite wood-carver at the Kingston Bus Depot markets, to the local farmers’ market at Exhibition Park, or to the Trash and Treasure market that Belconnen Rotary Club have been running at Jamison since the 1970s.

When Canberra turns on its charm and offers that perfect day where the sun shines, the water glistens and the temperature isn’t too cold nor too hot, it’s easy to see how the city charmed the Federal Parliamentarians who visited in 1906 and 1907 on their tour of potential sites for the new nation’s capital. Federal politician King O’Malley once of the decision about where to site Australia’s national capital ‘I want us to have a climate where men can hope. We cannot have hope in hot countries.’

Walter Griffin considered that a city’s architecture, landscape and town planning ought to be integrated into a humanised and romantic environment. For a city to flourish Griffin believed it needed a community with ‘great democratic civic ideals’. He wanted our capital to be a place where citizens enjoyed a high quality of life based on ‘egalitarian legislation, genuine public spirit and organic scientific cities’. Speaking in Minneapolis in 1912, he told the audience:

‘We can all be interested in the Australian Federal Capital city not so much for what it is now or will be necessarily, but because of what it stands for; as an opportunity, the best, I believe, so far afforded for an expression of the democratic civic ideal and for all that means in accessibility, freedom, wealth, comfort, conveniences, scale and splendour’

If Canberra were a person, I like to think that it would be an egalitarian patriot, the kind who knows the past, but isn’t bound by it. Canberrans may be home to the Australian War Memorial, but we were the only state or territory to vote for Australia to become a Republic in the 1999 referendum.

In 2013, Canberra will celebrate its centenary. Already plans are in place to use this chance to re-engage Australians with their capital, and build legacies that last well beyond the celebration itself. Walter Griffin said that he was designing a city for a nation of ‘bold democrats’. We need to use this chance to think about how we want Canberra to develop over the century ahead.

In an era when Australians are becoming disconnected from one another, Canberra has some of the highest rates of civic engagement in the nation. Canberrans are more generous with our time and money, more engaged in our local community groups, more likely to play sport with our friends and neighbours, and more likely to participate in cultural activities. Part of the reason for this is that we spend less time in the car than most other Australians. But I suspect that we owe a debt to Marion and Walter Griffin for helping to forge a city in which local communities really mean something.

* Parts of this speech draw on a speech that I gave in the Sydney Opera House in 2010, titled ‘Why Canberra is the Best City in Australia’, and on my book Disconnected (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010).

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