FROM ÉROS TO AGÁPE: 75 YEARS OF RELATIONSHIPS AUSTRALIA
75th Anniversary of Relationships Australia Dinner
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Tuesday, 14 November 2023
Thank you Nick [Tebbey] for the generous introduction. I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and all First Nations people present tonight. I recognise former senator and High Commissioner George Brandis, and my parliamentary colleague Amanda Rishworth. I'm your appetizer. Amanda is main course. So her comments will be much deeper and more substantive than mine.
My thanks to Nick Tebbey and Lyn Littlefield for inviting me to speak today. It is exciting to be speaking at the 75th anniversary of Relationships Australia. I loved looking through the 75th anniversary brochure, which outlines how Relationships Australia emerged from the Melbourne Marriage Guidance Council, and notes that the council ‘was the first attempt at making a scientific approach to one of the world’s greatest problems – the problem of marital relationships’.
For those of us who are married, ‘the problem of marital relationships’ is a beautiful phrase that encapsulates the joy and the challenge of marriage. As an economist, I think of a good relationship as less like mining, and more like manufacturing. The idea of mining is that you simply find ‘the one’ and live happily ever after. But as The Whitlams put it, ‘She was one in a million. So there's five more just in New South Wales.’ Regarding relationships as manufacturing reminds us that relationships require ongoing work, as the two of you evolve together.
My parents, Barbara and Michael, who were married in 1967, talk about themselves as being two quite different people today than they were when they when they first got married 56 years ago. They’ve told me about the joy and the challenges of developing their relationship, as the two of them have grown.
One of the most poignant stories of marriage is that of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Her husband, John Jay O'Connor, was also a prominent jurist, and suffered from Alzheimer's disease, which played a part in Sandra Day O’Connor’s decision to retire from the Supreme Court. In his later years, John Jay O’Connor lived in an Alzheimer’s care facility in Phoenix. It came to a point where John Jay O'Connor entirely forgot who Sandra Day O'Connor was. He decided that instead, there was a woman in the home who he was had fallen in love with. In his final days, he would want only to hold the hands of the hand of his new love. Rather than disavowing him, Sandra Day O'Connor would sit there with him, holding his other hand. That for me reflects some of the majesty and the beauty that a lifelong relationship can encompass.
What I love about Relationships Australia is that you have evolved from your origins as marriage guidance counsellors to encapsulate a broader view of relationships. Just as Australia has become more diverse in our acceptance of same sex marriage and in understanding of the diversity of families. As a nation, we now recognise that marriage is just one way of forming connections. There are many Australians who maintain happy relationships outside of marriage.
Andrew Heslop started Neighbour Day in 2003, 20 years ago, and Relationships Australia took it on in 2014. That reflects your strong view that is in the words of Hillary Clinton, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and that working with communities is vital to sustaining healthy relationships.
This work is more critical than ever before.
Over the last generation, we've seen a decline in the share of Australians who are part of a community group, like Scouts, Guides, Rotary, Lions or the RSL. We've also seen a drop in the share of Australians who are part of political groups or social groups. We've seen a decline in the share of Australians who volunteer. It used to be about a third of Australians had volunteered in the previous year. Now that figure is down to just a quarter.
We've seen a drop in the share of Australians who play organized sport. When I was doing my PhD at Harvard, I worked as a researcher for Robert Putnam, who just brought out a book called Bowling Alone. Since Bowling Alone came out in 2000, sporting participation has fallen. Australians have been less likely to engage in both lawn bowling and tenpin bowling. Alongside that we've seen a drop in tennis, golf, and a whole lot of team sports.
We have seen a decline in the share of Australians who participate in religious communities, a common gateway into community participation, and a drop in the share of Australians who are part of a trade union. We've seen a decline in the share of Australians who give to charities. The number of dollars has held up, as inequality has boosted donations at the top, but the share of Australians who are philanthropists have declined. S
When Nick Terrell and I wrote our book Reconnected, we replicated a survey done in the mid-1980s that asked Australians how many close friends they have, and how many neighbours they knew. We found that back then Australians had twice as many close friends and knew twice as many of our neighbours.
This disconnection crisis is not something that government can solve alone but nor is it something that government should step back from. We have appointed the fabulous Sue Woodward to head the Australian Charities Not-for-profits Commission. It has a new advisory board with Sarah Davies at the helm. Amanda Rishworth and I have commissioned the Community Sector Advisory Group to draft a blueprint for the not-for-profit sector, looking at ways of improving the vibrancy and productivity of the not-for-profit sector. The Australian Government has asked the Productivity Commission to conduct a once-in-a-generation review of philanthropy.
Our government has a goal to double philanthropy by 2030. Not just because we want to see more dollars flowing into community groups, but also because of the well-known ‘helper’s high’ – the gain that those who give to charity get from the act of giving. We're working across the community sector to build a stronger sense of connection between charities and not for profits. I'm in the midst of holding Australia's largest ever charity consultation. Last week I did the 17th Charity Town Hall in Melbourne, hearing the stories of charities connecting with charities and working out the way forward together.
Technology and Community
We're doing this in an environment in which technology is making things increasingly challenging. Since smartphones came out and social media emerged in the period 2007 to 2010, there has been a marked worsening of youth mental health. Rates of social phobia, depression and anxiety among teenagers have soared in Australia as they have in many other advanced countries. This is also a challenge in the Relationships Australia space.
A moving photographic exhibition by American photographer Eric Pickersgill is titled ‘Removed’. It takes the notion of what would we look like if you photographed us while using our smartphones, and then removed the smartphone from the image. One poignant image shows a couple on their wedding day, standing next to one another, staring down at their hands. Another image shows people around a barbecue, not engaging with one another, but all staring down at their hands. ‘Removed’ reminds us that smartphones have shaped a generation and are potentially rewiring our brains in less than ideal ways. It reminds us of the work that all of us - as parents and community members - need to do as we manage these enormously addictive technologies.
In closing, thank you for the work that Relationships Australia does. Thank you for your engagement across the community sector. All of us could do with more friends. All of us could do with spending more time volunteering to help people less fortunate than us. All of us can benefit from a more connected community. A reconnected Australia will make us wealthier and healthier. Most importantly, it will also make us happier because a life lived with others is a life well lived.