A connected life is a happier life - Transcript, 2CC Canberra Live


SUBJECTS: Reconnected; Deliberative democracy and mitochondrial donation reform; the precarious nature of a casualised workforce and the mental health of Australian workers.

LEON DELANEY, HOST: 26 to five on 2CC Canberra Live until six o'clock. You can join this circus anytime you like, 6255 1206. I guess I’m the ringmaster. My next guest is - I don't know - the lion tamer, I guess. Time to welcome to the program to celebrate the news of his brand new book, the Federal Member for Fenner in the ACT, Andrew Leigh. Good afternoon.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good afternoon, Leon. Better a lion tamer than a lion, I suppose?

DELANEY: Well, I don't know exactly. I'm not entirely convinced on that one. But just be thankful I didn't say, you know, clown.


LEIGH: Exactly. Small mercies.

DELANEY: Now, you've got a brand new book out. This is not the first time you've written a book, but you seem to keep pumping them out. What, you've got too much time on your hands? We’re not keeping you busy enough as our federal representative?

LEIGH: As a professor turned politician, I think part of my job is to engage with big ideas and to continue to talk about important debates for the country. And one of those Leon is this collapse in community life. You know, just in the last generation we've seen a halving the number of neighbours we know, the number of friends we have. Since the 1950s the share of us going to church has gone down two-thirds. Since the 1980s, the share who are union members has gone down two-thirds. We’ve got fewer associations and fewer people joining them. We’re less likely to be part of organised sport, and less likely to be active as volunteers or donors. And so Reconnected, the book I’ve written with Nick Terrell, is about how we turn those things around. How we make Australia a much more connected to society.

DELANEY: In some ways this is a sequel to one of your previous books, which was Disconnected, 10 years ago. So this is more or less a direct follow up in some respects, isn't it?

LEIGH: Yeah, that's right. So the first thing we do is we look at the trends and find that the last decade if anything worse than the ones that preceded us. But then we’ve delved into a whole lot of stories of wonderful social entrepreneurs around the country  who are bucking the trend. There's Greening Australia that's putting on singles tree planting events, allowing people to improve the environment and potentially meet the love of their lives. There's Orange Sky in Brisbane, putting on mobile laundry services and connecting the homeless with social support. There's BeFriend, an organisation in Western Australia which is putting on barbecues and movie nights to allow people to meet friends, which they might otherwise have done through old fashioned social networks but where it's often harder to do, particularly for new people that move to a town.

DELANEY: Now, if I have not read this book, why should I read it?

LEIGH: Because all of us are better off when we're in a connected community-

DELANEY: But how is the book going to do that for me?

LEIGH: Well, one study suggests that not having any friends is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So having friends is good for you. Having friends is good for business. A lot of business is done on trust, so a more connected society is a society which is more productive. And it's just frankly just more fun to be living life with people around us. We know from surveys that most of us would rather live in a more connected community. As we’re leading into Christmas, people can put on street drinks for their neighbours-

DELANEY: As long as you keep 1.5 metres apart!

LEIGH: Exactly, exactly. But that's easy to do as we move into summer. My wife and I have been putting on our street drinks for the past decade and it’s a great way of bringing neighbours together.

DELANEY: Now you start off the book by explaining what is social capital. Now, I suspect there may be some in the business sector - and certainly some in the government sector - who haven't really grasped that concept. What is social capital, and why is it so important?

LEIGH: Social capital is an ugly phrase for a beautiful concept. Physical capital is the hard things you can break your toe on - bridges, roads, buildings. Human capital is skills and ideas. Social capital is the idea that the links between us have inherent value. So when societies have greater levels of trust, when they have bigger social networks. It's easier to find a job where a lot of job finding is done by word of mouth. It's also easier to get the social support you need when bushfires or the coronavirus pandemic hit. Social networks are absolutely crucial in a crisis, and they’re a way in which we can learn things from others. So many of your listeners would have been part of mothers’ groups, which are wonderful for providing social support but also for information. Canberra does very well on this, I have to say Leon. We are the most connected part of Australia. Shout out to Eternity Hausen, who put together Say Hello Kingston, a Facebook page which links up new residents in Kingston, allows people to find friends and uses Facebook in a way that links up individuals rather than just turning into an addictive time sink.

DELANEY: Yes. Facebook, yes. What it should have been like and what it actually is like, I know. You're right though, about Canberra in particular. It's certainly, it's a place that has an absolutely vivacious community spirit, very strong community spirit here in Canberra at every level. Now, in the book also - there's a lot of territory covered, but one of the things you do talk about is something called deliberative democracy. Can you explain what that is and how it works?

LEIGH: Deliberative democracy is the idea that we can expand people interest in and accessibility to politics, by inviting groups of the public in to talk about big ideas. The ACT did this with its third party insurance recently, bringing together a group of ACT citizens to deliberate on the different models. I've done it on an issue of mitochondrial donation, where there'll be a conscience vote coming up at the end of this year, writing to all the people in my electorate of Fenner, asking if they'd like to be involved. It's a way of encouraging people to participate in the process, not through an opinion poll but actually sitting down in the room, having conversations with their neighbours and working through challenging issues. Recognising that very rarely is there just one right answer to hard policy problems.

DELANEY: Well, if we can just go off on a slight tangent for a moment, I was one of those constituents who received the letter in the mailbox. ‘Connecting to Parliament: Dear friend, we are writing to invite you to be involved in an event that will determine how your federal member will vote’.  Now, this was in relation to that mitochondrial donation issue that you were talking about. How did your event go? What was the outcome from that, and what exactly is mitochondrial action and why is it important?

LEIGH: So mitochondrial disease is a debilitating disease for which we don't have any cure. It affects about one in 5000 people. And one of the ways in which parents with mitochondrial disease can avoid passing it on to their kids is to use a third person's DNA in the IVF process - basically swap out the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. At the moment it’s illegal to do this kind of genetic modification, and the proposal is that it should be made legal. We had an online forum and in person forum, and the bulk of people thought that the law should be changed. But there were people who disagreed, and lots of questions about it. So this wasn't really so much about who-thinks-what as about exploring some of the ethical challenges, questions as to what the alternatives to mitochondrial donation are, what the risks are, whether this is a slippery slope. You get a chance to explore all of those more complicated things when you've got a bit of time for a deliberative democracy process.

DELANEY: And how was the outcome? Did you find it useful? Is it something that has provided what you were looking for?

LEIGH: Incredibly useful. We're working with folks at Ohio State University and the University of Canberra, who are among the best in the world of deliberative democracy. I was struck not only by their expertise, but also the expertise of people in the room. I learned an awful lot about genetic disorders and about ethics just from listening to people who were there. So I'm reminded again and again what a privilege it is to represent the Canberra northside in the federal parliament. A lot of very smart and very wise people, and that really comes out in a deliberative democracy event. Now I think that's one way of turning around the increased disconnection from politics that we're seeing - the decline in the share of people voting, the decline in political party membership, this tendency to turn politics into sport fandom with just cheering and jeering rather than into actively getting on the field and trying to make a difference.

DELANEY: Now, obviously that's just one example of deliberative democracy. But here in Canberra, I believe there’s another structure which provides a tremendous opportunity for exactly the same thing. And that is Canberra’s community councils, which are frequently completely ignored by the ACT government when it comes to matters of planning. Shouldn't that be an opportunity for a much more effective process of deliberate deliberative democracy?

LEIGH: I think it's really important to power up those local community groups. The challenge is they need to have a critical mass of people in order to be representative of the neighbourhood. But it is striking when you see the extent to which people are disengaged from many of these local structures. The Tufts University political scientist Eitan Hersh refers to it as political hobbyism. People often mistakenly think that politics is just about trading insults on social media, whereas in reality, a lot of politics is more local and more granular. It's about turning up to those meetings, having your say and trying to shape what happens in your local community rather than just fighting over the national issues. So I hope more people will get involved, and I think as that involvement extends then that becomes a natural place to engage with the community for the ACT Government.

DELANEY: And you think there’s scope there for the ACT Government to be more consultative with those Community Councils? Because there's, you know, some evidence that they haven't really listened very well.

LEIGH: We're working a lot with those local community councils, but the ACT Government is also doing their own consultation processes. So each new development is accompanied by community consultation processes, and the ACT Government is learning on this, as we all are. I think they're probably the best in Australia in terms of how they do community consultation. But no one's perfect and deliberative democracy is expanding all around the world. There's places in in Brazil and Spain that are doing really interesting participatory budgeting exercises, which we could move towards if we wanted to.

DELANEY: It's quite intriguing, really, that we're talking about deliberative democracy on the same day that a little while ago I spoke to Dr. Keith Suter from Global Directions about the increase in tyranny and autocracy in the world, with fewer democracies in the country now then non democracies after going backwards in the past decade. There's a schism happening in the world, isn't there?

LEIGH: There certainly is. And the work that's being done internationally on the so-called democracy recession is really disturbing. Part of it is the rise in populism and a lot of populist have become autocrats, suspending elections and trying to stay in power. They're able to do that when people are less committed to democracy. So having a media which is strongly committed to democracy, having citizens who see democracy as being more important than any particular policy is absolutely vital. There's a lot of debate around this, particularly in the United States at the moment, but you know there's also fears in places like Brazil and the Philippines, Hungary, where we've seen a move toward autocracy in recent years.

DELANEY: I don't know if you've covered this in your book, which is Reconnected, available today onwards. I don't know if you covered this in your book, but there's a lot of concern about the increasing precarity of work, the casualisation of the workforce, precarity of incomes in the community. At the same time, there also happens to be an increasing mental health challenge. I'm convinced the two are linked.

LEIGH: Yes, I think you're absolutely right there. And Leon, as you know, we've seen this increase in the suicide rate over the last decade. Not a massive one, but a small uptick and a larger uptick actually among young people. The way in which young people have fared in the labour market and in the housing market and indeed, the increase in the cost of university education, all of those have acted to make life tougher for millennials than it was for the boomers. So we need to make sure that there's greater equity there, which does tie into the message of reconnected.  A society of ‘we’ is more valuable than a society of ‘me’. We want to recognise that the most of Australia's great achievements were made together, whether you're talking about the battlefield or the sporting field, rather than by individuals acting alone. Egalitarianism-

DELANEY: Let me – yeah.

LEIGH: I was going to say, egalitarianism and social connectedness are intertwined.

DELANEY: Yeah, we're living in a society that encourages and promotes competition. But of course, as people become more competitive, they also become more aggressive. And when people become more aggressive, it becomes more attractive for the rest of us to become anti-social and cut off and become disconnected.

LEIGH: Yeah. There’s productive and unproductive competition. I think about the way in which Apple responded when IBM entered the personal computer market in the 1980s. They took out a full page ad saying we welcome IBM as a rival. They knew that having IBM in the market would make them better, and great sporting teams do the same. They enjoy their rivalries, they enjoy having healthy competition. Where competition becomes a problem is where it’s dog eat dog, people are willing to break any rule in the rulebook in order to win. And when you're doing that in business or on the sporting field, that's damaging and can lead to much greater inequality, much less fairness as a result.

DELANEY: Indeed. Well, we could sit here chatting all day, I'm quite sure, but eventually people would get bored and we can’t have that.


DELANEY: So Dr Andrew Leigh, thank you very much for your time today.

LEIGH: Absolute pleasure being a lion tamer for the day.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.