TUESDAY, 3 JULY 2018
SUBJECTS: New survey on friends and neighbours; Labor’s Reconnected forums.
DAVID SPEERS: Andrew Leigh, thanks very much for your time this afternoon. Let's just start by looking at how serious this problem of loneliness really is. How would you characterise the seriousness of this?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: I think it's a huge challenge, David. If you go back to the mid-1980s, 11 per cent of Australians said they had no one they could turn to in times of difficulty, now that has almost doubled up to 18 per cent. In Britain after the death of Jo Cox, they've appointed a Minister for Loneliness. Colleagues of mine including Graham Perrett, Andrew Giles and Louise Pratt have been talking about the issue of loneliness. We have these new survey results now suggesting that Australians have fewer close friends and are less likely to know their neighbours than they were in the past.
LEIGH: We've got a problem at the pointy end, that rising share of people that have no one to turn to. But we've also got this broader trend across society, David. We're less likely to join, to volunteer, to donate. Australia has become more disconnected over the course of the past generation. I talked about this in a book written in 2010, Disconnected, but these survey results now suggest that the problem has gotten even worse. The average Australian has shed four or five friends depending on which measure you use and knows two to three fewer of their neighbours than they used to in the mid-1980s.
SPEERS: Why is this? Is it because we're spending more available time on social media or watching the tele? Social media is meant to connect us more easily but is that what's happening?
LEIGH: Robert Putnam says the question is: ‘Is social media more like a telephone or a television?’. I think increasingly it has become more like a television - a form of entertainment that has crowded out those face to face relationships. We all know great ways to use social media to connect - meetup.com, Foursquare - there's ways in which we can use those technologies to build civic connectedness. But on average, they have been drawing us apart and that's a big challenge for Australia is to find a solution to bring us back together.
SPEERS: I want to come to that but it's also worth touching on the fact that this isn't just a problem for the individual here. It is a problem as taxpayers for the nation isn't it? There is plenty of research showing that it's not just an emotional problem, loneliness can have a physiological impact as well. Whether that's on stress levels, mental health outcomes, all sorts of things. Some have likened it to be as bad as smoking or obesity.
LEIGH: Indeed, the suggestion of having no friends is a risk factor as bad as being a pack-a-day smoker.
SPEERS: Is it really that bad?
LEIGH: Statistically that seems to be what shows up. We also need to remember that a life lived with others is just a better life. In a society in which we become increasingly atomised - in which we have fewer friends and are less likely to know our neighbours - that’s a less pleasant life to be leading. I'm working with charities and not-for-profits around Australia, we've now held fourteen of these ‘Reconnected’ forums including one yesterday in Beenleigh in Queensland. We get together charities and not-for-profits not so much so we can talk about what government can do, but so they can share ideas with one another about solutions that work.
SPEERS: That's the thing, everyone often looks to government for solutions to every problem. But there is of course more the government can do. But really this isn't the government's responsibility, is it?
LEIGH: That's true, and part of the challenge is that it has been caused by these impersonal technologies, by tectonic shifts in the labour market. We need creative solutions. Greening Australia is organising singles tree planting events in which you can improve the environment and potentially meet the love of your life. There’s an organisation in Newcastle that's organising tours to clean up local waterways, again with an environmental goal but also a health advantage. So we're chatting with charities and not-for-profits right across Australia. Labor is the first major party to have a frontbench portfolio for charities and not-for-profits because we do believe we need to make Australia more connected again.
SPEERS: Looking at a big of research on this, it seems the big problems are over 65s where you're dealing with bereavement and then loneliness that might follow that or under 25s who may have social anxieties and so on. Those sort of programs; they're going kayaking, planting trees, are they really going to work with the more vulnerable aged groups we're talking about here?
LEIGH: There's also a range of other strategies, we need to work with Indigenous communities, we need to focus on building civic connectedness in diverse neighbourhoods because we know that's a significant challenge. We need to work with organisations about the support they need from the government. I've been worried that the Government's approach to charities has not been a partnership but has been increasingly trying to crowd them out of public advocacy, increase their paperwork burden. We've been pushing back against that and trying to make sure that the charities commission is an organisation that's as constructive as it can, boosting the work of our vital charities and not-for-profits sector.
SPEERS: But again, it's not something that the Government can click their fingers and fix, I'm sure you're not suggesting that Labor could solve the problem of loneliness in our society. What are a couple of things you would say to people out there who may be going through this themselves or may wonder whether their next door neighbour is?
LEIGH: Join a new organisation. There's no harm in going along to one meeting, seeing what it's like and having a go. Volunteer. We know that volunteering is not only good for the recipient but also good for the giver, that pleasure in being a part of something greater than yourself. When people are put in FMRI scanners and asked to think about donating money, the bits of the brain that light up are the same bits of the brain that light up when they think about food or sex. So giving money can actually be good for the giver as well. We need to create a greater culture of philanthropy in Australia as well as a greater culture of joining.
SPEERS: Andrew Leigh, good to talk to you, thank you.
LEIGH: Thanks, David.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.