Connected communities: how Australia’s social capital declined, and what we can do to rebuild it - Speech

Connected communities: how Australia’s social capital declined, and what we can do to rebuild it

Address delivered to the Municipal Association of Victoria’s ‘Future of Communities: Power to the People’ National Conference


Manal Kassem had chosen the inner city of Sydney for her wedding photoshoot, but she was a little hesitant. It was Saturday 20 December 2014, and during the week a lonely gunman, brandishing an Islamic flag, had taken eighteen people hostage in a nearby café. After a lengthy standoff and a final gunfight, two were left dead.

In the wake of the Martin Place siege, Manal Kassem feared she would be judged. A Muslim bride from Punchbowl in Sydney’s West, she would be wearing a white hijab at her wedding and inner city photoshoot.

Rather than cancelling or relocating the big day, she chose to offer a gesture of respect to the country in which she hoped to raise her children.

As soon as the wedding ceremony finished, she and her groom ventured to the Martin Place memorial, where she laid her wedding bouquet alongside the other floral tributes.

As the onlooking crowd applauded, Martin Place – not long earlier the site of one of Sydney’s greatest tragedies – seemed to transform into a symbol of our connectedness. A multicultural Australia was united to collectively mourn the loss of lives in Martin Place.

But was this scene unusual? Are we always this connected? Our sense of community spirit is strengthened in moments of tragedy or triumph, but does it also exist in the trivial? 

What is social capital?

Before we discuss by how much it has declined, it’s helpful to briefly define what is meant by ‘social capital’.

Social capital is a term that simply describes the networks of trust and reciprocity that link multiple individuals together. Social capital has all sorts of manifestations. It could be the bonds of friendship between neighbours, the trust shared by members of a cricket team, or cooperation between co-workers.

Of course, social capital can be used harnessed for good or ill. Just as bonds of trust and reciprocity characterise effective workplaces, sporting teams and neighbourhoods, they are also a feature of effective street gangs.

Does this ambivalence undermine the very concept of social capital? Not at all. In the same way we regard human capital and physical capital as broadly beneficial despite some exceptions, social capital is overall a good thing.

The final thing worth noting about social capital is that it can be split into two categories: ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’. Bonding joins together similar people whereas bridging transcends boundaries of race, ethnicity or income to link dissimilar people.

Becoming disconnected

In 2010 I published Disconnected, which took stock of the state of community life in Australia and examined how it had changed since the 1960s. As a PhD student at Harvard, I’d worked on the research team of Robert Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone showed that social capital in the United States had declined from 1960 to 2000. As I sat in Boston and worked my way through Putnam’s terrific tome, my main thought was ‘I wonder what’s happened to social capital in Australia?’.

At risk of diminishing your appetite for reading the full story, here’s the short answer.

Australia in the post-war era was a nation of joiners. We knew the names of our local baker and butcher. Half of us attended a religious service at least monthly, and many went weekly.

In short, the level of social capital was high.

There is little doubt it has declined since then.

On most measures, Australians are less connected to each other than at any point in the post-war era.

That might seem intuitive to many of us. If you aren’t part of a local group; if you never ‘dog-sit’ for your neighbours; or if you don’t occasionally congratulate or condemn one of your local politicians, then you may already feel like your social links are less strong than those of your parents’ generation.

But the data also paint a picture of greater disconnection.

Australians are no longer the joiners they once were. In 1967, the number of Australians who were active members of an organisation was 33 per cent. By 2004 that proportion had fallen to just 18 per cent. Indeed, there are fewer organisations to join. The number of community organisations for every 10,000 Australian adults dropped from 7 in the late 1970s to less than 3 by 2010.

But perhaps Australians are giving more time and money to causes, even if they’re not signing up to relevant associations? It’s hard to be sure, but my reading of the data is that volunteering rates are likely lower today than in the 1950s.  And the share of Australians who donate money to charity is hard to discern but probably a tad lower now than in the mid-1980s.

Another important form of social capital is attendance at religious services, such as churches, mosques and synagogues. In the 1950s, 35 per cent of adults attended a religious service at least weekly. By 2007, only around 13 per cent attended on a weekly basis. While this is partly due to the rising numbers of atheists and agnostics in Australia, the majority of the drop in religious attendance is due to believers not attending.

Australians are also less politically engaged. In 1953, Labor’s membership represented 1.2 per cent of the adult population. By 2010, this had fallen to 0.3 per cent – though it is now rising again. The Liberal Party’s membership also dropped, from 1.5 per cent of the adult population in 1967 to 0.5 per cent in 2004.

For various reasons our rate of union membership has declined too. From 1914 to 1990, at least 40 per cent of workers were members of a union, and in the early-1980s, half of all workers were union members. Yet today, less than one in five workers are union members. In their place, employers have created ‘employee help lines’. But did you ever hear of an employee help line introducing workers to those in their team, or arranging a lunchtime barbecue?

What about our participation in sport, culture and entertainment? Australians have long prided themselves on our achievements in those domains. It turns out participation in these areas has suffered a noticeable drop. In 1993, 33 per cent of Australians told the ABS they had played organised sport in the previous 12 months. In the 2007, that proportion had dropped to 27 per cent. Since the early-1990s, art gallery attendance is down 2 percentage points, museum-going is down 8 percentage points, and the share of people visiting botanic gardens has fallen 5 percentage points.

Finally, let’s look at informal socialising – harder to define but no less important than other forms of social connection. To test this, I arranged for a 1984 survey on friendship patterns and neighbourhood connections to be replicated. Comparing the 1980s with the 2000s, I found that the typical Australian has two fewer friends who they say they could trust with a confidence.

A similar pattern applies to neighbours.  Compared with respondents two decades earlier, the typical Australian in the 2000s has 1½ fewer neighbours of whom they could ask a small favour and 3 fewer neighbours on whom they could drop in uninvited. Like Putnam, I believe that television explains part of the decline of social capital, which implies that Australian since the 1980s replaced friends with Friends and neighbours with Neighbours.

One of the central challenges of the decline in social capital is that the factors driving it are not things we would want to reverse. More television-viewing and gaming, a rise in car commuting and impersonal technologies like the ATM and self-scan groceries have all reduced social capital in Australia. You may have hundreds of Facebook friends, but how many would come to visit you in hospital if you got sick? In addition to these technological impacts, there is also some evidence that two social trends which I regard as generally very positive – ethnic diversity and the feminisation of the workplace – have had a short-term effect of weakening civic life.

So unless you think we should throw away our cars and our iPhones, return to White Australia and ‘women’s pay rates’, then we’re going to have to get smarter about rebuilding social capital. The solution is not to hark back to a less socially enlightened era, but to see how we can combine the benefits of the modern economy with a stronger sense of civic life.

Rebuilding social capital

This conference is about communities transitioning ‘beyond engagement, beyond dependency’.  It envisions the dawn of ‘independent, self-governing communities’. In essence, a community is a group of people who share high degrees of social capital. A community is interconnected and therefore self-sustaining. It is not unlike a healthy ecosystem.

Greater connectedness or social capital between individuals is the premise, the foundation, of a self-governing community. So how can we rebuild our social capital?

The task of repairing Australia’s social fabric cannot and should not fall entirely – or maybe even mostly – to governments. In Disconnected, I suggest ten ways citizens can build social capital in their own communities. Hold a street party; reclaim the footpaths; use your local store; donate to charity; use new technology to build face-to-face connections, not replace them; revive dwindling organisations you are a member of; give your time as a volunteer; contact two politicians; share meals with others, whether they are family or work colleagues; and finally, try a new activity – learn to swing dance, take up lawn bowls or join the SES.

I’m the first to admit that these ideas are not equal to the size of the task before us, and I hope to learn some of your ideas about how to build community life. One of the inspiring things about being a federal member of parliament is the chance to meet so many impressive community leaders, and talk with them about their work to build a more connected society.

Let me conclude by telling you about three recent examples of inspiring community-lead initiatives that I’ve admired: one from my electorate in Canberra, one from here in Melbourne, and a final example that encompasses Australia at large.

In the middle of Canberra city, on the busy Northbourne Avenue, sits the Early Morning Centre. Staffed by Uniting Church volunteers, the Centre is a place of support and community for Canberrans doing it tough, where they can catch up with friends, get help with day-to-day business and enjoy a meal. The Early Morning Centre provides office facilities such as desks, phones, a computer with internet access, a post office box address and safe mail collection point for mail, and laundry and shower facilities for people in Canberra who are homeless. It provides a free breakfast each day, and support and referral services.

Another impressive case study of community-building is the recent Melbourne Social Cohesion Forum, held in Richmond three months ago by the Jewish-Christian-Muslim Association of Australia (yes, you heard that right). Hosted by the three major monotheistic peak bodies in Victoria, it gathered a range of eminent speakers – including sociologist Gary Bouma – to explore issues of multiculturalism and maintaining social cohesion in Australia.

Across Australia, we’ve seen the phenomenon of TEDx. These are the community run version of the well-known TED talks. Despite comprising only about one third of a per cent of the world’s population, Australia has organised almost 2 per cent of its TEDx talks – six times as many as you might expect. Sure there are many countries that don’t play host to any TEDx talks, but it’s worth noting that 243 talks have been organised by communities around Australia since 2009, bringing together people interested in little more than discussing and sharing ideas. The talks aren’t only held in major cities – Bunbury and Bendigo are each hosting events later this year, and Orange will gather for a TedX event on November 20.

These three examples of community-building are helping to make us a less disconnected society. Across the community sector, there are other bright lights too. The Saturday morning Parkruns. The growth in mothers’ groups. The expansion of book clubs. Charity comparison websites that give potential donors the confidence that their money will be wisely spent. Smartphone apps that foster face-to-face connections rather than supplanting them.

Like most politicians, I’m a temperamental optimist. I believe we need to peer over the horizon at an Australia that is both prosperous and connected. Inspiring examples of community-lead initiatives give us hope for that future. Conferences like this give us hope for that future too. And they remind us that we as individuals, not just governments, all have a role to play in creating vibrant communities and rebuilding our social capital.


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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.