Launch of the State of the Nation Report: Social Connection in Australia 2023
Parliamentary Friends of Ending Loneliness, Canberra
Monday, 7 August 2023
Like Aunty Violet Sheridan, I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people on whose lands we meet today, acknowledge all First Nations people present, and commit myself to campaigning for a First Nations Voice to Parliament.
I'd like to thank the co-chairs, Bridget Archer and Andrew Giles, good friends both appropriately for a group called Parliamentary Friends for Ending Loneliness. I think it should just be shortened to ‘Parliamentary Enemies of Loneliness’. That would be simpler. We're not really into parliamentary enemies groups in this parliament. But really that would get to the nub of it.
I also acknowledge Emma McBride, who is doing terrific work in the health space, particularly thinking about how social prescribing can make a difference, Michelle Lim and John Pollaers from Ending Loneliness Together, and social commentator Hugh Mackay.
The issue of loneliness sits in a broader discussion about whether Australia is a nation of me or a country of we. Over the course of the last generation, we've seen some troubling trends. We've seen a decline in the share of Australians who play an organised sport. Robert Putnam with whom I worked a couple of decades ago at Harvard, wrote a book called Bowling Alone and I can report to you that Australians now are less likely to be tenpin pin bowling or lawn bowling in groups than we were two decades ago. Along with that, sporting participation across a whole range of sports has declined, replaced with more solitary activities like going for a walk or going to the gym on your own.
Australia has seen a decline in volunteering, which particularly accentuated through the COVID pandemic, down from about a third to about a quarter of Australians volunteering annually. We've seen a drop in the share of Australians attending a religious service, a common pathway into community life. And the decline in the share of Australians who are members of trade unions, which is again, often a gateway to social engagements.
Australia has seen a drop in the share of Australians who are members of organised community groups such as scouts, guides, Rotary, and Lions. It's not just true of those particular groups, which since the 1960s, have shed about two thirds of their membership relative to population. It's also true if you look at any social engagement, if you ask people if they're members of any large community group.
When we wrote Reconnected, Nick Terrell and I re-fielded some surveys that had been done in the mid-1980s, asking Australians how many friends they had, and how many neighbours they knew. We found that both numbers had approximately halved, Australians had lost about half of our close friends, and knew only about half of our neighbours.
The other side of the ‘we versus me’ challenge is inequality. Over the course of the last generation, we've seen a rise in the gap between the haves and the have nots, a doubling at the top 1% share, and a tripling of the top 0.1% share. The number of billionaires have gone through the roof. Yet we've got a significant challenge in Australia around issues of homelessness and poverty. As Australians have lost friends, so too the gap between social classes has increased.
The question now is whether we're able to turn that around, because being a nation of ‘me’ isn't the Australian way. So much of the Australian story lies in things we've achieved together. In fact, it's difficult to think of a big Australian achievement that hasn't been achieved as a group. Whether that's success on the battlefield, whether that's a new invention, whether that's starting a great company, or whether it's winning a sporting match.
Tonight when we're cheering on the Matildas playing Denmark, we're not going to be cheering on just an individual, but a team who are operating better together than they would as individuals. So as we look towards ending loneliness in this remarkable report, we're thinking about a set of issues that are fundamental to who we are as a nation.
We're looking at this through a policy lens. I mentioned before the work that Emma McBride is thinking about in the health space. In the charities area we've appointed a terrific new charities commissioner and a great board to support her. We've got a Productivity Commission inquiry on foot to look at our challenge of doubling philanthropy by 2030. We're working with the sector on a blueprint in order to turbocharge what community can do.
Right across government, whether it's in responding to natural disasters, or handing out sporting grants I'm engaging with ministerial colleagues who are enthusiastic about how to bring a connection lens to what government does. We’re keen to ensure that everything that government does is also supporting our work to build a more connected society.
It's not just a task for government. It requires what basketballers call a ‘full court press’. That's where each of us can come in to. As we look to the end of the year, I'd urge you to think about putting on street drinks to celebrate the start of summer. It turns out that this is far simpler than you might imagine. My wife and I started doing it a couple of decades ago. Now it takes about half an hour to take last year's invitation update it for the new date and time and letterbox it around our local street. We really like our neighbours. But even if we didn't, this would be worth doing. Because the couple of hours we spend with them once a year gives us a neighborhood that is happier, more connected, and where if someone one day walks out our front door holding the TV, it's more likely that our neighbours will ask them a few questions.
Can I encourage you too whenever you're at events like these to make sure you meet one new person? The experience of any event is profoundly changed by whether you meet someone new. So whether you're attending an event or running an event, make sure that we're not just thinking with our policy brains, but also with our social brains.
A lovely study done by researchers at the University of Chicago interviewed passengers who are about to get on a train in the suburbs of Chicago and go into the city. And they said to them, ‘what do you think your journey would be like if you had to talk to the person next to you?’. Almost universally, commuters say I think that'd be much worse journey than if they could just listen to their air pods. The researchers then they take a randomly selected group of commuters, and they pay them a small amount of money in exchange for having a conversation with the person next to them - introducing themselves and having a chat. Then when commuters get off the train, the researchers ask them what they thought. Almost universally, they say it was great, that it was a much better train trip as a result of having a conversation with that stranger. The study by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder is called ‘Mistakenly Seeking Solitude’.
So don't mistakenly seek solitude. Come together. Discuss this fabulous loneliness report with its deep dive into issues around physical activity, around social media use and around fundamentally who we are as a nation.
Thank you for being here in the nation's parliament. Together I hope we can work to end loneliness.