We need to do more to rebuild the strength of civic life in Australia - Transcript, ABC Tasmania





SUBJECT/S; Rebuilding civic engagement, marriage equality.

LEON COMPTON: The Shadow Assistant Treasurer is in Launceston today, hosting a forum on social capital and civic engagement. I’m imaging that he wants to see higher levels of social capital and more civic engagement. It’ll be interesting to see what he learns as he meets Tasmanians. One of the incredible strengths of Tasmania is that high level of social cooperation, the idea that - I suppose on the one hand can be a negative, that fewer people move around over the course of their lives, but it’s also an incredible positive that people feel a strong connection to community here. So are the sorts of challenges that are tearing at the social fabric in other places present here and what can we do to build our social capital? Times are changing, stresses are changing - what can we do to meet those changes? Andrew Leigh, Shadow Assistant Treasurer, good morning to you.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Good morning, Leon. Great to be with you.

COMPTON: Thank you for coming into the studio this morning. What is the issue that you’re actually looking at and talking about as you travel around Australia in your mind?

LEIGH: After the last election, Bill Shorten was kind enough to give me the portfolio of charities and not-for-profits. We’re the first political party to have a portfolio for charities and not-for-profits and it reflects Labor’s belief that we need to do more to rebuild the strength of civic life in Australia. You look over the last couple of generations, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from one another - less likely to donate, to volunteer, to join.  We’re less than half as likely to go to church, less than half as likely to be in a union than we were a couple of generations ago. If you look at many of the mass membership organisations of the past, they’ve shed members. So this Reconnected forum - and this will be the eighth forum we’re holding around Australia - with Ross Hart, Brian Mitchell and Justine Keay today is focussing on new ideas from Launceston community groups about how we can build social capital and boost civic engagement.

COMPTON: You’ve looked overseas to see what they’ve done in places like the United States. You’ve also toured around Australia, looking at this. What’s the best idea for building social cohesion that you’ve seen? What’s an example?

LEIGH: There’s a range of them. Greening Australia organises tree planting events just for singles, so you can both help the environment and meet the love of your life. There’s an organisation called DigiVol at the Australian National Museum, which involves a way of helping, volunteering from your computer at home. There are organisations that are using technology to create a virtual donation warehouse - the GIVIT platform allows you to go online and offer to give a wishing machine to a local  charity, but rather than have that sit in a warehouse somewhere, it’s picked up at the moment at which it’s needed. 

COMPTON: At the end of the day, is it one of the reasons that our social cohesion is being most tested and stretched is because people are facing tougher challenges in living their day to day life? Things like housing becoming less affordable, things like the cost of living rising far higher than the increase in wages - isn’t that the best thing, the biggest thing that politicians can do and address? The hard issues to improve people’s ability to spend time in their community?

LEIGH: Leon, certainly it’s true that tackling those challenges is a first order issue. I got into politics principally to tackle issues around poverty and disadvantage, but i do think inequality and social capital are intertwined. There was an important comment that my friend Ross Hart made in first his speech to parliament that in disadvantaged communities, it’s often the local sporting groups that act as the glue to hold people together. It’s the mentors that a young kid might find through the local soccer club that can make a difference to their life trajectory. Ross gets involved in the local ParkRun here, which is a great example of an organisation that is growing its membership base fast. So, I think the secret to a civic renaissance is finding these organisations which are bucking the trend, growing rapidly and look to spread the ideas that they’re using to grow their social capital.

COMPTON: I’m always struck by Jonathan West’s report - he’s a professor out of Tasmania - he wrote a report into issues around social cohesion a number of years ago. I always remember him talking about how at the Burnie football club, not too far from where you’re sitting, there’s non unemployment among the young people who were involved at the club in the place where at the time had the highest rate of youth unemployment in the country. It showed how those networks can be really helpful in checking in on people.

LEIGH: Absolutely right. Sometimes the best predictor of whether a person would volunteer is just whether or not they’re asked. I was talking to a woman yesterday at the Adelaide Reconnected forum we held who said that she’d started to get a couple of volunteers from the local school’s lacrosse team and then before she knew it the entire team was helping out. Making sure that we make volunteering hip, that we remind people that donating money lights up the same parts of the brain that might up when you think about food or sex, is really important to a civic renaissance. A life lived with others is just a better life. There’s a range of organisations that are doing great work, including I’m sure many of those that are going to be attending today’s forum - churches, the environmental organisations, the social service organisations, the RSL, Surf Life Saving - a range of Launceston organisations are going to be here today, sharing their ideas with Ross Hart, Brian Mitchell, Justine Keay and myself.

COMPTON: Yet again, Andrew Leigh, the issue of - I put it to you as a member of one of the twi major political parties, that for decades now we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking of society as an economy and assessing its performance on largely its economic performance as government and that has been one of the things that has pushed people apart

LEIGH: It’s a great question to ask, Leon. I was an economist before I entered the parliament, and people sometimes have this mistaken view that economics is about money. But in our first year economics classes, we teach students that it’s about wellbeing, about happiness. Indeed, I get very frustrated when people try to just put a dollar figure on community life because we all know that the things that matter to us aren’t in our wallets but in our friendships, in those community networks. It’s harder to build those community networks if you’ve got problems like housing affordability and inequality and slow wage growth, which you mentioned before. But it’s also possible for us to become more affluent and less connected - indeed, that’s the trend in Australia over the last few generations. 

COMPTON: Again, I bring it back to I suppose what you - if you get elected to government in the next election - could actually practically do about this. Isn’t this largely about the costs that people have to pay to service their mortgage, the challenge in paying there healthy insurance bills and the challenges with the health system - to make sure they have as much time as possible to stay locally and to live outside of having to earn a wage?

LEIGH: It’s certainly right that we need to do all we can on those challenges. That’s why Labor’s argued for maintaining weekend penalty rates, for reforming our tax concessions so we improve housing affordability. In the charity space, we’ve also been advocating for keeping the charities commission, for fixing our mess of fundraising rules and for making sure that we have the charities commissions reducing the paperwork for local charities. But not every solution comes out of government and what today’s conversation is doing is bringing together these local community groups. One of the things I’ve loved about the last seven of these forums is seeing those connections being built in small group conversations, people saying ‘i had no idea you were doing this just around the corner from us - let’s get together for a coffee tomorrow and talk about how we can work together’. It’s not the normal work of politicians, but Ross and Brian and Justine and I are looking to act as a sort of community glue in today’s Launceston forum as well - as getting some great ideas.

COMPTON: Dave has sent us a text this morning. Dave says interesting that the biggest volunteer organisation in the state haven’t been included in the forum - the Tasmanian Fire Service is also struggling with retention of volunteers, says Dave this morning. Andrew, in many ways, the charities and the volunteer organisations that have run for decades need to evolve to accept the changing nature of people’s work and life. Do you think they’re doing that effectively to make sure they’re ready for generations to come?

LEIGH: I think the best of them certainly are, Leon. For example, where you look at the donation challenge, organisations are increasingly looking at whether they can better improve sign up rates for workplace giving. There’s churches that are identifying particular community groups that they can reach out to - Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney is focussing on the local LGBTI community. So, there are many of those ideas coming forward. Just today, on Dave’s particular point, we wrote to all of the local charities and invited them to participate in today’s forum but if the fire service has somehow slipped through there cracks of our invitation, we’d love to have them there today.

COMPTON: You’re on mornings around Tasmania. Dr Andrew Leigh is our guest this morning. He’s off to a forum about increasing social capital and civic engagement, that you might want to get along to - have you still got room at the table, if people would like to jump in late?

LEIGH: Absolutely.

COMPTON: I just want to play you the new same-sex marriage ad, the opposition ad to same-sex marriage that’s entered the national consciousness in the last 12, 14 hours or so. The debate that you’re a part of as a federal politician, Have a listen to this, Andrew Leigh.


COMPTON: What does that tell you about where the debate’s up to for and against same-sex marriage in Australia?

LEIGH: Leon, we’ve always known that the opponents of same-sex marriage would try to make this about issues it’s got nothing to do with. This isn’t a vote about safe schools, it’s not a vote about transgender bathrooms. It’s simply a vote about whether Australia, as one of the last advanced English speaking countries to ban same-sex marriage, will let people who love one another tie the knot. I was talking to a woman yesterday who has been with her lesbian partner now for 14 years. They simply want the chance to walk down the aisle together. It’s as simple and straightforward as that. The sky will not fall in, frogs will not rain from the heavens, the oceans will not boil. The heterosexual marriages that exist across Australia will be no weaker - indeed, possibly stronger - the day after we have same-sex marriage.

COMPTON: Good to talk to you this morning.

LEIGH: Likewise.

COMPTON: Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer.



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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.