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Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Page: 61


Senator BOYCE (7:24 PM) —I rise tonight to talk about social inclusion and the Rudd Labor government’s record thus far in this area. When the social inclusion ministry was announced, when the Rudd government came to power, I had a strong interest in this department and a degree of anticipation of a lot of improvements because of a focus on some areas. Social inclusion is aimed at recognising that there are barriers that prevent the most disadvantaged in our society from participating in the benefits available to others. A social inclusion policy consciously aims to overcome this in a structured and focused way. Let us look at what has happened so far.

The Rudd Labor government claims to believe that all Australians need to be able to play a full role in all aspects of Australian life. They say that, to be socially included, all Australians must be given the opportunity to secure a job; access services; connect with family and friends, work, personal interests and local community; deal with personal crises; and have their voices heard. Unfortunately, the reality after 10 months is that getting their voices heard—particularly for disadvantaged Australians—above the all-spin-no-substance government rhetoric is very problematic. Let us not get confused and think that social inclusion under this government has anything to do with overcoming educational exclusion or overcoming plain, straight-out discrimination.

For a start, I would like to look at the structure of the government’s social inclusion effort to date. The Social Inclusion Unit is administered out of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The minister in charge of social inclusion is Ms Julia Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion. So, if you want to talk to the minister, you ring the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. If you want to talk to the unit, you ring PM&C. If you have media or general enquiries about social inclusion, you contact DEEWR but, if you want to talk to the secretariat of the Social Inclusion Board, then you need to talk to PM&C. Do not bother trying to get any meaningful information on social inclusion from the social inclusion website. You can get some information from the Social Inclusion Board website, but it is only slightly better.

So what has been the reality in terms of social inclusion over 10 months? The Social Inclusion Board has been established. The membership of the board includes many prominent and worthy Australians—people like Ms Patricia Faulkner, who chairs the board and is the global manager of KPMG health care; Mr Ahmed Fahour, CEO of National Australia Bank, who obviously represents the multicultural community; Mr Eddie McGuire, who is a TV compere, amongst other things; and Fiona Stanley, the Australian of the Year in 2003 and a professor of paediatrics. This board has so far held two meetings. They have said they are going to develop a statement about the principles of social inclusion—something I would have thought that you understood before you established the board but a worthy aim nevertheless. One of the other things they have done is to invite that seriously disadvantaged group the Boston Consulting Group to speak to them on the topic of early childhood development.

It is quite interesting to look at some comments around activities of the Blair government 10 years ago. The quote that I am about to give you comes from an interview with Bob Holman, a professor of social work at Bath University, about the Social Exclusion Unit—looking at the same problem but from a different perspective—set up by the Blair government 10 years ago. Mr Holman said:

The first thing the Social Exclusion Unit did was to define its own membership, its own leading 12 members. And the 12 members include professionals, a highly paid business person, chiefs from the voluntary sector, people who’ve been to public school and Oxbridge, but nobody who is unemployed, who is poor, who lives in the estates like Easterhouse.

That is obviously a socially disadvantaged area of London. He went on:

So here’s a very strange thing, that immediately the Social Exclusion Unit excludes anybody who is excluded.

That is an eerie and upsetting similarity between those two groups, in the sense that I do not think social inclusion can be dealt with by a board of CEOs, no matter how eminent, no matter how worthy.

Let us look at some of the things that have happened in terms of social inclusion in Australia so far. We have had lots of papers—white papers and green papers—and workshops and discussion groups, and yet a very large proportion of our population cannot access any of this information because the information is not available to people who are blind, to those who need some form of technology to read or to those who do not have English as a first language. One would have thought this was a critical issue of interest to all Australians irrespective of their ability to access an English language website, but the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, suggested recently that a large number of government departments, including the Department of Climate Change, were in fact not complying with the Disability Discrimination Act, which says they must provide access to government information for all. He said he is going to start naming and shaming if this is not improved.

In another area, a new out of school hours program has been developed for students with disabilities between years 8 and 12—a very worthy aim. The only problem is that, whilst all other out of school care programs are funded by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, the programs for students with disabilities are funded by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, so we have a whole separate system willingly set up in a time of alleged focus on the issue of social inclusion. The Rudd government recently announced the membership of the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children, yet there is no woman with a disability on this committee even though all the evidence suggests that women with disability experience violence at a higher rate and more frequently than any other group in the community. I know that Women with Disabilities Australia, the peak organisation for women with a disability, lobbied the Minister for the Status of Women to have a woman with a disability included on that council. There are more than two million women with a disability in Australia and, according to the research, they are at a significantly higher risk of violence, they have fewer avenues and less access to safety than others, they tend to be subjected to violence over longer periods and they experience violence at the hands of a greater number of perpetrators. Yet we can set up a national council to look into this issue and not include a woman with a disability in the group.

In March 2007 we became a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It talked about emphasising the importance of mainstreaming disability issues, recognising the importance for persons of individual autonomy and recognising women. Whilst we are the signatories to a UN charter that recognises all these issues affecting people, including women, with disabilities, we do not have any voice for women on these groups.

To me, this is a very poor example of concentrating on social inclusion. I think perhaps what we need is one more ‘watch’ by the Rudd government. I think we need ‘inclusion watch’. I think it is very obvious to all of us that often ‘disadvantaged’ means people with disabilities and people with chronic illness. They form a large part of our disadvantaged community. If we cannot watch what we are doing in terms of including them, the whole program is not worth the paper that it is written on.