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Thursday, 28 June 2018
Page: 6859

Mr GILES (Scullin) (16:51): Tonight I want to talk about loneliness and propose that we talk more about it in this place, that we work to better understand its consequences and that we do better to prevent it, as individuals and collectively. I'm in politics to help build a just society. This requires social inclusion as well as economic opportunity, and this is a challenge which ultimately rests on relationships—economic relationships, relationships of power, all the ways in which we relate and connect to one another, how these relationships work and what happens when they don't.

Research shows us that loneliness is a growing concern in Australia and for Australians. A survey by Lifeline in 2016 found that over 80 per cent of respondents thought the feeling of loneliness was increasing in Australia. Two-thirds said that they often felt lonely. Relationships Australia also found, in a 2017 survey, that 34 per cent of respondents said they often felt isolated and 43 per cent said they felt lonely some of the time. When the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes took a look at this issue in 2007—the last major research on this question in Australia—they found that loneliness was a serious problem for people of all ages. This survey pointed to an alarming incidence of loneliness amongst younger Australians and raised the question of the impact of social media on this. It's time this research was updated, not least because it appears that technology is driving a trend away from face-to-face interaction and engagement.

Loneliness is a major public health issues. Dr Michelle Lim of Swinburne University of Technology noted the relationship between the emotional and psychological effects of loneliness and the physiological effects, such as the negative impact on brain processes, the regulation of stress and the severity of mental health symptoms. She says, strikingly, that it can be as bad for us as smoking or obesity. Loneliness can be a killer. A Stanford University study found that older people who are socially isolated experience poorer health and have a risk of death that is 31 per cent higher than those who are not isolated, but its impacts are less appreciated than they should be.

Another leading academic in this field of research is Professor Alex Haslam from the University of Queensland. In February, together with a number of other academics, Professor Haslam published research in the journal Social Science & Medicinethat found that, while the majority of people were well aware of established health risks such as smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, and alcohol consumption, there were few who saw social factors, particularly loneliness, as of the same level of importance. In a recent address broadcast by the ABC, he highlighted the extraordinary positive impact on wellbeing of involvement in social networks. On this, in the town of Frome in the UK, a project launched by a local GP found that, by providing support from community groups and volunteers, the lives of socially isolated people with health problems were significantly improved. Over a three-year period, emergency hospital admissions in Frome fell by 17 per cent.

Loneliness cannot simply be tackled through a single type of response. We need to also build up a conversation in our communities about the importance of being socially connected and the negative impacts of being isolated. There are some profound questions we need to address about how we relate to one another and how we sustain communities. This is affected by increasing inequality. As gaps in life experience increase, so does the scale of this challenge. This has been recognised by many of my Labor colleagues: the member for Franklin, the member for Fenner sitting beside me here, Senator Louise Pratt and the member for Moreton in particular. They have all contributed to fighting loneliness in the communities they represent and across our society, as have many in civil society, such as those in the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, whose work I acknowledge in this place. I think I can say they share my view that there's much more to be done.

I take heart and inspiration from the work of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. In 2017 the commission published the Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time report, challenging the May government to step forward and lead a renewed push to tackle loneliness. It did, through ministerial appointments, supporting community groups, developing a strategy on loneliness that will bring together governments and service providers, research on the impact of various initiatives to tackle loneliness, and establishing indicators for loneliness so that there's a consistent measure for this. Along with the member for Berowra I have moved a private members' motion calling for a national response from the Australian government. This has to be a bipartisan concern, and I'm pleased that I might have the chance to work with the member for Berowra and colleagues from different political traditions on this issue. A good society lets no-one slip through its cracks. As individuals we can and should all reach out to those around us, but as a country we must make ending loneliness a priority for our national government.