Rudd Social Inclusion also makes economic sense

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'Social Inclusion', By Chris JohnstonEvery so often Australia gets a chance to remake the policy foundations that shape the life of its citizens. Today a new policy framework is under construction: social inclusion. It ought to be the basis for a new integration of economic with social prosperity.

The Federal Government is still forming its approach to social inclusion. Sometimes it seems minimalist. The 2020 Summit papers, for example, add social inclusion to the usual fare on strengthening communities and families.

This might indicate an agenda little more than the place-based neighbourhood scale initiatives we have been familiar with for over a decade from State Governments. While these have value, they will not shift the structure of disadvantage unless they are integrated with economic policies and a renewal of mainstream social services.

That social inclusion could represent just such a radical overhaul of our social and economic policy was the message delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Australian Council Of Social Service conference last Thursday. Here we see a wide-ranging social inclusion agenda. The vision is to reverse the inequality which has coexisted with prosperity. It includes the spatial dimension of disadvantage but extends to include a number of key areas across the life cycle, including the early years and school to work.

For the first time in decades, equality is said to be a friend of efficiency. Moreover, social inclusion is not to be an activity of some marginal departments focused on 'the excluded', but rather a whole of government exercise driven by a cabinet committee co-chaired by the Prime Minister and his Deputy.

Member countries of the European Union including the United Kingdom have had a social inclusion framework for nearly a decade. Drawing on that experience, Kate Green, the Director of the UK's Child Poverty Action Group, encouraged a recent Brotherhood of St Laurence seminar to think big and make the most of this reform opportunity. Challenge the government from the outset, she said, to benchmark our social policy performance against the world's best practice and settle for nothing less.

How should we proceed? First the big difference about social inclusion down under is the way that it is being embedded in economic policy from the beginning. Unlike the EU, where social inclusion has come to be treated as something of a residual of good economic policy, Australia's National Reform Agenda has recognised from its beginning in 2006 that excessive social disadvantage is not only a break on economic participation and productivity, it also becomes very costly if left unattended.

With these principles already accepted, the immediate challenge is to establish a system of accounting for the economic returns on sound social investments in human capital so that they become legitimised in the same way as public spending on roads and bridges is now.

The economic dimension of social inclusion is also apparent from European research on 'the excluded'. This shows they are not some kind of permanent underclass. Only a small proportion experience all the dimensions of exclusion over long periods. Rather we are looking at a large pool of people who move back and forth from welfare to low paid employment. Our approach to social inclusion will need to clarify how minimum wage and welfare policies can best work together to combat exclusion while developing new suites of policy to encourage employment retention and advancement.

Some might feel that the importance attached here to the economic foundation of social inclusion somehow diminishes social rights. This must not be so. Social investment to enable people to be productive is an enhancement of their rights.

At the same time social inclusion must be about more than being productive. It should also recognise the worlds of caring, culture, education and other civil society endeavours. Here, citizen entitlements will differ across the life cycle. A complete social inclusion framework will support citizens realising their full potential in each transition from their early years to retirement and beyond.

The historic opportunity represented by the social inclusion agenda would not escape the notice of long time Eureka Street readers — Frank Castles' much quoted 'farewell to the Australian welfare state' appeared in its pages, and highlighted the demise of 'wage earners' welfare'. Since then social inclusion has emerged as our first real opportunity to make a safety net of economic and social participation suited to the 21st century.

LINKS:
Julia Gillard's ACOSS speech
The ALP's social inclusion agenda
Letter from 'social inclusion' senator (Eureka Street 5/12/07)


Paul SmythPaul Smyth is coordinator of the Masters of Social Policy program at the University of Melbourne. He was Director of Social Policy in the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Queensland, and senior researcher at Uniya social research and action centre in Sydney.

 

 

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Here is a link to a talk by Dr Adam Graycar entitled "Public Policy - It's All So Obvious": click here. Dr Graycar has written and spoken extensively on issues pertinent to Mr Rudd's social inclusion policy throughout the Prime Ministership of Mr Howard.
David Arthur | 15 April 2008


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