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'Agnostic' priest's social inclusion scepticism

  • 27 August 2008

The Rudd Government's Social Inclusion Board has now commenced work. As a citizen who has never worked for government, I come to the topic of 'social inclusion' with an initial suspicion that it could simply be the novel catch-all phrase used by a new government to mimic recent initiatives in New Zealand, the UK and Ireland.

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard's broad panoply of ministerial portfolios — Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations, Education and Social Inclusion — may hold a clue: social inclusion is everything on the social agenda except or complementary to employment, workplace relations, and education.

The government commitment to social inclusion includes giving all Australians the opportunity to secure a job, access services, connect with family, friends, work and their local community, deal with crises, and have their voices heard. These are laudable objectives. But presumably they are to be delivered to the most disadvantaged at some cost to others.

Social inclusion is to be delivered by a new government after more than a decade of non-change. For the first time in three years, the government does not control the Senate. That increases the prospect of deliberative debate in the public square about policy questions.

The new government is also keen to engage with the non-government sector. Those of us from that sector had a sense with the previous government that we were perceived to have little to contribute to real policy formation.

In the area of policy and law, social inclusion will need to be assessed against the backdrop of the ongoing debate about the desirability of a national bill of rights. Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave an insightful address at the London School of Economics pointing out that rights and utility are the two concepts that resonate most readily in the public square today.

The problem is that we need concepts to set limits on rights when they interfere with the common good, the public interest or, dare I say it, public morality — the concepts used by the UN when first formulating and limiting human rights 60 years ago. We also need concepts to set limits on utility when it interferes with the dignity of the most vulnerable and the liberty of the most despised in our community.

It may be in this grey area between rights and utility that social inclusion has work to do.

In the legal academy