A helping hand, the Fair Go and the value of self reliance (28/09/2011)

dunlop-edward.jpgFormer Labor Minister Tom Uren talks very movingly about Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, the surgeon who commanded the first Australians sent to work on the Thai section of the Burma-Thailand railway in 1943, Tanya Pliberkek writes.

TOM SAYS that when he and Dunlop were prisoners of the Japanese, Dunlop led by example.

Weary Dunlop - an example for us all

He insisted that the strong take care of the weak and that inadequate rations be pooled, with food reserved for the sick so they could recover.

Beatings were frequent and severe, there were no medical supplies. Tropical disease was rampant and the Japanese required a level of productivity that would have been difficult for fully fit and properly equipped men to achieve.

Yet Weary Dunlop looked after his men and he demanded they look after each other. He refused any special advantage due to his rank. Dunlop defied his captors, gave hope to the sick and eased the anguish of the dying.

He became, in the words of one of his men:

“… a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering.”

This style of leadership was the reason why Australian survival rates were higher than those of other nationalities, according to Tom, and the example set in the camps became the heart of Tom’s political philosophy.

If you ask the average Australian what they see as uniquely Australian values, many will point to egalitarianism, mateship, a “fair go” for all.

We see ourselves as tough and self-reliant, but quick to offer a helping hand to those who need it.  

These values are often seen as best expressed on the battlefield where lives depend on cooperation and mutual trust, but I believe these values colour our lives in times of peace also.

Tradition of egalitarianism

Australia has been seen for generations as a social laboratory. Our welfare system, our democracy, our industrial relations all led the world in many respects.

Payments to widows and deserted wives, the child endowment, public education, state aid, universal health care, universal superannuation: all of these are great achievements and all of them reflect our values as a nation.

When reflecting on the Australian approach to welfare in 1977, Professor Ronald Henderson, the academic who gave his name to the Henderson Poverty Line, observed that:

“‘Welfare policy’ is conceived not simply as a matter of institutions and services for the poor and vulnerable, important though these are.  It is seen above all as a matter of strengthening the social fabric in which we all live … the answer to ‘who cares?’ must be ‘everyone’.”

It is not only our approach to welfare that echoes these values.

When Justice Henry Higgins delivered the landmark Harvester judgement in 1907, he ruled that workers were entitled to a basic wage that:

“… must be enough to support the wage earner in reasonable and frugal comfort.”

The Harvester decision espoused positive liberty – the idea that freedom meant not only being free from interference from others, but being given the power and resources to act to fulfil one’s own potential.

The values that underpinned Harvester were also borne out in the fight for the eight hour day.

When the Commonwealth Arbitration Court finally approved the 40-hour, five-day working week to begin in 1948 nationally, it was the culmination of a century of struggle by working people.

It allowed time for leisure, and with that, time for learning and community work.  

Our democracy itself has also been part of this laboratory.  

In 1902 Australia became one of the first nations to introduce universal adult suffrage for non-Indigenous people; in 1918 preferential voting was introduced; and in 1924 compulsory voting was introduced with the passage of a private member’s bill.

Every Australian had a right to vote; and with it, every Australian had a responsibility to participate in our democracy.

Labor's committment to social inclusion

The Gillard Government’s commitment to social inclusion is a natural progression in the march of social development in an Australia where each of us is equal in value, has the right to the basics of life and the responsibility to contribute what we can to our family and our community.

Australia’s achievements in social welfare, the industrial environment and citizenship show that while the language of social inclusion might be relatively new – the philosophy behind it is not.

It is part of the continuum of social development in Australia, representing all that Australians have aspired to, not only for themselves but for their fellow citizens.

The objective of social inclusion is that everyone in our community should have the opportunity to both reach their potential and participate fully in the social and economic life of the nation.

Tackling disadvantage

Social inclusion aims to reduce entrenched forms of disadvantage – kids growing up in jobless families, homelessness, people locked out of paid work because of mental illness or disability – by getting services across government and the non-government sector to work efficiently together.

Take jobless families. While Australia has relatively high workforce participation rates and low levels of unemployment by international standards the number of jobless families is still too high.

The rate of family joblessness is the fourth highest in the OECD; behind the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Turkey. Yet we have been successful at improving this situation over recent years.

By mid-2008 – before the impact of the global recession on the Australian economy – the rate of family joblessness had returned to levels not seen since the early 1980s.

Between 1995-96 and June 2010, the proportion of jobless families fell by nearly a quarter; the number of dependent children living in households where no parent had a job declined from around 756,000 to around 580,000.

We must hold onto these gains; we must do better still.

Employment is the surest path out of poverty for every member of the family. Kids who grow up in jobless families are more likely to be unemployed as adults. Children learn from their parents and carers – they see them manage the responsibilities of having a job and as well as being a parent.

From a very early stage kids fantasise about “what they will be when they grow up” and from a very early age children start to make calculations about what is possible and what is not.

If they have never known anyone who has gone to university, or never known anyone who goes to work every day, they quickly come to believe that their futures are limited.

The Government's priorities

Addressing the incidence and needs of jobless families with children is one of six social inclusion priority areas for the Labor Government; the others are:

  • Delivering effective support to children at greatest risk of long term disadvantage;
  • Focusing on particular locations, neighbourhoods and communities to ensure programs and services are getting to the right places;
  • Addressing the incidence of homelessness;
  • Employment for people living with a disability or mental illness; and
  • Closing the gap for Indigenous Australians are the others.

The fact that these challenges have been selected is no surprise; they are challenges that have faced us as nation for many years.

Yet in each of these areas new, concerted, focussed, evidence-based approaches are being used to make headway against the “wicked problems”.

Without doing a full evaluation of all work underway it is worth making some general observations.

Labor’s approach has been practical, setting measurable goals and attacking problems using available evidence, measuring success, and doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

Our approach in this respect has certainly not been ideological.

As Deng Xiaoping said at the Guangzhou Conference in 1961:

“I don’t care if it’s a white cat or a black cat.  It’s a good cat as long as it catches mice.”

An example of this is our Better Futures, Local Solutions program that brings together the first three priority groups of jobless families, children at greatest risk of long term disadvantage and the needs of specific communities facing entrenched disadvantage.

Better Futures, Local Solutions

After extensive trials of “place-based” assistance in the Human Services portfolio, these types of programs formed a key component of the $3 billion workforce participation package announced by the Government in this year’s Budget.

Place-based programs take advantage of local expertise and conditions rather than relying on one-size-fits-all models directed by bureaucrats from Canberra.

The place-based approach uses the wisdom and strengths of local communities and allows us to target effort to fixing intergenerational challenges such as low educational attainment, welfare dependency and unemployment which are concentrated in some communities.

These new programs have been controversial because we are requiring more from disadvantaged jobseekers.

Teenage parents, jobless families and others will have higher expectations placed on them if they live in these locations, as well as tighter compliance requirements.

Yet they will also get more assistance and greater support.

In five of then ten Better Futures, Local Solutions sites the Government will use income management for very vulnerable people: parents at risk of neglecting their children; people at risk of failing to pay the rent and becoming homeless.

I make no apology for this approach.

Standing by and allowing people to blow their money instead of feeding their kids or paying the rent is not doing anyone any favours.

Critics say this is not a long term solution – that we must empower people – and I agree that long term the best solution is for these Australians to get a job, learn to manage their money and overcome the complex issues that have led to their chaotic life circumstances.

Labor's reform agenda

Yet in the short term the kids need feeding and the rent needs paying, or the consequences are catastrophic.

Our commitment to addressing homelessness is as historic as 1985 when the Hawke Government established the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program.

In total Labor has invested more than $7.5 billion to build around 40 specialist homeless shelters; 20,000 new public housing dwellings; and to reform services so that we actually end homelessness for those it affects, rather than just churning them through short-term accommodation.

On mental health, the 2011 Budget included the nation’s largest ever mental health reform package: $2.2 billion to deliver additional services and focus on prevention, early intervention and a better integrated system.

The National Disability Strategy, agreed by the Council of Australian Governments in February 2011, is a long-term road map for improving the lives of Australians with disability, their families and carers.

The strategy will help us create better services, programs and community infrastructure so that people with disability have access to a quality education, to health care, support to get a job and to access buildings, transport and media.

Our next big reform in this area will be a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Labor is also delivering unprecedented investment to close the gap for Indigenous Australians: Jenny Macklin spoke to you about these efforts last month.

While Labor’s reform agenda builds on the Australian tradition of giving a helping hand and a fair go – our programs also reflect the value of self-reliance.

We are happy to help out as long as we believe people are doing what they can to get back on their feet if they are able.

Being true to our values

This is what I mean about enduring Australian values guiding what we do and how we do it as a nation.

In the past, values arguments have often been simplistic left versus right propositions.

Some were prepared to wrap themselves in khaki, rightly proud of self-sacrifice and bravery but ignoring the horror of war felt by most returned servicemen; ignoring also the fact that being proud of our history means acknowledging our failings too.

Some on the left, on the other hand, came to see patriotism and pride in our achievements as jingoistic and a bit naff.

The hostility returned Vietnam veterans faced in the 1970s was a particular low point.

As Southern Cross tattoos and car stickers became cool with one section of Australian society, another part of our community came to see this expression of patriotism as exclusive, boorish and aggressive.

Yet it need not be so.

John Howard adopted the language of mateship but not the values: the values of the strong looking after the weak; of self-reliance coupled with a sense of responsibility for one another.

Some feminists argued that we shouldn’t use the language of mateship as it excludes women, but I disagree.

Women serve on our front lines now and throughout our military history they have been in harm’s way as nurses and as prisoners of war.

Yet they have done much more; they have worked in the women’s land army; and they worked in factories and at home to support the war effort.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression women kept families together and put bread on the table however they could while the men went on the wallaby trail.

They fought for and won the right to vote, equal pay, full equality before the law, protection from violence.

Australian women have as much right to claim a heritage of toughness, self-reliance, compassion and self-sacrifice as Australian men.

Mateship and patriotism are much more than simply painting our faces green and gold at sporting events, tattooing the Australian flag on our shoulder or wearing a Wallabies tracksuit.

Patriotism means genuine love for our country and that love is indivisible from love for our fellow citizen.

Love of this country is about more than lifestyle: it’s not all barbeques and beaches.

It’s indivisible from our best characteristics: resilience, mateship, egalitarianism and tolerance.

Patriotism should be expressed not simply in overt but superficial ways, but in deeper and more meaningful ways: how we treat each other; how we build our nation; and how we ensure that all Australians have the opportunity to reach their potential.


Our patriotism should be inclusive, not exclusive – and to help do this we should more openly recognise our diversity as a key strength.

Of multiculturalism, few have said it better than former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1981 when he said:

“Australian multiculturalism is a unique achievement.  Australia may have stumbled into the multicultural epoch.  We were a nation comparatively small in size and insular in outlook.  But within a period of time that is short in historical perspective, Australia has been enlarged in capacities, talents and outlook by millions of men and women from every corner of the globe.”

While multiculturalism is part of our national character – it is not a replacement for it.

Multiculturalism policies, as Tim Soutphommasane says, were:

“… aimed at integrating immigrants into a national community defined by shared liberal political values.  The right to express one’s cultural identity was balanced by the obligation to endorse parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, English as the national language and equality of the sexes.”

People often disparage the idea of studying or considering our civic values.

It does not “move” people the same way as our ideas about our military history, our sporting achievements and Dorothea Mackellar’s notion of a “sunburnt country”.

It’s true that we don’t have the revolutionary pedigree of other countries – like France or the United States – that give civic life a fascination it does not historically have here.

Our nation was not born out of a war, a clash of values or a revolution against imperialism, yet we do have a citizenship framework to be proud of.

Australian citizenship

I love going to citizenship ceremonies.

I love the bravery and optimism of people who leave everything behind to come here, for love, or work, or safety – or to build a better life for their kids.

I once heard a butcher in Lakemba saying taking Australian citizenship was like having a second child.

When you have your first child you think it is impossible to love another child as much as this first one and yet, when that second child is born, your heart expands and your love is doubled.

So, he said, was taking citizenship the opportunity to love a new country as much as you ever loved your birthplace.

I tear up when I see new citizens take the oath or the pledge and I tear up when I repeat the pledge myself:

“From this time forward
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.”

It is simple and beautiful, yet I would be amazed if many Australian born here have said this even once.

To see and hear new Australians become citizens is a wonderful thing – for these people are making a public commitment to Australia and accepting the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship.

Every Australian should know the pledge.

Every Australian child should learn it by heart and say it regularly at school.

American kids pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and all that it represents; so should Australian children know and understand our nation’s citizenship pledge.

Rights, responsibilities and the Fair Go

Indeed all Australians should understand their rights and responsibilities as a citizen of our great nation.

Of course this means obeying Australian law, but it goes beyond mere sterile legality.

You’re under no obligation to help someone on the street.

The Good Samaritan would have offended no law nor failed in any legal obligation if he had simply walked on.

Yet our values – the laws within – that govern our behaviour and the way we treat each other are every bit as important as black letter law.

There is a Chinese proverb:

“Laws govern the lesser man, right governs the greater.”

Of course our understanding of Australian values evolves over time – our rights and liberties are not set in stone, but improve over the years.

Graham Freudenberg has argued that the notion of a fair go has been central to all of the big debates of Australian politics.

A clear and constantly re-stated commitment this most fundamental value – egalitarianism, a fair go, social inclusion, mateship – whatever name it goes by – would pay tribute to our past and contribute to a strong foundation for our future.

Our rich nation is, in many ways, the epitome of a socially inclusive society.

Yet I believe we can do better – not because I suffer from cultural cringe, or a “black arm band view of history”, but because we have achieved so much and have so much more to do in future.

I am truly optimistic that driven by our love for our country and our love for our fellow citizen we can continue to work towards a society in which each of us can reach our full potential and the future of our children is not determined by the postcode in which they are born.

The Honourable Tanya Plibersek MP
Minister for Human Services, Social Inclusion

Australia's Social Inclusion Heritage - Past, present and future

Address to the Sydney Institute - 27 September 2011