Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Address to the Chifley Research Centre Forum on Loneliness and Public Policy Responses

October 11, 2018

A couple of years ago the British commentator Will Hutton wrote a book entitled How good we can be. He called for a better politics, and better policy, focused on what these should lead to: a good society.

I've been thinking about it, and this, quite a bit lately. As I seek to understand what is be done to turn around a sense of alienation from a politics which is too often seen as irrelevant to the things which matter to people.

How good we can be is another way of talking about the light on the hill, Ben Chifley’s great statement of purpose.

It's a powerful reminder that not all of our goals can be met materially - that how we feel is fundamentally important to how we are.

It's a challenge to think about loneliness. Loneliness hasn't much featured in our political and policy debates, but this must change. Something which affects hundreds of thousands of us, and has shocking health consequences - as bad as smoking - matters to anyone who wants to live in a good society.

So politicians need to think about loneliness.

And to think about it harder, and differently.

I say harder, because there's so much more we need to know about loneliness in Australia. While the work of Michelle Lim has drawn attention to its shocking health consequences, we simply don't know enough about its prevalence here, as the baseline to inform policy responses. In this regard, we are a long way behind places like the UK.

And I say differently, because there are changes of mindset required to address what I think can fairly described as a crisis. A call to action to all of us as individuals and community members to look around ourselves more, and look out for those we see. There are some great campaigns directed to this goal, at raising awareness. I'm keen to support these, and generate greater interest in this issue, and its consequences.

But, more fundamentally, I'm convinced we need to consider responding to loneliness as a responsibility of government. I'm determined to make this case so that we can understand what drives loneliness, who is affected and how we can respond, effectively. We know that it is problem, but we are now only guessing at its extent and what this means.

In Australia, we are fortunate to have the academics and the civil society that we have. I'm very grateful to the work of Dr Lim, and of the Coalition to End Loneliness, especially the Red Cross and Relationships Australia. They are leading the way, but need support.

Which makes it so exciting that Brett Gale and Labor’s think tank, the Chifley Research Centre, have taken such an interest in this issue.

Once again, if we look to the UK we see more information available. Last week the BBC released the results of its loneliness experiment survey, which attracted 55,000 responses. These are interesting, and challenging. For example, it suggested:

- contrary to stereotypes, the age cohort most likely to report feeling lonely is people 16-24;
- discrimination appears to be driver of loneliness, which points to an additional cost of exclusion, and a direct challenge to lawmakers; and,
- there remains a stigma on the part of people who feel lonely, when it comes to speaking to others about this.

It's vital that we have available to decision-makers, academics and citizens a similar Australian perspective. To check consistency with these findings, and explore questions like how is loneliness transmitted (that it is contagious is another fact I've found startling), how our medical professionals are responding, the impacts of social media on feelings of loneliness, as well the effects of increasing inequality and the role of policies and infrastructure targeted at boosting social inclusion on loneliness.

Simply put, we need comprehensive Australian research. We can learn from the work being done in the UK and USA, but this can't suffice to find the policy responses that are required. Australia has different demographics: overseas evidence can't be presumed to account for the experiences of First Nations Australians or the diversity of our recently arrived communities, for starters.

What data we have is dated, and incomplete. We need both a national conversation about loneliness, and a sound basis to turn this engagement into action by supporting the work being done by Dr Lim and her colleagues so that we can develop a clear understanding of the prevalence and impacts of loneliness here - on health, quality of life and on productivity.

And then do something meaningful about this.

The UK has appointed a Minister for Loneliness. Such an appointment warrants careful consideration here, too. Loneliness isn't just an element of a portfolio such as Aged Care, or Mental Health. I think an effective national response will require looking beyond silos to drive a wider series of interventions.

I'm an optimist. I'm excited about how good Australia can be, about the work of a Shorten Labor government towards realising this goal and broadening the possibilities of our politics.

I think that confronting loneliness has to be a critical element here. It has to be seen as unacceptable that so many Australians feel lonely, and recognised that this is damaging both individual lives and our social fabric.

This is something we have to place at the centre of our collective responsibility to each other. Being better as a country must include ending loneliness.