Parliamentary speeches

Loneliness - 2 December

December 02, 2019

What if there was a condition that was more deadly than obesity and more lethal than smoking 15 cigarettes a day? What if the same condition has a greater risk of death than alcohol consumption and lack of exercise? What if this isn't a terrible disease but a social condition? Loneliness. In politics we don't always speak about the things that really matter and we certainly don't pay enough attention to loneliness and its consequences. As the recent ABC Australia Talks survey stated:

Our ignorance about the health consequences of loneliness is a reflection of the fact that loneliness is not part of our everyday conversations around health.

We might think that older Australians are the ones most commonly affected by loneliness—and it is true that for the elderly the loss of social contact is incredibly damaging to health and wellbeing—but the ABC report found that loneliness is a particular challenge for young people. More than a quarter of young people aged 18 to 24 said they felt lonely 'frequently' or 'always'.

Here in Australia, like in the rest of the developed world, the way we live, work and form and sustain relationships is being changed by technology. It's a strange irony that technology has made it easier for people to interact and connect at the same time as loneliness and social isolation are on the rise. However, the most concerning predictor of loneliness is poverty—21 per cent of people who earn less than $600 a week feel lonely frequently or always. By contrast, among people who earn more than $3,000 a week, less than half that say they feel lonely frequently or always, reflecting the fact that around the world poverty is one of the biggest predictors of poor health, especially depression and other mental illnesses.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the adequacy of Newstart in this debate. The current rate of Newstart is unacceptably low. Newstart should be increased. Living in poverty is stressful and it is socially isolating, too. There is no policy lever more readily available to policymakers to address poverty in Australia than increasing Newstart.

As Labor's shadow minister for cities and multicultural affairs, I have been thinking about how loneliness is connected to this portfolio. How our cities are shaped drives how people interact, of course, but we haven't paid nearly enough attention to how this can isolate people. Getting around town isn't just about the depth of our labour markets; it is fundamentally a driver of the quality of our relationships and connections, too.

Loneliness is also a problem for many new migrants settling in Australia. Many make the move without family or support networks. Some struggle to make new social connections. We need to know more about this. In the UK the issue of addressing loneliness was one that was being championed by the late Jo Cox, and it is now championed in her name. The UK Conservative government has built on this by appointing a minister for loneliness. The UK approach recognises that loneliness is an inevitable part of the human experience—for instance, after the death of a loved one or a relationship breakdown—and its focus is on reducing the number of people who say they feel lonely frequently, starting with the Let's Talk Loneliness campaign, which is aimed at reducing stigma. Importantly, loneliness has been entrenched as a consideration across government policy, recognising the wide range of factors that can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and to support people's social wellbeing and resilience. Of course in the UK the link between loneliness, austerity, poverty and a lack of social mobility have made some question the sincerity of the UK government's approach. There is a political dimension to loneliness. Political choices matter, whether it's through cuts, how we talk about people in relation to one another as well as how and whether we regard this as a policy area worthy of political attention.

Last month in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called for a war to be waged on loneliness. He's right. I've spoken previously about the prevalence of loneliness in Australia and the important work of academics like Dr Michelle Lim and civil society organisations like the Red Cross in highlighting this and which have called for a national response from our national government. I'm pleased that Labor's national platform put loneliness directly on the map as something demanding the attention of Australia's government. But, under the Morrison government, nothing seems to be happening and this is just not good enough.