2020 Social Cohesion and Inclusion National Conference
Monday, 16 November 2020
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC
I pay my respects to First Nations peoples located in their various nations around Australia and to their Elders who are the leaders and the knowledge holders of - and in - their communities, and I thank them for their custodianship of their traditional lands.
I thank the Australian Baha’i Community for hosting this Conference and convey my congratulations on the Centenary of the arrival of the Baha’i Faith in Australia.
In Australia, we like to think of ourselves as an egalitarian, easy-going society. In that context, it might be thought that a national conference on ‘Social Cohesion and Inclusion’ was a self-affirming act. However, history teaches us, amongst many things, two which are relevant to this conference:
First, that unless we learn from the past, we will be destined to repeat the same mistakes in the future. The second, is the reverse side of the same coin. We cannot be self-satisfied or take what we have for granted. To do so, risks being blind to the actuality of the lives of others.
It is because there are ‘others’ in our community that the concepts of ‘Cohesion’ and ‘Inclusion’ are vital ingredients in a national conversation. It is a large discussion and has as many aspects to it.
At the 3rd Advancing Community Cohesion Conference: The Way Forward, at Western Sydney University in February this year, I referred to the work of Xavier Fonseca et al who, in their 2019 essay Social Cohesion Revisited, noted that the many studies on social cohesion:
“cover[ed] the individual and community, but they mostly miss the role of governance and formal institutions … “Cohesion happens at the intersection of (these) three levels …”I have been asked to expand upon the function that institutions play at this intersection that enables social cohesion to happen.
I have been asked today to further that discussion.
Let me commence, however, two centuries ago with the 1835 work, Democracy in America by French political writer and aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, published after de Tocqueville spent several months travelling throughout the United States. Sent by the French government to study the American prison system, de Tocqueville became waylaid studying US political, economic and religious institutions.
As Professor John Keane of the University of Sydney explains, ‘de Tocqueville was the first political writer to bring together the newly-invented modern understanding of civil society with the old Greek category of democracy; and he was the first to say that a healthy democracy makes room for civil associations … (in which individuals) come to feel themselves to be citizens.’ In this theory, democracy ‘is defined not just by elections, parties and government by representatives, but by the extensive use of civil society institutions that prevent political despotism … in the name of equality.’
Although democracy is heralded in the western world as the best form of governance in a civil society, Abraham Lincoln recognised its inherent dangers, particularly in the form of political partisanship and tribalism. In his Lyceum Address of 1838, he warned that having succeeded in establishing the ‘capability of a people to govern themselves’, the challenge would be government for the people. His concern was that sheer self-interest and ambition to be in power, could replace government in the interests of the people. Lincoln continued, that partisanship could only be frustrated by unity of the people.
These notions of civil society and unity of the people are thus very much part of our democratic history. They might be described as the big picture notions, the institutional functioning of a society. Concepts of social cohesion and inclusion tend to look at the manner in which individuals function within communities. This can be seen in the Australian Human Rights Commission definition of ‘social cohesion’ as ‘positive social relationships’. . Indeed, the various synonyms of ‘cohesion’, including ‘unity’ and ‘solidarity’, comity, compatibility, concord, harmony, peace, congeniality, fellowship; reciprocity, fellowship sit happily with this definition.
The Commission expands upon its definition, explaining that a socially cohesive society is one which ‘works towards the wellbeing of all of its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility’. That amplification necessarily takes the matter beyond the individual and the community. It speaks of society.
To speak of a socially cohesive society, however, is to speak in the abstract. Societies in the abstract do not act. They do not do things. So, we need to understand what we mean when we speak of society. I would suggest this as a working definition: a society comprises individuals who function within communities which in turn require mechanisms in which and by which to act.
This brings me immediately to the work of Fonseca et al and their reference to the role of institutions. Their definition of ‘social cohesion’ moves beyond what could be viewed as an aspirational notion of ‘positive social relations’ and seeks to strike at the reality of modern western societies. They suggest that social cohesion is: ‘the ongoing process of developing well-being, sense of belonging, and voluntary social participation of the members of society, while developing communities that tolerate and promote a multiplicity of values and cultures, and granting at the same time equal rights and opportunities.’
The ‘ongoing process’ to which they refer captures the interdependence of the individual, the community and institutions as markers of social cohesion. The authors posit that the role of institutions within this interdependency is to provide the mechanisms for conflict management and decision making.
In other words, there needs to be mechanisms which are the ‘governance systems of formal institutions.’ They argue that these mechanisms must be directed to ‘the reduction of inequalities and exclusion’. The mechanisms necessary to do this take many forms. Obvious ones include the Court and Tribunal systems, the education system and the health care system. Principles which govern society also feature.
For my part, I consider the rule of law to be fundamental, a principle that says that no-one is above the law. And, as will be seen in the next two categories, there will be an overlap in the role and functions of the various institutions.
The authors next point to institutions as being the ‘operation centres’ in which ‘human rights’ reside, directed to the freedom of the individual within the society. Participatory rights, such as the right to vote are referred to in this category, indicating the right of a person to a have a voice in the political representation which governs the community, namely, the Parliament.
In Australia, voting for our elected representatives is compulsory. Although no system is perfect, the right to vote in Australia is not manipulatable as can be possible in countries where voting is not compulsory. For example, the right to vote can be obstructed or hindered by placing polling stations in localities that are not readily accessible or where voting cannot take place in the allotted time. In a democracy such as India, this is managed by staggering the voting process over seven phases, taking 37 days, with a combination of postal and electronically transmitted postal ballots. Though the voting calendar is dispersed, all seats in the lower house and the resulting Prime Ministership are announced on the same day, with strict rules preventing the sharing of data as votes are counted across constituencies.
Compulsory voting on the other hand is a legislative recognition that our right to have the political representatives of our collective choosing is so fundamental that it should not be left to chance. Given that to be so, it follows that there is an obligation to provide systems which facilitate that which the Parliament has legislatively mandated. Accordingly, polling booths have to be accessible and conveniently located. Arrangements have to be made for those not in their locality on election day, and the like.
Finally, Fonseca and his co-authors refer to the existence of ‘structures, norms and values’, being those ‘formal institutions and actors in society that are responsible for its upkeep’. Here, one can again see the overlap with the previous categories, as structures, norms and values would include the Parliament, legislative enactments, the Court and Tribunal system to which there must be access, and which set the norms and values by which formal relationships in our community operate; eg in contractual relationships, in community standards, including as encapsulated in the criminal law, as well as in the norms applicable to civil conduct, for example the principle which determines what constitutes negligent conduct which should be the subject of civil redress.
There are other bodies of work in this field which trend in the same direction. The authors of the essay, Social Cohesion, Institutions and Growth present evidence that measures of ‘social cohesion, such as income inequality and fractionalization … determine institutional quality.’ Their thesis is that the better the quality of institutions, the better the prospect for ‘economic growth’.
The authors argue that the extent to which a society is inclusive, which in turn is likely to require institutional norms and governance, such as laws against discrimination, is likely to build cohesion. Again, the interdependence of the individual, the community and institutions is at play.
One might ask then, how does this play out in a practical sense? The answer in a society which is fluid and multi-factored is, I would suggest: ‘it all depends’. Swinburne University’s Australian Leadership Index for 2020 provides an interesting contrast to the last quarter of 2019, where trust in institutions was at a low, and in some cases at its lowest ebb, since the survey began.
The 2020 survey for the corresponding quarter, August to November, paints a very different picture: trust was in the ascendancy. I quote from its findings:
- ‘Perceptions of State government leadership for the greater good continue to improve, [although I would add paradoxically] perceptions of Federal government leadership for the greater good fall.
- The public sector continues to be judged by Australians as showing the most leadership for the greater good of all sectors.
- Charities and public health institutions continue to be seen as showing exemplary leadership for the greater good.’
These responses very much reflected the positive public perception and assessment of the governmental and other institutional responses to the pandemic, as well as to the bushfires and floods which preceded the pandemic. A participant at one of your Roundtable consultations echoed this, pointing out that a true measure of social cohesion is not when times are good, but when times are tough.
In concluding its survey assessment, Swinburne University observed that “…by shining a light on leadership for the greater good, this pandemic may yet have a silver lining for the future.”
The findings of a national ACOSS survey during the COVID-19 pandemic showed a community sector workforce that cares deeply about the communities with which it works. Almost half (44%) agreed or strongly agreed that government had sought their advice on responses to COVID-19.
In NSW, there is a general consensus that deeper engagement with Aboriginal communities occurred, during the pandemic with the communities themselves leading the discourse on protecting their own health.
It is yet to be seen if this improvement in cross-sectoral cooperation will transfer to the longer-term. Certainly, the pandemic’s impact on how institutions have worked together provides a road map for future institutional interdependence with communities and individuals.
I would suggest that there are at least three signposts for how we may move forward, all of which sit at the intersection of the individual, community and institutions. They are: engagement, advisory structures, collaboration and partnership.
The premise of the model of community engagement proposed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies is that: “We cannot know what communities need without better understanding their aspirations, concerns and values.”
There is an important and corresponding benefit in individual health and well-being when “participation is understood both in terms of access - being included in valued social settings and activities - and in terms of agency - feeling that one is able to contribute meaningfully to those activities.”
The inclusivity of the discussions that led to the excellent Baha’i document: Creating an Inclusive Narrative, based on 50 roundtable discussions between July 2019 and September this year, is, in itself, an excellent example of an institution taking the time and the steps to engage ‘in a multi-level process of discourse’with people of diverse backgrounds, genders, abilities and disabilities, ethnicities, cultures and faiths.
Advisory structures can operate at various levels. At an inter-institutional level, universities, research institutes and expert governmental organisations, such as the statutory positions of Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientist, have an important role in providing ‘advisory structures’ to governments. As a body of subject matter experts (SME)s, they have a tremendous capacity to be involved in the national and community conversation, as demonstrated in Australia’s control of the pandemic.
Collaboration and Partnership
The importance of evidence-based approaches, collaboration and whole of community engagement combine to give us another lesson from the pandemic.
In a partnership model, “institutions are better able to meet the needs of communities - essentially as a result of being better informed. Establishing an effective partnership … results in a greater sense of ownership, greater take-up of services, and better outcomes.”
It is to be hoped that this learning will secure the existence of programs where institutional responses are not the best solution, but where community-based programs, such as community-based justice programs like Marunguka in Bourke and Sydney’s Koori Court for young offenders, have proved effective.
In these and similar programs, positive outcomes are achieved for young individuals when the institution, in this case the institutional justice system, enables the community, in this case the Aboriginal community, to lead in the rehabilitative space.
A very different example arose early in the pandemic when a partnership was formed consisting of biomedical engineering students and staff from UNSW Sydney, the University of Sydney and NSW Health who, by mid-March, had consulted with the Australasian Veterinary Board Council and industry groups and had designed and produced high spec ventilators from non-hospital resources for use by COVID -19 patients.
In a world where political rhetoric can be unseemly and divisive, these examples are a positive indication that we are a society where its constituent parts - individuals, community and institutions - intersect; where social cohesion is the evolving process whereby the well-being of the individual is the raison d’etre of the society.
Yet it is respect and trust which is at the heart of the topic: respect for difference, respect which enables individuals and communities to accommodate difference, and trust that our institutions are capable of providing the framework in which that can happen.
 Xavier Fonseca, Stephan Lukosch & Frances Brazier (2019): Social cohesion revisited: a new definition and how to characterize it, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 32:2, 231-253
 Professor John Keane, The University of Sydney, Why read Tocqueville's Democracy in America: 28 April 2015
 Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address (1838) http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm
 Xavier Fonseca, Stephan Lukosch & Frances Brazier (2019): Social cohesion revisited: a new definition and how to characterize it, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 32:2, 231-253,
Economics & Politics, Vol 18 No 2 July 2006, p 102ff
Creating an Inclusive Narrative, Australian Bahai Community, page 39