3rd Advancing Community Cohesion Conference: The Way Forward
Western Sydney University
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC
I commence by paying my respect to the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, their Elders, past, present and emerging.
Thank you for the invitation to address you at this 3rd Advancing Australian Community Cohesion Conference, here at Western Sydney University. This is an important conference, in the issues that it raises and in the people it has gathered together to analyse and discuss those issues.
The underlying assumption of the conference is that social cohesion, from whatever perspective it is viewed, is a positive social construct. From that premise, the conference seeks to identify and analyse the social forces that encourage cohesion and those that undermine it.
My perspective of this very important topic comes from my background of 40 years in the law and eight months as Governor of this state. As I view the latter role, a Governor should see society for what it is and encourage and promote the society to which we, as a community, aspire to be. In the context of this conference, one might say, what we as a cohesive community aspire to be, recognising that one can belong to many communities and that there will always be fluidity around what it means to be both a community and a cohesive community.
This makes it all the more important for there to be some grounding to this topic. Time doesn’t permit me to start with Plato and Aristotle although they both had much to say. Nor, indeed, is there time to explore and compare the concept of the ‘social contract’ as espoused by John Locke. It is sufficient in this brief introduction to the conference to refer to three modern commentaries which provide some structure to the topic: the first from the Australian Human Rights Commission; the second and third from academics Associate Professor Winnifred Maps and Xavier Fonseca respectively.
The Australian Human Rights Commission in its report: Building Social Cohesion in Our Communities explains ‘social cohesion’ as a reference to: ‘positive social relationships’ – it is the bond or ‘glue’ that binds people. A socially cohesive society is one which works towards the wellbeing of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility.” These are also the words used in the OECD definition of social cohesion. Described in that way, ‘social cohesion’ might be seen as aspirational.
Various commentators seek to incorporate a normative framework around this aspirational notion of ‘social cohesion’; in particular, by a reference to ‘a willingness to cooperate with others in order to survive and prosper’. Within this framework, there is freedom of action and association but with an end goal of equitable distribution of outcomes.
Increasingly however, the commentary on ‘social cohesion’ recognizes that it is a ‘two-way process’ and that, at its core, is the ability to accommodate difference. Associate Professor Maps explains that:
“it’s important to think about socially cohesive communities as societies where people respect each other even if they disagree, and where they can disagree without feeling unsafe and disrespected.”
The third commentary, from Xavier Fonseca, seeks to focus on what is arguably a missing link in the nexus between the individual and the community – namely, the role of institutions in promoting social or community cohesion. In his 2019 article: 'Social Cohesion Revisited', published in Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, Fonseca makes the point that:
“Studies cover the individual and community, but they mostly miss the role of governance and formal institutions. Cohesion happens at the intersection of (these) three levels …”
Fonseca’s work is timely given the results of the Australian Leadership Index which indicate that trust in institutions and government organisations is at a low ebb. Swinburne University of Technology’s 2019 survey, on which the Leadership Index is based, recorded that: 35% of Australians believed banking and financial institutions showed no leadership for the public good, followed closely by the government (31.4%), religious organisations (26.1%) and multinational corporations (23.7%).
That 31.4% of respondents considered that the government showed no leadership for the public good corresponds with the survey results for the Scanlon Monash Index of Social Cohesion that indicated an increasing concern for the quality of political and government leadership.
The Scanlon Monash Index of Social Cohesion uses five domains to calculate social cohesion: belonging, worth, social justice, political participation, and acceptance/ rejection. The Index is based on responses to its annual Mapping Social Cohesion Survey.
What emerged from its 2019 survey was an increasing concern over two issues: climate change and the environment and quality of government and political leadership. Both concerns are telling. At the least, they are a commentary on what the community is increasingly expecting, if not demanding, of our institutions.
Encouragingly, 80% of respondents indicated agreement that people were ‘willing to help their neighbours’, although down slightly on previous years. The responses to two other questions were interesting and in their own way, also concerning. To the question:
- ‘To what extent do you have a sense of belonging in Australia?’ the response ‘to a great extent,’ was 77% in 2007, 67% in 2017, 63% in 2019.
- And then to the question: ‘To what extent do you take pride in the Australian way of life and culture?’ the response ‘to a great extent, was’ 58% in 2007, 54% in 2017, 50% in 2019.
Having said that these survey results are interesting, if not concerning, it is relevant to question why the decline.
Are we looking at a failure of institutions, a failure of leadership, a greater acceptance of other cultures, or a demographic change, to name a few of the possibilities?
The topic is too important to be a mere abstraction or only of interest to the Academy. Let it be assumed however that the three commentaries to which I have referred provide a reasonable conceptual basis upon which to discuss social cohesion, it is still necessary to identify to what society is seeking to cohere.
In Australia, there is a temptation, if not a tendency, to identify social cohesion with an adherence to “Australian values”. This leads one to ask whether it is possible to have social cohesion without some identification of and connection to shared values.
The Australian Government has identified the ‘shared values through which Australian society is united’ as being:
- respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual;
- freedom of religion;
- commitment to the rule of law;
- parliamentary democracy;
- equality of men and women;
- a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good; and,
- equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background.
If these are the values which, if adhered to, will make us a socially cohesive society, it would, nonetheless, be naïve to think that they all pull in the same direction or indeed that there is a shared understanding of what each value means.
It is not too difficult to think of examples where equality of men and women or the freedom and dignity of the individual clashes with the cultural practices of a race or religion. How can we be a cohesive society and yet disagree on fundamental matters which affect people in their daily lives? It is for that reason that the observations of Associate Professor Maps were, I thought, particularly apt.
I spoke earlier of my role as Governor. If I were looking at this question through the prism of my legal background, my immediate response to what is needed for social cohesion is respect for the rule of law. That is an aspect of the shared values to which I have just referred. The respect for the rule of law starts with the lawmakers. Our lawmakers are not above the law. To me it is a fundamental starting point. But it is not enough.
Social cohesion involves a sense of safety, security and acceptance for all communities. People do not and cannot thrive where there is fear and uncertainty whether that be fear for personal safety or of financial insecurity. This is why violence of any type, and especially violence against women and children who, overall, are more vulnerable, cannot be tolerated in a society which claims to be cohesive. It is why institutions cannot operate without regard to the rights and interests of those whom they serve.
It is also fundamental to recognize that social cohesion is not limited – or even directed - to diverse ethnic communities embracing Australian values.
His Excellency the Governor General, General David Hurley, at the opening of this conference in 2017, referred to this when he spoke about the ‘Sandstone Curtain’ - the term used to describe the disconnect between the city and the bush. That disconnect, in economic terms has continued to widen. In December 2019, Sydney’s GDP per capita was $31,300 higher than that of Regional NSW, the highest gap on record. That tells us that it is not sufficient for different communities merely to co-exist.
Different communities have to come together and work together.
Australia thrives on community service, on the nearly 1/3 of Australians who volunteer, who every weekend keep junior sports going, contribute to welfare in hospitals, and keep the homeless fed. In times of crises, the Australian communities are particularly good at responding to the needs of others. We saw it in the bushfire crisis, but, it must be said, less so in the drought. That was the underlying story of #Buy from the Bush and Grace Brennan’s 2020 Australia Day address. It was a story of the community of the city coming to understand the needs and the identity of the community of the bush, the need to connect and to engage each with the other.
Social cohesion is that story across communities. It is the way that that story plays out which is the challenge.
 OECD (2011). Perspectives on Global Development 2012: Social Cohesion in a Shifting World: Executive Summary
 What Do We Know about Social Cohesion: The Research Perspective of the Canadian Federal Government's Social Cohesion Research Network Dick Stanley, The Canadian Journal of Sociology: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3341872?seq=1
Immigration, Social Cohesion and National Identity, Professor Robert Holton, 1997-1998: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP9798/98rp01
 How we can create a more Socially Cohesive Society, Associate Professor Winnifred Louis Maps https://psychlopaedia.org/society/can-create-socially-cohesive-society/
'Social cohesion revisited: a new definition and how to characterize it', Xavier Fonseca, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, Volume 32, 2019 makes this point: “Future studies should consider the perspective of institutions, as it does not seem to have been covered in a substantial way.” https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13511610.2018.1497480
 40.56% of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia and just 31% profess a trust in the Federal Government: Evans, Stoker & Halupka ‘Trust and Democracy in Australia – Democratic Decline and Renewal’ The Policy Space (Online, 4 December 2019): https://www.thepolicyspace.com.au/2018/04/272-trust-and-democracy-in-australia-democratic-decline-and-renewal
 The interviewer administered version of the 2019 survey was completed by 1,500 respondents, the Life in Australia™ panel by 2,033, a total of 3,533. The survey has grown to comprise 90 questions (65 substantive and 25 demographic), including eighteen questions that are used for calculation of the Scanlon Monash Index of Social Cohesion.
 Mapping Social Cohesion Survey 2019: The Scanlon Foundation Report – Executive Summary: https://www.monash.edu/mapping-population/public-opinion/social-cohesion-report
 Australian Values Statement: Department of Home Affairs: www.homeaffairs.gov.au
 Economic Performance of Australia’s Cities and Regions, published December 2019, page 21. Sydney GDP per capita is $86,500 and regional NSW $55,200: https://www.sgsep.com.au/assets/main/Publications/SGS-Economics-and-Planning_Economic-Performance-of-Australian-Cities-and-Regions-UPDATED-191223.pdf