Monday, 18 February 2019
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(1) pays tribute to the work done on loneliness in the United Kingdom in memory of Mrs Jo Cox;
(2) acknowledges that:
(a) the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission’s inquiry into loneliness has succeeded due to bipartisan support, including the appointment of a responsible minister;
(b) there is a similar problem in Australia, but it is less well understood than it should be, particularly having regard to its impacts on younger Australians and the influence of social media; and
(c) the problem of loneliness is under recognised, despite its acknowledged and significant negative impacts on individuals and society;
(3) notes the work of Australian academics and civil society in this area; and
(4) calls for a national response in Australia, to better understand the scope of the challenge and to inform and support an evidence based policy response.
This parliament has been too slow to recognise loneliness as what it is: a national crisis requiring a national response. That so many Australians of all backgrounds and in all circumstances feel lonely is something we should care about. That we now know that this loneliness affects them and us as a society so significantly means the time has arrived for action. Governments in other countries have been quicker to appreciate this challenge, notably the UK. This motion directly acknowledges the role of the Jo Cox Commission on loneliness in leading a national conversation, which has been particularly influential in driving community awareness and now a national strategy led by a minister in the May government.
Community organisations and civil society in Australia have been active too. The Australian loneliness report, released last November by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University, makes clear that the prevalence and consequences loneliness here are consistent with troubling findings elsewhere. It's challenging reading, revealing that one in four Australians experience loneliness and that those of us who are lonely are more likely to have worse physical and mental health indicators and to experience depression than the population at large. The former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy refers to loneliness as a growing health epidemic. He's right. Loneliness kills. It's associated with a reduction in lifespan equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and greater than that of obesity. Its public health consequences go further than this, being associated with greater risks of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.
This isn't all. We must also recognise the social and economic costs of loneliness, the constraints it imposes on the lives of too many Australians as an insidious scourge too often suffered in silence. In the US and the UK, efforts have been made to quantify the wider costs associated with loneliness. The figures for the health impacts are startling, with the AARP and Stanford University estimating the additional cost to Medicare as US$6.7 billion. Across the Atlantic, research conducted for the Jo Cox Commission suggests that loneliness is costing UK employers £2.5 billion per year. High loneliness amongst workers is also associated with poorer performance, while social interaction at work has been linked to higher productivity.
Since I first spoke in the parliament on loneliness, I have had the privilege of meeting with many academics and civil society organisations, many associated with the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, who have been paving the way towards an Australia determined to beat loneliness and who recognised long before I did that there is much more we need to know if we are to put in place effective policy responses. I pay particular tribute to Dr Michelle Lim, to the Red Cross and to Relationships Australia for their work and their leadership. I note the strong recent statements of the AMA, a powerful intervention. We should heed it. I have also met with and listened to many Australians experiencing loneliness. Their stories demand a response, for us to give voice in this place to their concerns and to start the work of answering them. At a time when faith in politics is waning, that there has been a call to action is heartening—a reminder that Australians can still see their concerns being addressed through our work here.
I'm pleased that this motion is being debated and that it proceeds in a bipartisan manner. I thank the member for Berowra for seconding it and look forward to his contribution. This should be a bipartisan concern. Loneliness does not discriminate. It affects all of us and diminishes us all. We can, should and must work together to raise awareness, end stigma and develop a better understanding of precisely who loneliness effects in Australia, how and why so that we can then put in place effective responses, together with civil society and concerned neighbours and friends.
This is not to say that this debate does not have a political dimension. Of course it does. I note with pride that Labor's national platform now recognises the crisis that is loneliness. I am concerned that political choices can exacerbate loneliness in terms of how many are affected and how it affects them. The work of Professor Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, points at the implications of inequality and austerity in the UK, the context in which loneliness rates have soared. I suspect too that political choices will bear on how we reduce those rates. This is an important political debate, but one that rests on us agreeing that it's a debate worth having. Today's motion does that, I think. It presents a foundation on which we can build. I look forward to this debate and to a time when how we respond to loneliness in Australian politics is equivalent to its impact on the lives of Australians.
I was honoured when the member for Scullin asked me to second this motion that he has moved today, and I suspect that part of the reason he asked me to second this motion was the work that I've been doing in suicide prevention. In particular, in my maiden speech, I noted that one of things that I wanted to do in this place was to try and pierce the loneliness and the blackness that many people who are contemplating taking their own lives feel. And I have been interested, as he has, in the developments in Britain on this subject.
While the member for Scullin and I agree that loneliness is a major issue of concern in our society today, as we come from different political traditions we perhaps have different ways that we might address it. I always baulk when UN human rights rapporteurs are mentioned on anything; it's not something that I want to touch in any way, shape or form. But that's not to take away from the importance of the issue that's raised, generally.
We live in a world where, technologically, we are much more connected today than we were at any time in our past. I can see my son, who's 10 months old, every day on FaceTime. That's a wonderful thing that previous generations of parliamentarians, who were separated from their own children by virtue of the work that we do here, would not have had. And, while we can have thousands and thousands of friends and followers on Facebook and social media, and while we can have the freedom to travel that they didn't in previous generations, those deep relationships or friendships which formed the bedrock of our societies for generations have frayed.
Perhaps the difference in our political traditions may well indicate a different response to the issue of loneliness. Sometimes, those opposite would prefer for government to intervene and correct some failures in the market here, whereas I think those on our side are more likely to look to our prepolitical institutions—things like churches and Scouting groups and service clubs and sports clubs and the like—to bolster the fight against loneliness. In fairness, many of those organisations which had their heyday in the middle of last century have struggled, as we have become a more atomised society, to reach out to the most marginalised in our community, and their memberships have struggled and they've declined over time.
In 2007, a national survey of mental health and wellbeing was conducted. People were found to be twice as likely to have a mental health issue that went for more than 12 months if they didn't have family members or friends to rely on or confide in. In fact, having no contact with friends, you are more than twice as likely to have a mental health disorder of that type.
Too many of us are living lonely and isolated lives. Many of us think of the shocking stories that we hear from time to time about elderly women whose bodies are found. I think of the story of Natalie Wood, who'd lost contact with the outside world; eight years after she had died, she was found in her apartment. Eight years! That's an extraordinary thing. Why? Because she was a disconnected person—completely lonely. She fell in her home and died not long after. Her family, having had an argument with her, assumed that she was just unhappy with them and didn't want to contact her, so they never reached out. The neighbours assumed the home had been abandoned, so they never knocked. This is a symptom of the society that we live in today.
What some of the research that Michelle Lim and others have done reminds us is that loneliness is not just a problem for older isolated people; it's actually a problem that affects younger people—younger people moving to cities and doing work where they can be surrounded by people all day but have no genuine deep human connections. One of the things that I think generally helps build human connections is to try and find activities that, instead of doing face-to-face, we can do side-by-side. It is the shared nature of being in an activity and the shared interests—often, the shared struggle of trying to build something or create something—that help build the bonds of friendship. And I think we need to find more ways to empower community organisations to do just that sort of thing.
I note that the May government in Britain has created a minister for loneliness. I think we need to see how that particular proposal works out before we decide that that solution is the right solution for this country, but I have been interested to see that they will be receiving reports on the status of loneliness and the development of policy at a government level to work out what one can do to better combat these issues. Again, I commend the member for Scullin. This is a really important issue that he has raised, and I'm pleased to second and support this motion in the House today.
I rise to speak on the motion put forward by the member for Scullin. I thank him for doing so, and the member for Berowra for supporting it in such a helpful way.
I'm proud to support this motion. In doing so, I also pay tribute to the work of the late British MP, the magnificent Mrs Jo Cox. Before her murder by a right-wing extremist, Jo worked tirelessly for her constituents in the north of England and was particularly concerned about the high incidence in her community of loneliness and isolation. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was set up to tackle this problem.
I have been personally inspired by Jo's work and her legacy. I took her example and implemented my own grassroots campaign in my electorate of Moreton to practically combat the growing epidemic of social isolation and loneliness. My campaign, on a practical level, was called 'Say G'day in May', and I rolled it out last year. I spent six days walking the length and breadth of my electorate and walked over 60 kilometres in total, from Eight Mile Plains to Sunnybank, Tarragindi to Salisbury, Moorooka to Acacia Ridge, Yeronga to Moorooka, Tennyson to Oxley, and Kuraby to Sunnybank, on different days.
The aim of my 'Say G'day in May' campaign was to encourage people in my electorate to engage with their local community groups. I asked locals to come and walk with me and talk with me, meet with me at one of the stops along the way to have a coffee or come to a local community group. And they did, to dance—they showed me how to dance—to paint, to chat and to do all these different activities that they do; to build things in men's sheds, and all sorts of things. I connected people with local walking groups and other community groups—whatever piqued their interest and suited their time of life.
After the six days of walking and talking, I then pulled it all together to hold a community showcase event, asking every community group in my electorate to come along and have a stall to display their wares. It was an overwhelming success. New connections were made, and new members joined these community groups. The community groups loved the opportunity to connect with individuals and with the other groups; there was cross-pollination.
I'm continually asked whether there will be another 'Say G'day in May' this year. Unfortunately, I think there's something else happening in May this year, so I might have to do something else—maybe a 'Say Hi in July', if I'm re-elected! I believe that tackling social isolation and loneliness is best done from the ground up. Some great work has been done to try to understand just how much social isolation and loneliness impacts on the lives of Australians. The member of Scullin touched on that in his speech, as did the member for Berowra.
As co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Australian Red Cross group, I've worked closely with the Red Cross for many years now. They're doing some great work in the loneliness space. The Red Cross, in partnership with Swinburne University, has presented research findings revealing that the impact of loneliness is on par with other major health risks. They report that 60 per cent of Australians report feeling lonely often. Lacking social connections carries a similar risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even exceeds the risks of inactivity and obesity. The Red Cross have launched their campaign to encourage sporting clubs to get involved. More than 4,000 people across Australia have signed up to their hashtag #beatloneliness campaign to help fight this problem affecting more than half of the Australian population.
Relationships Australia have also done work in this area. They released their findings in September, finding that: one in 10 Australians lack social support; one in six experience emotional loneliness—that is, they don't have a sufficient number of meaningful relationships in their lives to sustain and nurture them, particularly through difficult times; poverty, unemployment and poor relationships are significantly associated with loneliness; and, not surprisingly, lonely people make greater use of our health system. None of these findings are surprising.
Relationships Australia are using their Neighbour Day this year to highlight the problem. The 2019 theme for Neighbour Day is, 'Loneliness—what neighbours can do to create connections'. Relationships Australia believes:
… it is critical that we reinvigorate our communities, get people to connect with their neighbours and, in doing so, drive a dent in loneliness.
I encourage everyone to support these great grassroots initiatives by the Red Cross and Relationships Australia. They are leading the way in combatting social isolation and loneliness—so that great combination of some of the comments made in the member for Berowra's speech and the member for Scullin's speech; research but also the grassroots and the great things that make a civil society.
If the good people of Moreton support me at the ballot box in May, I will do my bit. I'll roll out my local campaign again—it won't be 'Say G'day in May', but maybe 'Say Hi in July' or something else. I'll again be encouraging everyone on the Southside and all the wonderful local community groups to come and get involved in that walking process to make those connections. Often, the very first step is the hardest for a lonely person to take. If someone can take them through the door of their club, they can then start a whole lifetime of connections. This is all about promoting community engagement, and it benefits everyone. Again, I thank the member for Scullin and the member for Berowra for their contributions on this motion.