Archive for September, 2008

‘Agnostic’ priest’s social inclusion scepticism

September 25, 2008

Frank Brennan August 27, 2008

 The Rudd Government’s Social Inclusion Board has now commenced work. As a citizen who has never worked for government, I come to the topic of ‘social inclusion’ with an initial suspicion that it could simply be the novel catch-all phrase used by a new government to mimic recent initiatives in New Zealand, the UK and Ireland.

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s broad panoply of ministerial portfolios — Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations, Education and Social Inclusion — may hold a clue: social inclusion is everything on the social agenda except or complementary to employment, workplace relations, and education.

The government commitment to social inclusion includes giving all Australians the opportunity to secure a job, access services, connect with family, friends, work and their local community, deal with crises, and have their voices heard. These are laudable objectives. But presumably they are to be delivered to the most disadvantaged at some cost to others.

Social inclusion is to be delivered by a new government after more than a decade of non-change. For the first time in three years, the government does not control the Senate. That increases the prospect of deliberative debate in the public square about policy questions.

The new government is also keen to engage with the non-government sector. Those of us from that sector had a sense with the previous government that we were perceived to have little to contribute to real policy formation.

In the area of policy and law, social inclusion will need to be assessed against the backdrop of the ongoing debate about the desirability of a national bill of rights. Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave an insightful address at the London School of Economics pointing out that rights and utility are the two concepts that resonate most readily in the public square today.

The problem is that we need concepts to set limits on rights when they interfere with the common good, the public interest or, dare I say it, public morality — the concepts used by the UN when first formulating and limiting human rights 60 years ago. We also need concepts to set limits on utility when it interferes with the dignity of the most vulnerable and the liberty of the most despised in our community.

It may be in this grey area between rights and utility that social inclusion has work to do.

In the legal academy there is presently a great evangelical fervour for bills of rights. This fervour manifests itself in florid espousals of the virtues of weak statutory bills of rights together with the assurance that one need not be afraid because such bills do not really change anything.

It is a pleasant change for me to be cast in the role of the sceptical agnostic, insisting that the promised parousia of enhanced human rights protection be backed by hard evidence of tangibly different outcomes.

Those of us with a pragmatic, evidentiary approach to the question are now well positioned, given that two of Australia’s nine jurisdictions have now enacted such bills of rights with the double assurance that nothing has really changed and that things can now only get better.

It will be interesting to hear an assessment of the socially inclusionary benefits of a bill of rights which provides lawyers and judges with greater access to the realm of policy and service delivery.

There will presumably still be winners and losers under a policy of social inclusion. If we are to show a greater preference for the most disadvantaged, I presume that for every person on the bottom of the social ladder going through the social inclusionary program there will be ten persons slightly higher up who will be neglected.

The work of Professor Tony Vinson on the geographic distribution of social disadvantage in Australia, published by Jesuit Social Services under the title Dropping Off the Edge, has been pivotal in assisting the government to articulate its position on social inclusion.

In debating whether social inclusion is to be achieved by giving preference to geographically disadvantaged postcodes rather than to disadvantaged persons regardless of where they live, there will be a need to consider the double political impact. The places of greatest need will be safe Labor seats and thus there will be no short term political advantage in giving them preference, and there will be some flak for such preferential targeting.

When we move from law and policy to program implementation, there is the risk that social inclusion becomes the umbrella for every silo interest to push its barrow.

Provided ‘social inclusion’ does not become a buzzword to cloud discussion or close down argument about policy development and service delivery, it could be a useful, dignified and rightful means for enhancing the human flourishing and potential of even the most disadvantaged Australians, whether or not we have a bill of rights.

Australian Social Inclusion Board — Outcomes, July 2008

Frank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University and Professorial Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of NSW.