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Australia fair? Doing well but room for improvement

By Lin Hatfield Dodds - posted Friday, 17 August 2012

When I was asked to chair our national Social Inclusion Board, I jumped at the chance. A fair go for everyone is something I'm passionate about. The concept of social inclusion is simple – it's about building communities where everyone belongs, feels valued, and can contribute. It's about making sure everyone gets a fair go, irrespective of postcode or family background. It's about not leaving anyone behind.

Social inclusion is really just policy nerd shorthand for the idea that we can do better than we are in the country of the fair go. That in the middle of the biggest minerals resources boom we've ever seen it's not beyond us to sort things so that everyone has somewhere safe and secure to sleep, that people can find and keep a decent job, that quality education is available to every Australian, and that we can all expect to be able to get basic supports and services when we need them.

Like most of the important things in life, the idea of social inclusion is simple, but achieving it is not.


Delivering on a fair go means we need to identify the stubborn pockets of risk and disadvantage in Australia and implement targeted strategies to close gaps, remove barriers, and build the capability of people and communities.

Some of my best friends are economists. Someone has to worry about the economy because a strong economy delivers us the resources we need to live well and do the things that matter. The Australian Social Inclusion Board doesn't have to worry about how to keep our economy strong – our role is to focus on how to use some of our incredible wealth and smarts to ensure a brighter future for all Australians.

The Board brings together leaders with wide ranging expertise in order to advise government on how to make concrete changes that will make positive differences in the lives of people and communities now and into the future. Having chaired the ACT Community Inclusion Board for four years, I know that real change happens when the knowledge and experience of the research, business and community sectors, and of those who are doing it tough, is used by government to reduce vulnerability, overcome disadvantage and close gaps.

As well as expertise from many perspectives, it's critical to know what works. Which is why the Board has invested in research like the report card series How Australia is faring.One of my first jobs as chair has been to launch the Board's second edition of How Australia is faring.

This report card tracks how we are going as a nation against a range of key indicators. It looks at how we're performing in relation to health and disability, employment, financial stress, education, access to services, housing, feelings of safety and engagement in community activities. All of these indicators point to whether a person can fully participate in society.

How Australia is faring confirms much of what we already know – we're a thriving, prosperous nation with high rates of employment, good health and high educational attainment. Around 85 per cent of us are in good health –25 per cent higher than the OECD average. We're among the best educated in the world and the numbers of people finishing school and gaining further qualifications continue to rise. But while most of us have benefited from our strong economic growth, there are still far too many of us being left behind.


Around one in 20 of all working age Australians, or 640,000 people, struggle to make ends meet and live with a combination of poor health, low levels of education or employment, and low social support. For some, particularly women, this multiple disadvantage affects their lives for years, with more than a third of those continuing to experience multiple disadvantage two years later.

How Australia is faring also highlights the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots, with income inequality growing steadily since the mid-1990s. The poorest among us are five times more likely to be in poor health (one in three compared to one in 15 in the highest income groups), are less likely to be able to get support in a time of crisis and have lower life satisfaction rates. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians remains shamefully large with just over half of Indigenous students in Year 9 meeting national minimum writing standards compared to 86 per cent of non-Indigenous students.

How Australia is faring confirms that we continue to have 'poverty postcodes': disadvantaged communities in which many people are unemployed, have low levels of education, live on low incomes, and often live with disability or illness. If you live in a 'poverty postcode' you are 20 per cent less likely to finish Year 12 or equivalent.

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About the Author

Lin Hatfield Dodds is the National Director of UnitingCare Australia.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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