Parliamentary speeches

Loneliness - private member's motion

February 18, 2019

I move:

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 of 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 to 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.