Parliamentary speeches


December 04, 2018

One in four Australians experience loneliness, and this doesn't discriminate. Loneliness affects all age groups and genders equally. These are the headline findings of the Australian loneliness report, which was released last month. These are not just shocking statistics—and they are extremely concerning; this is a worrying indictment of the state of our society. It is a society in which it would appear half of us say that we feel lonely sometimes or all the time and 30 per cent say they don't belong to a friendship group. This is an urgent call for action. The findings in this report demand a response. They also build on an increasing body of evidence on loneliness in Australia and elsewhere, particularly in the UK, on its prevalence and on its consequences.

I've spent the last couple of months talking about loneliness in public forums, through written work and in work with civil society and academics. I first spoke about loneliness in this place in June. When I did, I received responses from people right across the country, many of whom made a point of saying to me that they had never reached out to a politician before. The responses were from people who wanted to share their personal stories of loneliness, many of which were affecting, and from agencies concerned with doing something about what they regard—and I share this view—as a crisis.

It is a crisis because loneliness is really bad for those experiencing it. It's associated with poorer mental and physical health. Loneliness can be as harmful as smoking or obesity, according to medical research; it increases mortality by 26 per cent. But it's also bad for all of us that so many Australians feel so anxious about social engagement that they can't engage with their neighbours and, shockingly, that more than one in five rarely or never feel that they have someone they can talk to. This requires us to think hard about how important social relationships are to a good society. I ask: what is the point of 26, perhaps 27, consecutive years of economic growth if this is how so many Australians feel and how they experience their lives?

The first time I spoke in this parliament about the policy aspect of loneliness, it was in response to the work done in the UK by the Jo Cox Foundation. It brings me to this point: other countries have taken loneliness much more seriously as a public health and a public policy priority than we have. In the UK, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found three areas where strategies could be implemented to reduce loneliness: national leadership, developing national research and funding for initiatives. This, I believe, is a useful template for us to consider and, hopefully, to adopt.

The May government—a conservative government, of course—immediately responded to this by appointing a ministerial lead, signalling the seriousness with which it regarded the issue. The May government has just released A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness. This is a document that should be required reading as a whole-of-government framework to respond to a whole-of-society challenge—a challenge not just to think about the problem of loneliness in and of itself but also to rethink the provision of social services.

I believe that a national response to loneliness in Australia is required, and this is an urgent challenge. This should start with a national conversation. This can provide a wake-up call to individuals and communities about the issue and help reduce the stigma that many feel when it comes to talking about their experience of loneliness. It's not hard or expensive for political leaders to share more widely the work of academic experts and of the civil society groups that have come together—I'm including organisations that many would be familiar with, like the Red Cross, Relationships Australia and the Coalition to End Loneliness—to raise awareness of the prevalence of loneliness and what this means, including the striking fact that loneliness is contagious.

This points to the vital importance of strengthening social networks, as well as the need for us to better understand the drivers of loneliness and those interventions which can alleviate it. We need to better understand loneliness in Australia too, to build on the findings contained in the report. This raises many additional questions which need to be answered if we are to be able to better deliver an effective policy response. For example, we need to know more about who is experiencing loneliness in the Australian community beyond simply by age and relationship status. Are particular communities more affected? What has been and what can be the effect of social media on loneliness? I'm concerned that it appears that loneliness particularly impacts socially excluded groups, and this compounds disadvantage elsewhere in society.

We could also ask: is loneliness affecting trust more broadly so that it's associated with the destruction of political relationships that we've all been experiencing? This is an important question for anyone who's concerned about the health of our democracy. And is it the case that particular government policies are driving an increase in loneliness? I'm concerned that inequality could play a role, especially given the generational aspect of inequality on the one hand and the concerning number of young Australians who report feeling lonely on the other.

There's a discussion underway in the UK about the effects of austerity policies on loneliness, which explores some of this question. It seems possible, at the very least, that cuts to social supports and those places which enable people to come together, such as public libraries, could have an effect. I've spoken very positively of the response of the May government to loneliness as a public policy challenge but I am concerned that its wider record has compounded the need to respond to this challenge. I note that academics Alison Stenning and Sarah Marie Hall have written:

We must challenge the government to reconsider the role of austerity in undermining social infrastructures, creating new forms of poverty, weariness and exclusion, and, in these ways, exacerbating loneliness.

There is an economic link to loneliness which can be exacerbated by recourse to trickle-down economics.

Young people, in particular, entering an uncertain job market in a precarious economy and travelling further to and from their workplaces, have a concerning rate of loneliness. We think about access to transport as important when it comes to amenity generally but not as a driver of loneliness. We note that lonelier young adults are more likely to struggle to find and retain secure employment. That is the cost side. On the benefit side, I note that research done by the London School of Economics has found that every pound spent in the UK on successful loneliness interventions has delivered two to three saved pounds for the community. These are interventions that carry an economic benefit as well as a social one.

If we're to take loneliness seriously, we need to support positive policy interventions that actually work. Since I started talking about this as a policy challenge, I've been struck by the number of organisations that have contacted me to inform me of their approach to solving the problem at a local level or their ideas for initiatives that have wider significance. These organisations include a lot of our primary healthcare networks, which are running fantastic initiatives; some sporting organisations; and a very wide range of community groups. I believe that in all of our communities there are successful initiatives that can be reconsidered and debated to see if they can be rolled out, or at least piloted, on a national basis. It's not just about local responses. We need to anchor all of these initiatives in a national, whole-of-government approach as has been adopted in the UK. Addressing loneliness as a society can't simply be about localised initiatives, however impactful they might be on their own terms. This is a challenge that goes fundamentally to how we see our social compact—the compact which connects us as Australians—and how it might be secured.

It seems to me that a fairer Australia must be a more connected country. We've seen so much success in programs to reduce loneliness and social isolation amongst older people, and many of us in this place well understand the work of organisations like the Men's Shed Association and U3A. This, of course, isn't just an issue faced by older Australians. Despite young people being more connected through the internet and social media, some of the most troubling statistics relate to young people facing issues of isolation and loneliness. Just because we're seemingly more digitally connected doesn't necessarily mean that online engagement is a real break against social isolation; in fact, some research suggests the opposite. Young people who spend a large amount of time interacting online can suffer anxiety when faced with situations in real life and find it difficult to engage face to face.

There aren't easy answers to this. It will take trial and error to find ways to make an enduring difference. I recently proposed a private member's motion that, hopefully, will be debated in the new year. I'd hoped, of course, that it would be debated this week. I'm pleased that the member for Berowra has co-sponsored the motion. This should be a bipartisan issue, in my view. There are going to be differences on both sides of politics as to how we approach governmental responses to loneliness, but there should not be disagreement that we need to face up to it as a problem, as has been the case in the UK. We need to continue the conversation in this place and, more broadly, when we go back to the places we represent. That is what Labor is committed to doing. We need to ensure we have strong Australian research and that we look to funding interventions that make a real difference in people's lives. The findings of the Australian loneliness report can't be ignored. Politicians, policy-makers and all Australians should reflect on what these results say about us and what we can do, individually and as a society, to end loneliness.