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Social inclusion: what is it?

By Klaas Woldring - posted Thursday, 2 July 2009

The mystery as to what “social inclusion” is supposed to be was brought home to me at a recent seminar in Sydney organised by the Inner and Eastern Sydney Migrant Interagency (IESMI). The program's title was Multiculturalism and social inclusion - Information and Strategy Forum on Cultural Diversity and Social Justice.

Key speakers were Senator Ursula Stephens and Professor Jock Collins from the University of Technology, Sydney. After the morning tea break senior administrators in the multicultural field presented interesting papers which included topics on ageing, disability, community services, education, training, health, housing, and settlement/refugees.

Senator Stephens provided an insight into the Rudd Government's thinking and planning on social inclusion. It certainly covered the welfare-oriented areas covered by the senior administrators in the field of multicultural affairs.


Nevertheless the message seemed to be that social inclusion covers far more than the multicultural agenda. There were about 130 delegates and several remarked, mostly in dismay, that multiculturalism as a key concept seemed to have been overtaken by social inclusion.

Significantly, the Senator invited delegates to contribute to the new social inclusion agenda and to engage in a conversation about it. The discourse really is still in its infancy and uncertainty surrounds it. Other delegates argued that multiculturalism had had its day. They claimed it was often viewed by Anglo Australians as a concession to ethnic migrants. Several preferred an emphasis on "cultural diversity" now as, perhaps, an integrated aspect of social inclusion. There certainly were also many who insisted on the maintenance and re-instatement of multiculturalism as key value of society.

The philosophy of "social inclusion" is approached by the ALP in a key document in 2007 as a remedy to "social exclusion" described as follows:

"Social exclusion" is the outcome of communities suffering from a range of problems such as unemployment, low incomes, poor housing, crime, poor health and disability and family breakdown. In combination, these problems can result in cycles of poverty, spanning generations and geographical regions. Social exclusion can happen as a result of problems that emerge during life, or it can start from birth. Being born into poverty or to parents with no jobs or low skills is a major influence on a child's life chances.

Labor believes that to be socially included, all Australians need to be able to play of full role in Australian life, in economic, social, psychological and political terms. To be socially included, all Australians must be given the opportunity to:

  • secure a job;
  • access services;
  • connect with others in life through family, friends, work, personal interests and local community;
  • deal with personal crisis such as ill health, bereavement or the loss of a job; and
  • have their voice heard.

The "Principles" document, presented by the new Social Inclusion Board, also offers a strong social welfare orientation. In the main the victims of poverty and disadvantage in a capitalist society are the logical clients of such a social welfare orientation. There is no mention of multiculturalism or cultural diversity here. There is also no concern about the role of the employee in the workplace as an individual who may want to participate in the ownership of, and decision-making in, a business enterprise. Strangely this is still not seen as an important aspect of "social inclusion" in Australia even though Minister Julia Gillard has clearly alluded to that approach in her speech The Economics of Social Inclusion (PDF 43KB):

The concept of social inclusion in essence means replacing a welfarist approach to helping the underprivileged with one of investing in them and their communities to bring them into the mainstream market economy. It’s a modern and fresh approach that views everyone as a potential wealth creator and invests in their human capital.

Including everyone in the economic, wealth-creating life of the nation is today the best way for Labor to meet its twin goals of raising national prosperity and creating a fair and decent society. This is a recognized policy ambition of social democratic parties around the world today.

Fairer workplace laws that encourage enterprise bargaining and cooperation will help create a fairer and wealthier society, but on their own they are not enough. We need a new approach to social and economic policy too. And social inclusion is it.


However, the formal role of employees is still covered in the legal context of traditional adversarial IR relations. The recession creates casualties, for example, refusal or avoidance of payment by employers of employee entitlements when laid off (e.g. Clyde Apac, Woodville factory); and export of jobs to foreign countries, with much lower wage levels, are a growing threat to Australian employees (e.g. Pacific Brand). Employment lawyers and unions have to deal with many of those who lose their income and are socially excluded from their workplace, often because they have no ownership stake in these companies. Social welfare comes to the rescue, public and private, but can it be done differently?

In contrast, the Social Inclusion Agenda in the UK has embraced a much more elaborate concept in recent years. The Demos group in particular has promoted such an agenda. A leading light in this group, Professor Charles Leadbeater, has written extensively about the concept and presented several telling case studies. Interestingly, in May 2009 a visiting academic Geoff Mulgan, a "third way guru" assisting former PM Tony Blair, was engaged for three weeks consulting in the Department of the PM and the Cabinet. The adviser on social inclusion in Julia Gillard's office is Tom Bentley. He was also Blair's adviser on social inclusion and formerly Director of the UK labour think tank "Demos". Bentley is very familiar with what social inclusion means in the UK but much less so in the Australian setting. He appears to be an adviser now in the IR sector.

In the UK, social inclusion also means tackling “the poverty of aspiration”. It refers to the ownership of a home, a business, shares or savings, and so on. Employee share ownership in their workplaces naturally falls within this agenda because it offers one form of “ownership” that employees may aspire to.

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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