Monday, 26 December 2011

New ways to bring disadvantaged in from cold


New ways to bring disadvantaged in from cold

FOR most Australians, Christmas is a time of joy and togetherness shared with family and friends.
But it's also a time when loneliness and isolation are felt most keenly, particularly for the one in 20 Australians living with complex disadvantage not able to be remedied simply by putting a little more money in their pockets.
For those Australians, traditional social welfare approaches don't always work and the combination of disadvantages can severely limit their ability to participate productively in our community.
In the past few days, I have been asked: What is social inclusion? The best way to answer that question is to contrast social inclusion with the traditional analysis of disadvantage in Australia that centres on poverty.
Social inclusion recognises that disadvantage does not rest only on the amount of money you have in your pocket (though that is obviously important) but also on a range of other factors including educational opportunities, disability or mental illness, access to services and shelter, family and social relationships, and more.
The concept of complex and multidimensional disadvantage is not particularly revolutionary. Where the rubber hits the road, though, is when governments are able to put together a multi-dimensional response, and that is the value of social inclusion.
Australians living with complex disadvantage interact with several government agencies and non-government organisations delivering government funded services. Traditionally, those agencies have stuck rigidly to their area of responsibility (such as income support or housing). This "silo" approach by government means that individuals end up having to tell their story over and over again. Worse, one arm of government rarely knows what the other is doing, which can result in duplication, gaps or, sometimes, serious mistakes.
Social inclusion encourages governments to build multidimensional policies and services for Australians living with complex disadvantage. It also encourages the development of innovative models, recognising that more traditional approaches to disadvantage simply don't work for a sizeable group in our community.
The social inclusion initiative is best placed in the Prime Minister's Department, able to look across the whole of government and connect the government's different agendas in a way that best supports disadvantaged people. A good example of where the initiative already has significant runs on the board is the co-location of Centrelink and Medicare offices. This initiative is changing the way services are delivered and providing better support to people when they need it.
Just before being sworn into the social inclusion portfolio, I saw first-hand the work being done by the Local Connections to Work Program in Campsie, Sydney. This program hosts 13 community partners - a combination of employment service providers and welfare organisations - all offering services on a rostered basis out of the Campsie Centrelink-Medicare centre.
What this means in practice is that disadvantaged jobseekers are able to have joint meetings with their Centrelink case worker and employment service provider. They're telling their stories just once, their needs are being quickly identified and they're being met with the right support.
Just as in Campsie, this new approach is paying dividends in other local communities where it's operating. More than 1200 highly disadvantaged Australians have found job and training placements thanks to Local Connections.
In my own portfolio, the government is introducing widespread reforms to the mental health system. We've invested heavily in a combination of services that break new ground and services that have been proven to work. We've made significant gains in clinical mental health services during the past decade, but more needs to be done to support people to live well in the community. People living with mental illness and their families tell me they need more support to manage their financial affairs, gain and retain employment, establish friendships and secure stable housing, and to integrate the different services the government gives them.
The new Partners for Recovery Initiative funded through this year's record mental health package symbolises a new approach to providing support for those Australians living with the most severe and chronic forms of mental illness. A care facilitator will take responsibility for co-ordinating all of a person's clinical and non-clinical needs, and require service providers to sign on to a single care plan.
This initiative will provide great comfort to families, who will know there is a single point of contact to call on when a gap or a need emerges, and I'm sure it will result in greater levels of recovery and social inclusion for some of the most severely disadvantaged Australians.
Teenage parents, jobless families, the homeless and people locked out of paid work because of mental illness or disability are the real, everyday faces of social exclusion and marginalisation.
While wrapping their needs up in the language of social inclusion is relatively new and perhaps unfamiliar, what's not new is our unwavering commitment to doing all we can to give those Australians a helping hand.
Mark Butler is Minister for Social Inclusion, Mental Health and Ageing and assisting the Prime Minister on Mental Health Reform.

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