Agenda for change: building resilience while celebrating diversity
14 Feb 2022|

On 2 February, ASPI released Agenda for change 2022: shaping a different future for our nation to promote public debate and understanding on issues of strategic importance to Australia. The key message in Agenda for change 2022 is that we need to embrace uncertainty, engage with complexity and break down the silos. Our economic prosperity, national resilience and security depend upon it.

In the lead-up to every federal election, ASPI looks at the big challenges facing Australia and what’s needed to address them. In Agenda for change 2022, Teagan Westendorf and John Coyne co-authored the chapter ‘“You will never tear us apart”: building resilience while celebrating diversity in Australian communities’, which highlights the need to recast our social-cohesion policies to create social, economic and political conditions that ensure difference doesn’t divide.

The authors suggest that the ‘11 September 2001 attacks on the US that gave rise to the two-decade “War on Terror” were also the catalyst for the gradual securitisation of social cohesion in Western liberal democracies’. They point to the ‘vast scope and number’ of laws passed in Australia to address terrorism as evidence of increasing securitisation.

Westendorf and Coyne acknowledge that social cohesion is linked to mitigating security threats but also point out that ‘social-cohesion policy in Australia was focused on homogeneity and tying society together’. They recognise that social cohesion ensures domestic security but question whether policy measures focused on social cohesion should be classified as security related.

The links with security mean that for those arriving in Australia, the ‘value statements as on-ramps to cohesion’ are often interpreted more as statements of exclusion.

Westendorf and Coyne suggest that these factors ‘present a vexing policy challenge for Australia’s next federal government’ that has become even more difficult given the declining public trust in governments, the ‘social impacts of Covid-19’ and the increasing socioeconomic divide.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and climate change protests by groups that were ‘mobilised by this perceived trust deficit’. The authors acknowledge that high levels of compliance with health mandates, as well as the high rate of vaccination take-up, suggest that a ‘functional level of trust has been maintained’ in Australia. However, they also point to consistent polling, predating the pandemic by a decade, that indicates declining trust by Australians of the political and government systems.

Westendorf and Coyne say the INXS song ‘Never tear us apart’ provides a metaphor for social cohesion in Australia. The key message of the lyrics is that ‘these two individuals from different worlds’ won’t be torn apart by the challenges and pain of life.

‘A socially cohesive society works towards the wellbeing of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity for upward mobility. In doing so, it creates economic, social and security benefits for individuals and the nation. In its absence, fault lines within our communities could result in domestic security impacts and national security vulnerabilities.’

The authors propose changing the aperture of social cohesion and acknowledging that it ‘is a long-term adaptive aspirational activity’. Specifically, ‘the next government must focus on setting stronger policy foundations for social cohesion, which should be understood as connection and belonging enabled by greater equality and equitable representation’.

The way forward? A new government should start by emphasising ‘its commitment to social cohesion and trust in government’ by moving responsibility for social cohesion (excluding ‘security-focused responsibilities for countering violent extremism’) from the Department of Home Affairs to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Westendorf and Coyne’s big idea is to establish an ‘independent social cohesion commissioner who would be responsible for coordinating federal policy measures with a clear social-cohesion focus’. They also suggest that the government identify ‘more inclusionary principles for social cohesion and drivers for trust in government’ which would form the basis of a broader social-cohesion agenda.

In the long term, the next government should develop a national strategy for social cohesion that incorporates policy measures that ‘contribute to fighting exclusion and marginalisation, create a sense of belonging, promote trust and offer people the opportunity for upward mobility’.

The closing message in this chapter is that social cohesion can’t be forced onto Australians and shouldn’t exclude those who don’t agree. We need to ‘seek out differences and give voice to their proponents’ through ‘initiatives that promote the democratic process’. We shouldn’t allow Australia to be torn apart.