I acknowledge the traditional owners of the place where we are gathered this morning, and I thank you for your warm welcome to me.
I want you to know how delighted I am to join you for the opening of this significant national conference; and how energised I am by the prospect of what awaits you in the coming days – expertise unfolded and shared; collegiality enjoyed; robust dialogue and serious deliberations nourishing and renewing your professional commitment.
A conference is always an occasion for returning to the central pathways of your disciplines, exploring their patterns and crossroads, and reminding each other of what drives and fuels your work.
For me, standing at its threshold, your assembly is also an opportunity to acknowledge the magnificent contributions of so many – among you and behind you – who have shaped Australia’s social policy and its workings in our communities and neighbourhoods over many years.
I want to mark their long journeys across difficult terrain, and recognise the unyeilding dedication, courage, and generosity of spirit that characterise their efforts in these testing fields.
As we reflect on the development of social policy – and of social work as a profession – their stories emerge – the sung and unsung; the noisy, strident advocates and the quiet keepers and sustainers of a common humanity.
My life has touched theirs at many points; my own journey through Law and community service has coincided with the evolution of welfare work and research in our country.
I grew up in the bush in the early 40s, when the Commonwealth government was already planning post-war social structure through a Joint Parliamentary Committee established by the Curtin government.
In 1944, the first Director of Social Work and Research – Lyra Taylor – was appointed to the Department of Social Services. Along with Frank Rowe and Norma Parker, she fostered the beginnings of an academic culture, but resources were scant and the establishment of a national research body still remote.
Nevertheless, the need for better research and data was apparent, as was the necessity of trained workers who understood the social, economic, and cultural matrix in which they would operate.
The urgency of this need registered in the rapid transfer of responsibility for training from Hospital Almoners and field workers to schools and faculties in the universities.
Schools were formed at Sydney University in 1940, Melbourne in 1941 and Adelaide in 1942, where Amy Grace Wheaton was an impressive pioneer as Director of the Board of Social Studies and first lecturer-in-charge of the new Department.
In Melbourne, the university degree evolved from short courses offered by the YMCA, in council with other benevolent organisations. We began to witness a shift from a charitable model of welfare work to a scientific model of welfare research and education.
An article published in The Age in 1946 records the growth of this discipline:
“There is…an increasing interest among young people, particularly ex-service people, in this field of work…
There are signs, too, that the thinkers among our young people, and our administrators, are becoming more and more conscious of the importance to all of us of a large body of trained and experienced social workers in our midst…
The article concludes:
Social work is obviously one of the finest avenues of community service…
In this country, although we have a long way to go yet, we have at least made a start in the right direction.”
The next decade was a complex time – growing families and many new settlers, sharing in the post-war prosperity. The Commonwealth Department of Social Services was swiftly and organically expanding.
Under its sponsorship, the state councils of social service were federated in 1951, uniting and coordinating the largely voluntary welfare sector.
By 1959 this body was recognisable as the Australian Council of Social Services, whose representation in a range of policy issues has been considerable across its fifty years.
1959 was my last year of high school in Brisbane. I was 16, imbued with noble ideals of justice, fairness, of making the world a better place. My parents had engendered in me a sense of social responsibility, an understanding that community engagement was enriching and rewarding.
These values – held lightly but surely in my grasp – took me to the School of Social Work at the University of Queensland in 1960 – itself only 5 years old, flourishing under the careful auspices of Vice Chancellor Sir Fred Schonell, and the greatly respected Edna Chamberlain – the first woman professor of social work in Australia, and a much loved teacher and mentor.
I did Arts / Social Work for two years before crossing to Arts / Law. I saw Law Reform as the best way to achieve the changes I wanted to help bring about in our society. O Youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it.
I kept close friendships from my social work student days, with colleagues who became skilled, wise practitioners, leaders of their profession, influential advocates.
The sixties was when my generation came of age. It was an “exhilarating decade” in which, as historian Paul Monaco notes, “prevailing public mythologies were shaken to their roots,” in almost every industrialised society.
Our values and principles, our energies and abilities found a platform for the change we wanted to unfurl.
At the grassroots level and in the public arena, working for equality of opportunity, and social justice, inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognised “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
We built our professional and personal lives on these precepts, and kept before us the vision of what we would now call an ‘inclusive society.’
I will never forget the times I shared, in the late 60s and early 70s, with my social work students, when I taught at the TAFE at Kangaroo Point.
There I met some very fine social workers – hands-on people with extraordinary practical experience and wisdom, though no previous formal training, who now needed an academic framework and imprimatur for their endeavours.
I loved to listen to them. Some of them drew me into helping with ideas, advice, local reform campaigns in juvenile justice, adoption law, the rights of children in particular.
In those tumultuous years, the reach and capacity of social work were extending every day. Its ethical and sociological foundations proved durable, and were strengthened by the assiduous scholarship and intellectual offerings of remarkable academics and leaders I was able to observe at first hand.
At the University of Queensland, where I taught Legal Aspects of Social Work, I encountered young, inspired students, filled with altruism – definitely not respectful of lawyers. Out of that creative tension came professionals who applied themselves diligently, thoughtfully and unstintingly, channelling their passion into fearless and impeccable careers.
I have been privileged to work alongside many of Australia’s finest thinkers and practitioners in social policy, and I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude and admiration for your intellect, empathy and influence.
Professor Deborah Brennan, whose prolific work on child care policy and provision has been recognised here and overseas;
Professor Peter Saunders, whose pathbreaking research on economics and the measurement of poverty has had a profound impact on Australia’s self-understanding and consequent shaping of policy;
Professor Sheila Shaver, an expert on political sociology and the Australian welfare state who has crafted an international career;
And Professor Bettina Cass: whose career has spanned extraordinary breadth and depth. She has been a seminal and authoritative voice in the areas of civil society, work, and family. Her research on carers and caregiving has been one of the most outstanding achievements for the SPRC in its nearly thirty years.
My friends, your work over decades has established the standing and agency of the SPRC as a focal point for research and advocacy in social policy.
The range and scope of your investigations is inspiring: no aspect of social inequity or disadvantage escapes your keen attention:
• poverty and living standards;
• youth and family;
• work, time use, retirement and welfare;
• geographical and spatial dimensions of human services;
• health and ageing;
• racial and cultural diversity;
• Indigenous studies and dialogue.
You are vocal, meticulous scholars, researchers, and communicators, sustaining a culture in which research thrives, and practice is guided and equipped by sound science. I know your passion and enthusiasm are undiminished by the rigours of your vocation.
The theme around which your discussions coalesce in 2009 – social inclusion – is the nexus of your efforts, the point at which the many threads of social discourse converge and are woven together.
The subject of earnest study and administrative scrunity, social inclusion embodies the very simple notion that individual people, whatever differentiates them, should be acknowledged, celebrated, enabled, and empowered. That our communities should be safe, embracing, diverse, and rich.
These are the principles that have guided your leaders and pathbreakers over so many decades of unflagging, energetic commitment.
As I travel across our country, I see them at work: in joyous celebrations of human endeavour; in brave endurance at the bleak edges and in the cracks; in the way we remember each other, in darkness and in the early dawn; in the way we hold ourselves together, and keep what is common to us.
Like you, I see hard roads ahead of us, but I also see the promise of those in our midst who will not relinquish their grasp of our collective experience and prospect. Who will not give up.
I love to read the reflections of our eminent philosopher Raymond Gaita, his story of distant origins and cultural disparity maturing to a deep sense of belonging.
He writes about his father, and his father’s best friend Hora, from whom he learned many things about finding a way in a strange place, about loving your neighbour.
“When I was a teenager, I sailed on a reservoir in central Victoria with Hora [who] often told me stories as we sailed, stories of men and women who had been persecuted or ridiculed for their beliefs or who had resisted tyranny.
Always, he said, even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it…
[P]eople who had shown by their lives that our humanity is neither fixed nor secure, but always something we are called upon to rise to.”
My friends, these memories are in my mind today as I praise your unswerving faith to this call, and find in you the truest expression of its touch on our shared life.
I thank you, and wish you well for a scintillating and satisfying conference.