Australia needs a “radical culture shift” towards compassion to minimise the damaging consequences of social isolation, renowned social researcher Hugh Mackay says.
And he believes looking after our neighbours is a good place to start.
The Officer of the Order of Australia recipient says the biggest social challenge the nation faces is “preserving our social cohesion”, as we focus on ourselves rather than showing greater responsiveness to those around us.
Mr Mackay, 81, presented his 2019 Australia Day Address at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on Wednesday before NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and outgoing governor David Hurley, among others.
“We are facing some serious threats to our social cohesion from a series of radical shifts in the way we live – none of which, incidentally, are related to immigration or to cultural diversity,” he said.
Shrinking households, rising broken relationship rates and a reliance on information technology at the expense of human interaction are among the changes he cites as heightening the potential of social fragmentation.
“We humans are, by nature, social beings – we need each other,” Mr Mackay said.
“You can’t make sense of who you are without a social context in which you operate.”
He suggests starting with the basics, such as a friendly and helpful attitude towards your neighbours, being alert to the wellbeing of those around you – particularly the elderly – and engaging with community activities.
“Social virtue demands that we treat everyone kindly and respectfully – especially those we don’t like much, and most especially those we disagree with about politics or religion, or anything else,” Mr Mackay said.
But he also wants to see compassion grow beyond suburban neighbourhoods.
This includes serious reconciliation between indigenous and other Australians – “perhaps via a treaty”, a focus on the “cruel and unconscionable way” we treat asylum seekers and refugees, greater concern for disadvantaged children, and an urgent public policy focus on inequality.
“It’s also about institutions winning back our trust by restraining their lust for wealth or power in favour of a more sensitive engagement within the society that gives them their social license to operate,” Mr Mackay said.