Legislative Council: Wednesday, August 30, 2023



The Hon. C. BONAROS (17:04): I move:

That this council—

1. Acknowledges social connection is a fundamental human need.

2. Notes Australia’s first State of the Nation Report 'Social Connection in Australia 2023' found almost one in three Australians feel lonely and more than one in six are experiencing severe loneliness, with young people and middle-aged people reporting the highest levels of loneliness.

3. Recognises loneliness is an important predictor of individual and population health.

4. Notes lack of social connection is:

(a) as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day or drinking six alcoholic drinks a day;

(b) increases the risk of heart disease by 29 per cent;

(c) increases the risk of stroke by 32 per cent;

(d) increases the risk for anxiety and depression; and

(e) increases the risk of older adults developing dementia by 50 per cent;

5. Recognises the link between loneliness and population health outcomes in terms of suicide rates, disease management, public health costs, absenteeism and economic prosperity.

6. Acknowledges loneliness is an urgent public health issue requiring immediate and adequate attention.

7. Notes the United Kingdom appointed a dedicated Minister for Loneliness in 2018 followed by Japan in 2020.

8. Calls on the South Australian government to establish an inquiry to consider, report and make recommendations on:

(a) the prevalence and causes of loneliness within the South Australian community;

(b) the effectiveness of current programs to improve social connection;

(c) opportunities for increased investment in local community groups which bring people together;

(d) opportunities for the funding of new programs and initiatives to address loneliness;

(e) the development of a loneliness strategy to advance social connection;

(f) the creation of a ministerial portfolio for loneliness or the specific inclusion of loneliness under the ministerial portfolio for health and wellbeing or another existing portfolio; and

(g) any other relevant matters.

I rise today to speak to my motion seeking the parliament establish an inquiry on loneliness, to consider, report and make recommendations to address the often unrecognised negative impacts loneliness has on our community.

Science tells us, as a social species, social connection is a fundamental human need. Human beings are thoroughly social creatures. Loneliness can affect all of us, but it is important to recognise loneliness is not simply the state of being physically alone. Indeed, people can live relatively solitary lives and not feel lonely; conversely, they can live an ostensibly rich and busy social and professional life and feel very lonely.

There is a growing body of research, including Australia's first State of the Nation Report: Social Connection in Australia, and the Australian Loneliness Report, which highlights loneliness is not only a very common experience but also an important predictor of both individual and public health, with broader economic and social impacts.

The UK has estimated loneliness costs their health and justice systems over $32 billion. Loneliness is a better predictor of premature death than physical inactivity, obesity, drinking or smoking. It significantly increases the risk of heart disease by 29 per cent, stroke by 32 per cent, dementia by 50 per cent, depression and anxiety, and suicide and self-harm. Diabetes, infectious diseases, cognitive function, depression, anxiety—all things that contribute to our health crisis in such a big way—all feature in loneliness statistics.

Although research confirms a high percentage of people believe loneliness is a serious issue, broader community understanding, awareness and concerted action to address loneliness remains low. Sadly, loneliness is still surrounded by a lot of misconception, misperception, stigma and discrimination such that it is often hidden and underreported.

Just how common is it? One in three Australians report feeling lonely, and one in six experience severe loneliness. For as many as 15 to 30 per cent of the general population, loneliness is a chronic state. There are extraordinarily alarming statistics that tell a story not only of numbers but of real people experiencing debilitating loneliness. It is not just confined to the elderly, to those living alone, to those grieving, to introverts, to people with disabilities or people in poor health. People living alone and people living with others can experience loneliness at similar levels. You can be surrounded by all the people, all the family, all the friends and all the colleagues in the world, and still suffer from very debilitating loneliness.

It is remarkably consistent throughout Australia across geographic locations, socio-economic groups, age profiles and genders. Indeed, 18 to 24 year olds report loneliness at similar levels to other age groups. If you watched the most recent iteration of the ABC hit Old People's Home For Teenagers, you may have been surprised to learn teenagers aged 14 to 16 were just as lonely, in some instances lonelier, than people aged 74 to 93. One of the teenagers commented, 'Man, I just really want some friends regardless of their age.' That is no surprise given loneliness among young people has increased every single year since figures started to be kept in 1976.

Older participants basically outline the same sorts of feelings. They do not want to burden their families because they know they are busy, and they do not want to be a burden on society. We know also that chronic loneliness and social isolation increases the risk of dementia amongst those groups by 50 per cent.

We are all glued to our screens with an unprecedented number of devices, streaming services and electronic connectivity available to us, but these can deprive us of a sense of shared enterprise and personal engagement in the community. Or we might use them to fill the void and basically numb the loneliness that 16 per cent of people who experience loneliness have said they have now become addicted to, compared to 9 per cent of the population. That is before we even take into account the impacts of COVID, which literally turned the way we live upside down and on its head.

We have a range of legacy issues from COVID which turned many of us into a nation of stay-at-home Eleanor Rigbys. We know that the impacts of COVID absolutely had a really concerning impact on young people in particular.

We know—even in the Premier's own words—that the mental health tsunami is still awaiting us in terms of the long-term impacts of COVID on those young people in particular. We know that things like playing poker machines, things like going to the local pub and becoming addicted to a poker machine, can be directly attributable to feelings of loneliness. We know that people make GP appointments, pay a fee to go to visit the GP, for no other reason other than to have someone to talk to.

Sadly, close to 50 per cent of people experiencing loneliness report that they conceal their loneliness and are embarrassed to admit it to others, which only further contributes to that loneliness. Left untended, loneliness has serious consequences for cognition, for emotion, for behaviour and for physical and mental health, and it impacts individuals and societies more broadly. It has measurable negative impacts on productivity and economic prosperity. Absenteeism, lack of participation and exiting the workforce prematurely are all contributed to by loneliness.

We can speculate about all the contributing factors and causes of this epidemic of loneliness, but until we understand these better we cannot develop the solutions. Ongoing social and scientific research is needed to better understand the adverse experiences and impacts of loneliness. The way forward will need to be a multidimensional approach with a focus on South Australian regional and metropolitan areas because this is an issue that does not know borders at all. Otherwise, the scourge of loneliness is an issue we are going to have evermore and for years to come.

The motion that I have introduced aims to follow the lead of other jurisdictions, including the UK and Japan, where they have appointed a dedicated minister for loneliness. In 2020, the UK produced its first loneliness report, which showed significant progress across 60 commitments made in a report titled 'A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness'.

Japan appointed a dedicated minister for loneliness and isolation when, in 2020, more people died from suicide, by suicide, than from COVID the whole year prior. The Japanese experience is one that I would urge all members to go and look at. When you look at that experience it is interesting because for that country it is not the first of its kind. They have had horrific incidents in 1995 and then again in 2011, and what became apparent to them, post COVID, was that every natural disaster resulted in more isolation and increased suicide rates and that a lot of that was attributable to the impacts of loneliness on their community.

There are reports that members can refer to to inform themselves of those, but the fact that the suicide figures alone increased to the extent that they did in Japan was absolutely a driving force in terms of addressing this issue by implementing a ministry for loneliness and isolation.

We need to support and build on the work of many organisations and individuals over the years and become more strategic in our approach. I think, as a first step, this motion is just asking the minister to have an external inquiry on the merits, or otherwise, of looking at the creation of a loneliness portfolio.

I will be the first to put up my hand and say that I know there will be people who will scoff at this, who will say, 'We need to be trimming back, and you are talking about having a loneliness minister when we already have all these other issues that we need to contend with.' I will also be the first to put up my hand and say that there are lots of areas that we should trim from.

But on this issue I do not agree that we cannot afford to look at this. I think it is something we absolutely need to look at. Time and time again, what we have done is treat these things in isolation. Without acknowledging the wider impacts, the more it costs us in the long run. The longer we operate in silos, the more it costs us in the long run. Loneliness, mental health, suicide, gambling addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, hospital wait times, health crises: they are all intrinsically linked in many respects. We should not be looking at these issues in isolation. We should be looking at the role that loneliness has to play in all of those areas.

I will end by saying this: if there is one way to get a Treasurer's attention, in my experience, it is to point to figures and to budgets. There is absolutely no question that without some intervention the long-term cost of doing nothing about this issue will cost us an absolute motza in terms of budgetary figures. Doing something now and assessing the situation will be much more worthwhile and much more beneficial economically than doing nothing at all.

I know governments respond to dollars and cents. There is a lot of logic and sense in looking at this proposal favourably, even if only in terms of budgetary implications. With those words, I commend the motion to the chamber and urge all honourable members to support it.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.