Highlights from a rookie researcher’s first conference.

A few weeks ago I attended the conference Progress 2013 (http://progress2013.org.au/). The first of its kind in Australia, it brought together progressive left thinkers with not-for profit organizations, unions, private industry and experts in the health and environment sector. Its aim was to talk about the issues that will define Australia’s not-for profits and social movements for the years to come. As a recent graduate, this was my first ever conference and a chance to understand how people from all over the workforce come together to share skills, nut out ideas and most importantly – network. This blog post will cover some of the major highlights from the conference and touch on some of the lessons I learnt, from the perspective of a budding young researcher.

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Highlight no 1.
To begin, one of the major highlights for me was listening to rock star academic and expert on the social determinants of health, Richard Wilkinson (http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html), speak about the importance of understanding how income inequality affects health and wellbeing. Wilkinson, author of ‘The Spirit level’ and co-founder of The Equality Trust (http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk), researches the problems of inequality in society and produces evidence-based arguments to support social movements for change. In particular, Wilkinson drew attention to the problem that health and wellbeing in high and middle income countries is worse for all when the gap between the rich and poor is greater. Data was collated to demonstrate that even in high income countries as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), population levels of health and wellbeing are influenced by income inequality. Therefore, the average wellbeing of societies is not dependent on gross national income and the rhetoric of economic growth but rather the relation between each other within society itself. This trend also occurs in child health and wellbeing, mental health, drug abuse and obesity – proving the tangible effect that inequality has in society. Some factors Wilkinson attributed as the drivers of negative health in unequal societies include status anxiety, stress, mistrust and dominance caused by a competitive consumer based economy. Wilkinson therefore advocated for a more inclusive society where value is placed on the way we relate to one another and where possible to harness positive social relations, such as friendship. Although these insights seem somewhat intuitive, I was taken aback by how relevant it is to continue to produce evidence that highlights this problem. When considering health and wellbeing, Wilkinson makes us think about the less visible effects of how we relate to one another and re-establishes the importance of family, friendship and positive social interaction to maintaining a sustainable quality of life.

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Highlight no 2.

Another highlight was the talk given by Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communications expert and researcher who authored the book ‘Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy’. Her work looks at how people understand issues, such as the economy or climate change, through the words used to narrate them. Without getting too bogged down in detail, the gist of her research suggests that you can reliably persuade or change a person’s thinking about an issue depending on the words used to describe it. For example, immigration. A study was conducted to measure how people responded to immigrants depending on whether they were framed as either a burden or a resource. The findings showed that when immigrants were talked about in a positive framing, by expressing what they bring to society and not what they lack, people’s acceptance of immigrants were overall more favourable. Shenker-Osorio argues that by literally changing the words we use to speak about an issue, we can also influence how people think about it, having repercussions for politics and policy. Something to think about when writing the next report or talking at a conference about a sticky issue. Frame it positively and you will have people receive it much more favorably.

Highlight no 3.

Arguably one of the best parts of Progress 2013 however, was the chance to mingle with those I consider some of my professional role models. As I mentioned above, this was my first ever conference, so the task of introducing yourself to those you admire is quite daunting. However, after a few awkward first conversations I learnt the following things;

  1. Go with a plan. Since time is scarce at these events and the professionals you meet talk to so many different individuals every day, working out a plan of who you want to speak to and what you want to speak to them about prior to the meeting is essential. This way, you won’t get caught in a conversation about the weather and how good the muffins are, but instead get to use your limited time to your best advantage.
  2. Don’t be scared to introduce yourself. As daunted as you might be about shaking hands with someone you find just a huge bit intimidating because of their greatness, it never hurts to just introduce yourself and say you are a huge admirer of their work. A few times I saw rock star academics on their lonesome at the coffee table, probably because everyone was too in awe to say hi.
  3. When in doubt ask questions. When you have reached your small talk capacity and feel like the conversation is drying out, ask questions of them. People love to talk about themselves and asking them questions about themselves shows that a) you have a strong interest and b) that you are engaged in what they do.

Written by Hannah Morrice
Research Assistant, Jack Brockhoff Child Health & Wellbeing Program
The University of Melbourne
e: hannah.morrice@unimelb.edu.au

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How voting for equity will make life better now and in the future

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This article was originally published on The Conversation.

With the upcoming election, we wanted to provide our perspective to the ongoing debate. This article outlines some of our key thoughts regarding pressing election issues.

The impending federal election provides a good opportunity to pause and ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in. The decision we make will impact both our lives and that of our children as they develop into adults and become tomorrow’s decision-makers.

At times, real policy messages can get lost in the noise of the election campaign and we are left thinking that the only rational option is to vote for selfish reasons.

But what if living in a society in which some of us are much better off than others is actually bad for all of us – even those of us who are most privileged?

The problem with inequality

There’s considerable evidence that more unequal societies have lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates; higher rates of stress and mental illness; more crime and higher imprisonment rates; and reduced quality of life.

This is not just because less egalitarian societies have more poor people, whose health and social outcomes pull down the average. Even the relatively wealthy in more unequal societies (such as the United States) do worse than others with similar levels of income living in societies with a more even spread of wealth (such as Scandinavian nations).

In Australia, rising average incomes over the last three decades have been accompanied by increases in inequality. Although polls suggest that voters’ greatest concern is the economy, research shows that beyond a certain level, increases in a country’s wealth are not associated with increased health, happiness or longevity for its people.

This is not only true for adults, a UNICEF report looking at the well-being of children in wealthy countries draws a similar picture.

This idea underpins much of our focus on inequalities within child public health research; social and economic inequalities will determine future economic status, educational achievement, and social inclusion of children.

So, what are the implications of an “equity lens” for considering the array of policies presented to us as the federal election looms? If inequality is bad for all of us, how should we weigh up the major parties’ offerings on disability support, paid parental leave, same-sex marriage, and asylum seekers?

Disability issues

Some policies appear to be moving in the right direction. DisabilityCare Australia (the National Disability Insurance Scheme) for example, is a significant policy that has bipartisan support.

At present, the level of support a person receives depends on the state in which they live, whether their disability is congenital or acquired, and how it is acquired.

When fully rolled out, DisabilityCare will result in funding being allocated directly to an individual or, in the case of children, their parents or legal guardians, to provide the support necessary to meet their needs.

While the implications for equity will ultimately be determined by how services are delivered, the policy ensures assistance for a far greater proportion of families dealing with disability.

Parental leave

Paid parental leave is an international indicator for child health and well-being. So how do the major parties’ schemes measure up?

Much of the Labor party’s criticism of the Coalition’s more “generous” plan to provide women on salaries of up to A$150,000 with 100% of their income for six months focuses on its affordability. Perhaps the more concerning issue is its impact on equity.

Many of the most disadvantaged families in our society – those with parents not in paid employment, or in insecure, low-paid, intermittent, or casual jobs – may be worse off than under current arrangements. This is particularly so if the baby bonus (the A$5,000 to which they are now entitled) is reduced or abolished to fund the new scheme.

If paid parental leave is intended to provide children with the best possible start in life, then surely we need to ensure that its provision does not widen the gap between rich and poor.

Same-sex marriage

Marriage equality is an area of contrast between the two major parties. Although the Labor party changed 85 pieces of federal legislation in 2008 to bring “equality” to same-sex parented families, the negative rhetoric and lack of leadership from both sides of politics (until Kevin Rudd’s very recent declaration of support for same-sex marriage) has a significant impact on same-sex attracted parents and their families.

In fact, stigma resulting from inequity is linked to poorer child health outcomes. Although children with same-sex attracted parents are generally doing well, a lack of equitable recognition by politicians is an ongoing source of disadvantage.

Asylum seekers

It can be difficult to keep up with the shifts in asylum seeker policy as the major parties vie with each other to be seen as the most “hardline” and more capable of “stopping the boats”.

Important human rights arguments and international legal obligations aside, what are the implications for global equity of reducing foreign aid to pay for ever more expensive policies of deterrence?

In the national context, we are spending billions of dollars annually on off-shore processing of refugees. The same amount of money could provide better and more productive settlement outcomes for many more refugees in Australia. And there would be funds left to contribute to high-quality government education, health care, and public transport for all of us.

We also now have policies whereby asylum seekers “lucky enough” to be living in our community rather than detained, are denied the right to work or be reunited with other members of their family. What kind of under-class are we creating, and how will the children growing up in those families experience the future?

Everybody’s business

Typically, concern with social justice is associated with the political left. And it appears to be something we’re all too ready to jettison for the supposed benefits of greater economic growth.

But if inequality is bad for all of us, then it’s actually in our own self interest to prevent it. And it certainly is in the interests of our children for us to consider the impact of policies on social equity when casting our votes this weekend.

Authors: Dr Karen Block, Dr Elise Davis, Prof Elizabeth Waters, Dr Lisa Gibbs & Dr Simon Crouch