Building Social Cohesion in Our Communities

Social Cohesion

About this resource

Australia in 2015 is a multicultural country. In addition to the First Peoples of this land, Australia is home to people who identify with more than 270 ancestries. More than 25 per cent of us were born overseas and an additional 20 per cent have a parent who was born overseas.1 Our religious diversity is also increasing and over seven per cent of Australians follow non-Christian religions.2

When compared to other societies, Australia is a multicultural success story and about 85 per cent of Australians feel that multiculturalism has been good for Australia.3 Yet maintaining social cohesion can be a challenge. Prejudicial attitudes persist, with nearly 20 per cent of Australians having experienced discrimination because of their race or religion.4 Most recently, rallies around the country have indicated disquiet about the perceived influence of Islam on Australian society, although Muslims make up only around two per cent of the population.5

Broader social tensions can play out at a local level. For example, numerous councils have experienced community opposition to the building of mosques. In addition, changing demographics, particularly in growth areas, have led to some places quickly becoming more culturally diverse which can result in disharmony between newly arrived groups and established communities. Factors ranging from conflicts overseas to competing demands for local resources can also cause or exacerbate tensions between groups.

This resource is intended to help local governments build strong, socially cohesive communities. It aims to help local governments to:

  • Understand their communities and measure their strengths and weaknesses
  • Engage their communities and build partnerships between key stakeholders
  • Prevent and respond to incidents of racism and conflict between groups if they arise
  • Strategically plan for the needs of their communities now and into the future
  • Monitor, evaluate and share outcomes.

About social cohesion

Social cohesion refers to positive social relationships – it is the bond or 'glue' that binds people together.6 A socially cohesive society is one which 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 of upward mobility.7

The Scanlon Foundation sees social cohesion as generally including three elements:

  • Shared vision: Social cohesion requires mutual respect and common aspirations, with a sense of shared identity enjoyed by members
  • Belonging to a group or community: Social cohesion is an element of a well-functioning group or community in which there are shared goals and responsibilities and a readiness to cooperate with different members
  • A process: Social cohesion is generally viewed not simply as an outcome but as a continuous process of achieving social harmony.8

Social cohesion also depends on three key variables:

  • Economic wellbeing: income levels, income distribution, population mobility, health, life satisfaction and a sense of security, and government responsiveness to issues of poverty and disadvantage
  • Political participation: high levels of involvement in democratic processes and social involvement, including a culture of volunteering and the development of networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit
  • Socio-cultural agreement: levels of consensus around issues of local and national significance.9

Racism damages all elements of social cohesion. Other factors which negatively impact social cohesion include:

  • The lack of recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cultures and history
  • Inequality of access to resources
  • Ignorance and stereotyping which contribute to misunderstanding, discrimination and prejudice
  • Real and perceived cultural differences which influence the ability to secure appropriate employment and satisfactory healthcare
  • The lack of frequent, positive intercultural contact 
  • People being unable to communicate confidently with other community members which affects belonging, inclusion and participation
  • The lack of community activities and public spaces for positive intercultural interaction which could enhance community belonging
  • A piecemeal instead of whole-of-government and whole-of-community approaches.10

The role of local government in building social cohesion

Local governments know and understand their communities much better than any other level of government. Through strategic planning processes they engage with their community to understand their needs and wants, enabling them to deliver a range of economic, environmental and social outcomes across diverse areas including land use planning, infrastructure development and social cohesion.

ACELG is creating a community of practice around social cohesion and would welcome any ideas for local government case studies. Please contact us at social.cohesion@acelg.org.au.

Local governments have an important role in building socially cohesive communities because they:

  • Have well-established track records in supporting diversity
  • Are in a strong position to build community capacity and relationships between different community groups
  • Are visible and accessible and have a democratic mandate to implement change
  • Exert influence over a range of settings and processes where tensions can occur on a day-to-day basis, such as public spaces, sporting and recreational facilities.11

Local governments can build social cohesion by taking effective local level actions aligned with long-term strategic directions, such as community development activities, local media campaigns and enabling partnerships to prevent and respond to conflict which may arise between communities.

Enabling is a key word. Local governments face a range of competing priorities and have resource constraints, so cannot be solely responsible for building social cohesion. However, they can be effective enablers and facilitators of collaborative partnerships and networks to drive positive change.

Local government legislation in all Australian jurisdictions, except for the Australian Capital Territory where there is no local government, provides a clear role for local government to support social cohesion, equity and multiculturalism.

  • Local governments are closest to their communities and are seen as leaders
  • They exist to meet the needs of the local community
  • If communities require vibrant, safe and healthy places to live, then social cohesion should be a key strategic goal and local governments should allocate resources to achieve this.

The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) recognises that local government, as the tier of government closest to communities, has a clear role in managing community relations. It also notes that 'the withdrawal of professional development investment, coordination and leadership from the other two tiers of government calls for a fundamental re-think of how the local government sector collectively work in this space'.

Released in 2012, the MAV's Statement of Commitment to Cultural Diversity is based on the appreciation of local government's role as a form of representative government that takes into account the diverse needs of local communities as specified in the Victorian Local Government Act 1989. The Statement notes that key actions for MAV relate to a leadership and support role for Victorian local governments. This role includes:

  • Policy advice and support for individual councils and across the sector to address cultural diversity including an active network of cultural diversity planners or nearest equivalent across all Victorian councils
  • Development and negotiation of policy positions and strategic responses on cultural diversity issues, for example, a submission to the Australian Government Review of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975
  • Partnerships at relevant state, national and sectoral levels and workshops and forums to enhance the sector's capacity to address cultural diversity issues
  • Building expertise and capacity in local government to embed cultural diversity management practices across all of council business
  • Pro-active engagement across the sector including with the Victorian Local Government Multicultural Issues Network 
  • Preparation of a plan to guide local government policy and program development
  • Showcasing good practice and raising the profile of cultural diversity across and within councils.

The MAV established a Multicultural Committee which meets quarterly to advise the MAV board on multicultural policy development.

Currently, the MAV is developing a Reconciliation Action Plan and finalising a Victorian Local Government Aboriginal Employment Framework. It provides guidance and resources for both Aboriginal people and local governments under three categories: respect (understanding and acknowledgement), relationships (engagement and connection) and opportunities (employment of Aboriginal people). 

Sources: Municipal Association of Victoria (2012). MAV statement of commitment to cultural diversity.

Municipal Association of Victoria (2014). Opportunities for partnerships: inaugural MAV multicultural policy development forum

Municipal Association of Victoria (2015). Aboriginal employment.

Who is this resource for?

This resource is primarily for local governments and can be used by:

  • CEOs and general managers: To understand the strategic benefits of social cohesion 
  • Elected members: To better meet the needs of the communities they represent
  • Department managers: To learn how to plan, deliver and evaluate policies and programs to build social cohesion
  • Community engagement and community development staff: To understand how to develop policies, systems and processes which effectively engage the community in partnership with other organisations
  • All local government staff: To gain working knowledge of measures to support social cohesion so they can align their practices with the organisational culture and support the implementation of policies, systems and processes.

It may also be helpful for community-based organisations, peak bodies and NGOs who are key partners in efforts to support social cohesion.

A note on terminology

In this resource, the term 'diverse' refers to cultural and ethnic diversity and includes:

  • Newly arrived groups, both migrants and refugees
  • Successive generations of Australians from migrant and refugee backgrounds
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This language is used in order to be inclusive of new and emerging communities, established groups with migrant ancestry, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, it is recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as the First Peoples of Australia, regard themselves as distinct from groups with migrant or refugee backgrounds and so tend not to identify with the terminology of cultural and ethnic diversity. 

Indigenous Australians is the collective term used by the Australian Government to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In this resource the term 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' is generally used in preference to 'Indigenous', except where other texts, references or policy documents are quoted or referred to, in which case the language of the original text is retained.

How to use this resource

This resource is highly interactive and the sections showcase case studies about how various local governments have built social cohesion, particularly in culturally diverse communities. It is important to remember that no 'one size fits all' and any response needs to be tailored and targeted to local needs.

Throughout the resource there are featured in dropdown boxes:

  • short case study examples to illustrate good practice (in red)
  • other resources to read for inspiration and background knowledge (in blue)
  • tips for local governments (in black).

This resource has been structured around the elements of good practice for local government identified in our research. These elements are shown in the diagram below. Click on any of the elements to go to the relevant section.