As the election hangover fades and a new government packs itself into Parliament House, we have a chance to remake the nation for a new century. In a special post-election series, Crikey asked leading Australian thinkers to sketch a blueprint for a future Australia. Their brief: to spell out how Australia might fully realise its potential.

Coming up, Professor David Lindenmayer writes on the environment, sociologist John Carroll talks about Australia’s place in the world, the Director of the Centre for Policy Development, Miriam Lyons takes a look at cultural matters, and Professor John Wanna shares some thoughts on political governance.

Today, renowned social commentator Eva Cox kicks off the series with some ideas on remaking Australian social justice.


Creating a more civil society: A few heresies for economic fundamentalists

Eva Cox writes:

If the government changes, does the country change? I wish! This is my classic plea to stop, because we are going the wrong way. We have a thriving economy, but a damaged society and so have to decide which is more important for achieving our “potential”.

To make a future, both for Australia and the rest of the world, the government needs to encourage a return to the once traditional values of solidarity through working together, trust and a fair go, but expanding these past the limits of old-fashioned mateship into a genuinely diverse inclusive society.

Using our human resources much more effectively, policies can create an Australia that makes us feel good about whom we are. Ever more mobile populations, linked and divided by technologies, need specific policy initiatives to maintain and extend our social ties. Demonstrating the capacities of our diverse peoples’ abilities to commit to collective action for the common good is necessary for a world to deal with less carbon outputs and other constraints.

These propositions are based on creating and maintaining the social capital that builds the necessary trust between diverse groups of people as well as in their formal institutions. Trust makes possible more collaboration, pooling and sharing existing resources, both human and physical. The current and future difficulties require not just money but space for the creative problems solving from collective action for the common good.

We need policy priorities that make acceptable fewer material acquisitions, and broad acceptance that there are lower cost energy options for more contented living. None of the social factors were featured in the triennial promises fiesta that passed as an election campaign. The focus was on big spending to buy individual votes, by offering subsidies to people’s purchasing costs.

The absence of any attention on the social aspects of human life further delays any moves towards more decent, lower-cost, more civil societies. There were no policies for community building: programs for creating resilience by encouraging the levels of trust and trustworthiness that make good neighbourhoods and creative communities.

We need policies that create genuine social cohesion across differences and encourage civil debate and dissent. These processes counter the ill effects of division and fear, and the distrust that engenders, by acknowledging rights, countering prejudice and acting on unfair inequalities between people. Current gaps between health and education outcomes that correlate with income and location are not acceptable in a wealthy country.

We need to make changes to those existing policies that have encouraged moral panics about various other groups: those who arrive on boats, some older immigrant groups who happen to be Muslim, recent immigrants from the Sudan, gay couples, sole parents with children over six, people who are judged to have insufficient disabilities and those deemed to be security risks under our complex terrorism regimes.

The only policy on welfare was the PM’s promise to add those people convicted of drug related crimes to the list of people already, or about to be, infantilised by quarantining their incomes. The incoming government needs to review the Draconian laws that cover the NT intervention, consult with those on the ground, and restore some dignity and authority to the people who were fixing the problems or just living sensible lives. They also need to review the undue paternalism in the Welfare to Work legislation that coerces sole parents and those with disabilities into inappropriate job seeking. This authoritarian control sits oddly in a liberal democracy and reinforces prejudices that some people are undeserving and have no rights.

The question is, does this increasing list of excluded people really matter to the nation? We don’t need policies that militate against genuine inclusiveness, decrease trust and increase public anxieties. The polls on social attitudes show many of us don’t agree with losses of egalitarian dreams and anxieties about who belongs.

Some feel angry or frightened and want to be part of a more civil and egalitarian society; others believe the rhetoric about the merits of being insiders, so feel threatened by all those out there needing to be controlled. These divisions signal future problems for collaboration, and need fixing.

There are many other areas which remain unaddressed. One continuing issue is time and how we divide this between paid work, family care and community involvements. Once, the gender divide sorted out who took on the workplace and home commitments, now we need policies that recognise the need for workplace flexibility and the needs for care in both families and communities. Therefore changes in workplace law are urgently needed to re-balance the power of workers and employers and to cover areas like paid parental leave.

With an ageing population, a small baby boom and serious labour shortages, it seems a no brainer to change the ways of treating the tensions between paid and unpaid work time by both cash and good services. This involves valuing the higher productivity of part-time workers, meeting the need for more accessible, affordable, and higher quality care services and offering better pay for those who work in them. Maybe the incoming government could initiate an inquiry into how to spend time as well as money.

Policy discussions both in and out of the election campaign play into the pundits’ views of populism, assuming that people are only interested in their own economic well-being. Voters at the 2007 election were not appealed to as citizens but cast as individual consumers, with the public sphere funding only some purchases. Caveat emptor!

Policy makers need to challenge and reverse the current privatisation dogma by thinking through how to improve public services by using the pooled tax resources. If people had faith in the public sphere provisions, they are less likely to demand ever higher wages and subsidies so they can afford to buy what they need. Economic efficiency can be achieved by the social wage of publicly funded services as well as creating more equity of access than two tiered systems.

This type of redistribution of resources is crucial to creating public trustworthiness and making feasible a more civil society for Australia’s future.