Last month, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott unveiled the second instalment of his “Plan for Stronger Communities”. Extending the policy directions he prefaced at the National Press Club in January, Abbott outlined several Coalition policies that aim to strengthen social capital and social fabric, empower citizens through personal and mutual responsibility to “achieve something for themselves”.

These values will resonate widely and deeply. Australians share Abbott’s commitment to volunteerism and “stronger and more cohesive communities”. Each year, 40% of us volunteer and many donate to community groups.

Having recently completed a comprehensive assessment of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” policies and rhetoric, I was struck by the similarities in Abbott’s platform. Among the pro-community rhetoric were signs of “Big Society” including restricting welfare entitlement, mandatory “work for the dole”, mutual obligation and a contestable market for services.

Abbott welcomed guru Phillip Blond as a “friend of Australia” when he addressed the Menzies Research Institute last year and briefed senior Liberals. “Big society” is a perplexing cocktail of pro-community rhetoric that masks adverse social impacts. In the name of strengthening communities, David Cameron cut public spending by more than £80 billion, outsourced a vast range of government work to “any willing provider” (primarily corporations) has begun to retrench 700,000 public servants. Many not-for-profit organisations have retrenched staff, scaled back services or face closure.

Is a “big society” agenda on the cards here? Professor Paul Smyth and other public sector and political observers point to the strong hand that Abbott maintains for government in social policy and infrastructure. The UK changes have diminished government’s capacity for these decisive interventions.

But the Abbott’s consistently negative depiction of public servants should be interpreted carefully. He describes their work as “diminishing people, not empowering them” and denying people the chance “to achieve something for themselves”, and declares his intention to “rationalise bureaucracies”. Opposition Treasurer Joe Hockey doesn’t miss a chance to repeat his pledge to sack 12,000 public servants “for starters”.

Neither Abbott nor Hockey provide specific evidence of excess public sector capacity and both are at odds with consistently positive community attitudes toward public services.

Populist “small government” arguments are the flavour of the month in Australian politics and policy. State premiers Ted Baillieu, Barry O’Farrell and Campbell Newman have retrenched thousands of public servants while promising better services. Abbott’s policies warrant close and critical examination to reconcile these and other contradictions.

As part of my research, I spoke to two other stakeholders on the issue …

Paul Smyth, professor of social policy at the University of Melbourne and research director at the Brotherhood of St Laurence:

Reading Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart you get a real feel for “big society” thought American style. His riveting accounts of the evil social and economic effects of excessive inequality in the US left this Australian reader totally unprepared for his analysis: the cause was the welfare state and the solution its abolition.

I don’t detect this kind of UK-US brand of visceral antipathy to all things government in Abbott’s landmark speeches. His altogether more Australian brand of liberalism actually proposes a big economic agenda i.e. to develop a “five-pillar economy” with a “rolling 15-year plan for major infrastructure”; while in social policy, dental health and disability insurance aspirations join with strong commitments on health, education and “friendly neighbourhoods”.

John Howard’s social conservatism proved quite distant in practice from UK-US rhetorical extremes. Abbott’s may be the same.

Three welfare issues stand out in Abbott’s landmark speeches. First “society” is not posed as a straight out substitute for government. Rather the concern appears to be with getting a governance model based more on subsidiarity: i.e. delegating decision making powers to more local levels. This is certainly an area primed for reform but needs new thinking. In the ’70s open government reforms spawned most of the welfare NGOs we see today.

In the ’90s, Australian micro economic reformers led the way internationally in competitive tendering but this is now seen to have tied up civil society in red tape and killed off many of the “little platoons” Abbott thinks important. A paradigm change is needed.

The speeches emphasise fostering economic participation to strengthen society and this is the Australian way. However it is odd that Abbott would invoke Chifley after declaring it an “iron law of economics that no country has ever taxed its way to prosperity”. Chifley, of course, taxed working Australia for the first time (following Keynes) so that Liberal governments had the money to maintain full employment over the next 30 years.

Abbott’s economics remain firmly pre-Keynesian so that promoting economic participation is basically about tackling alleged behavioural failings of the unemployed. Even so, the “Forest plan” suggests a courage to address blatant current shortcomings in current labour market programs. The line of sight to employers is an excellent idea but appropriate supportive programs for participants will be essential. Tough love by itself is futile.

In the ’90s, neo-liberalism lacked an account of society. In the UK New Labour brought society back in and this was picked up in Australia under “Social Inclusion”. The Abbott speeches show the Liberals back in the social policy game: strong economies ought to show a “social dividend”. But does this go far enough? Neither Labor nor Abbott’s speeches capture the significance of welfare itself as an investment. Strong societies pay economic dividends.

Cath Smith, former CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service

If Australia’s governments are unable or unwilling to lift taxes or other revenue, they will need to invest differently in the future than the past. The issue is whether and how they share priority setting and decision-making dilemmas with the electorate. A flawed element with “Big Society” is the sense of spin and Orwellian language that it has created: the notion that volunteer groups and communities would be enhanced by cuts to government spending.

In fact, as the CPD report shows, the experience in the UK has been that public sector rationalisation has led to life-endangering levels of risk shifting to citizens, and cuts to the non-government services they might otherwise have turned to.  Here in Australia we know that citizens trust governments and non-profits to deliver health, education and human services ahead of trusting private businesses with their vulnerabilities. The long-term demands on government include those of population growth, demographic transition to an older society, and the heat and dryness trends of our changing climate.

Faced with a choice of cuts to important services, governments may discover the community support increased taxation rather than the loss of well-being and safety. I hope all our political parties will take a more honest and transparent approach to this dilemma than we’ve seen in the UK. I hope we see a dialogue where the deeper, more difficult, aspects of priority setting are shared with the electorate.

I suspect that most people would rather pay more tax than experience a slash and burn of the health, education and social services that maintain our whole society’s well-being and safety.