Getting the Government we deserve: Implications for the Social Sector
25 August 2010 at 11:51 am
It's easy to accuse the political class of failing to present compelling – and competing – visions but it is harder to articulate one says David James, co-publisher of Pro Bono Australia News, reflecting on the results of the election.
What social vision does the community sector propose for Australia’s future?
First, congratulations must go to the Informal Party. It managed to increase its votes in Saturday’s election by a very respectable 1.69%. To put this in perspective, the Liberal Party achieved only a 0.61% increase. This result is all the more astonishing, since the Informal Party ran no ads, did not have people handing out ‘how to vote’ cards, and got almost no media coverage. Yet, fully 5.6% of people voted for it.
Of course, a lot of informal votes result from mistakes rather than being a ‘pox on all the Houses’ protest, but the increase is significant, and much higher than the margin in close seats where a handful of votes will make the difference.
It seems that the general , even relentless, criticism of Australia’s political class had an impact: an absence of vision, excessive stage management, a cynical focus on marginal electorates at the expense of principle, the barrage of negative advertising, the ducking and weaving round debates. A climax, of sorts, was Mark Latham recommending to the Sixty Minutes audience on Channel Nine that they, like he, should vote informal – thus appointing himself as the de facto spokesperson for the Informal Party in the process. It seems he struck a chord with many people.
On the other hand, there was one party which was associated with a clear vision, with principles, with non-spin politics – and it made stellar gains. The increase in the Green vote, of 3.4%, dwarfed the gains of any other party.
Vision is what people want, it seems. In the absence of compelling visions by the major parties, the informal vote rose or votes went to the one party which did offer a clear world-view, backed by a comprehensive range of policies. Consistent with this, Malcolm Turnbull – who lost leadership of the Liberal Party by sticking to his climate change vision – achieved a whopping increase of 11.53%.
Ideology versus Management
A few years ago I had a chat with a Palestinian in a coffee shop in Jerusalem. “There is no politics in Australia”, he told me. “Interest rates, roads, hospital waiting lists – that’s not politics, that’s management!’ He went on: ‘You have problems, not issues, and problems have solutions, which issues don’t. It is when you have issues, like we do, only then do you have politics.”
When Tony Abbot was asked by a young woman, in the Brisbane community forum, why she should vote for him, his answer was, “competence”; he could provide managerial competence, which, in his view, Labor had failed to do.
Are Abbot and that Palestinian right? Has ideological warfare come to end? We heard nothing during the election about old ideological divisions between the working class and the capitalist class: the Liberals did not insist that ‘Labor is a stooge for the unions’; Labour did not decry the Liberals as representing only the ‘big end of town’.
Instead, in a rush to the middle, to no-man’s land, to an ideological free-zone, it was managerial competence that was the issue, rather than ideology.
Twenty years ago, Francis Fukuyama claimed that we had reached the ‘end of history’. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, he said, the Western dispensation of democratic government, a market economy, and a tolerant culture will prevail; all that remains to do was to manage it well.
The three independents – who, at the time of writing, will decide whether Gillard continues or is succeeded by Abbot – have made ‘stability’ their main issue. Stability is about management, not ideology.
In Australia, management competence rather than ideology seems to be the major battleground, at least between the two major parties.
It is easy to accuse the political class of failing to present compelling – and competing – visions for the future of Australia, but it is harder to articulate one. And if the nature of political discourse nowadays in Australia is essentially centralist and non-ideological – such that managerial competence rather than ideological beliefs becomes the major issue – then the question of whether vision has a role to play at all comes into question.
But that’s not good enough. We do need to know where we are headed. For that, we do need a vision. And, in fact, the elements of a social vision are readily identifiable, and coalesce around key words.
One of those words is sustainable. One truly significant issue about the future of Australia aired in the election was about population policy. Whether we revert to Fortress Australia by putting up the shutters and strictly limiting population growth– whether on xenophobic or environmental grounds – is something we will all be talking about a lot more.
Another is inclusive, and issues (or ‘management problems’?) of homelessness, affordable housing, care for the aging, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, mental health services, and others, will be on the agenda of the next government, whoever is the leader.
Most significantly, the political inclusion of Indigenous people via a preamble to the Constitution, the continuing battle over the Wild Rivers legislation in Queensland, as well as continuing efforts to ‘close the gap’, will continue to demand attention and action.
A third word, surely, is competence. This is a government-wide variable, and one that directly impacts the social sector. As readers of this site know, we ran a campaign, in conjunction with the Centre for Social Impact, asking for action on the Productivity Commission recommendations in its report, Contribution of the Not for Profit Sector. We presented the resultant manifesto to the parties, and got positive responses from Labor and the Greens; unfortunately , the Liberals did not respond.
The Commission’s recommendations overwhelmingly address managerial problems, such as the confusion in regulatory arrangements, the need to improve debt financing, and the like. These problems do impede the development of a thriving community sector, and do demand attention. The Labor and Green responses are encouraging and, while the Liberals did not respond, nor did they reject any of the recommendations – we will be following through on this.
Sustainable, inclusive, and competent. Does that pass for a compelling vision for shaping government action. Or can we do better than that?