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It’s the Society, Stupid

Friday, 6th August 2010 at 12:34 pm
Staff Reporter
OPINION | The Federal Government can’t increasingly rely on Not for Profit community organisations to deliver services without fixing the regulatory and institutional arrangements, writes co-publisher of Pro Bono Australia News, David James, in reflecting on the Social Policy Survey and resultant Manifesto.

Friday, 6th August 2010
at 12:34 pm
Staff Reporter



It’s the Society, Stupid
Friday, 6th August 2010 at 12:34 pm

The Federal Government can’t increasingly rely on Not for Profit community organisations to deliver services without fixing the regulatory and institutional arrangements, writes co-publisher of Pro Bono Australia News, David James, in reflecting on the Social Policy Survey and resultant Manifesto. 

It’s the Society, stupid

Way back in 1992, James Carville hung a sign in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters, headlining  three messages he thought Clinton should focus on: 

  • Change vs. more of the same
  • The economy, stupid
  • Don't forget health care.

Clinton succeeded in pushing the economy to the top of the election agenda, and pushed his way into the White House. Since then, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ has become political gospel: convince voters you can run the economy better than your opponents, and the voters will invite you to the run the Government.

But this truism has yet to be reflected in this current election. At the time of writing, Tony Abbott has turned down an invitation for a debate on the economy.  Even tax has taken a backseat, after the Super Profits Resources Tax had its run.  This may change, but in the boon times Australia is enjoying, relative to almost every other country in the world, the focus has not been economic.

Instead, the major election theme has been about people. About the kind of society we want to live in. About who we really are, as a nation. We have seen major announcements and debate about mental health, child care, population growth, immigration, border protection, parental leave, aged care, homelessness, and disability services, including support for the mooted National Disability Insurance Scheme. Tony Abbott has promised to declare 2012 the ‘Year of Meals-on-Wheels’, while Julia Gillard has promised more support for families with teenagers.  And there is still a good deal more election campaigning to come.

It seems that a new mantra – It’s the Society, stupid – is dominating electioneering, including the Nationals, whose theme song starts: “There are heroes in our country, who go unrecognised, who shoulder the wheel, and give so much to our lives – the workers and the families, in big towns and in small…”.

High stakes

This society-first/people-first focus is surely to be warmly welcomed by everyone, regardless of their political affiliations or leanings.

However, at least thus far, all the political parties have overlooked the behind the scenes infrastructure – the backbone – of our civil society.

It can seem that the Not for Profit community sector is invisible, even though it comprises 600,000+ organisations; employs 8% of the workforce;  contributed $41 billion+ to Australia’s GDP, almost double that of the agriculture industry ($21 billion); and engages 4.6 million volunteers. As an extraordinary bonus, every dollar governments invest in the community sector gets $3 in value in return, as Les Hems, Research Director of the Centre for Social Impact, recently observed.

Think about who is involved in working, volunteering in, and – most importantly – receiving services from Not for Profit community organisations, and we realise that every single Australian benefits, directly and indirectly, and in countless ways, from cradle to grave.

Think in philosophical terms, and we learn that civilization requires a civil society, and a civil society requires a thriving Not for Profit community sector.

Supporting the Supporters

Those reflections underpin this fact: Government strategies for promoting community wellbeing,  social inclusion and social innovation are heavily dependent on a vibrant, efficient and effective Not for Profit sector. Or so think fully 96.8% of the sector – 83% of whom ‘strongly agreed’– in our survey conducted last week, ‘Towards a Thriving Not for Profit Community Sector.’

However, as the Productivity Commission recently reported, the Not for Profit community sector suffers from long standing problems relating to regulation, lack of transparency, onerous contracting regimes, inefficiencies, and insufficient human and financial capital.

For example, there are 40 statutes and 19 government agencies who determine tax eligibility for organisations. What a mess. The purchaser-provider model is too often misused by government bureaucrats to micro-manage supposedly independent community organisations. Community organisations have shockingly poor access to debt financing, because of uncertainties around funding arrangements. The Commission found that “wages in the community sector are considerably lower than equivalent positions in the public sector,” prompting the Commissioner to ask if there if there is a workforce crisis in the sector.

Issues such as those provide politicians with no opportunities for photo shoots. But they create massive hidden costs and barriers, which severely inhibit the decent functioning of the Not for Profit community sector.

What to do?

We know – and, more importantly – the Government knows, what needs to be done. Already. In February this year, the Productivity Commission – under the leadership of Robert Fitzgerald –, in response to Terms of Reference issued under the name of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, presented a detailed program of action that was underpinned by extensive research and benefited from extensive sector input. All up, the Commission made 39 recommendations to Government – in the form of a cohesive program of action –  for improving and strengthening the sector.

The results, half a year later? Silence – from Government and the Opposition.

It is simply not good enough.

Sector Views

Maybe the Government has been waiting to hear from the sector about these recommendations. If that is the case, the answer is in.

For the first time, there is now extensive feedback from people in and around the Not for Profit community sector about the Productivity Commission recommendations.

Over 1,500 of our readers – during the first week of the election campaign – expressed their views on several key recommendations via an online survey, developed in collaboration with the support of the Centre for Social Impact.

It is fair to say there are few surprises: most people, often overwhelmingly, support demands for common sense changes in regulatory regimes, institutional arrangements, policy and funding reforms. A consistent theme is that although people supported the ideas of the Commission, they want Government to partner with the sector, rather than impose solutions.

For a detailed report on the survey findings, including many of the useful comments made, click here.

The Manifesto Towards a Thriving Not for Profit Community Sector

You can’t put more cars on the road without building more roads. You can’t push more people onto trains without building more train tracks. And you can’t increasingly rely on the Not for Profit community organisations to deliver publicly funded services without fixing the regulatory and institutional arrangements in which the sector exists, and getting funding policies and priorities right.

The Productivity Commission’s deeply considered report has been submitted to Government. Our survey evidences strong support for its key recommendations, reinforced by over 1500 people completing it during the first week of the election. It is now time for action.

For our part, we turned the results into a Manifesto, which we have sent to Labor, the Coalition, and the Greens seeking for a pre-election commitment. We will be knocking on the door, as loudly as we can. Anything you can do, either personally or in your professional capacity, to advance the cause, well, come on down.

And, whenever you get a chance, please remind our elected leaders: It’s the Society, stupid.

David James



Click here to view the Social Policy Manifesto.

Click here to download the full survey results.  

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