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UK’s “Big Society” Alarming Parallels for Australia - Report

30 May 2012 at 10:50 am
Staff Reporter
A new report from the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) claims there are alarming parallels between ‘Big Society’ policies introduced by British Prime Minister David Cameron and similar trends occurring in Australia.

Staff Reporter | 30 May 2012 at 10:50 am


UK’s “Big Society” Alarming Parallels for Australia - Report
30 May 2012 at 10:50 am

UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: The Prime Minister's Office  

A new report from the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) claims there are alarming parallels between ‘Big Society’ policies introduced by British Prime Minister David Cameron and similar trends occurring in Australia.

The CPD says ‘Big Society’, described as “the biggest shakeup of what the state provides in half a century”, has gutted the public and community sectors, transferring responsibility and resources to corporations.

The report by Dr James Whelan, titled Big Society and Australia, analyses recent UK initiatives and the potential impacts if Australia were to follow suit. It also finds support for a ‘Big Society’ approach among conservative politicians in Australia.

According to Dr Whelan, “A close look at ‘Big Society’ reveals the disconnect between its pro-community rhetoric and its small government reality. It’s a new sales pitch for unpopular ideas like privatisation and cuts to public services, wrapped up in language that has widespread appeal.”

“The negative impacts of what’s happening in the UK can teach us a lot about parallel trends in Australia – like the widespread obsession with budget surpluses, and the habit of outsourcing public services without safeguarding the public interest,” Dr Whelan said.

“While ‘Big Society’ promised to empower a diverse range of UK community groups to take over public services, in reality large corporations have dominated the outsourcing process. For example 35 out of 40 employment services contracts have gone to for-profit providers, with the big winners being large players like Deloitte, A4e and Serco.”

Dr Whelan said a parallel trend has been observed in Australia, where large for-profit and some large Not for Profit providers are dominating the tendering process.

He said Big Society and Australia looks at failures to safeguard the public interest when outsourcing various services to large private providers like Serco, both here and in the UK.

Dr Whelan said his report coincides with significant public spending cuts in Australia (from a much lower spending base as a percentage of GDP than the UK), the retrenchment of more than 4,000 Australian Public Service staff this year, and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey’s pledge to cut 12,000 public service jobs “for starters”.

The strain caused by the UK’s budget cuts has led to the closure of many community services that relied on both government funding and volunteers. Big Society and Australia argues that volunteerism and philanthropy must be valued, but they cannot fill the gap left by a significant withdrawal of public spending.

Recent statements by conservative politicians in Australia echo many elements of ‘Big Society’. Dr Whelan said that “there are shades of ‘Big Society’ in Tony Abbott’s enthusiasm for shifting responsibility for health and schooling to community organisations, and Joe Hockey’s recent idea that we should look to small-government countries in Asia for inspiration.”

“Big Society and Australia demonstrates that shrinking the public sector does not strengthen either the community or corporate sectors. It argues instead for an approach that recognises the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each sector, acknowledging that some work is best done by government while some is delivered better by the community and private sectors,” Dr Whelan said.

The Centre for Policy Development describes itself as a public interest research centre dedicated to putting creative, viable ideas and innovative research at the heart of Australia’s policy debates.

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One comment

  • landrights4all says:

    From the article, the 'promise' made by 'Big Society' reform is attractive, but CPD's Dr. Whelan says the reform does not live up to the promise, it just cuts funding.

    The attractions mentioned are –
    reduced government
    fewer NFP players to negotiate – responsibility rests in small number of bigger players
    more centralised private management
    improved administration of public funds

    In the slide presentation, Big Society promises to –
    empower communities, encourage a diversity of service providers, and to foster volunteerism and mutualism … citizens & neighbourhood groups participating in design & delivery of services, social public & private providers (any willing provider) collaborating, government protecting the vulnerable … this is "language that has widespread appeal".

    The objection is that Big Society is not about safeguarding the public interest – it is about enriching the few. Which few depends on where you stand. Dr Whalan points to Cameron & Serco, but reduced funding & taxation also appeals to a larger few, and our western society as a whole (which only makes up 20% of the earth's people) is keen to limit liabilities like foreign aid and refugees in order to enrich itself.

    When you point the finger, three are pointing back at you. Besides, there is no future in fighting for or against one party which will soon enough be in or out of power. If we are looking for a way forward the real challenge is to find a pathway all could support.

    Without depriving anyone of their drive for a better life, can we find ways to enrich ourselves – to save costs & to ensure everyone has a fulfilling role in a better, more just society? I think the empowerment of the poor in our society CAN be advanced to the advantage of all. I think this needs to be done without requiring our economy to provide ever more funding for local benefits. More funding would force our economy to get more competitive with the poor outside our society.

    The change I suggest would involve a simple relaxation of "mutual obligations" for the unemployed and full recognition of volunteerism in NFP's (see

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