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Wrecking government – the challenge for us all

6 April 2022 at 4:49 pm
David Crosbie
When a government is no longer willing or capable of fulfilling some of the critical roles of government, where does that leave the charities sector? David Crosbie asks the question. 

David Crosbie | 6 April 2022 at 4:49 pm


Wrecking government – the challenge for us all
6 April 2022 at 4:49 pm

When a government is no longer willing or capable of fulfilling some of the critical roles of government, where does that leave the charities sector? David Crosbie asks the question. 

There are those who argue that leaders like US President Donald Trump had one driving ambition in seeking political office – to undermine and destroy the existing role of government. Ego and power may also have been driving forces, but there is no doubt that deliberately wrecking the government was considered a positive strategy by many Trump supporters. The idea of effective government runs counter to their ideology.

There are elements of this Trumpian approach to government in what we’ve seen play out in Australia in recent times.

The federal government has consistently been characterised as slow to react and accept responsibility in addressing many critical issues. We first saw this on a major scale in the federal government’s response to the horrific bushfires of 2020. Then during the pandemic – after initially showing what becomes possible when government chooses to support people in need, the government was less than effective. There were inadequate quarantine facilities; inadequate procurement of PPE, vaccines, and rapid antigen tests; and failure to protect the most vulnerable, including those in aged care. Similarly in the latest flood disasters, the federal government failed to call an emergency until it was too late, failed to get the defence force on the ground in a timely way, and has failed to offer co-ordinated support.

These failures at crucial times are underpinned by messaging about a need to limit the role of government. The deputy prime minister famously lamented that he wanted government out of his life. Similar sentiments, about some state governments having over-reached their responsibilities, have been an ongoing theme in Coalition government messaging. In recent media appearances, the prime minister himself has even suggested that some think he’s allocated government resources excessively, to support flood victims.

The reluctance of government to effectively fulfil its role when most needed undermines trust, as does the entrenched cronyism and the blatant application of political favouritism in the allocation of tax-payer funds. We see this behaviour in the initial flood response, in government appointments to high-paying positions including the appointment of unqualified people to head up organisations they oppose (eg the ACNC), and in allocation of money through government grant programs. The recent allocation of $18 million to a newly registered charity – that has no staff, no office, has not provided any services to anyone, and is working directly with the PM’s office to gain endorsement for tax deductibility – is a good example. Clearly it is who you know, not what you do, that matters.

A survey conducted in late March this year found that Australians say Scott Morrison is the nation’s least trustworthy politician, as new figures show he is presiding over a nation losing trust in the prime minister but also government more broadly. 

The PwC Citizen Survey 2022 found that only 22 per cent of the population believe the government exceeds expectations for service delivery.

More powerful than the research reports have been the telling of stories over the past two months. As one Lismore business owner lamented: “People are lost and missing. Cars destroyed by floods are leaking fuel into sewerage all over the streets. We need help. We are running out of drinking water. Army, defence force, police, where are you? We are on the ground deploying and organising it ourselves … we can only cover so much and everyone is brave, but also exhausted.”

Thomas Frank argued in his book The Wrecking Crew that the goal of this new form of right-wing politics was to: “govern so badly, per the interests of those governed, that the very machinery of such government is so damaged that it cannot be restored, even if the voters make it pretty clear they want it back.”

The arguments we used to have about the role government were always grounded in what was best for the people; even the advocates for smaller government made their case by arguing that smaller government allowed for more economic wealth to be shared around, and create real sustainable opportunities across all levels of society.

Nowadays the arguments people make for smaller government are increasingly linked to failing belief in government, a lack of trust for it to deliver services we need – so we might as well take the benefits of lower taxes and fend for ourselves. 

The government itself has outsourced much of government, deregulated many areas, and
as Frank argues “turned public policy into a private sector bidding war”. 

The sub-contracting of government policy to private sector interests is another entrenched trait of the current government. In government entities like the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Arena), staffing has been cut from 70 to 20 under Coalition governments, while payments to private sector consultants and labour hire firms from the ARENA operating budget are now over $100 million.

If we accept that government is, at least to a degree, undermining its own role and betraying the trust that some still hold in its capacity to meet people’s basic service needs, what is the role of charities?

For me, the answer is that we have three core responsibilities. These are to rebuild trust so we can strengthen our communities, to fill the growing gaps left by governments, and to hold governments to account.

Charities play a central role in encouraging the whole idea of us, of collective interest, of the fulfilment that can come from helping others, connecting to others, sharing our pain and our success. We build more resilient communities through the power of us, together, for each other.

The power of us is shown in the resourcefulness of flooded communities left to fend for themselves, but rising to the challenges and banding together to rescue thousands, provide hundreds of thousands of meals, blankets, shelter, and comfort. Individuals, community groups both formal and informal, charities and NFPs all contributed to a response that saved lives and let people know they were not alone.

Charities filled many of the gaps left by government, but they also did something even more important by facilitating the resilience of people collectively supporting each other. This connection-building role, adopted by so many community groups, applies not just in disaster zones, but in much of the work undertaken by charities and NFPs.

The other fundamental role of charities is one I often write about – holding governments to account. In all our community engagements and advocacy for our charitable purpose, charities should be bold and strong about the needs and expectations of the communities we serve. When any government is failing our communities, it is incumbent on all of us to raise our voices and call them out.

The bottom line is that if we allow a self-interested internal wrecking crew to tear down the role and effectiveness of government, we will all pay a heavy price. 

David Crosbie  |  @DavidCrosbie2

David Crosbie is the CEO of the Community Council for Australia (CCA).

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