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Let the work begin

11 August 2022 at 7:52 am
David Crosbie
While there is certainly cause for optimism as the sector engages with the new government, we also need a healthy dose of realism, writes David Crosbie. 

David Crosbie | 11 August 2022 at 7:52 am


Let the work begin
11 August 2022 at 7:52 am

While there is certainly cause for optimism as the sector engages with the new government, we also need a healthy dose of realism, writes David Crosbie. 

Without utility, speech is just decorative.
~John Ralston Saul in Unconscious Civilisation
(A good book and one of my favourite quotes)

Walking around Parliament House last week, I saw many colleagues having meetings with politicians, more than I have seen in years.  It felt like the doors had been thrown open and people had been invited back into the Parliament. It was a good feeling, a feeling that there was hope for change, hope that we could do things better, hope that we could work with government to make a difference.

The positive feelings from many in the sector about the new accessible approach of the government even spilled over into budget speculation.  The introduction of a new framing of the upcoming October federal budget to include some impact measures – sometimes referred to as a ‘wellbeing budget’ – is consistent with what we have seen in New Zealand, Scotland and now Canada.  The key shift is in governments linking more of their expenditure to measures of the change they are seeking to achieve within communities.

As Peter Martin pointed out in The Conversation, Treasury has been across wellbeing measures for almost two decades. It first introduced their own internal wellbeing framework in 2004.  It has also spent considerable time examining the New Zealand approach. Various other government agencies have adopted wellbeing indicators, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in their ‘Measures of Australia’s Progress’ in 2008).  Unfortunately, the ABS measures ceased under the Abbott government.

CCA has long supported the incorporation of outcome measures into not only the federal budget, but many government contracts with charities where the policy goals are about achieving measurable changes for individuals and communities.  All too often the focus of government contracting is on outputs (how much was spent on each line item or how many people attended an event) rather than outcomes or impact.  We hope to see more of the impact focused approach in the coming years under the new Albanese government.

In some ways the federal budget including a focus on outcomes and impact is a good example of how change may or may not flow through to the charities sector.  While the government adopting a new approach is welcome, a new approach in describing the budget or highlighting measures does not necessarily mean new or better expenditure.  The key question of any Federal budget is always about what the government chooses to fund or not fund?

History tells us that the first budget of a new government is unlikely to bring much joy for those seeking a funding boost.  This is especially true when the economic circumstances have driven the federal budget deep into the red, and interest rate rises are making government debt more expensive to maintain.

Already the Department of Finance is going through all government forward commitments line by line, seeking to identify potential savings by cutting projected expenditure.  There are gold stars and elephant stamps available for senior officials who can identify where the government might be able to end or cut back on programs they have not explicitly endorsed or supported.  There is no doubt some charities will be facing cuts to their government funding within the next 12 months.

While there may be a refreshing new willingness for the government to engage with charities, engagement itself does not change the underlying short-term goal of the government to reduce expenditure wherever possible.

It is way too early to assume anything about how the new government will operate throughout its term in office, but we have all been through the experience of governments saying they are listening while in practice failing to take account of the perspectives and positions charities bring to government decision-making.

Over the last two decades or more, the partnership between charities and government has continuously evolved, and yet in fundamental ways, not much has changed.

The buzz words have been updated – from consultation to co-design, collaboration to partnership – but the bottom line is that most engagement between charities and government is still firmly set within government pre-determined boundaries and goals. Genuinely acting together in partnership takes time and resources; both are scarce.

There are very few examples where the government has provided resources and authority to enable community organisations to identify their priority issues, and then develop and implement solutions that will work in their communities.

The one relationship overlay that has clearly grown stronger in the last ten years is that more of what we might term the care systems in Australia have been commodified and marketised.  Making money for private shareholders is now a factor in government funded employment, education, healthcare, disability, custodial services, aged care, housing provision, migrant services and childcare settings. This marketised approach is also aligned to the government goal of reducing costs.

Changing established government principles and practice is not going to happen immediately, and the kind of structural reform needed across so many of our systems is never easy or quick.  This is especially true when private vested interests have some market control in the system.

While we may all welcome a new wellbeing federal budget as a step in the right direction, it doesn’t mean the budget will deliver better outcomes for our communities.

Similarly, many charities will welcome being able to talk to the government about their issues as a step in the right direction, but being given a hearing is unlikely to immediately deliver better outcomes for the communities they serve.

The optimism I felt from many of the colleagues I spoke to last week may be justified, but we should not confuse the sense of relief and active government engagement with a belief that the changes we want are on the way.  The real work of turning words into meaningful actions is going to take immense effort, time and resources. There may be less weight on our backs, and we may be taking a few steps in the right direction, but history tells us there is a long journey ahead.

David Crosbie  |  @DavidCrosbie2

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


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