Social Policy Whisperer - "We are only Economists": The Draft Report of the Competition Policy Review

Reviewing the health of the social sectors requires an appreciation of social work, political science and sociology theories. Why then , is it left in the hands of economists? Social Policy Whisperer, Prof Paul Smyth, shares his reflections on the Competition Policy Review.

If I told you that the Prime Minister had rung me and asked if I would lead a panel of welfare experts to review the efficiency of the Australian economy, you would likely ring 000 and warn of a madman on the loose. Why is it then that no one blinks when economists are asked to review the health of the social sectors? The Draft Report of the Competition Policy Review confirms yet again that these economist led inquiries have become a giant fetter on social policy renewal in this country.

My first direct experience of this disciplinary ineptitude came after I had carefully crafted the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s submission to the 2009-10 Productivity Commission (PC) inquiry into the efficiency of the community sector. I wrote a long history of the voluntary welfare sector seeking to clarify its past contributions to Australian society and also broached contemporary sociological, social work and political science research on the importance of the sector in terms of strengthening social solidarity and democratic processes. In vain did I search the PC’s report for signs that they had seriously come to grips with these central questions. They only addressed economic efficiency; but without any account of the social purposes of the sector. Later, informally, I learnt from PC personnel that indeed our submission had been ‘a most interesting read’ but that I had to remember that ‘we are only economists!’
If you have any training in social policy you are going to find reading Ian Harper’s new Draft Report similarly frustrating. It’s over 300 pages and, as you would expect from an inquiry into the economy, it is all about exciting topics like taxis, banks, pharmacies, liquor outlets and so on. There is much expounding of the virtues of markets in these areas and proposals for ‘making markets work properly’. From a social policy point of view this is all well and good so long as it sticks to the brief of improving the efficiency of ‘the economy’. The problems all begin when they throw the social domain into ‘the economy’ and try to treat it in exactly the same way.
A meagre 26 pages is devoted to the topic of marketising ‘human services’ (NB not ‘social services’). These show no comprehension of the complex social and political dimensions of the question of where responsibility for these services should lie. Even undergraduates on their first day’s exposure to the study of social policy will know there is something not right about this. The bread and butter of this discipline is the exploration of the appropriate allocation of responsibilities for welfare as between the state, the market and civil society. It is intensely value based and contested and resolved in very different ways around the world. To simply slide the Market in as first choice leaves the Report wide open to the allegation of disguising an ideological leaning as a mere technique for greater efficiency.
The absence of an appropriate discussion of these underlying social policy assumptions comes as no surprise. The economics discipline no longer trains students to be alert to the competing ‘political’ purposes of different economic theories. It has become an ahistorical ‘science’. Perhaps more surprising in their discussion of social services is the seeming lack of deference to the evidence base held in the other social and political sciences.
Thus in the Conversation, Emma Rowe of Monash University writes that in its case for marketization, the ‘Review draws on very little educational research and also uses largely inappropriate case models to back-up its arguments, such as Sweden’s education system, even though Sweden scores below the OECD average on international tests such as PISA. Elizabeth Savage from UTS sees the Reports predilection for greater privatization of health flying in the face of well-known objections on both economic and social grounds while James Gillespie of Sydney University observes that ‘Medicare’s increasingly tattered universal coverage (will) need a lot more exploration before we quietly head down this road’.
The discussion of community services also has minimal reference to social science research with maximum descriptions of its preferred UK ‘Big Society’ model of marketization – even to the inclusion of ‘local libraries and parks’. There is simply no attempt to articulate the distinctive contribution of the voluntary sector and the governance arrangements needed to enhance it vis-à-vis competition from the private sector.
The intellectual poverty of the discussion of social services was no doubt heightened by the virtual absence of significant submissions from the social sectors. But this very absence should tell us that there is something very inappropriate about a commission of economists presiding over questions which are fundamentally social and political. Indeed the absence of expertise and public submissions on the social services will surely rob this Inquiry of any legitimacy in these domains. ‘They are only economists’ and it is high time government established more appropriate fora and agencies for the renewal of Australia’s social services.