The view from the community

Last week the National Reform Summit brought together leading figures from the community, politics, business and media to examine the big policy issues facing Australia today. Addressing the summit, Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, made the case for reaching out across traditional divides in our community to “reignite participatory democracy”.

The view from the community is sometimes clearer.

When you are struggling to find that job – you’ve applied for a hundred jobs and you can’t get an interview. When your daughter asks for $5 for soccer that she knows you can’t afford. When you can’t keep a roof over your head. When you can’t get the supports you need to meet your most basic needs – this is when you have an acute sense of what’s right and wrong with where we are today.

That’s why ACOSS is here. That’s why, today and in the days and weeks ahead, we are determined to do our bit to forge the common ground on the changes that our country needs:

  • Growing the economy to improve living standards, including for those disadvantaged;
  • Finding the ‘engine room’ of new enterprise and more job opportunities that last and pay well;
  • Delivering excellence in health and education and an efficient social safety net;
  • Providing housing that is affordable; and
  • Protecting the environment.

That’s what brings ACOSS here today. We know that our goal of reducing poverty and disadvantage won’t be achieved without sound economic, social and environmental policy. They must work in tandem. Our quality of life – the wellbeing of our communities – is at stake.

We can be proud that Australia has done better on these fronts that most other wealthy countries. For the most part, our economy has adjusted readily to changed circumstances. Governments have managed to provide a social safety net and essential services with the 7th-lowest public revenues in the OECD. Our network of local communities, our support systems and services has been strong.

Yet when we were swept along in the tide of the mining and housing booms, we began to drift. We forgot a few things.

We forgot that our living standards depend on a clear vision of our place in the world, and on building the common ground for necessary economic and social adjustments in a timely way.

We forgot that eight successive tax cuts, combined with over-generous ‘bonus’ payments and concessions – which were affordable during the boom – would still have to be paid for beyond that boom.

We forgot that people were being left behind. People unemployed long term. People on low incomes lacking decent dental health and mental health services. People with disabilities waiting in lengthy queues for services. Children in poorer suburbs and towns.

Right now over two million people are living below the modest OECD poverty line and nearly 600,000 of those are children.

We can’t afford to drift any more. We are here because we can’t afford to allow short term politics and sectional interests to triumph over the common good.

Without losing sight of our differences, today is a chance for us to commit firmly to searching for that common ground.

Let’s begin with clear goals: sustainable, inclusive growth in the economy; lowering unemployment and tackling entrenched disadvantage in the labour market, delivering affordable housing and decent services for all; whilst ensuring government budgets can meet our needs and restore surplus to insure against tougher times as they come.

We know that the population is ageing and we cannot afford to leave people behind – older people, women, single parents, our young people, people with disability, carers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people from all backgrounds, and those newly arrived – this will limit Australia’s future.

This can and should be a shared effort. Enterprises innovating, employers diversifying their workforce, offering more predictability and flexibility in working hours for people with caring responsibilities to give time to the ones we love. We need to support people locked out to acquire new skills. We, the community sector – business, unions and others – need to invest in the collaborations for new economic and social development.

We can’t afford to shut out from the labour market the 70% of people living on Newstart, who are already unemployed long term, and living on just $37 a day.

Australian governments are not in a budget crisis yet, but we will be in future if we don’t act now. Poorly targeted expenditure programs that were expanded during the boom years need to be re-designed to make the most of new innovations, reducing costs to make room for other priorities where gaps are yawning: like the NDIS, mental and dental health, and the poverty-inducing Newstart Allowance payment for people who are unemployed.

There are a few things today that we don’t necessarily agree upon, like whether public revenues should increase to help close the gap between revenues and expenditure. ACOSS’s view is that there isn’t enough room in public budgets – even if the efficiency of spending is improved – to meet community needs in health care as the population ages. For example, while there was scope to tighten means testing of pensions, we do have the most tightly targeted income support system in the OECD.

We also debate whether we rely too much on income tax. But we agree on a lot. We agree that the tax system can be re-designed to be more economically efficient than it is now, whilst delivering equity. We agree that the inconsistencies in the way governments’ tax, inefficient taxes, cause harm to the economy, and which are undermining fairness as well.

We agree that the tax system should not distort investment and workforce participation decisions; and should be fairer in the way different incomes are treated.

Tough decisions have to be made in all of these areas of public policy. They cannot be left to governments alone, especially in a political culture that values wins in the daily media cycle over long term planning, and that values division over consensus.

But I want to be clear, this is not about walking away from democracy. We all have a responsibility. Yes, in the end, governments may be the decision-makers that deliver reform. We in business, unions and civil society can’t substitute for government.

Our responsibility is to reach out across traditional divides.

To lift the community debates with a sense of optimism and determination.

To reignite participatory democracy we must bring the community into the effort, not trying to “sell something” already decided.

To draw on our collective strengths, our great capacities – from urban centres to remote communities – to lead to love and to back a great future for us all.