Social Policy Whisperer: A Slap across the face for the voluntary sector?

Few issues could be of more importance to Power to Persuade readers than the current crisis in Australia’s voluntary welfare sector. Its epicentre is Victoria in the wake of the early implementations of the Shergold report but its reach is bound to be national as other state and federal governments look to the social service marketization template being proffered in the Competition Policy Review. I offered my academic take on this development in ‘The Lady Vanishes Australia’s Disappearing Voluntary Sector’ and wont revisit that here. However the paper led to a range of engagements and discussions with people from the sector and it is that experience which I would like to share.


It is becoming crystal clear that Governments no longer want the kind of partnership with civil society groups that developed after the Second World War with the rise of the welfare estate and which have persisted – albeit latterly somewhat constrained – to the present. In very broad terms it became the role of government to uphold the social and economic rights of citizens as the basis of the Good Society while relying on the voluntary sector to make it happen at the micro levels of community and place. Although a junior partner the voluntary sector’s role was regarded as essential and irreplaceable by government or private sectors.

From what I have heard in recent weeks – whether from those engaging with the Victorian Government ‘reforms’ or those looking to renew contracts for employment services with the national government is that state officials now regard this proposition of a distinctive value add from the sector as more or less irrelevant to their purposes of service marketization.  This is a major change from the first round of competitive tendering which began in the 1990s. Then the rhetoric was that tendering would be great for the Voluntary sector because it would allow it to expand all of those ‘civil society’ practices which made it such an ideal adjunct to the state.

Today the relationship between voluntaries and government officials is becoming very different.   These officials are reported to becoming singularly focussed on price and efficiency. And of course on this count large (increasingly multinational) for profits are by far the best bet. There is now little serious discussion with these officials of the wider public values which the Voluntary sector might add; the take home message being go and sign up with one of these big providers because if you don’t you can just disappear.

This unfolding scenario is causing great anxiety in the Victorian sector and my impression is that the ripples are spreading nationally. In this process it is hard not to find a sense of hurt and betrayal among many as they see some of the more cherished agencies go to the wall and themselves begin the odious task of selling their wares to some mega agency in the hope of staying in the business of community welfare. After the decades of partnership and trust in government these policy changes seem like a slap in the face to many in the sector.

As yet there is not a lot of anger and organised resistance. It is still early days in this apparently UK Conservative style lurch to the right; and the failure of that ‘Big Society’ reform in that country may well give Australian governments reasons to pause. Indeed in Victoria reactions against the initial implementations of the Shergold reforms have led to a cooling off period. The Government has put ‘reform’ on hold and will be shortly facing an election. The Competition Policy Review is still in a developmental phase and is reported to be still very open to input from the Voluntary Sector.

This is undoubtedly a critical juncture in the history of the sector in Australia. Many voluntary CEOs already appear caught between a rock and a hard place. Like Australia’s University leaders or medical peak bodies they see the disjunction between this policy lurch to the right and their own more public spirited missions.   But for the voluntary welfare sector the option of conforming to government policy is not so easy: after all the sector often self-defines as a champion of the poor and we know the current direction of reform is not in their best interest.

One reaction to ‘The Lady vanishes…’ I found particularly revealing. A peak group said it was great to see a public reflection (humble as it may have been) informed by research developing around the issue; many of its members could see what was unfolding and were troubled and confused about the future.   Hopefully PTP can continue to be a catalyst for an urgently needed and wide public debate over the distinctive contribution of the voluntary sector and how it can be enhanced rather than traded away in the false economies of marketization.