Social Policy Whisperer: Whitlam, Fraser and Ian 'Competition' Harper: From the Grand to the Grotesque

Mine was not the only heart warmed by the recent public celebrations of the grand contributions of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser to building a greater Australia. In tune with their era they understood the vital roles of democracy and social policy alongside the mixed economy in building a good society. And I will not be the only one frustrated by the grotesque banalities of the recommendations for ‘human services’ in Ian Harper’s - back to Hilmer!’ (1995) - report on competition policy. It is irretrievably locked in a market utopian policy time warp.

Sure there is the usual simulation of ‘listening’ to social sector critique in Ian’s write up – the North Eastern Victoria group, Jesuit Social services, and Joint Councils of Social Services for example are honourably mentioned. But in the end, nothing must disturb the 1990s hard-core neoclassical economic assumptions with which Harper began. The public sector ought resemble as much as possible a free market. Not citizens invested with social rights in the political sphere but user payers expressing ‘choice’ in markets must be ‘placed at the heart of service delivery’. Where possible governments mustn’t own and deliver services but rather become ‘market stewards’ (that’s a good one!). And, of course when ‘commissioning’ (much nicer than ‘contracting out’) be sure that the ‘diversity of providers’ is not reserved to civil society organisations but opened out to the private sector - who will no doubt be rubbing their hands at the chance to get their hands on those tax payer dollars you and I actually gave for the enrichment of the lives of our fellow citizens.

Who will free social policy and the social services from this economic libertarianism (understandable in Australia 1995 but not 2015)? When will social policy be truly re-established in its own domain and Harper and his colleagues with their market utopianism packed off to fix up those real world market failures which are now the bane of the Western world.

To turn this policy corner in Australia, I believe we have to begin by renewing what my Masters student from Colombia called this week in class, ‘a sentiment of solidarity’ (which is behind the policy renewal in her country after years of drug driven, civil war). Think about Gough handing back the land to the Gurindji people. Think about Malcolm launching the SBS. Not for them the libertarian fictions of ‘no such thing as society’ or ‘taxation as theft’! And as we begin to contemplate a greater society we will soon grasp the necessity of Re-commissioning not De-commissioning our public services and their erstwhile partner the community sector.

Few people have thought more about the interdependence of economy and society than T H Marshall.  He memorably wrote about a ‘hyphenated society’ composed of democracy, mixed economy and welfare state. Properly understood, he said, ‘the sectors enjoy a measure of autonomy derived from the power inherent in their axial principles…. (Each) can invoke an authority independent of, and arguably equal in status to, those invoked for the other two’.

From this perspective it is proper for economists to advise on achieving competitive markets and fixing market failures but most improper to try and colonise the social domain. This is because ‘the market value of an individual cannot be the measure of his (her) right to welfare’ in a solidarity state which assigns every citizen equal value. In such a society, wellbeing can never be the ‘summation of market preference’. And these different axial principles, he says, require different modes of organisation to achieve their respective goals (cf market, public service, civil society) and with different kinds of personnel (cf community volunteer, bureaucrat etc.).

Now while the distinctions between the sectors can sometimes be obscured in practice (but education, health and welfare are most definitely in the solidarity domain), Marshall warns not to blur the differences:  ‘the hyphen links …different and contrasted elements together to create a new entity whose character is the product of the combination, but not the fusion, of the components, whose separate identities are preserved intact and are of equal contributory status…The tie is unbreakable except by the destruction or degradation of one of the partners…’

No doubt Harper would not want his report to be associated with ‘the destruction and degradation’ of the social domain but that is where it is headed. The economics of 1995 has no conception of why a solidarity based social domain is needed to balance the user pay world of the economic market place.

The Question is who will elevate the solidarity state to equal place with the economic market? The Fair Go with efficiency? Joe – ‘ending the age of entitlement’– Hockey doesn’t seem a likely bet. Meanwhile Labor’s Jenny Macklin has proclaimed social policy no longer the ‘Poor Cousin’. There’s a possibility.

We must begin by renewing the sentiment of solidarity witnessed in the lives of Gough and Malcolm but we wont get anywhere until we finally see Reports into education, health and welfare reform emanating from a properly qualified Social Policy Commission versed in the ‘axial principles’ and organisational praxes of social policy. Meanwhile, Ian can have his plate full of market failure.