Social Policy Whisperer: Taking Harper out of the Social Services and Community Sector


While most in the social services and community sector assumed that the 2014\15 Harper review concerned the ‘economy’ and not them (see the very limited range of ‘social’ submissions) it has indeed turned out to be a Radical Liberal push to undermine social services and the community sector by an inappropriate extension of market principles into our community and social life.  Even as the Federal Treasurer initiates a ‘reform’ process together with the States we have Mr Harper himself already positioned as an ‘independent’ advisor (representing the for-profit firm Deloites) to the Victorian Government’s current Roadmap for Reform.   Push is turning to shove and it behoves anyone with a concern for the future of Australian society to take stock of the situation and develop their action plan.

The soft underbelly of Harperism is the naïve rendering of the market as the one size fits all answer to questions of economic and social efficiency. Like its polar opposite, communism, this has always been a fringe position on the great question of how best to organise a society. Truly a profound question, it insults the intelligence of students of society and social policy to see it sidelined in the Treasury acceptance paper by simplistic slogans about the universal social blessings of market competition in terms of productivity, innovation and satisfied consumers. While it is right for governments to pursue Efficient Markets in a Mixed Economy they equally have to deliver a Good Society and here the weakness of Harperism is the Radical Liberalism informing its governance model.


There was a good reason why education, health and welfare quickly became the ‘unfinished business’ of competition policy in the 1990s. Through the Accord, The Hawke and Keating governments had developed a distinctive Australian approach to market oriented economic reforms which ensured that economic pain translated into social gain through strengthening public services (eg Medicare) and initiating compulsory superannuation. This balance was disturbed in the early period of the Howard government but any aspiration there may have been to extend the Hilmer competition policy reforms into the social services soon dissipated amid the social unrest epitomised by the rise of One Nation. Radical Liberalism was not the Australian way.

The prospects for taking Harperism out of the social sector ought to be good. Its jaded nostrums increasingly evoke the twilight of laissez faire. They are redolent of that ethos of the 1980s represented by Abbott and Hockey: no social rights, so why have social services? Let’s transition to fully marketised human services. But now with Prime Minister Turnbull we have a forward looking undertaking to match efficiency with fairness which sounds much more like the twenty first century. This really opens the space for a new iteration of social policy and with that a new approach to social governance. To get this agenda moving we need to be talking about fairness and why it needs different organisational modes than free markets.

Putting fairness at the centre is a real problem for the Harperist vision of free human service markets as the end point of the history of social development. Its problem is it knows no history.   Service markets have always failed to deliver in a way that satisfies the Australian aspiration for a fair and just society. Just think about that grandfather of the welfare state: public education. Before the colonial governments stepped in, the ‘free market’ had managed to cater for something less than half the population. But the new fledged democracy wanted far more and got it: a public education system which enshrined the right of every child to have as good an education as its neighbour. A strong public sector proved great for individual freedoms but also great for justice in a society of which all members could be proud.

Of course it is also history that we have tended to prefer a mix of public and private service providers. But while there has always been an undercurrent of radical liberalism seeking to turn back the clock to the mid nineteenth century, the national instinct has been for socially provided services of a quality sufficient to guarantee an equality of citizenship. The first major weakness of the ‘human service market’ agenda then is its inability to recognise that people are simply not like commodities in a supermarket but in Australia they come with rights attached.

The second fatal weakness of Harperism is the failure to recognise that the strong communities necessary for individual flourishing are destroyed rather than strengthened by market like governance arrangements.   Only this week I was most fortunate to visit the town of Shepparton and able to observe once again the marvellous phenomenon of community being created.   At an agency AGM I noted a number of local citizenry including a lawyer and an accountant who volunteered their efforts for the agency. The CEO was truly proud of the many ways in which the people of Shepp supported their work. Soon it will be time to organise the Xmas hampers, he said. It would be a great occasion when local businesses wouldn't just give goods but send their folk to assist with the packing – and free of charge! The AGM was also the occasion of quiet but brimming satisfaction as they recalled the great rescue of their program giving respite to mums struggling with babies. When word had got out that it was to close because it wasn't a good business proposition, the little town had roared, the pollies had heard and the decision reversed. Unlike the rights based governance of the welfare state this kind of welfare can only come through the countless little acts of altruism by people who truly love their community.

So, while Harperism my look rampant the game is far from over. There is a political naivety about the push to marketise our social services and community sector which will surely come back to bite. As the Howard and Abbott experiences have demonstrated, you wont get Radical Liberalism through in Australia by coming the biff. Sure people will welcome the reform of economic markets but I don't believe they will tolerate their intrusion into social services designed to ensure fairness and social justice. Nor will they see the sense in the destruction of the Community Sector by forcing it into a market style regime. Remember the little town that roared.