Eva Cox: starting a hopeful policy narrative

PTP:Gender's keynote, Eva Cox AM (@evacox), is our guest writer today. In this special extended post, Eva presents a critical analysis of Australia's past and current state of play and shares her thoughts on how to start a hopeful narrative based on a feminist approach. This post ends by inviting the debate of ideas and discussion – you're all welcome to contribute through twitter or the comments section below.


Why we need to change policy directions

There is a rare political consensus that current political debates are all over the place, with many voters expressing passionate protests against what is on offer, and/or detaching themselves from seeing politics as relevant. Voting patterns and polls suggest a serious lack of engagement from the rather arid debates on how to grow GDP, plus avoiding market crashes and environmental threats. There are very few political offerings of good social policies with optimistic possibilities for good living and belonging. The emphasis on market models and 'buying' votes via cut taxes etc, with social control policies focussing on fear of terrorism, boat arrivals and 'bludgers' creates net results which lack good feelings about the future.

These indicators of wide discontent from across the board suggest that the long time neo liberal dominance over public policy is losing its grip on voters, as more failing markets undermine belief that they work as an effective distributor of material resources. The 40 year span of this paradigm is losing power, and the current political contexts, both here and overseas, show increasing credibility gaps between voters and centrist governments as they move towards outlier parties. Voters’ volatility and this change suggest opportunities for persuading politicians to refocus their policies to what really matters to people like social well being. If major parties fail to recognise these changes, there will be further voter populisms looking for simplistic feel good alternatives to the emotional inadequacy of non-functioning macho market individualist models.

Assuming there is a space for new paradigm shifts, advocates for good societies need to move beyond the current very limited materialist and fear based agendas to more utopian options to achieve collective, equitable well being. The starting point is reminding people that, as we live in a society, governments should prioritise good social policies and make economic means serve social ends. What matters most to people is how they connect and relate to others, their sense of belonging, their capacity to contribute and their sense of being valued and treated fairly as we are social being rather than self-interested individuals.

Therefore the case for making society more civil is both feasible and possible. Rather than the limited current dominant individualised framework of market based economic models, we need to offer options for social/collective refocusing on what policies are needed for targeting fairness and improved social relations. There is a gender element in the social versus the economic in seeing non-materialist connectivity as more feminised than individualised materialist agendas. The divide is items which deal with relationships, rather than traded material goods and services which currently dominate the political system.

However, as the neo liberal agenda is relatively recently ascendant, so we can create continuity by reviewing and updating the dominant concepts from political agendas that predate the recent neoliberal ascendancy from the end of the 70s. This will reconnect and update options for new policy making with those that drove our earlier democratic nation building.

Building on and re-creating our social agenda

A good local starting point would be revising our views of our own past history. The start must include our black history and recognising the continued contributions of pre-invasion ongoing cultures. These have survived considerable efforts to stifle their values, relations to country and cultures. These can show later comers the benefits of retaining social relationships as the basis for community well being and resilience, as alternatives to being colonised by outsiders culminating in material individualism.

We then should revisit the Australian compact for a fair go, which is part of our post Federation history. These reforms of the early part of the last century, despite being built on white men's biases, wanted a nation which provided better lives than those they had left and collective care for needs of others. This was followed post World War II, by a reconstruction program with more reforms to the social safety net, via better welfare, health and public education policies. It also sponsored population growth with diverse migrations from more than Britain.

These publicly funded programs offered belated but necessary responses to the poverty and other negative effects of the great depression, which were seen as necessary parts of nation building, when that was still our aim. These welfare state reforms set up expectations of further progress, which started in the 1960/70s with various social movement starting popular pushes for bottom up changes to long entrenched issues and inequities. Australia then had the anti war/peace campaigns, race/freedom rides, the 1967 referendum, anti-poverty campaigns and 2nd wave 70's women's movement. The pace of change was rapid till the end of the seventies and made the modern Australia we still enjoy but which is seen as maybe unravelling.

The women's movement was probably the most effective change driver, as the changes we pushed affected many aspects of social and economic life. We pushed for major reforms mostly in the public sphere which changed much of the then public/ mainstream agenda. Our successes included anti discrimination legislation, public health, sole parent pensions, no blame family law, equal pay, the right to jobs, community child care, funded women's health and domestic violence services, more access to tertiary education and unpaid maternity leave. These were government driven and funded as part of change agendas that made most of Australia fairer.

However, the pace of reforms were slowing down by the eighties, which was when globalisation and market models started to replace the roles of nation states and thereby reduce the possibilities of expanding public sectors and collective public services. The market/user pay models took over and most public facilities were now no longer free and for all but restricted to residual services for people who couldn't afford to buy the services they needed. So the move to extending collective risk sharing via public social services petered out over the next decades and social inequity and access issues have not been seriously addressed since, as extending social services are not really on anyone's agenda, as part of any equity plans.

One way of reducing the validity of areas like violence, equal pay and child care was to be redefine these as women's issues. This reduced what was needed to remedy gender inequalities to minority status and therefore not of general interests. While there are battles to continue the funding and access to these issues, gender inequity is static or increasing but not being seen as a broader social issue. This shows in areas such as poverty and inequality where women tend to do badly because of gender biases in pay jobs and merit definitions.

Redefining the next paradigm shift

The gender differences are only one part of growing inequity under the market model, to the point that even the IMF sees this as problematic. Despite increases in material well being for some people as market models grew, the promises of more for all has not worked. The last few decades have shown that resources and wealth are increasingly inequitably distributed as the rich have got richer and the poor have made much more limited gains, if any real improvement in living standards. Inequality is creating cracks in social cohesion within and between countries. The problems created by the market failures of the last decade have reduced the voters' faith in markets' ability to self correct, or to be controlled by weakened governments. Social well being seems to be going backwards, as there have been limited real changes to social equity, including gender, since the 1990s.

These failures to engage voters seem to be fuelling the desire for serious change worldwide, to be seen in the recent victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Labour Party, the rise of Bernie Sanders as a left candidate for president in the USA and the growth of Syriza and Podemos in Europe, all pushing radical and anti capital agendas. We need also to note rising support for populists like Donald Trump in the USA, as well as the rising votes for UKIP and other racist groups, which show the appeal of right wing populisms as well the left versions. All these suggest that wide popular antagonisms to the current economistic focus also raise issues of wider negative possibilities.

The serious risks is that the rising populist movements can move in a variety of directions that may include ranges of fundamentalisms or forms of authoritarian controls. These indicators show the need for offering alternatives that do not build on prejudices and fears for attracting supporters. The post WWII model was developed to ensure that the 1930s dictatorships and extreme ideologies could not come again. We need to look back and learn from those what was needed to develop socially responsible options for creating better futures without the need for undermining democratic processes and past gains.

The sticking point is ensuring the options we promote can offer a good society model that is inclusive and equitable. We need to counter both rising race/religious exclusion models and forms of conservative fundamentalist too patriotic options. We need to remember the 1930s showed that mixing antipathy and anxiety creates too fertile grounds for populist leaders and undermines democratic processes. We need to update and adapt to the changes of more globalised technological options, with more mobile populations.

So we need a new narrative, a 21st century update and rewrite of the still relevant, maybe even more relevant, structural changes we saw as necessary last century. We need to counter the ways that the neo-liberal model further reinforced divides between traded/funded material goods and services and the basic social relationships and related activities that are the rest of our lives. And we need options that counter the risks of unequal, less cohesive societies that are also losing the necessary collective functions that ensure well being. This involves reviewing the roles of collective risk sharing and non profit motives.

Therefore, the new narrative must cover the necessity of putting social connectivity and collective wellbeing on the political agenda to ensure we can create the relationships we need. This requires setting social well being and equity as goals, and using feminist lenses to ensure the revaluing of non traded activities as well as traded ones as the basis for debate shifting changes. In this post industrial age, we must create a much better balance between the gender divides of public and private, the material and ideal and the personal and political, than current limits have offered. 

A brief reprise of past analyses

This set of problems needs to be addressed in the knowledge that these changes are neither unexpected nor not articulated. In my first ABC Boyer lecture delivered exactly 20 years ago which was called ‘A Truly Civil Society’, I set the scene both for the ongoing difficulties we still need to address and how we can do it. I include it here because even then I was concerned that we needed feminist leadership to create more civil societies, maybe even good ones. So this tile we need to add more effort and use our skills to remedy the damage done over the past 20 years and more. Below, I quote:

'When Margaret Thatcher said 'There's no such thing as society', she lost the plot! Society is the myriad of ways people connect, linked by some common interests or characteristics. Over the next six weeks, I want to explore what holds society together, what may cause us to come apart and what constitutes a truly civil society in which we trust each other and face our futures optimistically.

In a civil society, we need to recognise the supreme importance of social connections, which include plenty of robust goodwill to sustain difference and debate. This possibility exists within Australia today, but we risk squandering it in our search for illusory economic development. I want to question some too common assumptions, challenge many beliefs seen as truths, and recast some old ideas, which have fallen out of, fashion. I want to persuade those in high places to recognise that we are social beings.

If we are social beings rather than economic beings, then society is threatened by the presence of Economically Rational Man in public policy. This homo non-sapiens is a constructed individual (not a social being), who maximises the short-term advantage in most economic models. If he takes over, 0he will destroy society because social connections have no place in a world full of self interested, competing individuals. I want to talk about what binds us: the ties that we call society and community; the links which define how we see ourselves and how we act towards each other. Why these links are omitted from public debate raises the question of who sets the public policy agenda.

I later went on

This series is not about woman, any more than the other Boyers were about man. What I am offering is a feminist view of how we can broaden the public agenda to the benefit of all. We need the widest trawl of views to make the best decisions; the issue is not so much equity but effective public policy making.

For instance, we should look at quality of life and life satisfaction indicators, rather than economic indicators. If we did this, we would see that we are in trouble. The polls suggest that there are widespread anxieties in many industrialised countries, and this is not just because of economic problems. There are real concerns about loss of social cohesion and loss of faith in the possibilities of solving social problems.

I have serious concerns about the current dominant fashion of macho, competition-driven 'progress' and the intensity with which these economic frameworks are promoted. These frameworks are particularly dangerous because alternate views are denied, ridiculed or ignored. The 'social' has been relegated to such a low priority that's it's almost completely off the agenda.

The dominant ideas of competition and deregulation of markets, and the attacks on the redistributive roles of government are not only dysfunctional but positively dangerous. They are part of an oversimplified dogma, which can destroy a truly civil society in pursuit of the cashed up individual.

It behoves me, therefore, as a passionate reformer, to use this gift of time to put forward some alternative frameworks; other ways of seeing the future, which differ from the public loop of policy debates. Some of my keywords are trust, reciprocity, mutuality, co-operation, time, social fabric and social capital.'

I would write something similar today but would be less optimistic that we would be able to achieve the necessary changes. It is included because it sums up the ideological frameworks we need to address to both redesign our social system and remedy the gender biases. The question is how can we do this?

Why progress stalled: the lack of leadership

Importantly, why did the pace of change in the seventies slow in the intervening years? In 1995 I also wrote a book called 'Leading Women', now out of print, which then identified both reasons why we started well and how the lack of strong continuing feminist leadership then (and now) undermined the pace of change. While I recognise creating new social paradigms that are not gender biased cannot be the sole responsibility of feminists, the lack of leadership by feminists can be used as an example of what happened to other radical groups in the same shift.

We also bequeath the next generation many structures that have become more entrenched and resistant to positive change. We need seriously to consider why women still face many of the abiding inequities and problems they do, and why today's decision makers appear to be even more removed from the practicalities and realities of women's lives. What seems to be occurring is a devaluing and diminishing of women's views and experiences rather than an increasing legitimacy for them. This does not mean that there are fewer women in senior positions. In fact the opposite is true, but although there are more of us, our influence is arguably no greater. There are still not enough of us and at the rate we are going there may never be!

To start the discussion we need to acknowledge what has changed and gone wrong with the reform processes we started. While we have worked to bring women's views and issues into the system, other changes have occurred in the socio-political landscape that further isolate many of the issues we are raising. While women put new items on the public agenda, other groups are working to downgrade the role of Governments and to reduce the number and scope of the activities that were once seen as the legitimate concern of the public sector.

It is men's issues - the validation of economic measures and public markets - which dominate national and international agendas. It is still mainly men whose views and experiences are reflected in the big decisions made in politics and business. The dominant masculinity of these concerns makes the presence of a few women of little consequence when it comes to changing the agenda.

It is important to recognise however, that what are often labelled 'women's issues' are, in fact, general issues which masculine institutions and culture do not see as their responsibility. Men too have children and aging parents, yet solving problems such as these is still seen as women's 'responsibility'. The net gains and losses of the past two decades probably puts us in front in terms of gains for women, but maybe we are losing ground in the macho culture of 'competition' and through cuts to government programs.

All the above quotes scarily still apply and may in fact have been more entrenched. Undermining feminism as a movement for collective change derived from the gradual move to individuated successes of women (and men!). This meant reduced pressure for more social and community services which further undermined the options for wider feminist strategies to achieve more equitable societies.

The loss of the need for services and structural change undermined other movements as well.

Maybe this is why there are very few serious alternatives on offer by current progressive groups who are protesting rather that offering good social alternative options. Changes need to go much further that the often limited left options of the last century. So, unlike most European movements, we need local efforts to be substantially as I suspect the continued dominance of macho leadership in alternative groups limits offering alternatives to excessive materialism.

We need to persuade people there is a need to use feminist lenses to show the links between good social policies and gender equity. Feminists need to re adopt the slogan on a badge, once popular, that stated 'Women who wanted equality with men lacked ambition!' and go for new visions of good societies.

Creating the climate for change

The recent changes in Coalition leadership here have opened up the possibility of wider policy debates, and attention to local problems. Persuading requires more than just identifying problems, as we also need to offer the solutions to, for instance, social inequities, diminishing social cohesion and reducing demands which create climate damage. We need to refocus priorities so economic means serve social ends, not vice versa, and include what the citizenry feel really matters.

A successful political strategy for persuading people is the message that change is both desirable and possible. We need a coherent narrative: placing the proposed changes in a wider context, so they join the dots and offer a map of what we want and why. This would include why the changes are necessary and why now is now is a good time to move. While protests against the status quo often set the scene for change, the processes of change become most effective when the passionate change promoters offer clear visions of what needs to be done and how to do it. Then, they build optimism so those wanting changes can see what is possible.

We need to look at which groups are offering policy options and advice to see who is currently influencing decision in the political system and its processes. At present, few of the think tanks, lobbyists, advocates and academics are likely to move away from the mainstream as they see their funding and legitimacy depends on being acceptable. The funding of such groups tends to be from those who benefit from the status quo and there are few resources for outliers. Even the once active outsider representatives in NGOS are now often providers of contracted services and therefore not willing to risk defunding. Even activist change groups are sparse.

Looking locally, it is hard to find the range of feminist groups or other seriously alternate thinkers who are needed to push the more radical forms of the policy type of changes needed to counter the economic individualism agendas, let alone suggest serious paradigmatic alternatives. There has been academic analysis, but this is not being effectively used and distributed. We need to look for ways of achieving major structural and cultural changes rather than targeting or quota campaigns and mentoring, in the hope of changing numbers.

We need to show the damage done by gender-based biases, including excluding those who want to make changes more generally. Fear that changes may undermine their privileges does not improve social or economic bottom lines. So let’s call gender bias what it is: an example of macho based incompetence and the inability to read evidence.

In sum – recreating the social – a feminist approach

We need to shift the way societies value various inputs to counter the effects of male prerogatives that limit options, not only for most women but many men who may want different choices. These might include valuing time spent with children and making social contributions. Similarly, there will be women who want to make choices more usually offered on male terms, but without having to become masculinised.

Productive changes need feminist viewpoints to question and offer alternatives to gender blind structures. Our thinking and planning should include partnerships with the men who also want wider options for themselves and their children. The ability to see outside one’s socialisation, to imagine and create options that do not fit dominant approved cultures, requires outsiders who have the impertinence to imagine the un-thought and maybe suggest the unthinkable. Then good changes become possible.

Without indulging in nostalgia about very different times, revisiting of the options for better balances of public/collective responsibilities and private provisions may offer the way forward. Much of the current crises in many western democratic nations can be related to the loss of communal links and societal supports that create anxieties and distrust. Revaluing good social relationship and equitable connections on the political agenda moves the feminised areas of society firmly into the mainstream and creates a more secure balancing of needs.

Therefore some radical freethinking could be useful. Reintroducing the ideal of social fairness, and thereby enhancing the necessary levels of trust and resilient connections that create social well being and cohesion are essential to the concept of citizenship. Hannah Arendt claimed the ultimate human contribution was to work collectively for the common good. If we can reframe political agendas to establish good social priorities served by economic means we will truly make societies more civil.

Let's start the next revolution!


N.B. There are no references or footnotes as most of this draws on my own experiences and observations over the past 50 year plus active involvement. I want feedback on ideas and debate on options please!

Posted by Lara Corr @corr_lara