Can we establish the principles that would frame the development of policies to produce and support a fairer Australia? How do we define fair? We tend to use terms like the public and common good, social justice, fairness and equity but rarely do we define what we mean or, explore which aspects of public/social policy are more or less likely to succeed. How do we create political and social cultures that make risk bearable, turn uncertainty into opportunities, and make available civil society for all? Perceptions of governments’ roles in Australian society differ from the USA and UK. Our history reveals a long and close relationship between growth, development and change and the public sphere. We had no aristocracy and few private capitalists, so much of the funding of infrastructure and services came from Governments. This has created an expectation of public service. Our citizens still expect, or hope for, leadership and good services from our public and political systems. The UK collectivist culture influences our services more than the USA rights and individualism model, and still influences both how we see ourselves and act towards each other. Despite two decades of neo-liberal cant and the efforts of governments to lower our expectations of the public sphere, there is still a residual wish for governments to take care of certain problems, which translates into anxieties when they don’t. This emerges in various forms: as nostalgia for what is seen as lost; a political climate that is generally conservative; rejection of risks and inward looking cultures. At the same time, anxiety about the future may manifest as searching for sometimes simplistic solutions. Overturning the present system is neither possible nor maybe desirable. Making better futures requires rethinking, rather than returning to the past. Creating new visions that can counter widespread pessimism. As Fabian models and Robert Lindblom’s analysis claim, making carefully designed incremental changes with radical goals is better than uprooting the system for two reasons. Firstly, knowledge is always fallible so smaller changes are more effective as they can be adjusted or even reversed; the second is that more gradual adjustments will give people time to join our ranks. Policies need explicit frameworks which people can relate to: coherent themes, appeals to our sense of fair play and social connections. The last election played into evident anxieties, marketing self interest bundled with buying votes. The major parties offered ‘brands and bargains’ trying to buy votes, by raising anxieties, so the known quantity, ie Howard, was seen as less risky than the alternative. Many pundits assumed greed drove their fellow voters so this was too often interpreted as indicating that individual financial well-being ie interest rates, was the only effective voter bribe. Policy makers and commentators opted for the TINA (There is no alternative) syndrome, attributed to Margaret Thatcher. This seemed to cause a dearth of new ideas from what may be called the more ‘progressive’ ranks. Neo-liberalism became the dominant paradigm because it suited the promoters of shifting global capital and was reinforced by the fall of the command economies. Policies, at best, were about mitigating its worst effects leaving the basic assumptions intact. The public service had already shifted from serving citizens to customers and even the usually vocal community organisations critics were silenced. The basic tenet of Individualism is distrust of others, so emphasising self reliance as the only safe option diminishes demands for collective services. Many of us would like something else to believe in, some vision thing that did not demand absolutism and dogma; that promoted good will and a good society, which is both socially and ethically responsible. Offering alternative policies that emphasise connectedness and common responsibilities counters the feelings of isolation that neo liberals rely on. Unmet desires for more meaning and connectedness can easily translate into fear of change, a search for ‘people like us’ and rising xenophobia. Countering fragmentation requires policy settings that create a sense of mutuality, of trust in others, including strangers and, most importantly, trust in the major institutions that affect our lives. At the same time, a healthy democracy encourages diversity/difference, risk takers, creativity and managing tensions by participatory decision making, so society remains dynamic not static. There many people who would like something else to believe in, some vision thing that did not demand absolutism and dogma, but still gave them a sense of good will, of being part of something they could value, and being both socially and ethically responsible. Is there a contradiction between social cohesion and encouraging risk taking? Not necessarily. It becomes a problem because of lack of trust and perceptions of trustworthiness in our social and political institutions. Where there are high levels of generalised trust in strangers and institutions, groups can accommodate both social cohesion and risk taking. So our policy making must take into account how each of these proposals affects both the expectation and delivery of institutional and social trust. Current policies have often done the opposite: created distrust by excessive shifts of risks from the collectivity to individuals under the rubric of offering unwanted and excessive choice . The demand we ‘buy’ public or private services, with implication that private is better, has been deeply embedded in the political cultures of the past decades. Markets have been touted as the best means of providing us with certain goods and services that were once in the public sphere. This logically connects with low trust of political institutions so such changes have not improved the relationship of government to its citizenry. Some suggested principles
How do we rebuild trust and give people the confidence they need in democratic processes? Here are some suggestions for formulating general principles:
1. Create a trust worthy nation: make a clear public commitment to a fairer more equitable society. Polls show that Australians do still value fairness and feel it is receding . Inequality, perceived as unfairness, creates low trust in government and other people. Promote the idea that fairness involves taking responsibility for others as well as ourselves and see redistribution as part of what makes us social. Equality is about fair outcomes, not same treatment. Treat difference with respect and accept the need for redistribution of powers, including recognising indigenous needs for sovereignty and control over their lives. We need to be able to recognise our failures as well as our successes 2. Acknowledge that democracies are complex systems of institutions and processes, not just a response to expressed majority desires. Work on balancing competing needs and power: independent trusted systems of justice, free speech and participatory decision making. Representative democracy, delegating power to institutions, requires that these are seen as essentially trustworthy and worth preserving, or else there are dangers of totalitarianism or chaos. 3. Minorities are components of the majority, with diverse needs that must be appropriately served, recognising barriers and cultural differences and what we have in common, and needs for self determination. So ensuring that minorities accept the legitimacy of governance systems requires participatory structures that ensure that decisions are based on governing for the good of all, not just majority voters or powerful interest groups. So recognising differences, by acting ethically and civilly to ensure fairness, is crucial in any democracy. 4. Promote citizenship that involves both rights and responsibilities, so institutions and policies should seek to encourage capacities not just for care of self but also of others, including strangers.. Individuals need to recognise collective responsibilities but not accept compliance with injustice. Organisational responsibility for their environmental and social consequences is now also on the political agenda so corporation law and other forms of accountability should require corporations, public or private, be responsible for acting for the public good, not just to shareholders or funders/customers.Encourage the private sector rethinking of adherence to market forces and acceptance of wider responsibilities. These may not have blunted the sharp edges of capitalism in the views of many, but they have engendered interesting changes in some of the corporate sector. 5. Recognise that a good society needs services in the public sphere that act for the public good and counters market forces. These are intrinsic to social infrastructure, not just as a safety net which is of less value than market providers. Public services should be seen as different to business models because they recognise that the requirements of society should not be based on economics alone. Public provisions must not just be residual but good enough for all to use. This is most important as income driven public/private splits in education and health, are neither fair nor equitable and are so perceived even by their beneficiaries. Good public/community based services can reduce anxieties and the need to save and self provide, which often drives demands for higher pay, high tax concessions on savings and delays in child bearing. 6. Commit to the proposition that we are interdependent so children are accepted as a communal responsibility, as are those requiring ongoing levels of care and support. If we don’t share such responsibilities, we reinforce individualism and self interest. Appeal to people’s generosity and their capacities for being good citizens, not their negative characteristics such as fear and self interest. Do not use the fear factor eg crime, terrorism, illegals as asylum seekers, change and difference, as election strategies as it creates anxious people with exaggerated fears of crime, who are not reassured by higher policing and gaoling as they read these as proof of increased need. The use of fear to reduce legal rights under the excuse of the war on terrorism is also counterproductive. 7. Acknowledge that relationships between citizenry and state are not those of customer and shopkeeper but should engage us in a wide, complex set of connections that encourage us to do unto others as we would be done by. Offer a sense of being respected and belonging to communities and the nation, as well as being responsible international citizens. Tread lightly on our natural resources so they still are there for future generations, and don’t assume that growth is good. 8. Retain clear roles for the market, state and community sectors, so all can both perform their different functions well and balance the power of the others. The market should innovate and offer consumers choices, but needs to be controlled by the state and criticised by the community The state must offer fairness and social well being to all through its legislative and funding capacities but needs to be limited and criticised by the others, if it seeks too much power; the community should offer political, cultural and social voice to groups and the spaces for pursuit of particular passions that do not fit in the market, but should not replace the role of democratically elected governments. Make sure that government funding and purchasing of services does not undermine the independence of community groups and their ability to advocate for their constituents..Many former government services are tendered out to larger charities and private companies which are bureaucratic in their delivery, but avoid public scrutiny as the contracts are commercial-in-confidence. 9. Recognise that there are differences in power both at individual levels and within institutions so there is need for the protective role of government as regulator for those who structurally less able to negotiate on their own behalf. Assumed equality between employers and employees, for instance, ignores the low paid and casual workers, as does firms and consumers. Particular policy areas 10. Rework the tax system and other payments so they are seen as fair by all. The current tax and social security systems are quite effective redistributors but do so with savage effective marginal tax rates where payments are withdrawn. Lack of wealth taxes and the emphasis on income tax make the system vulnerable to claims by the rich about being overtaxed. Paranoia about entitlements seem to only operate in the payment system, not the tax rebates and deductions which is odd because their end results are the same. A tax rebate is often not income tested where a similar payment under Centrelink would be. 11. Pursue retirement income strategies that create equity amongst retired people and don’t dramatically advantage the better off over the others. The present tax concessions on super contributions and payments outweigh the costs of providing universal aged pensions and redistribute upwards to high income earners. 12. Making a public commitment to knowledge for its own sake as well as for profit would be a signal of change . Restore education systems to knowledge and wisdom development rather than high score production or money making systems. The emphasis in too many areas has been on individual competitive successes and on rankings and ratings of institutions. This has undermines education systems capacities , at school or post school levels, for drawing out capacities for pleasure in learning and exploring new ideas. Research for its own sake and teaching and learning as activities in their own right need to replace learning and research as products. . 13. Recognise the importance of free speech and media and the dangers of limiting criticism and silencing dissent. Questions of media control and ownership, the role and funding of public broadcasters, are intrinsic to the maintenance of democracy so ensuring active public debate is part of the responsibility of governments. Silencing critics obscures both signals of problems and the possibilities of new ideas. So funding one’s critics should be a core value for any democratic system which values its survival and effective governance. 14. Recognise the importance of being a good international citizen, not just acting in Australia’s interest, and support international governance, instruments and treaties. Undermining the structures of the UN and selectively choosing which mechanisms to respect, signals to other countries that they too can disrespect international conventions with impunity. Seeking to improve the mechanisms must be done without undermining the legitimacy of the structures. This also involves ensuring that domestic structures such as HREOC are supported and adequately funded, and not threatened with change when critical of government. 15. Recognise the particular structural disadvantages that may accrue to groups like indigenous people and asylum seekers and examine whether the operations of current legislation and areas of funding creates further damage or fails to deliver appropriate services. Here are some questions to start the process: 1. What should constitute the public sector if it is to underpin the role government in a trustworthy liberal, social democracy in terms of what? How do we ensure the public sector serves people’s needs? How can it ensure debate, devolution and participation in decision making, reduce fear and risk, limit inequalities, and reduce injustices that endanger adequate levels of social cohesion? 2. How do we accommodate the diversities that result from globalisation and people movements that make static and homogenous societies unlikely, even if people claim they want to ‘return’ to the mythic past? 3. Can we define the factors that make for resilience in communities and political systems? How do we balance autonomy and self reliance with recognition of interdependence, and the need for personal and institutional trust and trustworthiness? 4. Can too much freedom of choice create immobilising anxieties and tensions? Who benefits and who loses from introducing market forces to public services? Can their needs be provided for with necessary levels of trust and predictability? 5. Will we support tax and payments reforms which increase equality through good quality, public, not-for-profit services as part of the national ethos? 6. Does government funding for private user pays services undermine principles of equity and fairness? Why does being a taxpayer seem to require subsidisation of some types of private choices but not others? 7. Does tendering out of services such as social control/law and order services raise issues of responsibility rather than accountability and undermine democratic processes and commitments? 8. What are the short and long term costs of using fear and exclusion of minority-groups as election tactics for short term advantages? 9. What are the economies of scale to be gained through the pooling of risks and needs for services rather than private costs? What are the costs to the potential private incomes of perceived possible costs of private purchasing of e.g. aged services? 10. What is the role of the tax system and how should it relate to the benefit system? Who pays and who gets paid and how does the system ensure that this is equitable? How far does one assume shared income in couples? With children? Should the individual or family receive income support? Eva Cox is a long term feminist activist, a continuing member of WEL and an academic at UTS. 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