When we saw the need for the CPD, we acknowledged that there were numerous think tanks in Australia but none of them seriously attempting to engage a broad group of Australians in a conversation about policy in a meaningful way. None were linked to a network of citizens campaigning for change.

We have a long way to go in promoting this conversation and achieving policy outcomes. Eva Cox's article 'How do we define fair' (issue 36, 4 May 2005) and Ian McAuley's article 'Aspiring to opt out' in the same issue are part of our first steps to define the values and principles which should underlie policy development.

There is a common thread in both of these articles.

In her general principles, (item 6) Eva claims that:

A good society needs services in the public sphere that act for the public good and counter the ill effects of different access to markets. Public provisions must not just be residual, but good enough for all to want to use.

Ian McAuley speaks of the need for a strong civil society that 'choice' can undermine.

When governments encourage or force the better off to opt out, they talk about choice, but, far from extending our choice, we are denied choice – in this case, the choice of using a public school. The same extends to health care and beyond (eg to security services and to physical gated communities).

Opinion polls confirm that the vast majority of Australians want to share their health care and education costs through taxes. But, paternalistically, when governments encourage people to opt out, they set up system dynamics that deny people their wishes and limit their choice….

To restore a strong civic society, we must expose the superficiality of the arguments for opting out. We must be unforgiving on politicians who defile the notion of 'mutual obligation' and who redefine health and education as welfare, rather than as part of our shared or common wealth.

See also Ian McAuley (issue 35) 'Don't mention the economy' .

I feel like applauding! Here are principles that resonate and appeal, and on which we can build distinctive policies for Australia. Those policies it would seem need to be based around universality of service provision and building a society not just markets. With clear differences in values and principles, there will be less likelihood of political parties stealing or mimicking opposition policies and programs.

Our readers seem to be in general agreement with Eva's principles, but concerned about process.

In New Matilda's policy forum, Marion Quartly asked 'How (do we) persuade the bulk of the community to accept the values that she promotes?' 'Axkman' said we need to go further 'and look at workable processes that will allow these ideas first, to be debated and second, to be implemented', Daniel Donahoo struggled 'with the size of the problem. I think the solution is a more localised world.' David Grace is not discouraged, although 'I sometimes feel that the problem is too big … but then again, every problem feels like that before you start tackling it.'

Fred Argy, in his comments on Ian McAuley's piece, points out that the case that Ian argues

applies not only in health and education, but also in other areas such as employment, housing and child care. If the trend continues, it has the potential to destroy social mobility – a key lubricant of egalitarianism in Australia with ominous economic, political and social implications. Opinion polling suggests that Australians are tolerant of inequality of outcome only because they have faith in social mobility. If Australians start to believe that social mobility is largely a myth, it could create a great sense of unfairness, which would seriously erode social cohesion and trust, and even make some question the legitimacy of the political process…

David Cumming is concerned also about the consequences of the same opting out process in child care with a division opening up between the 'have and have nots'.

Joanna Mendelssohn fixes a lot of the blame for this opting out back to Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand.
Jane Caro draws Don Aitkin into the discussion (see Don Aitkin's two articles in issues 33 and 34 'Rethinking Education' Education Policy Section) Commenting on Ian McAuley's article, she says

I can't be silent about this piece. It is brilliant. It clearly and simply puts the core argument about where our "odious notion of choice" as Don Aitkin puts it (hope I'm not misquoting you, Don) is leading us. It is a frightening future we are creating for all our kids. Opting out, after all, is an illusion. We are all effected by what happens to all of us, however much we may try and isolate ourselves and our kids.

'Choice' certainly has a siren appeal. What could be more reasonable or desirable? But it is proving to be a political device to shift resources to the private domain. Even more concerning, is its attack on civil society and creating division rather than cohesion, cooperation and solidarity.

There is concern that the radical right in Australia and the United States is winning the values debate. Can we in the Centre for Policy Development, with our subscribers and supporters, help reclaim the ground of a 'shared or common wealth'? If we can, it will all be worthwhile.

John Menadue is Chair of the Centre for Policy Development.

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