Defining the role of the state

Policy making is closely related to politics, the polis and the rule of the state. It is usually governments that people target when they want policy change, particularly in Australia where we have traditionally expected them to fix our public ills. We have a long tradition of expecting state involvement in areas such as wage fixing, dispute resolution, utilities, transport and creating fairness. Perhaps this is because of our history: we were set up by a government and didn’t have much private money. However, what happens when that traditional relationship changes, particularly with respect to public and social policies that affect us all? To answer this it is first necessary to understand whether there is a difference between public and social policy, and even economic and social policy?

Over the last two decades there have been major shifts in ideology and implementation. Starting in the early eighties, we began to follow the USA and UK, and market-based economic models tended to dominate all government policies. Those of us interested in the ‘good society’, or at least a better society, were told that we cannot afford the social policies unless we get the economy right first. The result was an orgy of neo-liberal based shifts in most Anglophone countries, which changed the relationships between governments and their citizens. This ended the post-war reforms of government which had seen a gradual growth in government services and activities, often referred to as the ‘welfare state’.

This set of policies was the result of the pre-World War Two growth of non-democratic movements such as fascism. These had created fears that excess poverty and disorder would create an environment ripe for totalitarian takeovers. The response was the development of a consensus on the need for more government intervention, both to fulfil Keynesian prescriptions for growth and to offer services through the welfare state to create more equity, and presumably, order.

By the late seventies, the post war boom had bust and other forms of economic argument became ascendant. One of the alternative ideas was that the state had outgrown its uses and was not the best way to deliver services; hence a market model should be adopted, not just for private but also for public purposes. Phrases like ‘not rowing but steering’ and ‘customers’ rather than citizens, for users of state services, including for prisoners, became commonplace. The idea of the public sphere as a universal provider was reinterpreted to mean the offering only of a safety net for those who couldn’t afford to user pay. The results have been major shifts in the underpinnings of public policy which have affected most areas of daily life.

Increasingly, we are pushed into taking out private health insurance, saving for our own old age, sending our children to private schools and private child care, and paying for our own post-school education. We also now have to drive on tollways, choose our phone companies and other formerly public-run utilities, and purchase services from NGOs and commercial groups rather than having the government provide them for us. Governments have moved from being providers of services to funders and/or regulators. Some areas have been left to self-regulation, others have found they may be subject to increasing levels of regulation. All this, yet the government’s tax take has not shrunk.

Recent shifts in government polices suggest that the neo-liberal domination is no longer so universal. Despite some continued reform and deregulation, many of the latest policies have been shifts toward centralised power and increasing interference with many aspects of private behaviour. There is a new moralism in some areas of government policy that seems non-liberal, along with an increasing interest in social cohesion and official patriotism, which sits oddly with globalisation. Despite the rhetoric of small government, the present Federal government’s tax take is one of the highest on record and there is a growth in federal centralism that also sits oddly with traditional liberalism. These moves echo international neo-conservative tendencies that use government power to promote certain values.

There are many in the government who are puzzled by their lack of visibility as a provider. They are keen to promote what they do for us and are now investing in advertising and logos to increase their legitimacy and visibility. To do this, they will need to confront the view in the community that public services are not there for all of us, and the increasing anxiety about the need to do well financially to be able to afford alternatives.

Recent Morgan polls show levels of trust in government and politicians are very low, well down on their earlier levels in the seventies. Can democracy survive a lack of trust in such fundamental institutions? Do the shifts of legitimacy of the public sphere, such as health and education, add to the possibility of a damaging democratic deficit? What levels of anxiety and self-provision are manageable by the community? Maybe it is time to initiate a debate on what should be the role of the public sphere. Some nostalgically assume that we should return to the seventies and move back to more and more publicly owned and run services. However, they have forgotten that some of the reform-support in the eighties came from people’s lack of satisfaction with the faults of large public bureaucracies, and their inability to move or respond to change.

So we need some new ways of conceiving the role of the public sphere that do not repeat past errors on both sides the political divides. We need to explore whether there are other ways of running not-for-profit, public services. We need to decide which risks we want to share through taxes and universal services. We need to know which services for which we are prepared to pay. We also need to discuss how much we are prepared to pay in taxes for universal services as opposed to saving for our own purchases. With an ageing population some of these issues become very crucial.

I would like to see a policy debate that takes the desired public sphere as an overarching theme and look at issues with this in mind. The questions include: who takes the responsibility for funding, providing and/or regulating certain services; what are the effects of the often under-explored shifts over the past decade of government services to the private sphere and their replacement with funding and regulation; what are the effects of privatisation, corporatisation, deregulation, self-regulation and the massive shifts to user pays that have occurred over the last two decades; and finally, were these shifts justified or were they the result of neo-liberal dogma applied willy-nilly?

In recent times we have experienced major shifts of risk from the collective, public services to individuals. Much of this has been justified on the basis of offering choice. Is choice what we really want? Is too much choice a problem? Who wants education, health, safety, housing, transport, public spaces and other such services to be a matter of choice? What effect does this type of policy shift have on our sense of community, our ability to belong and connect? Is some form of materialism a response to anxiety, or are we actually happier when motivated by self-interest?

I have posed many questions about the limits of state intervention with very few answers. The answers will come but they need to be preceded by careful consideration and debate. Community workshops and online forums such as the Centre for Policy Development provide opportunities to start this important discussion. Developing policy should begin with defining the role of the state.

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