Media Release: Big Society

‘Big Society’ and how it threatens

Australian public services

30 May 2012: A new report from the Centre for Policy Development has found alarming parallels between ‘Big Society’ policies introduced by British Prime Minister David Cameron and similar trends in Australia. ‘Big Society’, described as “the biggest shakeup of what the state provides in half a century”, has gutted the public and community sectors, transferring responsibility and resources to corporations.

The report by Dr James Whelan, titled Big Society and Australia, analyses recent UK initiatives and the potential impacts if Australia were to follow suit. It also finds support for a ‘Big Society’ approach among conservative politicians in Australia.

According to Dr Whelan, “A close look at ‘Big Society’ reveals the disconnect between its pro-community rhetoric and its small government reality. It’s a new sales pitch for unpopular ideas like privatisation and cuts to public services, wrapped up in language that has widespread appeal.”

“The negative impacts of what’s happening in the UK can teach us a lot about parallel trends in Australia – like the widespread obsession with budget surpluses, and the habit of outsourcing public services without safeguarding the public interest.”

  • While ‘Big Society’ promised to empower a diverse range of community groups to take over public services, in reality large corporations have dominated the outsourcing process. For example 35 out of 40 employment services contracts have gone to for-profit providers, with the big winners being large players like Deloitte, A4e and Serco. A parallel trend has been observed in Australia, where large for-profit and some large non-profit providers are dominating the tendering process. Big Society and Australia looks at failures to safeguard the public interest when outsourcing various services to large private providers like Serco, both here and in the UK.
  • Since May 2010, the UK has reduced public sector spending by over £80 billion. Its public sector has shed 240,000 workers, and will lose almost half a million more over the next five years. Dr Whelan’s report, which “aims to encourage informed debate”, coincides with significant public spending cuts in Australia (from a much lower spending base as a percentage of GDP), the retrenchment of more than 4,000 Australian Public Service staff this year, and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey’s pledge to cut 12,000 public service jobs “for starters”.
  • The strain caused by the UK’s budget cuts has led to the closure of many community services that relied on both government funding and volunteers. Big Society and Australia argues that volunteerism and philanthropy must be valued, but they cannot fill the gap left by a significant withdrawal of public spending.
  • Recent statements by conservative politicians in Australia echo many elements of ‘Big Society’. Dr Whelan says that “there are shades of ‘Big Society’ in Tony Abbott’s enthusiasm for shifting responsibility for health and schooling to community organisations, and Joe Hockey’s recent idea that we should look to small-government countries in Asia for inspiration.”

Big Society and Australia demonstrates that shrinking the public sector does not strengthen either the community or corporate sectors. It argues instead for an approach that recognises the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each sector, acknowledging that some work is best done by government while some is delivered better by the community and private sectors.

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Notes to Editors:

  • ‘Big Society’ was originally championed in the UK by Phillip Blond, a theologian, lecturer, founder-director of the conservative think tank ResPublica and advisor to David Cameron before the 2010 election. Once elected, Prime Minister Cameron released his ‘Big Society’ manifesto, which promised to “redefine the role of the state as a provider of public services.”
  • The Centre for Policy Development is a public interest research centre dedicated to putting creative, viable ideas and innovative research at the heart of Australia’s policy debates. We give a diverse community of thinkers space to imagine solutions to Australia’s most urgent challenges.
  • Dr James Whelan is the director of the Public Service program at the Centre for Policy Development. His research history includes leading social science research programs with several universities and research institutions, examining deliberative and collaborative governance, environmental politics and social movements. He was theme leader for the Coastal Cooperative Research Centre’s Citizen Science research program, has published widely and presented at national and international conferences. James has worked with several social and environmental justice non-governmental organisations including Greenpeace and Amnesty International.
  • The State of the Australian Public Service: An Alternative Report was the first major report from CPD’s Public Service program. It presents a comprehensive picture of employment trends, community attitudes and political agendas on the public service over the last twenty years. It is available for download here.