|Issue No 108||24 August 2001|
No Hand Idle
Whitlam Institute director Peter Botsman finds much to agree with in John Howard's social coalition for welfare delivery.
I could find nothing wrong in anything that John Howard said in his speech today. In fact I think he can justly claim that those of us who were cynical about his 1998 ACOSS Congress Speech were wrong. Mutual obligations
was controversial as an idea then but I think it is now well accepted as a pre-condition for a new chance for many people who have been left behind in our society.
All this points to John Howard's skill as a politician but also to his commitment to a set of ideas that he has sometimes pressed against the grain of this sector. The other idea that I think one has to say that John Howard
was right about was his idea that a social coalition is at least potentially more flexible and responsive than say a government monopoly over social welfare services.
However it is clear, as John Howard also acknowledged today, that "there are too many out of work, too many people who are disadvantaged". I think it can be argued, and Jamie Gallbraith who visited Australia last week,
certainly argued this way, that inequality has grown in Australia because of the economic policies of the last few years and of the last few decades.
There certainly is I think a failure at a macro-economic level, and the reluctance of successive governments to pursue a policy of full employment, underlines this and of course this means that the whole fabric of social welfare becomes a highly pressurized environment.
The problem of large scale unemployment has particular significance for Australia's social welfare system because most of our cash based support systems are premised on the idea of full employment. The dole, pensions, disabilities, health and safety payments are all designed around the idea of full employment and the fact that these payments and support would be a temporary means of support.
You don't need to be an economist or a demographer to understand what happens when we have an uninterrupted period of nearly 30 years of over 5% unemployment. What has happened is that upwards of a million Australians have become increasingly disadvantaged and out of touch with the world of work.
They have become isolated in particular regions and communities, and from Cunnamulla to Claymore we are now dealing with a US underclass phenomenon and a massive effort is needed to repair the personal, family and community damage that has been done.
John Howard is right I think to say that a social coalition is the best way to address these problems. I think contrary to an argument I had with Eva Cox last week, this is not about getting government off the hook, rather it is about trying to make government resources more fluid and potentially more adhesive to business and community initiatives. Yes this does pose a problem for the CPSU and those who represent the CES, and it is a problem for those who work in the community sector that were used to delivering a relatively stable set of services in a predictable and standard way; but this is plainly not what is needed. Our situation makes it a necessity for there to be fluid resources that can be deployed in a whole variety of ways to those in need.
But the great flaw in the government strategy is that John Howard believes that after we have set the charitable sector, the business sector and the government sector free to work together, things are going to come back to some sort of golden post war period consensus. The evidence I think is plainly that we can never so easily return to the prosperity of the 1950s, so what we have is I think a correct strategy with a retrospective and retrogressive vision of the future. So the question is: what can we expect this new social coalition of community, business and government to deliver?
What will the job network, mutual responsibility, the strengthening funding and communities program, the Australian working together program, the national homeless persons strategy, the national suicide prevention strategy
deliver, and I think the answer is, they will deliver what the old system of wage earner payments delivered and that is "temporary relief".
It may be more flexible, more appropriate, but it is temporary relief just the same. The thing is there is no net gain without a new vision of how we deploy and
use the social coalition and the more fluid social resources that we now have at our disposal.
I think the vision that we have to move forward to is the idea of moving from a social wage to a social enterprise state. The Howard government has gone part of the way in a historical transition of Australians social welfare system, but it has stalled at the crucial moment.
The problem is that so too have the Labour Party and particularly the left of the Labor party, and here I come back to my argument with Eva Cox, on the idea that about whether without a programmatic, state based support system we cannot have a satisfactory social welfare system. Australia has never relied on such a system.
We have always relied on a constellation of private actors including union, government, private business and community organisations to deliver our social support systems. In the past, unions and employers were supposed to deliver a living wage for all workers, which would in turn protect every Australian family and they did a fairly good job for most of this century. But times have changed dramatically.
Our problem is that a real living wage is no longer accessible for a large population of Australians. To combat this, we have to move towards a social enterprise state. In other words we have to use the billions of dollars of social wage funding to create a serious of social initiatives that themselves create long term jobs and opportunities within the target groups that such services are designed to help.
I am talking about transforming health investments into health and job investments. I am talking about creating disability cooperatives that create jobs and opportunities and enterprises for the families of those who have disabilities and for people with disabilities. I am talking about using social spending to invest in the tacit skills of caring and nurturing that mother and parents have. I am
talking about turning the repair program for public housing estates into long-term job opportunities within those estates. I am talking about turning kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, TAFE and universities into business incubators that offer "just in time" training, not just
certificates or degree that simply act as a ticket to get one of the limited number of jobs available.
In other words, in all of these areas I am talking about using social welfare dollars to create new value. Just as in the private sector, a private entrepreneur surveys a community, identifies a need, develops a product and builds an enterprise around it, I am saying we need to create social welfare value chains that create opportunities for higher levels of remuneration, higher skills, self esteem and greater community participation.
The difference between this vision, and the John Howard vision, is that John is still ala 1950s waiting for the market to deliver the opportunities for the disadvantaged. My contention is that even if Australia were to move to a stable period of record economic growth it would take fifty years for the inequality of the last 30 years to be eliminated. So it not just a matter of "could we" it is a matter of "we must do these things". To Eva Cox who frets about the fact that people like Mark Latham, Noel Pearson and I are misunderstanding the dysfunction of communities and placing too much emphasis on a series of social entrepreneurs, I say again there is no alternative but to invest in the power of people and communities to utilize a more fluid set of social investments, and allow them to solve their own problems. Neither Noel, nor Mark nor I, as Eva seems to suggest, are naïve about these things, about the enormous amount of work that need to be done to turn a passive social wage investment into something that creates value, jobs and opportunities, but we see that is what has to be done, and that it why it is relatively easy for me to praise John Howard's social coalition as a step in the right direction.
Now in this latest period, in thinking about what the idea of a social enterprise state or an enabling state really means we have all arrived on something that is of critical importance and that is this curious concept of "social entrepreneurship". We have all supported, and looked on with great interest at Andrew Mawson's Community Action Network, in the UK, because what Andrew seem to have done is create a kind of hot house for innovative community leaders, that involves training, education, sharing ideas, peer support, mentoring, workshoping... We have sought to emulate CAN with the idea of an Australian Social Entrepreneurs Network (SEN) and we have now had two conferences, one with a group of 600 in Sydney and another with a smaller hard core group of 120 in Maleny.
My purpose for being involved in this group is that I want to establish as many social enterprises as possible that use the social wage and the social coalition to create value and to allow people to get back into "the real economy". For me SEN is one of the ways that we can create a pathway to a new more appropriate social wage for our times, a social enterprise state.
But I want to conclude by saying that this concept of social entrepreneurship has profound implications for how you do business at mission Australia. If you accept John Howard's vision then I think what Mission Australia's role is about simply delivering greater levels of pastoral care in the community. The vision I am talking about is about creating a set of enterprises that will sustain a million people at our customarily high Australian standard of living and that will supplement, a hopefully more responsible macro-economic strategy at national and global
levels in the future. That is the challenge I leave you with, it is a challenge that I believe is every bit as profound as the great challenge of Lord Beveridge at the end of the World War II.
"Our task is to create a new social enterprise state which leaves no hand idle, no challenge of our disadvantaged communities unmet and no epidemic of either drugs, grog, or ill health untreated."
Speech to Mission Australia, National Conference, Rydges Hotel, Canberra, Monday, 6th August, 2001
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