|Issue No 8||09 April 1999|
Costa on the Social Audit
Bob Carr's decisive victory in the recent state election should set the stage for a bold, reformist second term agenda which addresses the social inequalities that underpin many of our most intransigent community problems.
As is becoming increasingly clear, the size of the Carr victory says as much about the Coalition's abject disarray as it does about the electorate's endorsement of Labor's approach to government.
Carr should not fall into the trap that snared Paul Keating after the his 1993 'True Believers' victory. An electorate's rejection of an opposition is not necessarily the endorsement of the government's approach. Often, it's just a choice for the lesser of two evils.
What the victory does provide Carr with is the opportunity to mark his place as a reformist Labor leader, prepared to lead rather than follow lowest common-denominator media and polling.
Carr is incorrect to claim that the only alternatives for Labor are the 'boredom' steady-as-she-goes approach of the first term or the 'excitement' of the 'Shining Path guerrilla' strategy (SMH Review 3/4). Many of us, across the traditional Labor factions, believe there is some space between the two extremes which should be explored.
While Carr is right to argue that people expect governments to provide an environment that sustains long-term job security, he fails to appreciate that government also has a responsibility to take a lead on social issues, particularly when sections of the community either through ignorance or prejudice may oppose sensible and civilised reforms.
The challenge for a great leader is to argue the case to the community and use the political process as a vehicle for facilitating a greater level of understanding of the complex issues often involved and the potential alternative solutions.
One of the greatest challenges facing the second Carr Government is the social inequalities in service provision between the urban centre and the western suburbs and regional NSW.
This shift was discarded as too hard during the first term, largely because it was pursued in a clumsy, ad hoc manner which failed to explain to the community and the workforce the logic behind the changes.
This time around, the government needs to be more thoughtful and strategic.
The first step is to take a leaf out of the Greiner Government's successful strategy of defining its agenda by establishing an independent commission of audit.
For the Conservatives, this focussed on the financial, for Labor it should focus on the social.
This could be done relatively quickly and inexpensively by conducting an independent social audit of the distribution, cost-effectiveness and demand for government services.
The audit should be chaired by a high-profile individual with experience and community respect, such as the former Social Service Minister Peter Baldwin.
Much of the information is already available in a variety of government bureaucracies.
What is now required is that this information be brought together into a form that highlights clearly the inequities and imbalance in the distribution of government services. This will clearly show who the winners and losers are in the current distribution of services.
A Labor Government should be doing two things: explaining the need for reallocating resources through a process such as the one outlined above; and then displaying the political will to implement it, regardless of the inevitable criticisms of the losers in the process.
Importantly, the audit would provide the government with a political road-map for its next term; clearly setting out the budget priorities on a rational basis.
With power privatisation off the agenda for the next term, resources will be scarce and it is incumbent on the government to ensure those in the greatest need are given access to essential services.
The government can not expect to replicate its electoral success in 2003 if after four years with a solid majority its sole achievement is 175 more National Parks and 2,000 more police.
At a time of increasing electoral volatility, the people who voted Carr in for a second term, will demand a return on their trust. The social audit would be an important first step in repaying that trust.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005