Making new policies


This is a challenge to other readers of New Matilda and their networks to form a shadow cabinet office, to work collaboratively to develop specific alternatives to those policies currently on offer that we don’t like.

The last election showed both major parties offering policies in most areas based mainly on models of ‘choice and market forces’ with an absence of well developed alternatives. Apart from ideological problems with those policy frameworks, there are real, practical problems with how they operate.

As a starting point we need to acknowledge that many market policies have worked and offer a booming economy and growing personal wealth for most of us. The gloom and doom merchants pushing their ‘ain’t it awful’ version of our social system, do not make much impression on people who can’t see the flaws. Some victims of past and present injustices no longer evoke empathy, but there is evidence of growing discomfort at contradictions in our justice system, of anxiety about the future and the wider world we belong to.

While most polls show a high level of contentment with the here and now, they do not indicate much faith in strangers and the broader institutions that run the place. There is no light on the hill, no vision of a collective future, just an emphasis on the self and individual interest “ and growing perceptions that progress and constant change may be suspect. Living with uncertainty can be uncomfortable in many environments but adding anxiety can make the mix toxic. While scepticism about power is healthy in a democratic environment, cynicism and widespread distrust is destructive.

Societies that are able to deal with change require adequate levels of resilience, of optimism about more than one’s personal situation – a belief that others are also trustworthy. These are the preconditions for people being able to deal with their presumed opportunities, to act creatively, to take the risks involved in innovation and change. While freedom and autonomy may allow some tough operators to make a difference, too much choice and necessity for self reliance can also create fragilities and ruptures which undermine good social processes.

We need to find some balance between the so called nanny state and the scrimmage of the free market. If the emphasis in a policy model is that of the state as only a safety net to catch those who fall through the market’s holes, it puts a lot of emphasis on self interest and raises interesting question on how such models divide societies into those deemed worthy and unworthy – in-groups and out-groups.

Can societies survive, long term, with such cracks in their foundations? How far do such societies manifest the damage done by both the fear and anger of those who both perpetrate and receive injustice? This raises real questions about two tier education and health care systems, where people are encouraged to buy themselves out of the public sphere to achieve advantage. Those that can do it may be relieved that they can “ but they will require ever higher levels of private income to do so and are likely to resent paying tax for systems they see as unusable. Those who can’t buy themselves out of public systems feel they are getting a raw deal. Even when the differences in services are not very evident the perception is what counts and what people act on. So middle class parents, even left wing ones, find themselves supporting queue-jumping health services, putting their children into private schooling or desperately coaching them for the selective public schools which then become elite enclaves.

While social capital models have many flaws, they do offer an alternative to the more materialist models of social functioning. The evidence from many studies it is levels of inequality that create distrust and divides, not poverty per se. Why does inequality create these results? Maybe the problems come from perceptions of unfairness, both by those who are advantaged by inequality and those it disadvantages. Unfairness is a very basic stimulus to anger from when we were quite small children, so systems which institutionalise such divides are likely to be particularly resented.

I could go on with such analyses but this could put me in the same category as most ‘progressive’ commentators. We are good at pointing out what is wrong but not so good at producing thought out and even costed alternatives. I teach students to do this each year at UTS on the basis that advocacy for change without alternate proposals is not likely to be effective. Negative critiques are not likely to draw major support from people for changing the world but positive options may be much more attractive and encourage action.

The ALP failed to do this in most areas because they thought they had to play to the choice and privatisation model to attract the voters. There were more interesting policies offered by some of the minor parties but few knew that and many of these were not worked out in detail. Policy-making requires time and expertise and many of us out there have had experiences that lend themselves to developing practical and exciting proposals. Some of us also have the skills to promote them. At the same time we must work with younger generations who know what they are likely to want to use in the future. There are very few groups out there doing this. The Australia Institute is one but it has a limited agenda and again is a better critic than builder.

So can we develop a shadow cabinet office, a virtual think tank, debating policy issues and developing a series of integrated policy initiatives? The current policy material up on line is individual blurts rather than co-ordinated and integrated policy discussions and development so can we discipline ourselves to explore our agreements, acknowledge our disagreements and see whether we can do better than the present offerings.

Here are some questions to start the process:

1. What is the underpinning role of government in a liberal, social democracy? Is it to ensure that the market and not-for-profit sectors do not create inequalities, levels of anxiety or perceived injustices that endanger adequate levels of social cohesion?

2. How do we deal with the diversities that result from globalisation and people movements that make static and homogenous societies unlikely even if people want them?

3. Can we define the factors that make for resilience in communities and political systems? Do we need to balance autonomy and self reliance versus recognition of interdependence, and the necessity of trust and trustworthiness?

4. What if too much freedom of choice can be excessive and immobilising? How do these need to be balanced against possible necessary levels of predictability?

5. Do Australian social systems require a base of quality, public, not-for-profit services in most human service sectors to allow people to deal with change and ensure fairness of access?

6. Does government funding for private user pays services undermine principles of equity and fairness? Does being a taxpayer require subsidisation of private choices?

7. Does tendering out of services such as social control/law and order services raise issues of accountability and threaten democratic processes and commitments?

8. What are the long term costs of using fear of and exclusion of out-groups as election tactics for short term advantages?

9. Are there economies of scale about the pooling of needs for services, for providing these at public costs rather than private costs? What are the costs to private income of the need to provide for possible costs of private purchasing e.g. of aged services?

10. What is the role of the tax system?

Any takers? Can we form some working groups in a range of areas e.g. retirement income, health care (an alternative to Medicare), Universities and education generally, industrial relations, etc?

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