Opportunity Society


Hold onto this anecdote for a moment.

On New Year’s Eve I went to the shops to buy a few supplies for the evening and then stopped for petrol on the way home. As I had spent way over $30 in the bottle shop, I had a four cents discount voucher to hand in. While I was in the queue to pay, my parental guilt kicked in and I picked up a couple of Freddo Frogs for the kids to balance the whiskey, wine and beer I had bought to celebrate another year vanquished.

When I got to the counter, the young person on the till pointed out that if I bought another Freddo Frog then I would get six cents per litre discount instead of four. I knew the deal was about spending more than two dollars instore. I pointed out that three Freddos at 65 cents didn’t make two bucks. The sales assistant looked at me as if I was making unnecessary waves and proceeded to give me the six cent discount. She wasn’t embarrassed by my pointing out her failure of basic arithmetic; I was just holding up the queue with some unimportant nonsense.

Stick with me for a moment. I promise I’m not just complaining about educational standards.

One of the interesting features of the recent election was the unanimity across party lines when it came to the notion of the ‘opportunity society’. This was not just another aspect of a ‘me too’ campaign, although it was most definitely disguised by that. It signals a fundamental shift in social reorganisation of a kind that does not come around with every election. What it will mean in practice is not so easy to discern.

As a phrase, its meaning is clear enough. The idea of a welfare society is to be replaced by the idea of a society that offers a level of opportunity that can assist people in improving their lives and in avoiding the dependency that has become welfare’s cognate.

But as an idea it falls within an historical scope that is somewhat more worrying. Let’s hold off for now on the critique of middle class aspirationalism. At present it may be too easy to see the Rudd-Swan team as constructing the nation as a gang of eager renovators just waiting for the sale to start at Bunnings. An image like that would presumably follow in a series that constructed Keating as reconfiguring the Australian suburb within a greater Asia and Howard rebuilding the picket fence in the Menzies’ backyard. But to understand the historical significance of the opportunity society it is necessary to have a look at the welfare society that it is meant to replace.

The last election was the third moment of unanimity in this field since the introduction of welfarism after World War II.

We have all, to a greater or lesser extent, become absolutely untrusting of John Howard’s sense of history over the past decade. The picture that he has painted of a previous generation’s commitment to small business free enterprise is outstandingly wrong. Back in 1946 there was strong agreement across main party lines for the idea of a welfare society. It was the security in a world that was to be increasingly governed by big business and big government. In Britain and Europe, it was one of the major ideas that brought people out of the devastation of war. The second moment in this history was the period between 1979 and 1983 that brought Conservatives, Republicans and the ALP to power with an agenda to end deficit spending. Again, across party lines, there was unanimity for a fundamental social change that was meant to refit society to suit both modern circumstance and modern thinking.

While in Australia, the costs and effects of welfarism kicked in during the Whitlam period, only a decade or so before the Hawke-Keating changes, those changes were responding to what were now global pressures in the administration of Western societies. To their credit, Hawke and Keating countered the economically disadvantageous effects of monetarist policies with the reorganisation of social groupings along the lines of ethnicity and identity instead of the old class distinctions that had not been terribly effective in Australia.

So now, as revision number three, we have the opportunity society, which presumably takes us beyond monetarism in the uncertainty of third way reform. Version one was based on cradle-to-grave security and was deemed to manufacture all the problems of dependency. Version two was meant to ease the pressure on government by the production of an economy that could trickle down assistance where needed. Version three is meant to promote the new citizen that can spot opportunity and reach out for it. Who is that person? It’s certainly not the one on the till at my service station.

In order that we can grasp that notion of opportunity, it is clear that we need to understand what we are risking. Risk requires a numeracy that allows the benefits and dangers of the risk to be calculated. And Rudd promises an ‘education revolution’, so maybe that will be covered. But even with a decent education system, would the person at the petrol station have those middle class aspirations? There is a serious danger in positing an opportunity society that only recognises a certain range of opportunities as valid.

In broadening its scope from a class politics to an identity politics and then to a managerialism that claims to look after all, Labor is in danger of leaving people who are outside of the aspirational model without representation.

It would clearly be an improved country if all people within its borders could multiply by three – but at the same time, we would be greatly reduced if our aspirations were bought like Freddo Frogs.

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