Earlier this month, as part of my bus trip through northern New South Wales, I held a community forum at Gosford.
More than 500 people came along to put their concerns to me. Of the 31 questions, only two were about economics and one was on foreign policy. The rest were about people: The quality of our society. The breakdown in community relationships. Loneliness, isolation and stress. Youth homelessness and the drug problem. Disabilities and the aged-care crisis. Male suicide, mental health and the need for mentoring programs.
They want more society, more community a new sense of belonging, a new set of social relationships. Among the people that I talk to, there is a real interest in localism.
A good society requires more than high incomes and government services. It needs strong, healthy relationships within active communities. For too long, government policy has ignored this vital part of our national life.
Labor recognises that there is more to life than money. We understand that our community is awash with social problems that will not be solved by government spending alone. We intend to tackle the challenges presented to our society by loneliness, family breakdown and youth alienation.
Much of the modern state is based on a top-down system of control. The parliament passes laws and funds programs. And it is assumed that civil society will respond to these laws in a manner consistent with the government mould.
This is the traditional way of encouraging responsibility and creating services. But it doesn't necessarily create stronger communities. The new role for government is to act as a facilitator or enabler: creating the social environment in which people are more likely to have contact with each other, working together in trusting relationships.
There's a strong feeling in society that too much power has slipped from the people's grasp and has been concentrated in the hands of big corporations and big bureaucracies. I share this concern. And I want to see greater devolution of government power to the community.
People shouldn't have to campaign for better services. They should be running them. When we talk about the public sector, we should talk about community housing, civic education, community banks and other local associations, not just government departments. In many cases, government needs to act as a junior partner to community effort.
We need to open up the political system, creating more forums in which people can have their say. We need to think of modern politics as a civic conversation: decision makers engaging the electorate in a dialogue on issues of public concern.
Only by deepening our democracy can we encourage more people to get involved in civic life, rebuilding communities and social capital. I want this to be the hallmark of a Labor Government, with Lindsay Tanner as our Minister for Community Relationships. The establishment of this new portfolio has created considerable interest.
The public wants to talk about community issues, especially those affecting the next generation of young Australians. In particular, how can the current generation of adult Australians help our youth? How can we help troubled boys and girls adjust to the demands of a fast changing and more stressful society? This is why I have asked Lindsay to work on a national mentoring strategy, in collaboration with the community sector.
This is an edited extract from Mark Latham's address to the National Press Club, Canberra, on 18 February 2004. The full text can be found here.
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