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Can governments solve community problems?

By Vern Hughes - posted Tuesday, 27 September 2005


From mental health to Telstra to management of bushfires, Australian politics suffers from a deeply entrenched set of expectations that governments can save us. It doesn't seem to matter that the issues may reside in social relationships or economic dynamics outside a government's sphere of operation, we still want them to try to fix things.

Sir Keith Hancock's Australia, written in 1928, is a great text on this theme. He says the distinctive thing about Australia is the extent to which people regard government as "the instrument of self-realisation"... even as governments continually disappoint and disillusion them. Because government in a penal colony actually preceded civil society, and because our early democratic development produced an easy public confidence that government could become an instrument of the popular will, we came to have a child-like faith in the ability of governments to solve problems. We put all our eggs in the political basket (Hancock's phrase). The trouble is, because all the eggs are in one place, the stench is particularly foul when the eggs go off. What we're left with is a political culture that expects governments to provide all the answers, but with a permanent scar running through it of disillusion and cynicism because governments invariably fall short of the expectations.

There is no public voice in Australia saying, loudly or consistently that governments cannot solve the problems we confront. As a result, the debate about welfare reform, health care, schools, mental health, universities, problems in the bush, and many others, goes nowhere, from one decade to the next. In these areas, progress is stymied by this residual culture of looking to governments rather than enterprise and collective self-help. In short, our political culture is out of sync with the enterprise and self-help culture we need to solve these problems.

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Here is my litany of stalemate:

Telecommunications in the bush require new kinds of enterprise of the kind emerging through Community Telco Australia, the Wagga community telecommunications company, the North East Telephone Co-op in Victoria, and the Bush Telegraph in Western Australia, to name a few. Yet the political debate around Telstra and services in the bush remains stuck on issues of government ownership, regulation, and subsidy. It is as though politicians in regional areas are obliged to assume that regional communities are passive and powerless (even as exciting enterprise solutions are emerging behind their back). The enterprise debate in telecommunications is about demand aggregation and harnessing competition to serve communities, but the political debate is about ownership of a residual monopoly provider that is unwilling to serve particular communities in the absence of real competition. The two debates take place in parallel universes.

Health care accounts for almost 10 per cent of GDP, yet operates as a provider-driven industry of disconnected practitioners and institutions, none of whom have a financial interest in keeping people well and out of surgeries or hospitals. In the hands of governments, bureaucrats and industry bodies, health reform has stalled for the past 25 years. Yet Australia has a long history of community enterprise in health through friendly societies, bush nursing movements and community pharmacies, often operating on capitation-based funding models (member subscriptions for needs-based services). Enterprise activity of this sort aiming to integrate care in patient-centred settings with integrating financing is the only pathway through which health reform can take place, but the political debate on health is completely focused on government initiatives. The result is an ongoing, deadening stalemate.

De-institutionalisation in disability and mental health placed people with complex needs in the community. The supports they need though are dispersed through a myriad of programs, agencies, jurisdictions and disciplines. Putting the pieces back together in person-centred supports in strong family and community settings is an agenda that is beyond government. Its modus operandi has generated the dysfunction: social enterprise activity is required to overcome it. And because the family and community settings (and the relationships within them) are the critical factor for people with complex needs, the onus of reform will be based in those settings and not in government. Our political culture, though, still wants government officials to come up with "programs".

How student services are run in universities is not the most important national issue we face. But these services are in fact enterprises operating on co-op lines - their enterprise issue is how to attract and retain customers, which they are free to pursue through a range of business strategies. Our political pre-occupation with government means that the valuable time and energy of our policy-makers has been taken up with the issue of whether these enterprises should have their customer base supplied to them on a plate by compulsory subscription. It should not be necessary to have to say it, but neither Telstra nor a student association nor a disability agency nor a medical clinic should have its customer base supplied on a plate - enterprise means organisations should have to work hard to win the trust and loyalty of their consumers.

Public schools increasingly operate as enterprises within a highly regulated public sector framework. They are able to compete for students and parental support on the grounds of facilities, computers and programs for extras, but not on the key issues that interest parents - values, educational pedagogy, and discipline. Governments cannot find solutions to public schooling (or stop the drift to private schools) without devolving authority on these matters to parents (who hold diverse views and preferences on these things), but that is the one thing governments cannot permit their education departments to do. The result in education, like health, is a deadening stalemate.

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In the creation of employment for people with complex disadvantages, it is now clear that governments cannot provide answers and should stop trying. New forms of enterprise arising from networks in indigenous, disability, mental health and sole parent communities are emerging in spite of the endless government churn in programs, funding arrangements, and client reporting regimes.

Crime prevention, family and youth well-being are matters that can only be addressed in civil society through the formation of relationships, though this doesn't stop governments from recycling program after program to try to "make a difference". A wide variety of private and social ventures has emerged in the past decade in both charitable and self-help formats, without and in spite of government endeavours, and this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

To cap it all off, governments around the country are now prattling on about community building. Let it be said loud and clear - governments cannot build community, and should not try. No community has ever been built by bureaucratic scheming.

There is no doubt that government feels obliged to keep coming up with programs of this sort to be "seen to be doing something". It is a problem of political culture that transcends particular parties, and therefore has to be addressed as a cultural problem and a systemic flaw in our public life. That requires leadership and organisation, since changes in political culture do not happen spontaneously, and there are many lobby groups out there who like things just as they are.

The first step is to try to gather some voices with the courage to say what has to be said, that governments cannot solve the problems we confront.  Amid the cacophony of messages Mark Latham is putting out, this is perhaps the one of most importance for the ongoing shape and health of our political culture.

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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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