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A radical political centre for whites?

By Vern Hughes - posted Thursday, 13 September 2007


Noel Pearson's quest for a "radical political centre" has won the respect of thoughtful Australians everywhere. It came out of a desperate search for an alternative to policy failure in Indigenous affairs.

But what about a "radical political centre" for whites? This quest is just as urgent. In all the big policy debates in national politics, a political centre which synthesises rights and responsibilities, freedom and obligation, individualism and social cohesion, is desperately needed but is nowhere on the agenda.

The Third Way debate in Europe and North America in the 1990s never reached Australia. Its only champion, Mark Latham, found himself in a party still wedded to a two-way highway, talking to a press gallery that could see only a bi-bolar universe.

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So when Pearson speaks of the search for a “radical political centre”, why is this quest not understood by our political leaders and commentators?

The dominance of industrial relations on the national agenda is part of the answer. The IR agenda is still dominated by the competing interests of big business and trade union officialdom in a way that has remained largely unchanged since the 1890s.

That institutional contest spawned our two-party system from about 1910, and our unique quasi-judicial conciliation and arbitration arrangements from the time of federation. Both of these structures institutionalised a separation of labour and capital which ironically buttressed their mutual dependence. A whole army of union officials and business and labour lawyers owed their livelihoods to these institutions.

Sir Keith Hancock, perhaps our best historian, argued in the 1930s that the problem with these arrangements was that they prohibited any transformation of labour-capital relationships away from competing armies perennially preparing for war.

A “radical political centre” in IR is arguably important for the nation. But it won’t come out of our bi-polar IR institutions. Bi-polar institutions generate bi-polar thinkers.

These institutions have shaped our social policy too. Ideological war between teacher unions and elite private schools stymies the education debate. Doctors and public sector hospitals monopolise the health debate.

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Social policy discussion is stuck in a pitchfork battle between service providers over funding. Consumers of services are not in the debate. They are invisible in the eyes of politicians and press galleries alike.

Whether health or disability or family support policies actually work or not, is not a question asked by politicians on either side. The only question debated is the volume of the spending.

Noel Pearson has taught us, from the tragedy of Indigenous dysfunction, that throwing money at services changes nothing. This is an insight from the radical political centre that is desperately needed in mental health, disability, schooling, health care, and especially in the current ill-conceived but fashionable notion of “community building” by spending spree.

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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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