Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Soft power, hard decisions

By Lindsay Tanner - posted Wednesday, 22 March 2006

My grandfather spent part of his childhood living in a tent. His older brothers were working in the mines before they were in their teens. And his sisters spent time in the local orphanage because his widowed mother was too poor to care for them.

I grew up in a nice house in a small town in East Gippsland. It was better than a tent, but very basic. The local electricity supply powered only lights, not appliances. We had an ice chest, a copper, and a wood-fired stove but no sewerage, gas, or television.

I didn’t attend preschool, because there wasn’t one. We got our first fridge when I was seven and our first television, when I was ten. As a young boy I used to accompany the local milkman on his early morning rounds on his horse and cart.


Unlike my grandfather, I didn’t come from a deprived background, my family was middle class. The modern world just arrived a little bit later in East Gippsland than other places.

To my older children, growing up in comfort in suburban Melbourne, these stories sound bizarre. They don’t realise the things they take for granted haven’t been universally available for very long.

The amazing rise in general affluence over the last century - particularly the past 30 or 40 years - has changed Australia beyond recognition. For the overwhelming majority, the rise in living standards has been astonishing.

We often ignore rising affluence because it’s incremental. Ordinary working families buy swimming pools, speed-boats, overseas holidays and four-wheel drives. We barely remember when few could afford to. More people than ever before now send their children to private schools. Government funding has played a role, but rising affluence is a critical factor.

It’s easy to overlook the impact of rising living standards and base our expectations of government on a society which no longer exists. The state’s role is changing - and our thinking needs to change too.

The size of government is no longer the big issue. What governments actually do is changing, the emphasis shifting from building to learning, from regulating to persuading, and from alleviating producer risks to moderating family income changes.


The gradual shift in emphasis from building to learning has been the most important shift. Since the 1950s, public expenditure on infrastructure relative to the total economy has fallen sharply. Greater efficiency, more private sector involvement, and a reduced need for new networks have all contributed to this.

No-one suggests government investment in infrastructure should return to the relative levels of 50 years ago. Governments’ responsibility to ensure that all Australians can develop their capabilities is now more important than their responsibility to build things.

The rapid acceleration in the need for learning over the past 50 years has pushed education to the centre of government activity. When most people did not finish school and few attended university, the burden on government was limited. The need for more skilled workers has grown rapidly since then, and changed the role of government in its wake.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4
  6. All

Article edited by Allan Sharp.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited version of the speech (pdf file 184KB) From Building to Learning: The Role of the State in the Twenty-First Century given as part of the series 'The Policymakers' to the Centre for Independent Studies on March 8, 2006.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

12 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Lindsay Tanner is Shadow Minister for Communications and Shadow Minister for Community Relationships and the Labor Member for Melbourne.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Lindsay Tanner

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Lindsay Tanner
Article Tools
Comment 12 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy