Australia—Searching for Solutions
Australia—Searching for Solutions

Australia—Searching for Solutions

September 1 st 1994

Like other western democracies, Australia is desperate to manage and reduce its public debt. Despite stringent measures to control expenditures, serious imbalances in public life remain. Australia's dilemma is in large measure a result of an underlying neopagan faith in the market.

Since the Labor Party came to power in 1983, Australian governments have had to struggle with the repercussions of an overextended state and a burdensome debt load. In February of that year, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who took over from Gough Whitlam in the Constitutional Crisis of 1975, decided to hold another election. Australia then averaged one federal election every two years. Fraser misread Labor's disarray, and Bob Hawke, a former national president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and recently elected to the House of Representatives, won a party-room spill on the same day, led Labor in the election, and became Prime Minister.

In 1991, Paul Keating took over the Labor leadership after a long internal struggle. Keating, of Irish Catholic background, is committed to national independence, pushing hard for an Australian Republic by 2001, the centenary of Federation. In the short time since, he has made his own mark. Some say he has been far more effective than Hawke.

Hawke, meanwhile, has become very bitter. A former Student Christian Movement leader, son of a Congregational minister, Hawke says he gave up Christianity when he decided he wanted to do something for the poor of the world. Ironically, he has become one of Australia's richest men. Once committed to the "ordinary Australian," he now presents as a man who has lost his sense of purpose. Hardly a week goes by now without another Hawke riposte.

Hawke's rise and fall is instructive. This is a story of the 1980s. Many of his "mates" in business and the media were acclaimed as national heroes. They supported him as the full-blown "market-economy" was put in place, but now many have gone bankrupt or are subject to legal proceedings. Hawke's story is about the wreckage of the 1980s—its materialism and win-at-any-cost pragmatism.

Changing landscape

During Labor's federal reign, most of the states have also been run by socialist administrations. That has now changed. Now only Queensland, formerly run by rural ultra-conservatives, is left. Slowly the landscape changes—a new balance emerges between Canberra (seat of the federal Parliament) and the states, between left and right. As much as the federal government pushes its "Social Justice" line, the entire picture can never be gauged solely from its policies. The overall picture is one in which the various governments "rob Peter to pay Paul." Federal and state governments restructure in an ongoing shifting of responsibilities between federal, state, and local governments. State governments proceed with deregulation, imposing new charges for health, education, and welfare.

Australia has traditionally taken its cue from the British, but since the Second World War it has taken its cue from the British taking their cue from the Americans. Some try to expand the range of examples from overseas for national policy; these are usually European, but on occasion Canada rates a mention. There is still a very powerful provincialism at work, and that coincides with the pragmatic strain which reduces overseas initiatives to mere debating points.

The best example of positive modelling is Australia Reconstructed, a 1987 document inspired by John Dawkins, then Minister for Trade and Industry. After their joint mission, the ACTU and the Trade Development Council recommended radical deregulation of the market by a big government, big business, and big unions policy. The examples were from Austria, Norway, and Sweden. The strategy included macro and microeconomic reforms affecting wages, prices and incomes, trade and industry policy, the labour market, industrial democracy, and unionism.

But as much as the project sought for a "distinctive" Australian response, it has headed down the same path as the rest of the world; winding back public-sector debt by selling off state-owned enterprises and state-owned facilities and reducing expenditures by large cuts in public education, health, and welfare. The international marketplace constrains debate about all sectors of public policy.

Europe's political realignment has meant that former attempts to discover the way ahead have been superseded. The idol of the market remains central in government policy, but "designer socialism" has come unstuck. Reforms were needed; but they were, and are, driven by a worldview that reduces government, and the rest of social life, to its economic side. This is still the dilemma for Australian economic planning.

Australian public life has become more secularist, materialist, and pragmatic. State governments pour money into the 4' gambling industry''; deregulation allows brothels to sponsor football teams; Sunday observance falls away with the power of retailing lobbies; all the time more money is taken out of the health, welfare, and education systems to allow the "free market" to "get Australia working again." If Moody's, the New York credit rating agency, says nothing about it then it must be okay!

Uncertainties about moral issues shape and cloud public debate. The ACTU put a proposal for five days "paid carer's leave" recently; media debate centred upon whether gay couples could receive the benefit. Debate about justice in the workplace gets sidetracked by the gay agenda. The injustice of privileging gay friendships over other kinds of friendships is not recognized. Some nonhomosexuals, of the same sex, might also live in "caring relationships." Politicians should be shaping the debate rather than "getting in line" to avoid confronting lobby groups. Our postmodern condition feeds off the media reduction of complex issues to thirty-second "sound bites." And criticism of the media will always be misconstrued by cut and paste journalists who want to keep their own "politically correct" jobs. The delicate ecology of public life is torn. The moral fabric is under enormous strain.

Education for sale

Recently, Brian Howe, the Deputy Prime Minister, launched the Burgmann Society, a Christian socialist group, who believe that materialist ideas in socialism have to be countered. He observed that "privatization" had gone far enough. In his view the Labor Party is losing its distinctive mandate, as the party concerned for social justice. The idea of a market-oriented society has its limits.

But the national office of the Labor Party was scandalized. They tried to gag him, maintaining "privatization" as the key plank in Labor's electoral strategy.

But what does "privatization" mean? Why is it such a contentious issue? It is not only about "freeing up" the marketplace. More importantly, it's about the way governments understand nonstate institutions and organizations, the function of the state in a civil society, and the meaning of "rights" and "justice." Howe's Christian socialism raises important questions; the critical question is whether he is concerned with the limits of the state or with statism. Putting a limit on the sell-off of state-owned industries does not necessarily mean a departure from privatization. Airlines might have to go but hospitals, higher education, and prisons are also up for sale.

John Dawkins left Trade and Industry, becoming Education Minister and conscripting the universities into the Australia Reconstructed agenda but without a taskforce to investigate universities in comparable countries. The required cost savings in the tertiary education system forced the bigger multi-campus universities to market themselves to survive; fees have been introduced through changes in taxation. All effort is put into attracting foreign fee-paying students, especially from Asia, and government rewards those that attract the most students. The universities have been transformed. Their task is to contribute to the reduction of national debt. This major doctrine underlies the pious rhetoric of "mission statements."

We have also witnessed the emergence of the Australian Catholic University (ACU), an integrated part of the national tertiary education system. The ACU has its own public charter. Clearly, the socialist viewpoint finds it difficult to handle the possibility of nonstate public institutions. The equation of nonstate with "private" remains the government's outlook.

Needed: a new vision

The "Social Justice Statement" launched by Brian Howe in preparation for the 1994-1995 federal budget, has placed primary emphasis upon labour market programs. Working Nation is Labor's viewpoint in a nutshell. The national workforce remains the central focus, as the formers of policy manipulate incentives for the 11 per cent unemployed. The government maintains a balancing approach. It keeps the ACTU in view while currying favour with business. Schemes to fund 4 'cadetships" (apprenticeship training programs) have to be delicately handled to ensure union and business support.

The introduction of a parenting allowance for spouses of unemployed people, and low income earners caring for children, marks a change in some ways. Government contributes to the overall network of care for the unemployed person's social web. They are now treated as "future workers," rather than as "nonworkers." The dole is not just a protection for the unemployed, but a means by which government implements its policies. Welfare recipients should be encouraged by those closest to them. Once they re-enter the full-time workforce they will become taxpayers again. This is a move in the direction of an incomes policy that identifies a "family wage," and as such is commendable.

Government monies are also set aside for a National Land Fund for Australia's indigenous peoples; steps are to be taken to improve Aboriginal health. Homelessness, the aged, veterans, and diseases such as breast cancer are included in the statement, even if each of these policies cannot be justified in terms of an immediate contribution to foreign debt reduction.

Laws that give just recognition to working conditions, particularly women in the workforce, are to be welcomed. When policies are driven by the knowledge that poor and powerless people are part of networks of interdependence, there is a shift away from individualism. Public justice is served here because the nation is interpreted rightly as more than simply the working dimension of people's lives. When a government succeeds in creating an economy in which both parents have to work, there is more at stake than simply creating more jobs for paid child-minders. There are nonpriceable costs to be considered as well. And that is the government's problem. How to honour and respect the diversity of vocations without reducing them all to some financial lowest common denominator. Some efforts are made to identify "amily issues," but usually these occur on the fringe of policy discussion.

Despite the decade-long attempt to reduce the government sector, there is still little understanding of why government should not control the marketplace. There is still a large gap in political understanding about what is going on; the confusion is due to the fact that government is still viewed as management, the nation as a special kind of corporation. The political parties churn out policies, left and right, which confirm this confusion. Any Christian attempt to explain the non-omnicompetence of government, for example, in the areas of business, labour, education, and family, will have to produce a new vision of the proper relationship between the state and civil society.

Bruce Wearne
Bruce Wearne

"I'm a writer and I look after our little house here in this coastal rural village while my wife works and supports me.


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