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An election trifecta.

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Thursday 30 September 2004

Paul Smyth, Professor of Social Policy, University of Melbourne


An Election Trifecta  


This is the social policy election we had to have. For the first time in two decades we see social issues emerging on the party platforms to take their place alongside economy and environment.  


Already in this election we see a bipartisan embrace of environmental sustainability as a second national policy objective alongside economic strength. It’s also time to take stock of the social as well as the environmental costs of the years of economic rationalism. An ‘Inclusive Society’ needs to be enshrined as the third of a new triple bottom policy line to mark a new beginning for Australia as we enter our second century of federation. 


In that first century we were often social policy world leaders because of the way in which ordinary Australians had a fair and reasonable opportunity to make what they wanted of their lives. The driving idea behind this very practical approach to social policy was that people should be recognized for their personal worth - not because of their money, race or other accidents of birth.  


This might sound like a pretty basic sort of national dream but don’t forget it was thought extraordinary at a time when most other societies made no such admission of the social rights of ordinary citizens. These other societies were typically wealthier; more cultured and afforded paradises for their elites. The daring thing about the Australian dream was that it sought to make a paradise for the ordinary person. 


Now, however, many consider the dream is over or at least under serious threat. In the welfare and community sector where we see the effects of social policy neglect, most would say that instead of an ‘Inclusive Society’ we are rapidly creating an ‘Exclusive Society’.  


Just consider some of the basic items on anyone’s list of social necessities.  


Take jobs. Where once we expected full employment; now, despite the official statistics, we have 1.3 million people who cannot get the paid work they seek.  


Take pay. Once famous for treating our workers fairly, now - because of labour market deregulation - we face a rising tide of ‘working poor’ in an economy where 80 per cent of the jobs created in the last two decades are part time.  


And the list goes on. The basic aspiration of a roof over your head is now unaffordable for 1.2 million Australians. Access to such a basic health service as dental care is seriously compromised for half a million people - most of them elderly.  


Even when people are pushed back onto income support they are likely to be stigmatized as ‘welfare dependent’. It’s as though all these other economic and social policy failures never occurred and the need for support is their own entire fault.  


These trends of social exclusion leave many Australians with a sense of betrayal. Across the welfare sector there is an enormous sentiment that we must stop these trends in their tracks.  


That’s why the Brotherhood of St Laurence with its Advance Australia Fairly campaign and other community agencies have entered the federal election arena campaigning for government policies that promote social inclusion. Alongside economic strength and environmental sustainability - the promotion of the Inclusive Society must become a third great national objective.  


A great fetter to action is the abiding influence on the major parties of that intellectual legacy of economic rationalism whereby social spending was constructed as always on principle less effective than private. They still seem unable to grasp this nettle and admit that public investment in the Australian people is not always, by definition, waste. We urge the major parties to stop presenting education, housing, health and other social investments as optional extras to the economy. In a knowledge economy they actually underpin economic as much as social success.  


In a successful society, inclusion would never be regarded as a mere option. Lately in Australia we have heard a lot from our leaders about the mutual obligations of the poor but not much about our social obligation to build an inclusive society. The people, however are ready. Polling shows unmistakably that the great majority don’t want tax cuts but public investment in quality social services for all Australians.  


A new horizon for social policy has opened in this election. It’s time to reconnect with a more expansive Australian social aspiration. Let’s add an ‘Inclusive Society’ to a strong economy and sustainable environment as the third of a new triple bottom policy line. Invest in that and we will be truly Advancing Australia Fairly.  


Guests on this program:

Paul Smyth  


Social Policy 

University of Melbourne 


General Manager 

Social Action and Research 

Brotherhood of St Laurence