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Issue #1554      4 July 2012

Will Tony Abbott bring UK-style “Big Society” cutbacks to Australia?

In recent weeks, Opposition leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services Kevin Andrews have elaborated on the Opposition's social policies. Mr Abbott's “Landmark” speech on June 8 and Mr Andrews' address on June 15 articulate a set of policies with significant implications for Australia's community sector.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott

Both speeches celebrate the “little platoons” or community groups and volunteers that comprise civil or “associative” society. This expression is likely to be heard frequently as the next election approaches. Edmund Burke, the “father of modern conservatism” first used the expression “little platoons” in 1790.

Mr Abbott invoked the expression in mid-2011 when he introduced Phillip Blond to address a conference convened by the Menzies Research Institute, the Liberal Party's in-house think tank. Blond's 2010 book “Red Tory” is the manifesto upon which British Prime Minister David Cameron's “Big Society” policies and programs are based. Blond, Cameron and Abbott are advocates of “small government” and propose that “little platoons” play a more active role.

There are other similarities between Cameron's “Big Society” and the Australian Coalition's policies. Both are framed around personal responsibility, social capital, mutualism and civic responsibility. Few people would refute the assertion that society is a good thing and that – by inference – a bigger society is better.

Beyond this simple logic, “Big Society” promises outcomes that are embraced widely and deeply: decentralising power from government and dispersing it more widely, increasing citizens' control over their lives, encouraging cooperation and initiative, inclusive governance and co-production (collaboration between providers and users in service design or delivery). Not even critics of the UK's “Big Society” changes question these aims. In fact, many support them wholeheartedly.

But the impacts of many “Big Society” programs have contradicted and undermined these ideals. Ironically, there have been many adverse impacts on community sector organisations: 2,000 charities experienced funding cuts of £110 million last year and community sector funding will decline by £5 billion over three years. Community organisations have been forced to scale back or close many services, working conditions have deteriorated, and large non-profits are crowding out smaller ones. Within 12 months, the number of people employed in the community sector fell by 70,000, almost 9 percent of the sector's workforce. The community sector's initial enthusiasm for Cameron's “Big Society” turned to caution then alarm.

Andrews and Abbott tap into a populist vein by talking up volunteerism. Approximately 40 percent of Australians volunteer each year, committing almost one billion hours to service clubs, charities, school and hospital auxiliaries, volunteer bush fire brigades, Landcare and other community groups and projects. Australia consistently ranks near the top of the World Giving Index, an amalgam of three “giving” behaviours: helping a stranger, volunteering time and giving money.

The question, then, is whether volunteerism needs a nudge. With such a strong community sector playing its part, alongside the public and private sectors, what might be the impact of a diminished state?

The UK's “Big Society” provides timely insights. Some attempts by the UK government to further encourage volunteerism have generated resistance and controversy. The new National Citizen Service, inspired by the Prime Minister's cadet experience at Eton, was to have involved the military and been mandatory. Changes to the national Jobseeker Allowance now compel 16 to 24-year-old recipients to participate in unpaid “work experience” for two to eight weeks. Participants can lose their allowance if they leave a work experience placement. Perversely, this arrangement has actually resulted in some volunteers relinquishing their existing community volunteer commitments.

Research suggests that there are limits to the public appetite and capacity for volunteerism. Although more than 80 percent of Britons say that they support “more community involvement” only around a quarter say that they personally care to get involved and only 5 percent say they want to be involved in providing services. While extolling volunteerism, fewer than 10% of Coalition MPs take part in voluntary work.

The contrived “big government” versus “Big Society” dichotomy is fuelled by frequent reference to a “nanny state” and misleading accusations of a burgeoning public service. There is a tendency for arguments about the role and size of the state to assume a basic conflict between the state and the market.

This is often described as a zero-sum equation: more state means less market and vice versa. “Big Society” critics in the UK reject this polemic. They also argue that a strong regulatory framework is essential to encourage and support local initiatives. Governments and not-for-profit organisations complement rather then compete with each other. Nations with a stronger state also tend to be more equal and have higher rates of social capital.  

Next article – Tobacco promotion still catching youth

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