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Issue #1615      October 23, 2013

Abbott’s “Big Society”

Democracy under attack

The Abbott government is about to embark on a massive transformation of the role of the government that would take the provision of social security and public services back to the Dickensian era. It is much more than a plan for “small government”, privatisation and the replacement of the “welfare state” by self-provision and charity. The aim is to hand over many of the government’s responsibilities to the churches and other charity and philanthropic organisations as well to the corporate sector, or for people to provide for themselves through self-insurance.

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews.

Government funding will be slashed, thousands of highly experienced and qualified public sector employees sacked, and the “not-for-profit” sector given extensive powers to control what services are provided, how and to whom. It is the government’s expectations that there will be a greater reliance on voluntary labour for service provision and on donations from the community and philanthropists (the Clive Palmers) for funding.

It is being done in the name of empowering “the institutions of civil society” – by “civil society” Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews means not-for-profit institutions. “We will get out of your way in terms of regulation, so that all of those vital services in terms of housing, in terms of family services, in terms of all the myriad of things which you do, you can do better and we will support you to do it,” Andrews told a Forum of not-for-profit organisations at the National Press Club on August 23.

Andrews has given his department instructions to begin work immediately on new funding arrangements with the aim that they commence mid-2014.

This is the same Kevin Andrews who brought in WorkChoices and oversaw the destruction of working conditions and trade union rights as the Minister of Workplace Relations in the Howard government. Now he’s out to destroy public services and the social security system.

Big Society involves shifting responsibility from the state to the private sector. In particular:

  • contracting out services provided by government to civil society (read church, philanthropic and corporate sectors)
  • handing over total control of service provision to the private providers
  • “less onerous reporting requirements” – meaning little or no accountability of how government funding is spent
  • public schools to become “independent” by 2017 – with principals and boards (including business reps) given same powers as private schools to hire and fire staff, determine pay and conditions, etc
  • slashing corporate taxes and higher marginal rates for individuals.
  • slashing spending and balancing budgets
  • greater reliance on charities and public donations for funding that was previously provided by government and raised through the central tax system.

Kevin Andrews had foreshadowed some changes, in a speech given at the Not-for-profit Sector Forum, held at the National Press Club on August 23. Andrews had spoken in generalities about removing red tape and layers of bureaucracy, while adamantly denying it was modelled on the British government’s disastrous Big Society.

He forgot to mention that the architect of the British conservative government’s Big Society, Philip Blond, had paid two trips to Australia, giving policy advice to Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and the head of Treasury.

Andrews told the Forum that “the institutions of civil society are important because they are neither created nor controlled by the state. Public funding requires accountability and services require training and skills, and a professional approach, but it is important that the independence and the volunteering ethos of the sector is protected and encouraged. The Coalition will guard against unnecessary state control of civil society.”

So “civil society” will take over government functions including community services, provision of social security benefits and public education, with less accountability and independent of the wishes of elected governments.

“Philanthropic endeavours strengthen and empower communities, harness the inherent virtue of Australians and encourage a greater sense of purpose and belonging across communities and income groups. Our volunteer services, welfare, environmental, sporting and community groups are all living testimony to the Coalition’s belief in empowered communities,” Andrews told the not-for-profit organisations at the Forum.

“We believe that a community that freely gives of its time and financial resources is a community with a stronger social fabric and more social capital.”

Redefining community

Big Society is the logical next step in the neo-liberal agenda. Its name pits it against the concept of Big Government, part of the ideological warfare that has been waged by the capitalist media. We are constantly being told that governments should butt out, that the private sector can do better.

But in reality Big Society means a takeover by the big church charities, big philanthropic outfits and by big business – the community that Andrews refers to. The British experience confirms this. It means big spending cuts, big queues for hospitals, and big gaps in service provision.

A report by James Whelan and Christopher Stone reviewing the British Big Society experience and what it means for Australia (cpd.org.au) exposes the real agenda and outcomes. The outcomes in the first two years included:

  • A reduction of 60,000 in the number of public servants – a 12 percent reduction
  • Massive cuts to public sector spending – social housing by 52 percent; religious and community services by 35 percent; community development 26 percent, central and other health services 26 percent, family and children social services by 15 percent
  • Funding to charities cut by millions
  • The number of registered, officially homeless rose by 14 percent
  • Mental health services were cut as mental health problems rose
  • Increase in income inequality
  • The number of children who were classified as “looked after”* by local authorities due to parents having insufficient income to care for them increased by 50 percent
  • The National Health Service (NHS) is being dismantled
  • Local councils (with similar functions to states in Australia) embarked on wholesale privatisation and outsourcing programs, the outsourcing often costing more than it saved
  • Outsourcing resulted in reporting of false performance outcomes and safety compromised by understaffing; reduction in services, deterioration in quality, reduced access and higher charges or the introduction of user pays for previously free services
  • The smaller non-profit organisations missed out.

As for the claims that it is about listening to people, to society, that proved to be another myth. The dismantling of the NHS is a prime example. There was widespread opposition from patient groups, health workers, the professional colleges, the British Medical Association and a petition with more than 173,000 signatures, but that did not stop the government going ahead.

In the UK, control is being handed over to private companies and church charities. These outfits, not government, not society, “will be setting care targets and deciding how care is delivered, thereby creating a situation where the needs of shareholders may come before those of patients.

This could result in vital services such as mental health, maternity, and preventative medicine services being dropped from NHS funding in non profitable areas,” the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) notes.

“Additionally, an economic regulator, also run by unelected individuals with limited accountability, will be established to determine the economic viability of service provision in local areas. It will have the power to issue and revoke provider licenses, and it will also set the price providers receive for service delivery.”

Already they are deciding on closures and downgrading of departments and where emergency care has been provided.

It will be no different in Australia. Control and critical service provision and pricing decisions will be handed over to the corporate sector and large corporate charities.

Nadine Flood, national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, points out that, “The only winners have been multinationals such as Serco and G4S, who have made a killing. The value of British government contracts has doubled in four years, from £9.6 billion ($14 billion) to £20.4 billion, and brokerage firm Seymour Pierce predicts total public sector outsourcing could reach £101 billion by 2014-15.”

The CPD notes the similarity in rhetoric used by Abbott who speaks about “securing our future depends more on strong citizens than on big government”.

Neo-liberal with new spin

The CPD report makes the valid point that, “Abbott and other conservative politicians subscribed to these philosophies prior to the launch of Cameron’s Big Society platform. Many ideas pursued under the ‘Big Society’ banner in the UK, such as shrinking government and outsourcing to the private sector, are not new and have long been part of Australian political thinking,… What is new is the use of widely supported ideas on citizen empowerment, diversity and community autonomy to justify policy changes that are unrelated or inversely related, such as transferring public wealth to corporations, disempowering non-government organisations and weakening the public sector.”

Abbott’s rhetoric is very similar to that of Blond’s. Liberal Party state governments in Western Australia, Queensland, Victoria and NSW have already embarked on a number of these programs. In WA the process of “independent public schools” is quite advanced.

The Abbott government has already informed a number of community groups that their funding has been or will be cut.

The government plans to abandon its responsibilities towards society and hand them over to “Big Society”. Despite all the spin about “empowering citizens”, Big Society means Big Charities, Big Corporations, Big Business. It does not refer to “Small Society”, the millions of individual citizens who depend on government services and social welfare for their wellbeing or the smaller community organisations who are already providing much needed services.

The government plans to vacate the field, leave it to Big Society and millions of individual volunteers to pick up the pieces and do the work that paid, qualified community workers are doing now.

The Big Society is a Big Con, by Big Cons who do not represent the interests of society. It must be halted and reversed as quickly as possible.

The Community and Public Sector Union is campaigning to Save Our Services. It is a campaign that needs to be taken up with urgency. Time is running out fast for trade unions, community organisations and others to save our schools, hospitals, social services, what remains of public housing and government funding of grass roots community organisations.

* When parents or guardians are having difficulty looking after their children the local authority can assume responsibility for their care and place them in foster care or put them up for adoption. These children are referred to as “looked after” children.

Next article – Editorial – Blazing stupidity

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