Peter Whiting.

Famous refugees. Takver. flickr cc.

Following SPC’s AGM on 5 December, Professor Paul Smyth addressed members of Social Policy Connections on the topic in the title above. His basic assertion was that the neoliberal framework which has underpinned much of Australia’s economic and social policy for the last thirty years has run its course, and we need to be discussing what approach we put in its place.

He is not alone in his assertion, with much of the media commentary now acknowledging the idea that reducing market controls has contributed to past economic growth, but that it has now engendered a situation of growing inequity in Australia. He cited such Australian luminaries as Paul Keating and John Hewson, who have made this same assertion.

What we need today, according to Professor Smyth, is a national vision which reinstates value-based aspirations for the growth of Australia. It is not that these aspirations have been lacking in our society. It is rather that, over time, we have dismantled the institutions and regulatory reviews which were the means for the voices of informed and non-party politics.

Australian history tells us that we (and not just ‘the market’) can make the right decisions when an agreed direction is shared. Examples cited included the notion of a ‘fair go’, informing decision-making in the early days of Federation. Equally powerful was the shared conviction after WWII that Australia should commit to full employment.

The object of his address was not to formulate a detailed framework for a new approach, but rather to substantiate the idea that one was needed, and that, with collaboration and commitment, Australian policy makers could (and should) develop such a framework.

At Social Policy Connections, we have been arguing for some time that there is a great need to insert values back into decision-making to optimise our outcomes, and not simply ‘leave it to the market’. Whatever the capacity of the market to flag direction for economic policies, it is sterile in answering the societal questions about the type of country we want to be.

Today’s burning issues

Preparing the President’s address at the Social Policy Connections AGM this week, I was again surprised by the range of topics and contributors featured in our publications this year. They ranged over topics like indigenous affairs, poverty and inequality, homelessness, local and international politics, economic and taxation reform, and so on. Their common thread has been that policy should respond to the aspirations of people, rather than seeking to determine them.

Correspondents have made wide-ranging calls for improved social justice outcomes. Of course, there can be no ‘hit parade’, ranking one call for justice above another. But, sadly, throughout the year, a recurrent issue has proven intractable, and remains a deep stain on Australia’s justice record. Gillian Triggs, the former head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, remarking recently on Australia’s offshore detention policies stated, “The inhumanity has reached a level where as a nation we have to respond … it’s not Australian, and we’re seriously in breach of our international obligations”.

Her voice was one of many, including members of the Government during 2017, calling for action either to relocate the Manus and Nauru detainees to other countries, or to bring them to Australia. Ms Triggs was correct in describing the situation as inhumane.

Many Australian voices, whether from leadership, or from the community at large, have called for the end of such practices, not because the market indicators (expenditures) call for an end to them, but because the policies themselves stand in direct conflict with what those Australians wish to see Australia stand for. What they are calling for is no less than an Australia which values the human dignity of all people.

In his article on Pope Francis’s visit to Myanmar, Bruce Duncan noted the Pope’s call for inter-religious collaboration for human wellbeing. Locally, the National Council of Churches in Australia has demonstrated such collaboration, releasing a call for an end to the Manus detention camp. Surely, the reality is clear to see. Whatever the narrative about how these detainees sought entry to Australia, years of detention without hope of an outcome is highly unjust and a denial of basic human dignity. Our political leaders must acknowledge that the policy is a serious breach of the rights of the individuals, as well as of our international obligations.

This month’s newsletter demonstrates the diversity I alluded to in the summary of 2017. Bill Frilay addresses the difficulty of achieving security of electricity supply while containing price increases and curbing emission levels. Allan Patience calls for independent Australian foreign policy in his critique of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Warwick Smith in The Conversation reflects on past commitment to full employment in Australia, and invites a reconsideration of fiscal and monetary priorities to achieve an increasingly prosperous and egalitarian Australia.

Time for a fresh start

At the conclusion to Professor Smyth’s address, there was a sense among audience members that we are indeed at a point of inflection in Australian policy direction, and that what is needed is non-party political voices to be heard in the conversation about direction. Surely, there is a call not only for informed commentary, but also for effective leadership.

Social Policy Connections members present were convinced that, in our small way, we should continue to bring forward these value-based critiques of the status quo, and to point the way forward for an Australian commitment to local and international issues.

As this is the last newsletter for 2017, I thank those whose efforts have sustained Social Policy Connections during the year, and in particular to give acknowledgement to our readers. I trust you will enjoy the peace Christmas brings, and emerge in 2018 ready to renew efforts for an inclusive societal view.


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