Jenny Macklin has not been idle while in Opposition. After two years of research and consultation, the former Families Minister has produced a 138-page report entitled, Growing Together; Labor’s agenda for tackling inequality.
It is, she claims a “significant piece of research”, directing our attention to the facts that, despite 25 years of sustained and indeed unprecedented economic growth, inequality is now at a 75-year high, 2.5 million Australians live below the poverty line, hundreds of thousands are unemployed, and one million are in insecure work. It is evident that not all Australians have benefited from the quarter century of good economic times.
Should we be concerned? Yes, says Macklin; inequality undermines living standards, sustainable growth, and social cohesion. Now that the economic outlook is not so bright, economic growth is subdued, unemployment slowly rising, household incomes are being squeezed, and, like families, the government is finding it difficult to balance the Budget.
And all this is happening in a time of accelerating social and economic change. It is a wildly different world from that when current social policy was devised. Social policy now has to help build an economy, and not be a consequence of it.
Macklin says it’s time for big ideas and a national debate on research-based, targeted, social policy outcomes. It’s easy to be cynical about big ideas and national debates, thinking here of the recent efforts on tax reform, outcomes which seem destined for stillbirth, rather than becoming the vibrant offspring of an agile nation.
Behind the big exhortation, though, is the appealing notion that it is time to put social policy at the centre of the economic debate. It’s more than just morals meeting the market. A fair society means a strong economy. Inequality is not just a moral issue, but also an economic challenge; for an economy to be robust and sustainable requires that the economy be inclusive. Everyone’s opportunities and living standards must improve.
Macklin sums this up as – if you work hard, you will be rewarded, if you fall behind you’ll be helped back on your feet. You are responsible for your own success, but in Australia you will never be on your own.
Just as large economic investment decisions are subjected to intense research, review, and scrutiny, so too should social policy ideas be subject to the same rigour and challenge, if we are to achieve the best outcomes for money expended. Infrastructure Australia, for example, looks independently of government influence at the economic viability and benefits of projects; so, too, a similar body could review the options for social investment.
Macklin points to already successful examples of the Gonski report into school funding and the funding of the Disability Scheme. On social evidence, she says the government can then best direct where to invest. This not only results in significant social change, but minimises waste. No longer can the country afford a welfare system which is increasingly complex, at times ill-targeted, and increasingly costly.
Macklin identifies what she sees as the important areas of social policy to be researched – priorities, she calls them. The number one priority is jobs first, an urgent priority, since, in some areas, youth unemployment rates are in excess of 20 percent. What a waste of talent here, she says, but adds that to win a job you need an education first. So investment in quality education is important, not just at school level but also at pre-school level. Social research has shown the socially inclusive benefit of funding early childhood education starting from the age of three, which in turn is predicated on paid parental leave.
These all have to be paid for; there are competing priorities, so social and economic analysis are both needed.
In spite of its title, Labor’s agenda for tackling inequality, Macklin claims her report is not Labor Party policy, although she hopes one day it might be. She is thinking more broadly than the party political platform, in fact beyond partisan politics. It is her call for an overdue discussion about the kind of Australia we want.
This may explain the very limited coverage she has so far received in the press and on radio. Perhaps the Report’s release date clashed with Malcolm’s double dissolution 78declaration, but one may suspect the press, like the public, is now immune to appeals to think big, or indeed to think of the issue of growing inequality.
One day, we may be startled to awake from our complacency the next time there is a full-blown riot in Western Sydney, or in some other socially disadvantaged suburb near you.