EVA COX. The non-economic causes of political trust deficits – What is to be done. Part 2 of 2

Nov 9, 2017

It was not so long ago that the functions of more social democratic nation states were legitimated and visible because they represented wide public ownership of many physical resources and delivered many essential and community services.  Whether that form has elements in it that  would allay current problems and improve future governance needs to explored. What is clear is the need to reverse and reform the causes of deep distrust.  

How can we ensure that voters can value governments as protectors of what may be deemed  the common wealth, often seen as the public sphere? The valuing of these symbols as unified symbols of belonging and being valued as citizens is needed to counter the current push to exclusivity as nationhood. It should be both inclusive and broad-based.

Expectations of governments are more likely to be quite visible in Australia, as our history is of public governance. We were set up in 1789 as a penal colony, funded by  government edicts and run by the prequel to Corrective Services. Government funds initiated our railways, public transport, health and community services, as well as regulating what was built, where and why, allowed or forbidden. Despite being a colony that behaved very badly to the first  inhabitants, and the excluded non-white immigrants, other laws put in place allowed us to be tagged as ‘the working man’s paradise’. We pioneered good policies such as public education, women’s suffrage, the basic (family) wage, some early welfare payments and public health needs, like clean water supplies.

This history give us a basis to reframe these toxic types of changes and the current views of those in power, or to change who governs if they remain still blindly defensive. Claiming the problems are a temporary hiccup, blaming just the GFC, means they are failing  to recognise the problems inherent in excessively free market models.

We need an urgent review of the cumulative effect of neoliberal systemic changes that have gradually reduced the positive roles of governments. This is being acknowledged by many who were great supporters, including Keating. The case can be clearly made that competitive individualised self-interest, as a market driver,  does not encourage the collective trust needed for good citizenship, credibility and legitimacy. We need a much improved balance.

It is time to set up a major inquiry into what is best delivered by government, or by the market or by collective community models. This should include what should be paid for and how, and look at those areas where need is not related to ability to pay. A balance of public, community and public services should reflect the needs for both diversity and subsidiarity, so people feel they own their community services. The tag of doing planning and delivery with and not for people is clear in Indigenous areas but has much wider applications.

Privatisation is not popular, as many polls show. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-11/lewis-and-woods-voters-still-sceptical-of-privatisation/6083982  So we need to ensure that  voters are no longer confronted with new unpopular examples: higher user road tolls, disappearing post and other offices, plus constant government exhortations to learn to be responsible consumers seeking the best deal.  Here is a clear area where extra public services, like the NBN, could create wide goodwill.

The gaps are increasingly obvious and need to be remedied. They include more expectations of self-provision for retirement, more money on defence and less on welfare, plus privatisation of more community services, cuts to public services and workers, increased conditionality for most welfare payments, too many children removed from families, particularly Indigenous ones, bad exclusions of children from care services, and increased  focus on social control areas such as crime and terrorism. These create fears and distrust of other people, if social cohesion is only sold as becoming more like the mainstream e.g.  disrespect for Indigenous self-determination.

We need to address the serious lack of attention to policies that offer any sort of vision for fairer futures, rather than only increased GDP being seen as a positive.  Politicians and parties need to recognise that humans need connectedness and relationships, not just material goods and money.  This viewpoint is emerging even in economic research, such as that by Richard Thaler, the current Nobel Economics winner, who shows humans highly value systemic fairness as we are essentially social beings who want to live in  connected societies, not just economies. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/10/richard-thaler-nobel-economics/542400/

Humans still have the need to belong that is part of tribal survival, so we need to translate this to the wider expectations and politics of nation states. Disappearing governments, as providers, rule-makers or funders, create anxieties of neglect and betrayal in too many voters. Policies are needed that can change the common perception of elected representatives as being just for the elites. We need to restore good social policies and public services to provide social well-being.

Those in power must acknowledge that governance and policy-making need major adjustments to renew the classic models of good social democracy. Government aspirants must offer voters optimism and their ideas to make societies more civil. These ‘radical’ changes require solutions that build on known human propensities for relationships, collective action and sharing of risks.

There are hopeful new signs.  The growth of the ‘sharing economies’ and the communalities that still underpin our mostly unpaid myriad of interdependent relationships offer good bases for new policy directions.  There are lessons to learn from our Indigenous past and present and current unpaid community strengths that emphasise the social and connected. At the more official level, there are signs that some of the supporters of market models are looking at more social types of services if not outcomes, as Ross Gittins has identified. http://www.smh.com.au/comment/now-for-something-completely-different-from-the-productivity-commission-20171031-gzbjx5.html

There are questions about future  shortages of paid working hours and the value of unpaid work that could be met by some version of a Universal Basic Income.  Our poorly designed social security system which, unlike most developed countries, is becoming more conditional and stigmatising, needs urgent review to manage more mobile, less in demand workforces. There are wide needs for true community services, not primarily run for profit motives. There is also a need to fix the gender pay gap to up-value the essential care skills.

These possible areas reflect my own interests. There are many others that need to be added  to contribute to governments being concerned with the national interest and wanting  to make societies more civil and fair. We need to restore a light on the hill to create solutions. As Utopia is the next island to the one we just landed on, according to Oscar Wilde, we need to start the journey and  explore good social options.

Eva Cox AO is a sociologist, with strong commitment to A Truly Civil Society (her 1995 ABC Boyer Lecture topic). As a refugee from Hitler, she wanted to know how to stop totalitarianism and injustices. She is an Adjunct Professor at Jumbunna, UTS,  once researcher, political adviser, public servant plus, and is still advocates ideas for good changes!

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