Helen Sykes and David Yencken. Leadership in the public interest.

Mar 9, 2015


No fundamental social change occurs merely because government acts. It’s because civil society, the conscience of a country, begins to rise up – demand – demand – demand change. (Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States)

History shows that the public interest can vary over time and between societies. These are, nonetheless, ideals that every nation should have for the wellbeing of its citizens. For Australia they include the protection of core values of democracy and society and the proper care of its people. They require the protection and nurturing of the physical environment as the source of sustenance and life. They ask that we maintain decent standards of living for all citizens and thus a fair and efficiently operating economy. They mean that our artistic and cultural heritage and traditions are treated with respect, support and encouragement.

Many of these ideals, core values and social needs are under serious threat. One forceful way of confronting this challenge would be to try to reach agreement across Australian society about the major issues facing the country and to focus attention sharply on them. How might that be done and who should take a leadership role? Government clearly has a major role to play but the deficiencies of the political system in dealing with critical issues facing Australia and the world are all too apparent. Business has its part but works to its own rules so while it is an important source of enterprise and wealth generation for the country, it is not principally focussed on the broader public interest and often works contrary to it. The university sector has a critical role in carrying out research, promoting research findings and making its undergraduates and postgraduates aware of societal issues, but it rarely takes the main initiative in promoting new policies to protect the public interest except through the views expressed by individuals in university communities. Neither old nor new media are likely to don this mantle.

There is another major sector, the civil society sector (or not-for-profit or non-government sector), which could play a lead role in bringing about change that serves Australia’s public interest. The Australian Productivity Commission in its 2010 ‘Contribution of Not-For-Profit Sector Report’ points out that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) ‘identified 59,000 economically significant NFPs, contributing $43 billion to Australia’s GDP, and 8 per cent of employment in 2006-07’. In support of greater recognition for the sector, the Productivity Commission Report also notes that ‘the level of understanding among the wider community of the sector’s role and contribution is poor and deserves attention’.

There are other reasons why this sector is ideally placed to take a leadership role. One is the rich array of skills covering the widest range of issues to be found within it. Another is the standing of the sector in the eyes of the public and the trust in which it is held. Edelman, the global public relations company, has just released the findings of its 2015 Trust Barometer. Once again the survey shows that non-government organisations (NGOs) enjoy the highest levels of public trust, ahead of government, business and the media, although disappointingly the level of public trust in all institutions has fallen this year. The drop in trust for NGOs has only been small, however, and still leaves this sector highest ranked and well-placed to take the lead in promoting the public interest.

What stops the civil society sector acting more vigorously? Key problems are its fragmentation and lack of resources. Australia is a rich pluralistic society within which many different voices speak out freely for the causes about which they are concerned. But such diversity can blunt a sharp focus on the most important issues and thus the likelihood of the media or politicians paying serious attention.

A challenge for the sector is how to make the most effective use of its diversity and skills to generate a list of critical issues and get wide agreement about them. This could, no doubt, be done in many different ways.  Since there is not space to explore alternatives in any depth, we focus here on two key principles that should inform the task and one proposal that might produce a powerful outcome.

The principles are that the work undertaken should fully engage the civil society sector and that it should be intellectually rigorous. With these two principles in mind we suggest that a representative group of civil society organisations should take the first step by preparing a preliminary list of the most important issues facing Australia, inviting the widest possible inputs.

The second step would be to submit this list to a consortium of academics from Australian universities for checking, review and further development. When the academic review is completed a series of ‘citizen parliaments’ would be an ideal way to test and promote the research findings with community members. All community consultations should have multiple aims: to gather further valuable inputs, to create a learning environment for all concerned, and to gain the greatest amount of media attention and reporting.

The civil society sector would have the responsibility for promoting the findings of the research, individually and collectively, so that they become key issues regularly taken up in the media, leading in turn to pressure on all political parties to respond and incorporate into their policy commitments. Ideally the exercise should be repeated at regular intervals. The ongoing research team should be a dynamic group constantly kept alive with the injection of new voices, ideas and energy.

Funding of the project would no doubt be a challenge. Every effort should be made to ensure that the funds needed come from the combined resources of civil society organisations, universities and philanthropy and not from business and government.

Sir Gustav Nossal reminds us that: ‘Community leadership is the courage, creativity and capacity to inspire participation, development and sustainability for strong communities.’ Australia’s civil society sector is well placed in Biden’s words to rise up, demand change and show that leadership.

 Helen Sykes AM is the Director of Future Leaders, President of the Trust for Young Australians, Chair of The Australian Collaboration, Vice President of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Associate of Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, Member of the Future Justice Executive, Summit Governor of the Hillary Institute, and Board Member of the Public Interest Journalism Foundation. She has published and edited many books.

David Yencken AO is Professor Emeritus and former head of the School of Environmental Planning at the University of Melbourne. He is Patron of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He was the inaugural Chair of the Australian Heritage Commission and the former Secretary for Planning and Environment in the Victorian government. He was later the founding Chair of the Australian Collaboration. He has written, co-authored or edited eight books.

This article is one of several published by Australia 21 on the subject ‘Who speaks for an protects the public interest in Australia?’  See website www.australia21.org.au 



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