The need for a social contract to create voter trust

Sep 15, 2022
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

What happened to sustainable democracy’s social contract?

Democracy has multiple iterations but over the last century the accepted model is one based on universal suffrage: the people’s voted choice of representatives to run their nation states. This version works best when the process confirms its trustworthiness.

However, there are now relatively few stable social democracies operating in the world. The USA and UK welfare state initiatives post WW2 set new standards of scope and fairness trust. The importance of social wellbeing as a core goal created security in other democracies they encouraged, were essentially stable and were widely followed. The model was followed in most of Europe and many of the newly established nations. The objective was to ensure stability and trustworthiness. This was to ensure no more 1930’s damaging dictatorships would be triggered by non-democratic failures, e.g. the Depression effects.

The welfare state expansion was wide. For example, Australia’s post war reconstruction built on the model by extending many public services, education, welfare, community services and public housing to remedy the inequities of the prewar states. The long Liberal reign of Menzies expanded welfare state programs, such as Phillip Lynch’s childcare funding early in 1972.

The Whitlam government expanded social reform, such as welfare for sole parents and equity for women and immigrants. Interestingly in 1996 Fraser retained much of it! However, the post Thatcher/Reagan paradigm shift to market power was gaining strength. The return of the ALP saw Keating, like Blair in the UK, starting to include more market-based solutions.

By the 1980s taxes had risen and the oil crisis payments had shifted the ability to access private capital. This led to the rise of market models of funding, which were less dependent on the roles of democratic governments. By the mid 1990s the UK and other countries, including us under the ALP, gradually accepted more of the market model and cuts to social programs.

There were protests and anger but these had limited effects on the slow shift away from earlier social welfare models. I was deeply concerned that my support for universal child care was then under threat along with other social risks we were facing. So in my 1995 ABC Boyer Lectures ‘A Truly Civil Society’ I raised the possible ill outcomes of losing public services and wellbeing.

They were well received and are still mentioned. but not by those in power. Keating lost the next year’s election, so many more serious changes occurred.  True believer John Howard’s 12-year Liberal government made further cuts to social spending, government services and lots more.

The Neoliberal paradigm was so entrenched that the Global Financial Crisis and even the brief ALP 2 PMs minority governments went along with it. Since then many Coalition PMs governments have been caught by financial crises, pandemics and climate disasters and the clear growth of voter distrust.

So here we are now, suffering the effects of the last Coalition’s near decade of disasters, with voter distrust and a somewhat timid new ALP government. Over the last years, many polls have shown growing distrust in democracies. The UK and USA are under threat because of serious losses of the trust of voters. Hungary is a dictatorship, as is Poland, and others show serious anti-democratic issues. Few countries can be held up as examples of stable democracies as market based corporate powers reduce taxes, cut budgets, reduce integrity and government legitimacy. There are wars, pandemics and climate shifts that need strongly supported caring and ethically coping governance to ensure best options, not profits and GDP measures. We share these loads here too, despite our distance.

So, what can we do?

The UN and EU are exploring moves towards restoring the social contract to restore democratic trust and the ability to distribute resources fairly and according to needs, not capacity to pay. This will be difficult and requires shifts from the market models to public trustworthiness.

As we are also facing the serious environmental issues that need co-operative government action, this is an international threat. The current pandemics threaten health and wellbeing and need collaborations well beyond market solutions. Australia has its share of the above issues and there is a need for changes. However, the result of our recent election illustrated the rising distrust of the major parties, despite the shift to the ALP. There are many more independents and minor party reps so the votes are more fluid, trust and socially oriented!

Yet, the indications of the current plans of the ALP Government so far, as listed below, are still locked into economic market models of goals to increase economic growth as the means of fixing the assumed exclusion from market benefits. Privatisation, which adds costs and problems to community services, is not even mentioned as a concerning issue.

There is no indication of the restoration of the social contract, which is needed to increase voters’ trust. They need to be participants in setting priorities, so they are citizens, with rights and obligations, not just customers seeking ‘choices’!

We need to restore the government’s role as major suppliers of community funding for necessary services such as health, care and education that are needs-based but not privatised or tendered to the lowest commercial provider.

We need to restore the local management and location of children’s services and aged care options, for example, so they operate as non-profit parts of the communities they serve. Similarly, the ULURU Statement signals the need for fixing the failures of our past and the damage still here in the present by negotiating the Voice to Parliament. We need to be a nation that sees social wellbeing as more relevant than valuing GDP growth.

Australia today is becoming increasingly unequal as too much privatising of essential services has become the source of inaccessibility. The lack of respect for the community’s need to address inadequate welfare payments is causal. The ALP focus on job creation for all reflects the power of unions but not respect of the informal unpaid roles in diverse sectors of ageing societies and communities.

There is discussion of a wellbeing budget but at the same time no mention of social wellbeing, just of higher wages and improved training of workers. Although the UN is proposing social contracts as the means of fixing inequities, our current government isn’t recognising that there is more need for fair social funding.

Let’s create connectivity and government trustworthiness by putting the social contract back on the current political agenda! We need to act and react to toxic gaps in plans.

The options quoted below illustrate the omissions!

ALP policies

Anthony Albanese and Labor’s plan for a better future will:

Strengthen Medicare by making it easier to see the doctor.

Create secure local jobs by investing in Fee-Free TAFE and more university places, and make your job more secure with better pay and conditions.

Make child care cheaper so that it’s easier for working families to get ahead.

Make more things here in Australia by working with business to invest in manufacturing and renewables to create more Australian jobs.

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