The social contract and The Voice

Jan 8, 2024
Diverse cultures, international communication concept

Now that the dust has begun to settle, we can look at the referendum result with a little more clarity. Those of us who supported the Voice saw with some dismay how the initial widespread support in favour of a yes vote began to wither away. yet we should not be fooled by the headlines that the referendum result was a resounding defeat – it was far from that.

The yes campaign mobilised some 80,000 volunteers – many of whom were political virgins – who felt strongly about the importance of creating a more compassionate, caring nation. Even so many of the no voters also displayed a genuine concern about our history of failure in respecting and supporting the people whose history on this continent can be traced back to over 40,000 years.

What the referendum exposed was a failure of our social contract. Few of us think in terms of a social contract – when things go awry, we blame our politicians. However is no shortage of organisations and individuals advocating for a rethink of the way society is organised. One of the reasons the Teal Independents gained so much traction is because traditional Liberal voters felt that the Coalition lacked the imagination and fortitude to address the challenges that Australia faces.

But it is not just a problem for the conservative side of politics. We need to remember that since 1989, the world has been groomed to reject organising society in any way other than that of deregulated capitalism. But increasingly we have become disillusioned with deregulated capitalism. We are beginning to acknowledge that market fundamentalism actively produces, and necessarily depends upon, the existence of social and spatial inequalities in wealth and income. Neoliberal philosophy promotes the view that it is both morally wrong and technically unnecessary for governments to intervene to remediate inequalities. The result is a damaging cycle of market ‘liberalisation’ followed by growing inequality, increased corruption and reduced competition, with the preferred policy ‘panaceas’ providing usually an even more aggressive neoliberalism!

For much of the last fifty years we have accepted that neoliberal narrative. We have largely agreed that the market can deliver the sort of society in which we would want to live. But that narrative had become frayed. However, the commentariat metric of good governance continues to be framed in terms of growth in GDP. This in turn has resulted a situation where Politicians from both the left and right are trapped in the neo-liberal policy strait jacket.

But Australians are not so easily fooled. The evidence is there for all to see. Traditionally we voted either for the Coalition or the ALP. Minor parties struggled on the fringe. In recent years independents and the minor parties have not just won senate seats but they are making inroads in the house of representatives as well. The shift from the major parties has been gradual and can be attributed to a range of factors. The chief of these is that the neo-liberal ideology no longer resonates. We are looking for a mode of governance that will enable communities to implement a sustainable and socially just future.

The Covid pandemic, the bushfires, floods, and the recent Optus outage is generating questions about the sort of society in which we want to live. Whilst few people will have any detailed knowledge of the content of a social contract, we do have an intuitive understanding of what we expect from a social contract. For example, when the British Government reduced funding to LGAs the standard response was to reduce services but there was one exception: Wigan. There they created the Wigan deal. The Wigan deal is an informal agreement between the public sector, citizens, community groups and businesses to create a better a better community. Its main objectives are to eliminate waste from its budget and reduce demand for services while improving the lives of its citizens.

We too have become more sensitive to the need to create better communities. The bushfires and floods brought communities together; people realised that political boundaries make little sense when many communities straddle one or more jurisdictions. It became clear that there was enough expertise within communities to create resilient and sustainable communities. As regional Australia started reimagining how they could create sustainable and resilient communities Covid hit. Covid challenged the role that government should play in our lives. Covid demonstrated that governments can provide us a basic income. It also highlighted that we need to rethink the world of work. Many people were not eligible for job keeper, but these too have to live. Finally, the Optus outage demonstrated that there is a need to identify what are essential services.

In addition, we need to address questions associated with Artificial Intelligence, Climate Change and social justice. The natural inclination of politicians across the political spectrum is to bolt solutions onto the status quo. This is a recipe for failure – many of the problems we face have been generated by deregulated capitalism. For this reason alone, it is important that we have a national conversation about what sort of society we want not just for ourselves but for our grandchildren. We need to identify the contours of what a just society should look like. In short, we need a shared understanding of what the features and principles of Australia’s social contract should be.

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