This week marks both Anti-Poverty Week and the beginning of the federal election campaign and voters will have the chance to decide which party in government is going to make the country a better place to live. As Carers Australia and ACOSS released reports this week indicating the extent to which the nation’s prosperity is not being enjoyed by all Australians, many voters will use their vote to elect a government that promises a stronger commitment to the common good.
There will also be those who doubt the ability of our pluralist society to appeal to the common good. However, such appeals urge us to reflect on broad questions concerning the kind of society we want to become and how we are to achieve that society. They also challenge us to view ourselves as members of the same community and, while respecting and valuing the freedom of individuals to pursue their own goals, to recognise and further those goals we share in common.
So, what will determine the outcome of this election? Certainly a strong economy and a vibrant private sector will be part of voters’ thinking. No doubt, they will be looking beyond promised tax cuts, to a responsible government and national leadership.
Importantly, voters are already indicating that they want their government to ensure that Australia’s economic prosperity benefits those who most need it. They want their government to act in the interest of the common good — to spend some of the country’s record budget surpluses on meeting the needs of the homeless, those with mental illness, on schools, universities, childcare services, health and aged care facilities and services. Voters generally believe that it is in the interests of our society to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are looked after, and that we should not be a society of isolated individuals constantly in competition with others for scarce resources.
A strong economy, in and of itself, is not enough to provide for the common good. This is because the common good encompasses the wellbeing of families, local communities and the nation as a whole as well as of individuals. To reach this aim society needs to consider broader questions of fairness, quality of life, belonging and long-term sustainability. These aspects of our common good are not determined solely by the economy or by the actions of government. They require the cooperative efforts of citizens.
These efforts pay off because the common good is a good to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment no one can be easily excluded. These efforts have a major impact on making Australia the kind of nation we want it to be, and it is these aspects of the common good that are developed and strengthened through what is called 'the social economy'. It is the social economy that plays a major role in making our country fairer and our local communities stronger and it touches the lives of millions of Australians every day.
The social economy is made up of nonprofit, community and other organisations working primarily for the common good. It is diverse, ranging from household names such as Meals on Wheels, Vinnies and Red Cross to local swimming clubs, theatre groups and service organisations. The sector is much larger than most people would expect. In 2006–7, the sector has a turnover of some $50 billion, employs 700,000 people and involves 5.5 million volunteers. The ABS estimated in 2001 that when the value of volunteering was included that the sector's contribution to GDP was 4.7%.
More importantly, the social economy contributes to the aspects of our lives that are more difficult to measure than GDP, but which nonetheless make the difference between sustaining a society we would want to live in, and a society that reflects a dog-eat-dog world of rampant individualism. It fosters civic engagement and participation in our communities and underpins the voluntary effort that is part of our national ethos. The social economy is organised mateship. It structures much of the effort to protect Australia's environment. It encourages and facilitates philanthropy, and the involvement of individuals, communities and businesses in working for the public good.
The social economy is playing an increasingly important role in Australia. Nonprofit organisations are delivering a growing proportion of social services including child care, welfare services, housing, aged care, employment programs, environment and conservation, and many more.
At the same time there has been a breakdown in the relationship between the Howard government and the sector. A major reason for this has been the failure of the Coalition government to recognise that these many organisations form a sector as a whole. The government has viewed some parts of the sector as a handy way to deliver services, and other parts as an inconvenient source of criticism.
What the Howard government has failed to realise is that these two aspects — delivering services and providing advocacy — are part of the same project. This government has tried to separate them out, by gagging organisations through contract provisions and de-funding organisations who criticise them.
Their failure to see the sector as a whole has had two major impacts, both of which are bad for the Australian community and work against efforts to act for the common good. Firstly, it has reduced the ability of organisations to do what they know is right for their constituencies and clients, to participate in the national conversation that leads to improved public policy. The common good is best served by a strong government that invites criticism and encourages debate.
Secondly, the Coalition's attempts to split the work of the social economy in Australia have led to a bureaucratic morass that is strangling the work of many organisations, large and small. The social economy has been totally left behind by any attempts at regulatory reform in Australia to date, which has left it over-regulated and under-resourced.
The social economy is the structure that facilitates millions of Australians being involved in the challenges facing us as a nation. We need it to be strong if we are going to work towards the fairer society that all Australians deserve — that elusive common good.
Dr Ursula Stephens is a Labor Senator for NSW and Parliamentary Secretary to the Federal Labor Leader.