Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Little platoons and Australian government

By James Whelan - posted Friday, 22 June 2012

In recent weeks, Opposition leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services Kevin Andrews have elaborated on the Opposition's social policies. Mr Abbott's 'Landmark' speech on June 8th and Mr Andrews' address on June 15th articulate a set of policies with significant implications for Australia's community sector.

Both speeches celebrate the 'little platoons' or community groups and volunteers that comprise civil or 'associative' society. This expression is likely to be heard frequently as the next election approaches. Edmund Burke, the 'father of modern conservatism' first used the expression 'little platoons' in 1790. Mr Abbott invoked the expression in mid-2011 when he introduced Phillip Blond to address a conference convened by the Menzies Research Institute, the Liberal Party's in-house think tank. Blond's 2010 book 'Red Tory' is the manifesto upon which British Prime Minister David Cameron's 'Big Society' policies and programs are based. Blond, Cameron and Abbott are advocates of 'small government' and propose that 'little platoons' play a more active role.

There are other similarities between Cameron's 'Big Society' and the Australian Coalition's policies. Both are framed around personal responsibility, social capital, mutualism and civic responsibility. Few people would refute the assertion that society is a good thing and that – by inference – a bigger society is better. Beyond this simple logic, 'Big Society' promises outcomes that are embraced widely and deeply: decentralising power from government and dispersing it more widely, increasing citizens' control over their lives, encouraging cooperation and initiative, inclusive governance and co-production (collaboration between providers and users in service design or delivery). Not even critics of the UK's 'Big Society' changes question these aims. In fact, many support them wholeheartedly.


But the impacts of many 'Big Society' programs have contradicted and undermined these ideals. Ironically, there have been many adverse impacts on community sector organisations: 2,000 charities experienced funding cuts of £110 million last year and community sector funding will decline by £5 billion over three years. Community organisations have been forced to scale back or close many services, working conditions have deteriorated, and large non-profits are 'crowding' out smaller ones. Within twelve months, the number of people employed in the community sector fell by 70,000, almost 9% of the sector's workforce. The community sector's initial enthusiasm for Cameron's 'Big Society' turned to caution then alarm.

Andrews and Abbott tap into a populist vein by talking up volunteerism. Approximately 40% of Australian volunteer each year, committing almost one billion hours to service clubs, charities, school and hospital auxiliaries, volunteer bush fire brigades, Landcare and other community groups and projects. Australia consistently ranks near the top of the World Giving Index, an amalgam of three 'giving' behaviours: helping a stranger, volunteering time and giving money.

The question, then, is whether volunteerism needs a nudge. With such a strong community sector playing its part, alongside the public and private sectors, what might be the impact of a diminished state?

The UK's 'Big Society' provides timely insights. Some attempts by the UK government to further encourage volunteerism have generated resistance and controversy. The new National Citizen Service, inspired by the Prime Minister's cadet experience at Eton, was to have involved the military and been mandatory. Changes to the national Jobseeker Allowance now compel 16 to 24-year-old recipients to participate in unpaid 'work experience' for two to eight weeks. Participants can lose their allowance if they leave a work experience placement. Perversely, this arrangement has actually resulted in some volunteers relinquishing their existing community volunteer commitments.

Research suggests that there are limits to the public appetite and capacity for volunteerism. Although more than 80% of Britons say that they support 'more community involvement' only around a quarter say that they personally care to get involved and only 5% say they want to be involved in providing services. While extolling volunteerism, fewer than 10% of Coalition MPs take part in voluntary work. Social policies premised on significantly increased volunteerism here should be informed by research demonstrating community readiness to step into roles previously fulfilled by public servants.

The contrived 'big government' versus 'Big Society' dichotomy is fuelled by frequent reference to a 'nanny state' and misleading accusations of a burgeoning public service. There is a tendency for arguments about the role and size of the state to assume a basic conflict between the state and the market. This is often described as a zero-sum equation: more state means less market and vice versa. 'Big Society' critics in the UK reject this polemic. They also argue that a strong regulatory framework is essential to encourage and support local initiatives. Governments and not-for-profit organisations complement rather then compete with each other. A strong civil society requires vigorous, effective governments as well as prospering economies. Nations with stronger state also tend to be more equal and have higher rates of social capital.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All


CPD's 'Big Society and Australia' report can be downloaded from Follow the Twitter discussion #ozbigsociety.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

6 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr James Whelan is Public Service Research Director at the Centre for Policy Development.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by James Whelan

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 6 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy