It is never easy to conclude why one party wins an election and the other loses. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to argue that the recent national election in Australia was not determined by issues of social policy. Rather, the electorate responded positively, in uncertain times, to the Government’s policy on asylum seekers and its
claim to be superior as economic managers. The electorate at large did not use the ballot box to register a conclusive view on domestic issues of social justice.
In a speech during the election campaign, Rupert Murdoch took the opportunity to name a fundamental social justice question:
"We are living not as one but as two Australias… The widening gap between rich and poor in this country is impossible to ignore. Ours is what social scientists call an "hourglass" society, marked by the declining proportion of the middle class and the increasing polarisation of upper and lower incomes".
Murdoch’s assessment has been reinforced by the release, since the election, of two studies on poverty in Australia (from Mission Australia and the Smith Family). That assessment defines the basic post election challenge and direction for social policy.
The political context
One sign that the new Howard Government may respond to social issues aired during the campaign is the changes to Federal Cabinet – new Ministers for Education, Health and the Ageing. On the other hand, the economic outlook in the near future is uncertain and the budget is already under strain – bad omens for those wanting more
However, as ACOSS has pointed out, in a period when both national and economic security are less certain, Government has a major responsibility to develop social cohesion. ACOSS maintains, "Real progress is needed in closing the gaps between people in poverty and those who are comfortably off, between people of different
racial and religious backgrounds, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians". Partnerships to this end between the non-government sector, the State governments and the Coalition nationally are essential.
One factor impinging on social policy will be how government responds to the Charities Inquiry Report delivered earlier in 2000. In this context how should the "third sector" organise itself to deal with government? Will tax law be amended to reflect new definitions about charities? How will these arrangements impact on
the viability of the not-for-profit sector?
Response to the Charities Inquiry Report provokes a more fundamental question: "What is the proper role for government in funding and service delivery within social services?"
For over a decade all Australian Governments have been reducing the role and size of the Public Sector, while the first two Howard governments moved to limit the role of government in welfare services by encouraging contracting out of these services to commercial as well as church and charitable providers. For good or ill, the model
developed for employment agencies may well be the template for the future.
While there is a case for greater public philanthropy and social entrepreneurship in Australia, in terms of "social justice" there are grave perils in a trend which diminishes government’s role in community services and encourages commercially motivated charity. Debate on this matter should be directed at serving the
public interest and the common good rather than being based on narrow economic ideology or the protection of vested interests.
Poverty remains the overwhelming concern as documented recently in the Smith Family Report by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling. That Report confirms a widening living standards gap between Australians. Generally trapped in geographic ghettoes, thirteen percent of Australians now live in poverty, up almost two
percent from 1990 on NATSEM’s measure.
A central factor in combatting poverty is employment and wage justice. As UnitingCare pointed out during the election campaign, strategies of job creation are needed together with adequate income supplements for Australia’s growing number of "working poor".
A comprehensive approach must readdress the issue of what used to be called "the social wage" so that accessibility to affordable housing, quality education and adequate public health services is guaranteed for all Australians. Other critical economic measures are limiting the spiralling costs of food and ongoing scrutiny
of the tax system to improve its fairness for low income groups. Basically, governments must manage the economy for the common good not just for the market place.
If social policy is to be fair, its impact must be evaluated in terms of the most vulnerable constituencies such as the ageing (though demographics are likely to ensure that this politically potent group are not ignored) and the 750,000 children living in poverty. Indeed it is imperative that the national government becomes more
active in supportive children’s policies. Overall, the measure of our record as a compassionate and just society will continue to be the well-being of Aboriginal Australians, though to that group we must now add asylum seekers.
The biggest post-election challenge is rebuilding the social justice agenda and its support base while reassessing political alignments. That must now be done in a globalised context which translates social concerns into eco-justice.