Peter Costello's recent musings signal his engagement with the critical issue of social capital. And not before time. Researchers know that neighbourhoods with higher levels of trust and civic participation tend to have more effective governments, lower crime rates, better education systems, and more rapid economic growth. Every serious policymaker should be a social capitalist.
Today, Australia's social fabric is in need of repair. Since the 1960s, unions, political parties, and churches have suffered declining membership. Trust in politicians has also fallen, with one in five Australians saying that politicians had high levels of ethics and honesty in the 1970s, and only one in ten agreeing by 2000. And particular challenges exist in some parts of Australia - my own research suggests that people are less likely to trust one another in poorer and more ethnically heterogenous communities.
But the real challenge is what governments can do to boost social capital. If Mr Costello wants to make his mark on this debate, he needs to move from talking about the problem, to actually proposing some solutions.
First, Mr Costello should consider the effect that workplace reforms have on our ability to spend time with others. In a recent article (pdf, 622kb) directed at policymakers in Britain and America, Professor Robert Putnam and I argued that the work-family balance is one of the most important factors behind creating strong communities. In Australia, 30 per cent of our workforce hold part-time jobs - the second-highest proportion in the OECD. While part-time work provides flexibility to employees and efficiencies for firms, it comes at a cost for social interactions. Non-standard work hours can prevent families from sitting down to dinner together. And when working hours are unpredictable, it becomes harder for people to get involved in parent-teacher organisations, neighbourhood watch, or join a political party.
Second, the federal government should create a domestic version of the highly successful Australian Volunteers International program. Founded in 1963 by Herb Feith and others, AVI has since sent thousands of young volunteers to work in communities throughout the Asia-Pacific.
A domestic counterpart - call it AustraliaCorps - could help revitalise flagging community groups throughout the nation. To really boost civic engagement, AustraliaCorps should create positions for 5000 young Australians to volunteer for a year in a needy community, in return for an education credit. Volunteers could work with local bodies implementing after-school programs, refurbishing community facilities, and assisting indigenous communities.
Third, Mr Costello might turn his browser to craigslist.org and meetup.com, two websites that help community groups to get organised. Anyone from political activists to dog lovers can find like-minded souls who live in their local area, and hire a suitable venue in which to hold their meetings. Unlike internet chat groups - which are content to stay in the virtual world - these sites use the web as a tool to facilitate face-to-face interactions. With only modest seed funding from the government, Australian versions could provide new recruits for struggling civic organisations, and foster hundreds of new groups.
Fourth, federal politicians should tackle declining trust by reforming question time. For ordinary voters, it is the main window into how politicians behave on the job - and many are appalled. And reasonably so: no citizen should have to look at their political leaders and say "I wouldn't let my children behave like that". By contrast, in the British parliament, the questioning is equally rigorous, but interjections and catcalls are rare - proving that parliamentary accountability does not necessitate a daily slanging match.
Indeed, Australian voters are so sick of question time that the party which makes a clear statement that it intends to transform its behaviour in question time (and sticks to its word) could reap a substantial electoral windfall. More importantly, the long-run result would be to increase trust in politicians, an important element of building civic engagement.
Mr Costello should not be derided as a late entrant to the social capital debate, and he is right to tread carefully. Using the public sector to boost civic engagement is a delicate balance. Government needs to create the conditions for families to spend more time together, without unduly limiting the freedom of workers and firms to make arrangements that suit them best. It needs to facilitate community groups, without establishing a cycle of dependence. And reforming question time is no easy task. Yet the decline of social capital is one area where Mr Costello should not be tolerant - it's time to do something about it.
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