Community has seven months to put inequality back on the agenda

The prime minister has given the electorate seven and half months to tell her what they want. AAP/Alan Porrit

We have 226 days until the election, and are hearing lots of pious statements about having time for some serious policy debate.

But we should use this time to move the policy debates well beyond what the major parties are offering. We must provide alternative social policy options as well as fixes for current bad policies. We need to use this extra campaigning time effectively, as this election will set in concrete the next government’s priorities as the winner claims their mandate.

The policies of both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition leader Tony Abbott should be not just scrutinised, but seriously amended where they create social inequities.

Neither major political party has so far offered any signs of interest in social policies beyond the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and education funding.

Gillard has said the early election announcement will create certainty. But no surprises also means no excuses. She claims Australians aren’t interested in campaigns without content, platitudes devoid of purpose and we now have the time necessary for people and parties contesting the election to lay out their fully detailed, costed plans for the consideration of voters.

Sadly, the current indications are that the agendas of both major parties will be severely limited to relatively similar, economically driven policy options. The differences so far are on costing and timing, not content. On January 27, Tony Abbott announced his main election goals were a strong economy and lower taxes. The election framework offered by Julia Gillard in her Press Club speech again emphasised strong economic goals. Both play into and exacerbate fears of living cost rises and individual risks.

Gillard’s big social plays are the market model NDIS and school funding reform, Abbott’s an expensive parental leave scheme. Neither offers any serious debate on what makes a good society rather than market and individual opportunities.

It is interesting that neither has indicated any serious interest in receiving policy input from the community. There are obviously power groups that lobby constantly, but those with influence tend to be those who agree with or help set current, priorities.

Both major parties try to differentiate their often similar economic policies and credentials but remain bipartisan conservatives on many social well-being issues. Some clear examples are the problematic Stronger Futures legislation, the introduction of income management, inadequate welfare payments, the obsession with measures such as NAPLAN in education, increasing income inequality and the demonisation of boat arrivals.

This list is incomplete but the lack of interest in social policy areas is evident in both parties. The recent debates on sole parent payments and Newstart have been very one-sided with only the Greens taking up the cause. Remedying the ill effects of many of the above social policies needs to be raised. These “soft issues” cover questions of inequality, racism, sexism and disrespect for diversity.

The welfare debate needs to move from assuming individual failures create inequality to remedying structural factors that distribute life chances unfairly. There should be political debates that address social inequities and explore whether collective responses to risk, as well as market growth, can contribute to a better future. Instead, we have business demanding a bidding war of lowering taxes for their support.

If these social issues are not on the agenda, or are just used for dog whistle slogans in the election year, they will create increasing serious social flaws and greater inequality. It is now up to communities to clearly articulate alternative options.

The long election campaign may make it harder to get away with election strategies that are devised as marketing exercises, rather than political responses to societal needs. The past few campaigns have focused on slogans and what are seen as saleable products, often devised by party apparatchiks and power brokers.

The crucial portfolio areas that prepare us to be good citizens are education, health, community services, income support, the arts, and employment. How these frame and deliver services will set the parameters for how we see our future and how we deal with the present.

In a social democracy, it is important that people believe they can have some influence over their own lives. Voters need to trust their government to at least act fairly on behalf of all, not just to please those with most influence.