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The influence of ‘Big Society’: Abbott borrows from UK conservatives

Earlier this month, opposition leader Tony Abbott presented the second instalment of the Liberal and National parties’ “Plan for Stronger Communities”, having already outlined elements of the plan at the…

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is looking to the politics of the United Kingdom for policy inspiration. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Earlier this month, opposition leader Tony Abbott presented the second instalment of the Liberal and National parties’ “Plan for Stronger Communities”, having already outlined elements of the plan at the National Press Club.

The plan bears striking similarity to the UK government’s “Big Society” policies that have been implemented since Prime Minister David Cameron’s election in May 2010 – policies that promote small government with (notionally) greater power given back to local citizen groups.

In his “landmark speech” to the Pratt Foundation, the opposition leader spoke of several “community” oriented themes and policies such as locally managed schools and hospitals, asserting that “a community that invests its own time and money” rather than being “controlled by distant bureaucracies” will have “more social capital and a stronger social fabric than one which doesn’t.”

He reiterated the Opposition’s commitment to returning the budget to surplus, cutting government spending, reducing taxes and investing in infrastructure. As in his January press club speech, the speech contained contradictory pledges to reduce taxes while ensuring better services and increased social spending.

Australian voters may be growing desensitised to this paradox as it has been a feature of most recent state elections. Premiers Baillieu, Newman and O’Farrell all promised to strengthen public services, then justified their post-election retrenchment of thousands of public servants as a necessary measure to balance state budgets.

Like the British Prime Minister, Australia’s opposition leader is committed to redefining the role of the state and, correspondingly, the roles of the private and community sectors. Like Cameron, Tony Abbott has been influenced by the ideas, arguments and policies advocated by Phillip Blond, director of UK think tank ResPublica and his 2010 book “Red Tory”.

Last June, Abbott welcomed Blond as a “friend of Australia” to address a forum convened by the Liberal Party’s think tank, the Menzies Research Institute. During his visit, Blond briefed senior Liberals.

Several characteristic Big Society policies featured in Mr Abbott’s “Stronger Communities” plan: restricting welfare entitlement, mandatory “work for the dole”, mutual obligation and a contestable market for services. In the UK, three quarters of a million government employees will be retrenched over six years as a huge range of formerly government-run services are commissioned to “any willing provider”.

Abbott’s reference to “little platoons” was an especially clear link to the UK’s Big Society policies. Phillip Blond attributed the notion to Edmund Burke, the “father of modern conservatism”, who used this expression to describe formal and informal networks.

The opposition leader’s little platoons include service clubs, charities, school and hospital auxiliaries, volunteer bush fire brigade and Landcare groups that “give people a sense of wider purpose and belonging.”

Australians will respond positively to leaders who affirm and celebrate our culture of volunteerism. About 40% of us volunteer each year and we consistently rank near the top of the World Giving Index, an amalgam of three giving behaviours: helping a stranger, volunteering time and giving money.

Like Cameron and Blond, Abbott asserts that Government “can’t create” these little platoons, but it “can certainly hinder them especially if it habitually assumes that the official knows best.” His Stronger Societies platform appeals to and reinforces a populist small government ideology.

Small government advocates claim that governments “get in the way”, meddle excessively in citizens’ lives, and impede economic progress through unnecessary red (or green) tape. Its proponents assume private sector efficiency while overlooking the widely held community preference for public servants to deliver health, education and other services and the even stronger reservations about the public benefits of privatisation.

They neglect public servants’ role in managing government finance, making, monitoring and enforcing laws and regulations, and policy development. And they overlook the importance of a strong state to respond to complex and unexpected change such as natural disasters, climate change or economic upheaval.

Small government is shaping up to be a volatile ingredient in pre-election debates to come. Last month, Former Reserve Bank governor and Treasury secretary Bernie Fraser observed “there is an “extreme ideology of small government” in Australia that fails to ensure “competence, fairness, and compassion”. And just last week, the small government alignment was claimed with pride by NSW Treasurer Michael Baird when he declared that the state’s budget would retrench 10,000 public servants (additional to the 5,000 announced late 2011).

In the UK, two years of David Cameron’s Big Society policies have energised a national debate about the reciprocal relationship between the public and community sectors. Initial enthusiasm about “community empowerment” has turned to strident criticism as corporations have dominated service delivery contracts and community sector organisations have been forced to shed staff and programs. Volunteerism has been unable to fill the vacuum of a withdrawing state, even with compulsory volunteer programs.

I hope there is a similarly energised debate about the role of the state in Australia.

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. R. Ambrose Raven


    Merely a reworking of the Thatcherite/Blairite economic fundamentalist agenda to privatise profits, socialise costs, and make more for the moneybags.

    Let's reverse this approach - replace the useless but very costly Job Network with a new Commonwealth Employment Service not only to coordinate graduates, job-seekers and vacancies, but also to actively drive retraining (a position supported by Andrew Forrest ) and levy larger business for that purpose on the basis of their income. Universal job…

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  2. Chris Borthwick


    Abbott says
    "Government cannot live people’s lives for them. It cannot abolish all the disappointments and failures that are part and parcel of even the best lives. If it tries to, it ends up diminishing people, not empowering them, because it takes away the element of striving that allows people to own their achievements. The risk, when government tackles problems that are best addressed in the community, is that people are denied the chance to achieve something for themselves."
    Well, yes, but…

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  3. Dale Bloom


    If truth be known, most of our federal legislation has actually been borrowed from other countries, with little that is original.

    I am past hoping for some federal politician or federal leader to “save the country”. That is like waiting for a messiah who may never come. Less hoping and more doing by individuals and groups might be a better system, but strong communities will not function without strong family systems, and our family systems are now in a downward spiral with the introduction of feminism.

    There is also the problem of a shifting or transient population, with people frequently relocating to another area, and few people remaining in the area they were born in.

    I have seen quite strong communities functioning in rural areas where agriculture was the main industry and families were relatively stable, but I am uncertain whether they can function within city areas with a more transient population and less stable family structures.

  4. Jeff Taylor
    Jeff Taylor is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Active Retiree

    I visit my mother twice a year months at a time. I see the effects of the 'Small Government' ideology. Those areas of England in particular that are 'prosperous' and have a strong local community, can still provide viable services. It is very obvious that the haves will improve their lot. Those that have less will fall behind. The American model is a social failure. The Scandinavian/German social model is a lot fairer for the majority of society.
    Higher taxed countries are generally more equatable.

  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Fascinating the way these arguments are framed, already "strikingly similar" to some British 'conservative' policy as if all this is merely political, and no reference to any serious field data here in Australia that might suggest that it is simply good policy, regardless of who is putting it forward.

    The questions I constantly put to Labor, are, Why are we not to strive? Why are we not to pull ourselves up out of adversity? Why must we be perpetually treated as errant children, by entrenched…

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    1. Hugh Sturgess


      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      "Go to a Labor meeting seeking to argue for sound policy based on the field evidence and it's the usual threats, taken aside to be spoken to, gagged and not invited back."

      I imagine that if you went uninvited to a Labor Party function and rambled the way you do on the Conversation ("Because I like many others majored in Anthropology doesn't mean that we've suddenly turned Socialist." Does this qualify as the non sequitur of the week?), you would indeed be removed, but not because you were speaking too much sense.