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The role of the Third Sector as the imagination of our democracy

Things have moved on quite quickly since I put in the outline for this talk last year, and so the talk I intend to give to day is a bit different from the conference abstract. At the time I'd just been through the soul-rending experience of dealing with the Welfare to Work and Work Choices legislation in the Senate…

Since then we've dealt with a whole raft of other nasty stuff on the Howard government agenda- including changes to Family Law, cutting back of carers' payments, and the rolling out of measures targeting the Aboriginal community, including shared responsibility agreements, direct debiting of welfare payments and moves to privatise ownership of Aboriginal land.

I have been thinking about some of the wider issues affecting the future of our nation and looking for ways in which we can get onto the front foot and advance a proactive progressive agenda. So, I'd like to try and present something that is more hopeful and forward looking …

Context - Howard's Senate

The last 9 months has been the first time since Fraser where we have had a clear government majority in the Senate. It should also be remembered that the senate in those days was seen to be more independent with less control of senators by the major parties.

What we have seen in this nine months is a number of pieces of legislation which profoundly change the social fabric of our Australian society to forward a conservative or 'neo-con' agenda being pushed through with undue haste.

Unfortunately for me this coincided with my first period in the Senate (while I've still had my 'trainer wheels') and much of this radical social experimentation was happening in my portfolio areas (industrial relations, community services and Indigenous affairs).

The Howard government has been rushing through badly drafted legislation with huge numbers of last minute amendments and loop-holes you could drive a truck through.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this legislation is badly drafted and very rushed. As a newbie Senator without formal training in law, and in the few short hours that were given to us to look at some of this legislation (Welfare to work, Work Choices etc) my staff and I found oversights, (seemingly) unintended consequences and loopholes in the legislation.

For example - Family Carers: When I asked if family carers had the same exemption that foster carers were being given I got a blank-faced "what do you mean?" The department hadn't even considered the issue, when challenged they said not an issue because low numbers, I knew that couldn't be true, and of course the figures now show that up to around 40% of children in out of home care (ie. not living with their parents) are cared for in family care. The result is a lot of women providing family care with same obligations as foster carers who are now required to look for work under the new Welfare to Work rules.

We pointed out as many of these flaws as we could in the limited time given to us in the process and put up a number of amendments in response.

In a few cases we were able to change the legislation a little, in some other cases we have been given assurances from the Minister that the bad things we were predicting (for instance, about the provisions relating to 'operational reasons' for dismissing staff, as we saw used recently in Cowra) but in most cases the government simply stonewalled, ignored our comments and concerns and rammed through some of the nastiest legislation we've ever seen in this country.

I dread to think how many things are still there that we missed and it will be up to the courts and to the people on the ground in our charities and welfare agencies to sort out…

Sweeping changes

This is a very important point - as there has been no forward planning or modelling of the impact of these changes on the social sector.

It is us (speaking as someone who has spent the last 16 years running a community advocacy organisation) who have to pick up the pieces.

Just last week the ACOSS survey showed the strain services are under

  • 9% increase in number of people helped
  • turned away 29% more people eligible for service last year than the year before
  • increase in the complexity of needs from clients

These sweeping changes are also massively under-resourced.

There are, for example, quite simply not enough appropriately trained and skilled people to offer the intense support needed for those who need to find jobs under Welfare to Work.

- There are not enough trained and accredited mediators (particularly with experience in family violence) to cope with all the people who will be forced to attend the new family relationship centres (under the new Family Law provisions)

- There are not enough people in the public service with the skills and experience of working with Indigenous Australians to deliver the mainstreaming of services.

And even if there were enough skilled and qualified people who were willing and able to deliver on the promises of these social experiments - you can bet your bottom dollar that there certainly aren't enough peanuts allocated in the budget.

Since the demise of ATSIC, Aboriginal public servants have been leaving in droves. With six or more mainstream government departments now supposedly delivering services to each Aboriginal community there is a need for many more experienced staff where in fact the opposite is happening.

Despite many questions during Senate Estimates, in committee inquiries, and in the Senate chamber as these bills were debated - about how these changes are being costed and modelled and planned for and supported - the answers in call cases have been woefully inadequate.

The responses to my questions and amendments were very cynical - they refused to listen, and it was very clear that they had not and would not consider the real impacts of these changes on the disadvantaged in our society.

There is no plan …

The answers that they haven't been able to give me clearly show:

  • There is no forward planning of the demand for child care services in metropolitan or rural areas, despite the stated intention of pushing large numbers of single mothers into low paying jobs.
  • There is no forward plan for the demand for carer support services in metropolitan or rural areas, despite the changing demographics.
  • There is no forward plan for the demand for training and accrediting mediators to deal with the large number of difficult family law cases which will now be forced into family relationship centres.
  • There is no forward plan for how to support family carers, or what to do when their own health collapses and the state must take up the burden of care

Quite simply, what we are seeing is a series of radical neo-con social experiments being pushed through with very little thought or understanding of how they will actually be made to work on the ground.

These radical changes are badly thought out and woefully under-resourced, and it is you in the third sector will end up dealing with this mess.

Whatever the outcome will be that those who care will be left to pick up the pieces…

…That we will continue to exploit ourselves and our staff and try to do even more caring and support, and work even longer hours for even less money.
…That we will struggle to get by with less core funding and will be asked to sign more waivers that prohibit us from speaking out about how bad things are getting for our 'clients'.
… that we will have to compete with each other for a smaller slice of the pie and to try and undercut the bare minimum on which we can deliver a service.

My biggest worry is that, rather than banding together and refusing to play this game of diminishing returns, the very fact that we are good people who care about what we do will mean that we will do all of these unsustainable things for all the right reasons.

The issue - a sustainable third sector

I want to stress the importance of the third sector to the well-being of our society and the health of our democracy, and argue for the need for government to recognise, value and actively support this contribution.

There is no two ways about it - I get angry and cross at the government's agenda and callous treatment of the most disadvantaged in our community but the issue that I'd like to think about today is - the relationship between the third sector and government (both in relation to policy development, service delivery and funding sustainability).

I want to put forward a few comments with a view to developing a dialogue on how we can set about to define and create an institutional relationship between government and the third sector that fosters and preserves the role of the third sector as the imagination of our democracy and the caring heart of our society…

'The imagination of our democracy'

A strong third sector is absolutely fundamental to ensuring we have a strong and vibrant democracy.

The third sector is the imagination of the nation and has always led the way.

Governments are always followers, and private industry is ultimately both too conservative and too totally self-interested to be socially innovative.

All the big ideas, big policy changes have come from the third sector.

The community sector is the ideas engine and carers of our society.

Ideological opposition

The important point is that the government does not simply just fail to understand the contribution and the scope of the community and not-for-profit sectors, but it is ideologically opposed and actively hostile towards the involvement of the third sector in advocacy and policy formation.
It doesn't simply just fail to understand the manner in which the third sector acts, as I argue, as the imagination of our democracy, but it seeks to deny the third sector has any legitimate role in advocating for social change and characterises us (ironically) as being single-issue special interest groups out to selfishly get as many resources as we can for our little patch.
The Howard Government simply wants the community sector to be cheap service providers and is perfectly happy for the sector to deliver social services cheaper and more efficiently than private businesses or government departments can do – provided we keep our heads down and our mouths shut.

So-called 'good economic managers'
The government in its self-appointed role of so-called 'good economic managers' currently puts vast amounts of government resources into monitoring the performance, health and contribution of the business sector.

As a consequence government policy is strongly influenced by this data, and the 'for-profit' sector (i.e. the private or 'second' sector) is invited to the table to get its self-interested views on developments in government policy.

Behind this way of thinking is an assumption that by looking after the health and the economic interests of the private sector this will somehow 'trickle down' to the wider community and result in better living standards for us all.

Can you imagine the difference it might make to the vibrancy of our society and the well-being of our citizens and the health of our economy if a similar amount of resources was put into monitoring the health and well-being of the third sector as is put into monitoring the economy and the private sector?

And a comparable amount of effort was put into pulling the policy levers to get favourable outcomes for our sector?

This is exactly where I believe we should be heading.

The Government has not done this sort of analysis for the third sector. If it did it would see that this sector is much larger than, say, agriculture or tourism.

For instance, according to the ABS in 1999-2000:

  • non-profit institutions accounted for $20.8 billion or 3.3 per cent of total GDP
  • when the value of work done by volunteers is included, the value of non-profit institutions to the economy increases to $29.7 billion or 4.7 per cent of GDP

The important point is that the contribution made by non-profit institutions is greater than that made by the communications, electricity, gas and water, and hospitality industries.
And that if the value of services provided by volunteers is taken into account the contribution made by the third sector is greater than that for government administration and defence, and the mining sector.

This is another reason why (in terms an economic rationalist could understand) the third sector needs to be taken more seriously in the governance and well-being of our nation. It accounts for a huge slice of our economy and of the work and productivity of all Australians.
We have entire government departments dedicated to particular sectors of the economy like agriculture and tourism, but where is the Minister or the department for the third sector?

What has happened in a nutshell

  • There has been an erosion of democratic institutions and policy making processes under Howard.
  • The state is becoming more centralised and controlling of the community sector as it withdraws from direct service delivery.
  • The executive arm of government now dominates the policy process, and much more power is put into the Ministers hands (but as AWB has shown, much less accountability)
  • There has been a deliberate program to silence and marginalise and criticism – including de-funding and reduced core funding, short-term project funding and tied funding and gag contracts, challenging the legitimacy and representativeness of peak bodies.
  • The pace of welfare reform has overtaken the sector.
  • The policy environment is unpredictable – sudden constant changes with no rationale (or consultation or scoping).
  • At the same time big business is beginning to use SLAPP suits to silence dissenting voices and potentially bankrupt community groups.
  • The sector is struggling to survive and is divided in that struggle.

The project I see before us is to push for a new relationship between government and the third sector.

A relationship which acknowledges the massive contribution the sector makes to not only the economy [now arguably in excess of $30 billion per annum] but more importantly to the strength and well-being of our society, and to the health and vibrancy of our democratic processes.

I believe that the nations who can now get it right - in terms of fostering the education, personal development and well-being of their citizens, in giving them the opportunities for meaningful work and a decent life that are the cornerstone of creativity, productivity and innovation (as well as personal happiness) - will ultimately be those who are best able to deal with the challenges of the twenty first century.

The roadmap

What we are calling for is a longer term project to acknowledge the role of the third sector, strengthen it and help it come together to speak with a strong and unified voice on the issues that count, and to ultimately develop and legislate for a new arrangement between government and the third sector that ensures equity, sustainability and justice and that separates (and enshrines its legitimate role as advocate for the marginalised, disadvantaged or oppressed) from the issue of public funding for core functions and contracts for service delivery.

At this stage we are not advocating a particular model - as we believe that this is ultimately something that needs to be debated and discussed and developed and ultimately agreed by the sector (in all its diversity).

We are looking with interest at the models of the 'Compact' in the UK and the 'Accord' in Canada as interesting starting points, but ultimately we will need something that is our own solution that fits Australian needs and circumstances.

So, to conclude, I simply say that I think we need to make this happen. We need to turn things around to create what is a just and caring society. We need to be better at standing up for our importance as a sector, better at working together and finding a common voice. Above all we need to start thinking for the long-term and looking at the big picture - thinking about the kind of society we are creating and the opportunities we provide for all Australians to lead meaningful, productive, rewarding and worthwhile lives.

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