"Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?"

"Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?"
Essays by notable Australians
Editors Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Who speaks for
and protects
the public interest
in Australia?
Essays by notable Australians
Who speaks for
and protects
the public interest
in Australia?
Essays by notable Australians
Editors Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
Editors Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
Image: 5 of the 43 randomly chosen citizen jurors who deliberated for 6 days on 2014 Melbourne City Council $5 billion Budget plans
Who speaks for
and protects
the public interest
in Australia?
Essays by notable Australians
Editors: Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
Published: February 2015
Australia21 Limited
ABN 25 096 242 010
ACN 096 242 010
E: [email protected]
W: www.australia21.org.au
ISBN 978-09873991-9-9
The views expressed by the essayists are their own
and do not necessarily represent those of Australia21.
Design: by Paper Monkey
Cover image: Angela Wylie/Fairfax Syndication
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Contents
Foreword: Defining and defending
the public interest in Australia
Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
2
Section 1: Setting the scene
How vested interests are subverting
the public interest John Menadue
Section 4: Indigenous futures
in the public interest
35
4
Reframing the terms of engagement
in Aboriginal affairs Patrick Dodson
36
5
Achieving wellbeing for all through
reconciliation action Kerry Arabena
38
Politics at the expense of
the public interest John Hewson 7
The problem is us Fred Chaney
9
Neoliberalism, values and
the public interest Elenie Poulos
11
Arts and the public interest
Kim Williams 13
Section 2: Definition and
measurement of the public interest 15
Reframing the notion of the
public interest Paul Barratt 16
Measuring the public interest
Richard Eckersley
18
Director’s duties and
stakeholder protection Jason Maletic 20
What is involved in serving the
public interest? Geoff Gallop
The meaning(s) of public
interest in law Simon Rice 22
24
Section 5: Refugees and
asylum seekers and
the public interest
What Australia’s refugee policy
has to teach us about our (not so)
liberal democracy Joyce Chia
Lateral solutions to developing
better global arrangements
for displaced people David Evans
40
41
43
Section 6: Mental health and the
right to die and the public interest 45
Improving mental health to build
a more resilient Australia Allan Fels
46
The challenging quest for
a right to die Marshall Perron
48
Section 7: Inequality, education
and early childcare
50
Inequality and the public interest
David Morawetz
51
Section 3: Climate and environment 26
The importance of a strong state
school system Vaughan Evans
53
Managing climate change:
in whose interest? Graeme Pearman
It takes a nation to raise a child
Julia Davison
55
27
Fossil fuel divestment as
a mechanism for defending
the public interest Charlie Wood 29
Urban water stewardship
in the public interest Mike Waller
31
Managing land, water and biodiversity
in the public interest Peter Ampt
33
Section 8: Funding the
public interest
57
The merits of an efficient
social purpose capital market
Michael Traill AM
58
Funding the public interest
Ross Buckley
60
Financing the federation
Alan Morris
Essays by notable Australians
62
Section 9: Fresh insights and
mechanisms for protecting
the public interest
64
A contribution from neuroscience
and evolutionary biology
Lynne Reeder
65
Leadership in the public interest
Helen Sykes and David Yencken
67
Leading police in the public interest
Mick Palmer
69
The voice of the people — kitchen table
conversations Mark Spain
71
Defending the public interest
through community organising
Phoebe Howe
73
Community organising aims
to win back civil society’s rightful place
Amanda Tattersall
75
Decisions by the people:
Melbourne City Council’s experiment
Michael Green
77
What can we do when self-interest
undermines the public interest?
Nicky Grigg and Steve Cork
80
What can be done to address the
current imbalance between public
and private interests? Alex Wodak
82
Engaging citizens in defining
national progress: the ANDI project
Mike Salvaris
84
Building better relationships
across government, research and
the community sectors Gemma Carey 86
Democracy flourishes when
the common good is front and
centre of government Mary Crooks
88
The case for a national
public interest council Bob Douglas
90
Acknowledgements
92
Australia21
93
Foreword:
Defining and defending
the public interest
in Australia
Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas AO is a retired public health academic,
who was a Founding Director of Australia21 and its first Chair.
Jo Wodak has degrees in English literature and history
and philosophy of science. She has worked extensively
in education including secondary, tertiary and adult education
in prisons. Until her recent retirement she worked in the
strategic policy and planning section of Corrective Services NSW.
What is the public interest? How does it
differ from private interests? Who decides?
What drives public policy? These are
questions which many people are
asking in a world that is increasingly
dominated by a culture of materialism
and self-interest both at corporate and
business levels and at the personal level
— except in those countries where just
to survive is the overriding imperative.
For the purposes of this discussion we
have accepted the definition of the public
interest as the ‘long-term welfare and
wellbeing of the general population’.
2
Australia is currently experiencing
a period of significant political change.
Both of the major political parties are
firmly preoccupied with economic
growth and the health of the corporate
sector but both seem more interested
in re-election than the courageous
articulation and implementation of
policies that will maximise public good.
There has been decline in the stature
of and respect for political parties and
for religious organisations in Australian
society, and our culture has been altered
both by neoliberal economic orthodoxy
and by globalisation. These trends have
resulted in a substantial increase in the
power and influence of multinational
business corporations.
Australia21, a not for profit research
company unaffiliated with any political
party or interest group, brings together
leading thinkers from all sectors of the
Australian community to explore current
evidence and develop new frameworks
for understanding some of the challenges
to our future. In recent discussions the
multidisciplinary Board of Australia21 has
identified public interest and its defence
as an issue requiring a new national focus.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
This volume of essays represents
the starting point for this endeavour.
We invited contributions from
a broad cross-section of thinkers,
researchers and policymakers,
not with a particular outcome in mind
but as a starting point for a future
Roundtable discussion to consider
the question: ‘Who is defending the
public interest in Australia and how can
it best be protected?’ The 39 essayists
who accepted our invitation
come from diverse backgrounds.
Many have extensive experience with
government and policy development,
including a number who are directors
and long-time associates of Australia21.
The five essays in the opening section
set the scene for the 34 contributions
that follow. John Menadue argues that the
lobbying power of vested interests is now
distorting the operation of government at
all levels and must be urgently addressed.
John Hewson sees a desperate need for
leadership and change in the structures
of parliamentary decision-making and
proposes the establishment of fully
independent policy bodies in key policy
areas such as tax and federation reform.
Reverend Elenie Poulos says that by
redefining the nature of human wellbeing
and the progress of humanity as that
which is measured in terms of limitless
economic growth, ever increasing wealth
and material prosperity, the values of
neoliberalism do not serve the wellbeing
of our societies but rather promote
inequity and fractured social cohesion.
Kim Williams speaks of the ‘infantilisation’
of Australian cultural and science policy
and says that unless a different, informed,
caring and activist policy stand is adopted,
the inevitable result will be stagnation,
declining education standards and
a marked talent drain. Fred Chaney argues
that while politics has become a contest to
win rather than to govern well, the solution
lies with us, the public. Our politicians
are captured and imprisoned by what
they perceive to be our demands and
until we demand something different,
the defects in the system will continue.
The second section of essays
focuses on broad questions of
definition and measurement,
acknowledging that both are complex
and multi-dimensional, and can be
context and purpose dependent.
Points emphasised in this section include
the importance of sound management
with respect to public utilities and public
‘goods’ such as defence, the environment
and justice, the importance of respect
between political parties and with the
public, the importance of formulating and
arguing policies on the basis of values and
evidence, and the importance of including
stakeholders in corporate responsibilities.
The 12 essays in the final section provide
a range of fresh insights and proposals
for protecting the public interest
largely through increased community
involvement. These include: community
organising, kitchen table conversations,
developing alliances across non
government groups, citizen juries,
new efforts at dialogue, application of
the International Charter for Compassion
(for which our own Australian
parliament was a founding signatory!),
youth activism, new ways of looking
at the role of police as negotiators and
street corner politicians, and the case
for a new national Public Interest Council.
Essays in the six sections that follow
have been grouped under topic headings,
which relate to particular fields where
public interest applies. These are:
We think that each of the 39 essays
warrants careful consideration by all
those who care about Australia’s future.
The instability of recent political events
makes it clear that the Australian
electorate is unhappy about the
way our democracy is practised
and the way our political parties have
been governing. This is hardly surprising
given the profound changes in our social,
economic and environmental systems
in recent times. However, it seems
clear that if we are to be resilient in
the face of changes ahead and if we
hope to leave our descendants a life
in which their welfare and wellbeing
are protected, we need to have a new
national dialogue about the public
interest. Bring it on, we say.
ŸŸclimate change and the environment,
ŸŸIndigenous futures and the
public interest,
ŸŸrefugees and asylum seekers,
ŸŸmental health and dying with dignity,
ŸŸfunding the public interest, and
ŸŸearly childcare, education and inequality.
Essays by notable Australians
3
Section 1:
Setting the scene
4
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
How vested interests
are subverting
the public interest
John Menadue
In business, John Menadue AO was formerly General Manager News Ltd
in Sydney and CEO of Qantas. In government he was Secretary Department
of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Secretary Department of Trade and Secretary
Department of Immigration and Ethnic affairs. He was also Australian
Ambassador to Japan. He is now patron of the Asylum Seeker Centre in Sydney
and a keen blogger. He was founding chair of the Centre for Policy Development.
There are many key public issues
that we must address. They include
climate change, growing inequality,
tax avoidance, budget repair, an ageing
population, lifting our productivity and
our treatment of asylum seekers.
But our capacity to address these
hard issues is becoming very difficult
because of the ability of vested
interests with their lobbying power
to influence governments in a quite
disproportionate way.
Lobbying has grown dramatically in
recent years, particularly in Canberra.
It now represents a growing and serious
corruption of good governance and
the development of sound public
policy. In referring to the so called
‘public debate’ on climate change,
Professor Ross Garnaut highlighted the
‘diabolical problem’ that vested interests
brought to bear on public discussion
on climate change.
These problems include:
ŸŸThere are over 900 full time
independent lobbyists working in
Canberra, more than 30 lobbyists
for every Cabinet minister. On top
of these ‘third party’ lobbyists,
there are the special interests
that conduct their own lobbying,
such as the Australian Pharmacy Guild.
Essays by notable Australians
ŸŸThese lobbyists encompass a range
of interests including mining, clubs,
hospitals, private health funds,
business and hotels that have all
successfully challenged government
policy and the public interest. Just think
what the Minerals Council of Australia
did to subvert public discussion on the
Resources Super Profits Tax and the
activities of Clubs Australia to thwart
gambling reform, or the polluters over
an Emissions Trading Scheme and
the Carbon Tax. With its lobbying power
over the major parties, the hotel lobby
at the state level effectively determines
hotel operating hours. Violence and
crime are a result.
5
ŸŸWith journalism under-resourced,
the media depends increasingly on
the propaganda and promotion put
into the public arena by these vested
interests. The Australian Centre for
Independent Journalism at the University
of Technology Sydney found in a survey
of major metropolitan newspapers
published in Australia in 2010 that
55 per cent of content was driven by
public relations handouts from lobbyists
and their associated public relations
arms, and 24 per cent of the content
of those metropolitan newspapers
had no significant journalistic input
whatsoever, relying heavily on
public relations handouts.
ŸŸThe Media Council of Australia
has drawn attention to how media
independence is increasingly
compromised by ‘advertorials’,
a deliberate confusing of advertising
and editorial content. The Council also
drew attention to trips financed by
large corporations and organisations
that were not disclosed. It’s not
just travel companies that do this.
ŸŸWith over 60 per cent of metropolitan
newspaper circulations in Australia,
News Ltd is a major obstacle to
informed debate on key public
issues like climate change.
ŸŸThe health ‘debate’ is really between
the Minister and the Australian Medical
Association, the Australian Pharmacy
Guild, Medicines Australia and the
Private Health Insurance companies.
The debate is not with the public about
health policy and strategy; it is about
how the minister and the department
manage the vested interests.
ŸŸThe wealthy private schools are
obstacles to needs-based funding
which is necessary for both equity
and efficiency reasons.
6
ŸŸMany of the policy skills in Canberra
departments have been downgraded
and much of the policy work is now in
the hands of young staff in ministers’
offices that are much more inclined
to listen to vested interests.
ŸŸPolicy work within the government
is now undertaken more in specialist
organisations such as the Productivity
Commission rather than in the
departments. Departmental policy
capability has been seriously denuded.
What can be done?
ŸŸFederal lobbyists have to be registered
with the Department of Prime Minister
and Cabinet, but this is inadequate.
They should also be obliged to promptly,
publicly and accurately disclose the
discussions and meetings they have
had with ministers, shadow ministers
and senior public servants.
ŸŸA public interest impact statement
prepared by an independent and
professional body should accompany
all proposals by special interest
groups. This public impact statement
would be attached to representations
from the vested interest group.
Many of the major private consulting
firms should be excluded from this
process as many of them have shown
themselves to be compromised
in the interests of their clients.
ŸŸRefuse tax benefits for ‘think tanks’
like Institute of Public Affairs that are
secretly funded and act as fronts
for vested interests.
ŸŸDepartments such as Health
that are so influenced by special
interests should have different
governance arrangements.
The traditional minister/departmental
model in Health is a happy hunting
ground for vested interests that
significantly influence outcomes
in health. The Reserve Bank, composed
of independent and professional
persons, has shown the benefit of such
governance arrangements in keeping
vested interests at bay and promoting
an informed public debate. We need
such an arrangement in the health
field particularly.
ŸŸNo minister or senior official should
work with a vested interest group
that they have been associated with
for at least five years after retirement
or resignation.
ŸŸThere should be increased funding
to the parliament to provide alternate
public advice in key policy areas.
The Parliamentary Budget Office
is a good start. Independent and
professional advisers must fill the
current policy vacuum. At the moment
the policy vacuum is filled by special
interests assisted in many cases by a
compliant and under-resourced media.
ŸŸAdequate funding of the Australian
Broadcasting Commission to assert the
public interest and develop good public
policy is now more important than ever.
ŸŸMajor reform of election funding to stop
powerful groups buying political favours.
ŸŸA federal Independent Commission
Against Corruption and in each state
to examine allegations of corruption.
ŸŸCitizen Assemblies of randomly selected
people who are fully informed on key
public issues to advise governments.
Action to assert the public interest
in the face of powerful vested
interests is necessary on many fronts.
The problem is urgent.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Politics at the expense
of the public interest
John Hewson
John Hewson AM is an Australian economist,
company director and a former politician.
He was federal leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
from 1990 to 1994
The Australian electorate is
increasingly disenchanted with,
and feels disenfranchised by, the two
major political parties, preoccupied in
themselves, and in attempting to score
short-term political points on each other.
Politics is seen as a ‘game’, focused on
winning the daily media, significantly
dominated by political ‘apparatchiks’,
where special interests can have undue
influence, and ministers have little or
no relevant qualifications or experience
in the portfolios they are appointed
to manage.
Politics has become very short-term,
disturbingly personal, negative,
populist and opportunistic.
Gone are the days when politics
could be thought of as a contest of
ideas, or ideologies, or ‘values’ driven.
Much of what has occurred is simply
due to pragmatism, in the context
of ‘small target’ political strategies,
whereby they simply ‘oppose’ the other
side, while saying or doing whatever is
required to win, providing little detail
of the policies that will be required to
deliver on commitments/promises.
The result is poor public policy debate,
limited genuine structural reform,
and the destruction of trust in,
and accountability by, government.
So the public interest is easily sacrificed
in this process. To the extent that
‘Government makes a difference’,
it actually works to increase inequality.
Electoral choice is therefore largely
reduced to personalities, rather than
policies, with both sides promising
blue sky, making commitments that
they must recognize are undeliverable,
but cynically accepting that they will
need to ‘double cross’ those bridges
when they come to them.
Elections have become a choice between
the lesser of two evils, and then having to
live with the evil of two lessers. More often
than not, issues and problems are simply
left to drift or, at best, are only dealt with
in a cursory, short-term ‘fix’, fashion.
While Abbott’s net satisfaction
rating has rarely, if ever, been positive,
Gillard/Rudd were ultimately seen
as worse. The electorate was left
to accept the least worse.
While I don’t like labels, both parties
have drifted to ‘the right’, essentially
embracing a ‘neoliberal’ approach,
and the differences between them
have narrowed dramatically.
Indeed, at times, they have been at
pains to argue that they are ‘just as
fiscally conservative’ as the other side,
just as accepting of market realities and
disciplines as the other, just as accepting
of privatization, open markets and
deregulation, as the other, and so on.
Essays by notable Australians
While Abbott, for example, would
want to believe that he won the 2013
election with his promises to abolish
the carbon and mining taxes etc.,
the reality is he won because the
Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Governments
were so bad, and so self-absorbed.
Clearly the electorate was prepared to
just throw the ALP out, even though any
objective assessment of the promise
to abolish the carbon and mining taxes
would conclude that it would be against
the public interest to do so.
7
Similarly, the electorate just wanted to
punish Newman in Queensland, and
throw out his government, even though
the Opposition offered virtually nothing,
except to oppose asset sales/leasing.
Are we to conclude that the debasement
of politics and the processes of
government have now blurred the
electorate’s understanding of the
public interest, of what is good for
their long-term welfare and wellbeing?
Moreover, Abbott won with slogans
— stop the boats, fix the Budget,
create 2 million jobs, etc —
with little or no detail as to ‘how’.
Not surprisingly, he has found it very
difficult to make the transition from
Opposition, where he could rule with
the politics of negativity and character
assassination, to government,
where the emphasis is more on policy,
solutions, and governing.
Is the electorate now learning what
price was paid in terms of the public
interest just ‘to get rid of that other lot’?
But, what choice do they really have,
when neither side seems to understand,
value, and intend to govern, in the
public interest?
One answer is, of course, with
compulsory voting, to vote for minor
parties and independents, but the recent
experience with the Senate would
suggest that they too slip so easily into
negativity, simply opposing everything.
Does it have to be a negative-sum game?
Is the public interest too important to be
left to the current crop of politicians?
How can we hope to move forward?
It would seem that there are only
two options. First, Leadership, where
someone, or a group, breaks out
of the day-to-day political mire,
being prepared to clean up political
funding/influence/lobbying,
and to address issues on their merit
and substance, build electoral support
for action, outline the options by way
of a policy response, and then accept
and defend a particular policy.
Second, reform the structures
and processes of government to
effectively remove politicians and
politics from key decision-making.
There is a range of options here,
spreading from parliamentary reform
including, importantly, an enhancement of
the role and significance of parliamentary
committees, and public consultation,
on key issues and legislation, through to
the establishment of fully independent
policy bodies in key policy areas, such as
tax and federation reform.
As was done with the establishment
of an independent Reserve Bank,
because interest rates and the exchange
rate were too important to be left to
Cabinet political, decision-making.
As ironic as it must sound, we need
an ‘anti-politics’ movement. We need
people to focus on the ‘public interest’,
as hard as that is to specify. But, the
people are ‘the boss’, yet they don’t
necessarily focus on, or understand,
what is in their longer-term interests.
The gap is leadership.
8
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
The problem is us
Fred Chaney
The Hon Fred Chaney AO was a lawyer and a politician
from 1974 to 1993. He served in the Fraser government including
as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. He became Senior Australian
of the Year in 2014 in recognition of his commitment
to reconciliation and human rights.
Over many years I have been indebted to
Ian Marsh and others more academically
able than I for their accounts of
the fragmentation of democratic
politics here and in like democracies.
The simplicity of the socialist versus
private enterprise of the past has
been replaced. The one-time monopoly
of the major parties has gone, splintered
by interest group politics. Single-minded
political support can be garnered around
issues such as gender, the environment,
human rights, free markets, nuclear
issues, race and culture. All of these
and more attract passionate devotees
who will judge a government on their
single issue and vote accordingly. In the
context of the recent Senate elections
this has become close to absurd with
the Sex Party and the Motorists Party
on offer and some, campaigning on
a single issue, finding their way into the
parliament (though ironically Ricky Muir,
the Motorist Party representative
elected to the Senate, seems one of
the more reasonable voices in the
current parliament).
In the past, political parties were the
sorting mechanism for issues seeking
attention. The parties were broadly
based in the community and occupied
understood segments of political thought
— socialist or anti socialist perhaps.
They fought elections from their
understood ground, a broad theory
on how the country is best governed.
They won some and lost some.
The difficulty in getting a focus on the
broad interest rather than the particular
interest was brought home to me recently
when I was asked to address a meeting of
the Western Australian state branch of the
Australian Council of the Ageing (ACOTA).
This is an organisation I had engaged
with and came to respect during my long
ago term as Minister for Social Security
(1980–83). The meeting was chaired
by another retired politician, one I know
and respect, Bob Kucera.
Bob was giving his farewell address
as retiring president, in the course of
which he listed — as you would expect
— the current wish list of my generation,
older Australians. Everything on the
list involved additional government
expenditure. It was a legitimate wish
list and included what I thought was
a very high need item, assistance for
the homeless pensioner. This was
a voice entitled to be heard.
Essays by notable Australians
However, obsessed as I am at present by
the need to stop writing cheques on our
children’s futures, I was puzzling how
to address what I regarded as a worthy
and committed audience in the face of
my belief that some of their demands
went beyond what is currently possible.
Fortunately Bob saved me. He chose to
quote one of JFK’s great lines: ‘Ask not
what your country will do for you, ask
what you can do for your country.’
I was able to use that theme to suggest
that we older Australians might bring
our accumulated wisdom to bear on
national issues and speak and act beyond
our self-interest. As far as I could tell the
idea was well received. We all like to think
we have accumulated some wisdom and
like to serve others.
As a reasonably long serving politician,
1974 to 1983, it might seem surprising I do
not expect refreshed leadership about the
public interest to come from politicians.
In this truly democratic country they are
our servants rather than our masters.
9
The political process has been
professionalised. This has impacted on
those who serve. The contest is about
winning the competition at election time
rather than governing well. The need to
master the game of politics has removed
much of the political class from focussing
on community reality and what the
whole community needs. The game,
like the media, focuses on politics rather
than governing well. Serving politicians
stand or fall on winning the game, and
the game includes knowing the interest
groups and buying them off if that is
the price of election.
This will continue until the community
wants something different and is
prepared to vote for something different.
Can the community be brought to put
immediate sectional self-interest aside
and support the public rather than the
sectional interest?
The problem, like the solution,
therefore lies as much with what
is outside politics and government
as what is inside. Can the powerful
representative voices such the Business
Council of Australia, the Chamber of
Commerce and Industry, the Small
Business Association, the Australian
Council of Trade Unions, the Australian
Council of Social Services, the Australian
Council of the Ageing, the Australian
Council for Rehabilitation of the
Disabled, the Australian Conservation
Foundation, Greenpeace and so on be
brought to support decisions made
for the broad rather than the narrow
interest? Will they countenance making
compromises of the sort governments
must if the public interest is to be served?
10
Years ago, when I was Opposition
spokesman on Environment
(1990–93), the most convincing
document I came across was the
United Nations commissioned report
‘Our Common Future’. Produced by
33 countries ranging from the richest
to the poorest and under the chairing of
Gro Brundtland, it analysed the problems
and solutions taking into account
environmental and economic, including
poverty, issues. It sticks in my mind as
a shining example of understanding
and accepting that issues are complex
and difficult and do not admit to winner
takes all approaches.
A problem with claiming to know the
public interest is that views will differ
as to what is in the public interest.
I, for example, believe it is in the national
interest to have the budget in balance
over any reasonable period. Currently that
means serious attention to reorganising
the budget on both the income and
expenditure side. Some would disagree.
But if there is a broad understanding
that the people of Australia can’t
pay themselves more than Australia
produces, can we agree on how we
fairly share what the country produces
rather than borrowing from the next and
future generations? Can we agree how
that might be done? In 2015 I see this
as a key challenge to all of us and a test
of whether we give a damn about the
public interest. Could we find across the
sort of interest groups mentioned above
a shared view on the need for budget
reorganisation and what choices we
have to make?
If such powerful community voices are not
up to this challenge it is not surprising the
politicians are not either. We elect them,
they do not elect us. They are neither
better nor worse than us, just captured
and imprisoned by our demands.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Neoliberalism, values
and the public interest
Elenie Poulos
Reverend Elenie Poulos is the National Director of UnitingJustice Australia,
the justice policy and advocacy unit of the Uniting Church
in Australia’s national council, the Assembly. She is the Church’s
lead spokesperson on human rights, social justice and environmental issues.
Elenie is past Chair and member of the Commission of Act for Peace
(the aid agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia),
founding Chair and member of the Board of the
Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, non-executive Director of ANDI
(the project to develop a national wellbeing index for Australia)
and a member of the World Council of Churches’ advisory group,
the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.
She is doctoral student at Macquarie University, researching
in the area of religion, politics and human rights.
Since the beginning of historical records,
humans have pursued wealth and the
power it affords, but only relatively
recently has the world itself become
organised around the service of
that wealth. The systems and structures
which define the way our world works
are financial, geared to the making of
profit, and they are global, buoyed by
governments whose domestic and
foreign policies ensure the continued
growth and maintenance of what has
become the most powerful ‘empire’
of our times.
We have redefined the nature of
human wellbeing and the progress of
humanity as that which is measured
in terms of limitless economic growth,
ever-increasing wealth and material
prosperity. We make decisions based on
what is good for ‘the economy’ as if it
was a living thing and not merely a tool
intended to serve the needs of people
and the planet.
Capital and the market are now the
whizzing hub of society and politics.
Almost every aspect of life is being
commodified, counted, measured and
assessed according to its economic value.
The culture of competition on which this
global economic empire is built is seeing
the small, the weak and the local losing
Essays by notable Australians
out to the big, the strong and the global.
Rampant market-driven consumerism,
without which the empire would collapse,
is privileging the individual, usually
known as ‘the consumer’, over the
community and the corporation over
the nation (witness the impending and
secretively negotiated Trans-Pacific
Partnership Agreement which threatens
to grant foreign corporations the right
to sue governments for policies and
laws that adversely affect their profits
regardless of the good those laws do
for the population or the environment).
Rapacious greed is all too often rewarded
(bank bailouts following the Global
Financial Crisis spring to mind), policies
that promote equity, social justice,
11
human wellbeing and environmental
responsibility are discouraged, and we are
suffocating ourselves and the planet with
an immovable commitment to continual
growth fired by fossil fuels.
This empire is colonising every field of
human life and endeavour. Think about
how education is now part of the
‘productivity’ agenda in this country and
how essential services such as electricity,
healthcare, employment services and
prisons are delivered for profit.
All of this is happening in the name of
a ‘healthy economy’ and the values that
lie beneath this particular version of
‘the economy’, the values of neoliberalism
— greed, individualism, materialism,
competition and consumerism —
remain mostly hidden and unspoken.
The power of the neoliberal agenda
lies in a few prevailing mythologies
(created and perpetuated by those
with power — the ‘winners’) that have
captured (imprisoned) our imaginations.
One is that everyone will benefit —
eventually. Another is that our economic
system is values-neutral — it’s just
what works; it is the only possible way.
The Jesuit public theologian,
David Hollenbach, wrote in his book
The Global Face of Public Faith that
‘public policy should reflect the cultural
consensus about the social good’. This is
what the ‘public interest’ is — that which
promotes the long-term wellbeing of
people and the planet that we depend on.
12
In a context where ‘social good’
or the ‘common good’ is assumed to
be economic neoliberalism, what’s in
the ‘public interest’ becomes whatever
advances the neoliberal economic
agenda. And for the powerful servants of
neoliberalism it becomes a most useful
piece of rhetoric — one cannot argue
with a policy that is in the ‘public interest’.
Policy reforms which arise from a
different set of values — equity, justice,
generosity, cooperation, community,
compassion, empathy — and respect
for the environment and the dignity of
every person, are derided as ‘idealistic’,
‘soft’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘socialist’ (and we
all know how that turned out!). They are
often described as being the outcome
of sectoral or minority concerns and
therefore not in ‘the public interest’.
The concerns of groups and individuals
who are marginalised in society,
who struggle to be seen let alone have
their voices heard, are exactly those we
must listen to if we are truly interested
in policy reform in the public interest.
It is only by allowing ourselves to be
confronted by those who suffer as a
result of the way things are, that we will
understand what truly is in the public
interest. For the values of neoliberalism
do not serve the wellbeing of our
societies. They promote inequity, breed
isolation and fracture social cohesion.
The public interest, on the other
hand, when well served, will promote
a decent society, where people care
about each other, celebrate diversity
and welcome strangers. A commitment
to the public interest will see us working
together to nurture a vibrant and robust
democracy in which all can participate.
We will not be swayed by fear to support
policies that punish, harm or exclude.
We won’t allow the planet and all
the life it supports, including future
generations, to be jeopardised by our
short-term greed. We’ll care about
how all people experience life everyday
— those who are homeless, or living
with a disability or a mental illness or
intergenerational disadvantage. We’ll
care about the effects on individuals,
families and communities of domestic
violence or the violence of colonialism
and dispossession. We’ll be committed
to ensuring that all people can flourish
regardless of any of these things.
And we’ll demand of our politicians
leadership that inspires us to be open,
generous, creative and bold and that
delivers public policy that consistently
and genuinely serves the public interest,
for the good of us all and the future of
the planet.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Arts and
the public interest
Kim Williams
Kim Williams AM has had a long involvement in arts, entertainment
and media industries here and overseas and held various
executive leadership positions including as Chief Executive
at each of News Corp Australia, FOXTEL, Fox Studios Australia,
the Australian Film Commission, Southern Star Entertainment
and Musica Viva Australia and as a senior executive at the ABC.
He has held numerous Board positions and Chairmanships in
commercial and public life over more than three decades including
as Chairman of the Australian Film Finance Corporation which
he founded in 1988, Chairman of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra,
Chairman of Musica Viva Australia, and most recently
Chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust from 2005 until 2013.
Our society is increasingly governed
by characteristics that are profoundly
unhelpful to, indeed destructive of,
improvement and clear direction in
national public policy formulation.
Consequently that much abused term
the public interest is serially disrespected.
These dangerous trends with manifest
impact on policy formulation are seen
particularly in:
ŸŸmoney being treated as the measure of
value in all things rather than as one of
many measures;
ŸŸpoliticians and their bureaucracies
increasingly debasing, through neglect
and disengagement, creativity and
intellect as the vital crucibles of the
national future;
ŸŸmedia often being unable to disconnect
discussion of science and the arts and
their centrality to national expression
and innovation from rigid ideological
positions and/or populist ranting; and
ŸŸour society adopting the perilous course
of celebrating the anti-intellectual
and the triumph of ‘general ignorance’
over considered respectful
debate which aims to test ideas
and assumptions so as to arrive at
evidence-supported outcomes.
Essays by notable Australians
These forces are readily apparent in the
two arenas that celebrate and empower
creativity and innovation like no other
— the arts and pure science. Support has
declined, policies are malformed on the
altar of populism and ‘dumbing down’
to an ever-lower common denominator,
and short-term devotion rules the policy
and resourcing day. This is allied with
a fearsome trend that denies and rejects
considered knowledge-based debate,
replacing it with dogmatic assertion.
13
I would describe this process as the
’infantilisation’ of Australian cultural
and science policy. Unless a different,
informed, caring and activist policy stand
is adopted, the inevitable result will be
stagnation, declining education standards
and a marked talent drain. Without early
correction we will have a poorer society
and it will become ever harder to rebound.
The Australian Labor Party has an arts
policy (no doubt well intentioned) that
tries to accommodate all comers —
as a result it has little durable essence
or meaning other than providing a recital
of modern clichés. The federal Coalition
has no published arts policy at all. None.
I would contend that in this century
a society that loses contact with and
commitment to respecting, celebrating
and appropriately resourcing pure
science and the arts across many
domains will decay. Science clearly has
been in evident decline in Australia for
way too long. Maths and science streams
in schools have seen alarming declines
in normative performance levels and
current policy and funding priorities
are making the direction of scientific
research increasingly dysfunctional.
The three word slogan rules policy
formulation. Needs analyses with careful
delineation of defined priorities, backed
by durable tested action and refinement,
are distant memories.
Our performing arts, galleries and
museums, and the education system
central to their health, are in real decline.
Resourcing is compromised and no
longer a priority. We see performing arts
centres and companies, and museums
and galleries, constantly having to confine
and contain the innovation and renewal
in thinking so central to their vitality.
All too often they are consumed with
writing tenders for survival. Theatre and
music companies have little room for
experimentation as the financial stakes
are so finely balanced. Film and television
drama and documentary also have severe
issues that demand serious change from
education onwards.
14
There are so many examples that
demonstrate this era of passive
neglect that I could never summarise
them adequately in this short space.
However they are changing the
aspiration and goals of our creators
and that is profoundly unhealthy.
The internet and digital technology
generally have changed forever
the nature of information access,
exchange and the direction of society
through politics, commerce, creativity,
education and communication in life
as we know it. These technologies
are indifferent to national boundaries,
laws and controls, overriding borders
and negating their relevance and power
to control transactions of all sorts.
Continuing fragmentation is guaranteed
— the ferocity of attack and the velocity
of change will not abate. It is vitally
important for a nation with limited power
like Australia to better understand and
manage within this ‘new normal’.
Merit, ingenuity, speed, flexibility and
performance increasingly rule the day.
Australia is losing in this process and it is
losing because of national policy failure.
The urgency of public policy renewal in
education and the arts is impossible to
over emphasise.
We are a small country at ‘the bottom
of the world’ (notwithstanding the
internet) with many parochial pillars that,
whilst they may be ‘cheerful’ to some,
are venomous to national ambition and
achievement. An English-speaking nation
of a mere 23 million is either profoundly
advantaged or potentially disabled as
a result almost entirely of its public policy
settings and the outcomes they achieve
and reflect.
It is essential that we respect our duty of
intergenerational care and acknowledge
the need for national ground-up policy
(and allied resourcing) review to ensure
a healthy, vibrant and dynamic creative
landscape that is equally innovative,
connected, ambitious and challenging.
For a vulnerable small country there is
no future in being bland! We need bold
confident national futures, which only
come from ground-plan policy review
and the ambition it adopts.
Across the arts it is imperative
that stakeholders work together to
fashion a fresh positively integrated
policy approach, one which
recognises this radically changed
operating environment. Hopefully the
creative community itself will seize
the day and drive a program for lasting
reform that addresses issues holistically
and doesn’t repeat the present cycle of
dreary 20th century policy recitals.
The failure of political agendas in
creative life is, I suggest, our collective
failure. The absence of fresh approaches
which are both relevant and compelling
reflects a failure to renovate thinking in
working settings which are all too often
in a time capsule — frozen in space and
time from three, even four decades ago
in their policy, regulatory, financial and
industrial frameworks.
The disturbing absence of effective
action has seen our political
culture descend into an era of petty
sloganeering and serial passive neglect
of the vital creative foundations for
a confident national future. We must
seize the day, engaging and advocating
persuasively for that which we care about,
persuading commentators and decision
makers as to policies where creativity and
intellectual property production provide
bedrock for relevant national agendas
truly reflecting long-term public interest.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Section 2:
Definition and
measurement of
the public interest
Essays by notable Australians
15
Reframing the notion
of the public interest
Paul Barratt
Paul Barratt AO is a founding director of Australia21, and its current Chair.
He spent most of his career in the Commonwealth Public Service,
mainly in areas relating to resources, energy and international trade,
culminating in appointments as Secretary to the
Departments of Primary Industries and Energy (1996–98)
and Defence (1998–99). He now runs his own consulting business.
He has an Honours Degree in Physics from the University of New England
and an Arts Degree (Asian Civilisation and Economics)
from the Australian National University.
The Australian body politic desperately
needs to reframe its concept of the
public interest, and conduct its political
processes on the basis of this reframing.
I am not referring to the specific content
of the public interest which will vary from
political party to political party and from
time to time. What I am referring to is the
very idea of how the public interest might
be conceived — what is this thing called
‘the public interest’?
The public interest will be connected only
incidentally if at all with the interests of
the governing party, which will mainly be
to do with retaining power. In the current
era of professionalised (and constant)
campaigning, the focus of the parties
is on three questions — which are the
marginal electorates in which we need
to win in order to win the next election,
who within those electorates might be
persuadable to our point of view, and
what do we need to do to get them to
come on board?
16
The answers to those questions are very
unlikely to have anything to do with the
public interest, because the public interest
is not the same as the sum of the private
interests of a relatively small number of
voters in a small number of electorates.
Indeed, the public interest is not even the
sum of the private interests of all voters
— it is a different notion altogether,
a notion of ‘the common good’.
Accordingly, the public interest must
be constructed from some notion of
policy directed to the welfare/wellbeing
(broadly defined) of the general public.
It can be expected that a government
genuinely concerned about the public
interest will direct a high proportion of
its time to what economists call ‘public
goods’. Economists define ‘public goods’
as those which are ‘non-rivalrous’ (one
person’s consumption of them does
not reduce the capacity of another to
consume them) and ‘non-excludable’
(it is not possible to make them
available to some while excluding
others). ‘Goods’ which fall into this
category include national defence,
environmental quality, fresh air,
knowledge, and the dispensation
of justice. To a reasonable approximation,
and in the absence of congestion
effects, network infrastructure
(transport, communications, electricity,
water and gas) has many of the
characteristics of public goods.
This latter category introduces another
reason for governmental attention
pursuant to the public interest,
namely market failure due to the presence
of ‘externalities’ — the people making
the investments in them cannot capture
all the benefits of that investment and
so will tend to under-invest. An obvious
example of this is the fact that
investments in transport infrastructure
add to the value of adjacent land, but none
of that value flows to a private investor.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
The same applies to research and
development and, I would argue,
education at all levels: not all of the
benefits of education flow to the
person undertaking the education.
Society is not and cannot be
indifferent to what its citizens know,
what skills they have, what values they
have imbibed, nor how many doctors,
engineers, lawyers and teachers we have.
At least three criteria need to be fulfilled
if we are to reasonably approximate
a return to conducting our politics
with due regard to the public interest.
First there is the requirement for
politicians to treat each other and the
voting public with respect. The latter
means by definition treating journalists
with respect, for it is through the
activities of journalists asking probing
questions that the public acquires the
knowledge that keeps them informed and
able to make informed choices, and helps
to keep governments accountable.
This means abandoning the
approach embodied in the media
training courses which have flourished
over the last 20 years and been
reinforced by governments’ media
advisers, the courses that counsel
spokespeople to respond to any
question by reciting an inane and boring
memorised set of bullet points which
praises the government and refers
repetitively to the mess left behind
by the government’s predecessor,
but does not address the question.
On the all too rare occasions when the
journalist pushes for an answer to the
question, the formulaic response is
recited again. To resort to the vernacular,
this is taking us all for mugs, and most
of us know it. A government which
respects the public which voted it in
and pays the taxes which enable it to
function will recognise and respect the
public’s right to know everything that
is going on, with the exception only
of those things which if known would
have a material negative impact on
the public interest (e.g. information
properly given a national security
classification, information relating
to police investigations, information
impacting on the privacy of individuals).
Its spokespeople will give meaningful
answers to legitimate questions, and
if they are not prepared to answer the
question they will come right out and
say so, and why, rather than ducking
and weaving and giving an obfuscatory
answer to a question that hasn’t
been asked.
The second criterion is that policies
submitted to the parliament and the
public should be based on evidence.
Some object to calls for ‘evidence-based
policy’ on the spurious ground that under
such an approach the government is
disempowered from doing anything
if irrefutable evidence in support of
its policy is not available. This is not
what it means at all. Evidence-based
policy means basing policy on the best
evidence that is available — on the
state of human knowledge as it exists
at the time. Above all, the principle
rules out policy that flies in the face of
the evidence. If policy is not founded
upon what we know, it is not possible
to conduct a rational debate about it,
and people, whether in parliament or
in the wider community, cannot bring
to the debate what they know.
Essays by notable Australians
Third, government throughout Australia
needs to be conducted on the basis of
what in the European Union context is
known as the ‘principle of subsidiarity’.
This is the principle that all matters
should be dealt with by the lowest level
of government that is competent to deal
with them. The Commonwealth likes to
involve itself in matters like road funding,
but except in the case of trunk routes of
genuinely national significance, these and
a host of other matters can safely be left
to the states.
We get the governments we deserve,
it is said. If we want things to improve,
the Australian public will need to be
much more vigilant and demanding
about our political processes.
They will need to insist that our elected
representatives from all parties conduct
themselves with dignity and decorum
in our federal parliament, that policy
and legislation be directed to the public
interest rather than the interests of the
swinging voter, that policy be directed
to matters for which the relevant
level of government is responsible,
that it be based on the best evidence
that is available and the case for it
argued by reference to that evidence,
that parliamentary debates be about
the substance of the important issues
before the parliament rather than
an occasion for hurling abuse across
the chamber, and that the public’s
right to know be fully respected.
17
Measuring the
public interest
Richard Eckersley
Richard Eckersley AM is an independent researcher
and a founding director of Australia21. His work explores progress
and wellbeing, and includes: measures of national progress;
the relationships between economic growth, quality of life
and sustainability; the social and cultural determinants
of health and happiness; visions of the future; and young people
and their world. He trained as a zoologist and has held positions
with The Sydney Morning Herald, CSIRO Australia,
the Commission for the Future, the Australian government
and the Australian National University.
The public interest is not
simple or obvious, but complex
and multidimensional.
If we take the definition, adopted in
this volume, that the public interest is
the long-term welfare and wellbeing
of the general population, how do we
know what contributes to this goal,
or how best to achieve it?
18
On many specific issues that bear on
the public interest, the evidence is
contested and opinion is divided, often
increasingly so. What’s more, we can’t
serve the public interest by ‘picking off’
issues and policies one by one, whether
these concern healthcare, education,
drugs and crime, poverty and inequality,
or climate change. Although such efforts
can sometimes succeed, issues and
the policies to address them are linked
to deeper questions of ideologies and
worldviews and the values these embody.
The public interest has to be addressed at
different levels or depths, acknowledging
that societies are ‘complex adaptive
systems’ made up of many elements that
interact in often multiple, diffuse ways,
and whose behaviour emerges from
the way the whole system functions —
in other words, the whole is more than
the sum of its parts. We can’t look at it
piece by piece and expect to understand
and control it, which is what we tend to
do in both science and politics.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Take the very topical example of the
‘je suis Charlie’ phenomenon in the
wake of the terrorist attack on staff of
the French satirical magazine Charlie
Hebdo. The ‘official story’ is that this was
a legitimate expression of defiance and
solidarity in defence of western values,
notably freedom. But among other levels
of meaning associated with the event is
that western governments — whether
wittingly or not — are milking the attack
(and other similar events) because it
distracts both them and the people
from the host of environmental, social,
cultural and economic problems they
are unwilling or unable to fix.
Global surveys by the Pew Research
Center in 2014 found that life satisfaction
rose strongly in emerging economies
such as China, India and Brazil between
2007 and 2014, almost closing the
gap between them and advanced
economies (where life satisfaction
changed little); it also rose in poorer,
developing economies. Life satisfaction
increased more in those countries with
higher rates of economic growth. In most
countries majorities agreed most people
were better off in a free-market economy,
even if some people were rich and
some poor. People the world over seem
satisfied with the way things are going.
Democracy — the political expression of
public interest — is waning as power is
ceded to other, non-democratic bodies,
notably global corporations, and as the
challenges facing democracy reach
a scale and magnitude that are beyond
its capacity to resolve (climate change
is both a real example and a symbol of
this). With terrorism, governments can
act decisively, even heroically. But in
responding this way, in magnifying the
significance of the events, they play into
the terrorists’ hands. As in George Orwell’s
1984, we seem now to be at perpetual
war, which justifies authoritarian control
and keeps populations compliant.
Yet other research paints a very
different picture. Most people in the
developed world do not think quality of
life is getting better, and many think it
is getting worse. Studies across many
countries consistently reveal concerns
about the pace of life, loss of community,
family conflict and breakdown, growing
social inequality and division, crime
and violence, rampant consumerism,
and destruction of the natural
environment. People’s preferred futures
emphasise close-knit communities,
more conviviality and intimacy,
social harmony, human-scale
settlements and technologies,
and a clean, healthy environment.
Beyond the world of our personal
experience, we rely on indicators to define
what is in our interest; amongst these
are how we measure human progress
and development. The orthodox indices
and indicators, notably increasing per
capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP),
place western liberal democracies at
the top of the international rankings.
This model equates progress with
modernisation. Broadly speaking,
the indicators measure the benefits
of modernisation, but not its costs
(setting aside indicators of environmental
impacts). Even the current vogue
for measuring life satisfaction
and happiness fails in this regard.
In a 2005 survey Australians were
asked about two scenarios for
the nation’s future: a fast-paced,
internationally competitive society,
with the emphasis on the individual,
wealth generation and enjoying ‘the good
life’; or a greener, more stable society,
with the emphasis on cooperation,
community and family, more equal
distribution of wealth, and greater
economic self-sufficiency (these are not
the full scenarios). Almost three quarters
(73 per cent) expected the first; almost all
(93 per cent) preferred the second.
Essays by notable Australians
Put another way, people’s perceptions
of their interest, and their welfare,
can vary with the context in which these
are considered. Framed within orthodox
political priorities, people endorse the
status quo. Widen their perspective
to consider preferred ways of living,
and their view shifts — radically.
Politics and the media define quite
arbitrarily what warrants debate
and discussion. Much that is important
is excluded. American communication
theorist Daniel Hallin distinguished
between three spheres of political
debate: the sphere of consensus,
the sphere of legitimate controversy,
and the sphere of deviance. Only matters
falling within the second sphere gain
attention. (A similar thing happens in
science, where established paradigms
or theories set the research questions
worth studying.)
At this fundamental level, then, acting
in the public interest requires us to
strive in every possible way through
discussion and action, not just in politics
and the media but also in science,
education, law and religion, to expand
the sphere of legitimate controversy
to encompass more of the sphere
of consensus — what is understood
to be broadly agreed and accepted
— and the sphere of deviance — what
is judged to be unworthy, ridiculous or
dangerous. This larger agenda includes
the assumptions, beliefs and values
that underpin modernisation, including
western culturalisation and material
progress. Anything less is not enough.
19
Director’s duties and
stakeholder protection
Jason Maletic
Jason is currently a Senior Advisor with Mills Oakley Lawyers
in Melbourne. He has formerly held senior positions
at Macquarie Group and Westpac. He is the Deputy Chair of
the Royal Children’s Hospital (Victoria) Bioethics Development Board
and a past Director of Brainlink Services Ltd. He is a Director of Australia21.
Corporate governance theory suggests
that the primary duty of directors is to
maximise shareholder value. Simply put,
this means that directors should be
concerned with increasing and sustaining
corporate profit. Whether directors’
duties can be extended both practically
and at law to considerations of social,
economic and environmental impact
is a point of debate.
Central to this debate is the concept
of ‘stakeholder theory’ that posits that
a corporation concerned solely with
enduring profitability is failing in its
duty if it fails to consider issues beyond
merely the concentration of shareholder
wealth. Indeed, corporate-social
responsibility has been described as
the corporation’s ability to successfully
‘consider, manage and balance’
these issues in its decision-making.
20
The term ‘stakeholder’ here is
typically defined as ‘a person, group or
organisation with interest or concern
in an organisation’, although modern
theories extend this to include the
broader community, government and
other associations. Generally speaking,
directors’ duties are owed to the
corporation and not to individual
shareholders or other stakeholders,
however one interpretation of the
term ‘interests’ lends support for
the argument that a breach of duty by
a director might also affect shareholders’
interests. If the argument in favour of
broader shareholder interests is plausible,
then it is not too much of a leap of faith
to extend the position to include the
standing of other stakeholders.
At law, the statute governing the
conduct of corporations in Australia is
the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) (the ‘Act’).
The Act prescriptively sets out the rules
governing the conduct of directors and
the subsequent duties owed by them
to the corporation. As such, directors
are required to discharge their
duties with care and diligence and
in the interests of the company at
the exclusion of personal or third
party interests.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
The Australian Court has historically been
reluctant to draw specific conclusions
regarding the extent to which company
directors owe independent duties
to persons other than shareholders.
Despite suggestions of ‘public policy’
or ‘commercial morality’ in certain
sections of the Act, the Court has
found little basis to intervene in matters
deemed to be corporate matters and
for the consideration of directors.
In short, the Court is ‘not concerned
with any ulterior purpose for which’
certain decisions are made. However,
in more recent times the Court has shown
a willingness to expand its interpretation
of the term ‘interests’ and who may have
standing under the Act. The following are
extracts from recent court judgments
(details available from the author):
The interests referred to in this
subsection [referring to s 1324 of the Act]
are interests of any person (which includes
a corporation) which go beyond the mere
interests of a member of the public. It is
not necessary that personal rights of
a proprietary nature or rights analogous
thereto are or may be affected nor need
it be shown that any special injury arising
from a breach of the Act has occurred.
The concept of interests is introduced
at s 1324 of the Act, which gives power
to the Court to grant injunctions on
the application by any person whose
‘interests’ are deemed to have been
(or would be) affected by certain forms
of conduct. Here, ‘interests’ refer to the
interests of any person (including that of
a corporation) that extend beyond the
mere interest of a member of the public.
As the court’s exercise of jurisdiction
under s 1324 is a statutory jurisdiction,
it is not bound by a traditional equitable
jurisdiction. This means that the court
is allowed to consider policy objectives
of statute, specifically the Act and
the ASIC Act:
The question for the Court’s
determination in an application for
an injunction under s 1324(4) CA [is]
whether the injunction would have some
utility or serve some purpose within the
contemplation of the Corporations Act,
where that utility or purpose might be:
to protect the public against a real risk
of wrongdoing by a person whom it has
been shown has a propensity to engage
in contravening conduct (circumstances
in which equity would grant an injunction);
or
to mark the Court’s and the community’s
disapproval of certain types of conduct
and to deter other potential wrongdoers
(circumstances in which equity would
not ordinarily grant an injunction).
Whilst there is debate as to whether
such case law grants an extension of
duties owed to persons beyond the
corporation, if the Act does contain an
implied protection for stakeholders the
consequences for almost every aspect of
the corporation’s dealings are significant
— suggesting that stakeholder interests
must be taken into consideration in
the application of the Act. Ultimately,
such interpretation would affect all
decision-making of the board.
Essays by notable Australians
In conclusion, the primary duty of
company directors is to act in the
company’s best interests. The provisions
contained under s 1324 of the Act
permit stakeholders to seek remedy
for actions where it can be shown that
their interests have been compromised
by the conduct (or lack of performance)
of directors of a company. However the
Court has generally shown a reluctance
to find standing for stakeholders when
relying on this provision.
By reason it stands that stakeholders
will only be afforded protection insofar
as their interests are aligned with the
company. It is therefore difficult to
reconcile equal standing between
the company and a stakeholder,
as inherent in this reasoning is a
conditional outcome for stakeholder
protection upon mutual interest.
This is problematic — stakeholders
are either protected, or they are not.
The Court’s reluctance to find protection
in favour of stakeholders implies that
stakeholder protection is little more
than a theoretical provision, unless the
interests of a stakeholder are shown to be
aligned with the interests of the company.
To quote Noel Purcell in a speech given
to the National Business Leaders Forum
in 2006:
Moral capitalism simply means not
trampling on the interests of others in the
pursuit of corporate interests. It involves
corporations being concerned with
the principles of right and wrong and
conforming to standards of behaviour
and character based on those principles.
21
What is involved
in serving the
public interest?
Geoff Gallop
Professor Geoff Gallop AC is currently Director
of the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney.
He was a member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly
from 1986 to 2006 and Premier of Western Australia from 2001 to 2006.
He was Deputy Chair of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)
Reform Council (2007–11), Chair of the Australia Awards Board (2011–13)
and Member of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (2008–09).
All of us who are or have been involved
in government know about the public
interest. It is what we pledge to serve
whether we work in local, state or
national government. It is both a
value and a duty. It is about process
and outcome. It applies to both
elected and non-elected officials and
according to the Organization of Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD)
it is ‘the fundamental mission of
government and public institutions’.
However, do we know enough about
what it means for our day-to-day work?
Have we really embraced it as a governing
principle or do we simply use it as a
form of rhetorical justification in the
day-to-day battles of politics?
22
Let’s start with the question of democracy
and the accountability relationship
between government and the people.
This is a good starting point as it is not
possible to talk about ‘the public interest’
without talking about ‘the people’.
On this account it is an election that is
the key and through it the majority can
have their views about the public interest
translated into policy. In other words,
if elections are fair and free the public
interest is what the majority wants.
However, this begs a number of questions
about system and content: Which voting
system are we to use? Will we have one
or two legislative chambers? Will we
adopt a presidential or parliamentary
model of government? What about
the rights and interests of minorities?
What about the value we place on
that which we inherit from the past?
What about the interests of the future
generations and, indeed, of the natural
environment we all share? How do we
weigh up economic alongside social
and environmental considerations?
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Taking the public interest seriously
requires decision-makers to be
concerned with both processes
(how we make decisions) and content
(what decisions we make). It is an
aspiration to find that mix of policy
that best represents the interests of the
whole community and the evidence tells
us that the following elements are well
designed to help:
ŸŸengaging with the people not just
through representative and but
also through more direct forms
of democracy such as citizens’
assemblies and citizens’ juries,
ŸŸcreating a culture of human
rights and liberties to combat
the “tyranny of the majority”,
ŸŸincorporating appropriate checks
and balances into law making
and government,
ŸŸusing the most up-to-date results of
research to inform decision-making,
ŸŸadopting strategic planning as
a method of governing,
ŸŸencouraging devolution and
decentralization of decision-making,
All too often, however, those with
the responsibility to decide find
themselves in a world of individual
and sectional interests hungry
for attention, colleagues not all of
whom share the faith and media
pressures for super-quick responses.
Economic and political power isn’t
distributed equally throughout our
community and preserving our
heritage and protecting our future
can be particularly difficult. What this
illustrates, however, is that the public
interest does mean something. It is
a powerful call to arms in a less than
perfect world. Have we properly
involved the public? Are we respecting
the rights and interests of all? Have the
solutions we propose been properly
researched and adequately consulted?
Are we protecting or undermining the
historical and environmental foundations
of human existence? How sustainable
are the policies and programs we
propose? Are we too focused on
economic growth and not enough
on wellbeing?
Being an elected or non-elected
official in government poses particular
challenges. Have I done all that I can to
ensure that these questions are being
asked as part of the normal operations of
government? This is a personal and not
just a political question. Try as we might
but there is no escape from personal
responsibility. This takes us into the
territory of “conflicts of interests”. We
all have interests and connections be
they individual, family or community.
In the case of politics it is very much
the defence and development of these
interests and connections that leads to
the formation of factions and parties and
is often the motivation for a person to
stand for election. Even in bureaucracies
there are interests and connections in
respect of occupation and organization.
Public servants are naturally defensive of
the roles they play and the agencies within
which they work. They are the custodians
of continuity and often the creators of
departmental silos. Quite often corners
are cut or sails trimmed to satisfy their
political masters.
Consequently many jurisdictions
have now developed institutions and
codes of conduct to assist those in
decision-making positions. These codes
are not just guides for those involved,
but reference points for agencies set up
to investigate and report upon claims of
improper and corrupt behaviour. As sad
as it is, maintaining the public interest
is no longer just about self-awareness,
it is also about external supervision.
ŸŸincorporating the sustainability
principle (meeting the needs of current
and future generations through
an integration of environmental
protection, social advancement and
economic prosperity) into all aspects
of government policy-making, and
ŸŸpromoting a shared and inclusive
understanding of history.
The public interest, then, is indispensable
as benchmark and guide and it
provides just the right intellectual and
political discipline needed in a world
being destabilised by climate change,
jihadism and economic crisis. It requires
us to think about means as well as ends.
It broadens our understanding of what
interests matter and takes us into the
world of good government responsive
to evidence and sceptical in the face
of ideology.
Essays by notable Australians
23
The meaning(s) of
public interest in law
Simon Rice
Professor Simon Rice OAM teaches law at
the Australian National University College of Law,
and chairs the ACT Law Reform Advisory Council.
Law’s answer to ‘what is the public
interest?’ is, not surprisingly, that it
depends on context and purpose.
One thing it is not, however —
as highlighted in the recent UK phone
tapping scandal — is merely anything
that is of interest to the public.
Deciding what constitutes
‘the public interest’ is a power given to
decision-makers under a wide variety
of federal, state, and territory laws,
most commonly government
ministers, departmental officers, and
courts and tribunals. A substantial
research project at Queens University
Belfast on Public Interest in UK Courts
identified various ways the term
can arise: as a decision-maker’s
consideration under legislation,
as a judge’s consideration when
deciding an innovative case,
as a reason for commencing
(or intervening in) legal proceedings,
and as a public authority’s
explanation for its conduct.
24
Some examples illustrate the
diversity of contexts in which the term
commonly arises in Australian law:
Under the ACT Crimes (Forensic
Procedures) Act a magistrate
deciding whether to allow a forensic
procedure (e.g. taking a blood sample
from a suspect) ‘must balance the
public interest in obtaining evidence
tending to confirm or disprove that
the suspect committed the offence …
against the public interest in upholding
the physical integrity of the suspect’
Under the federal Customs Act,
the relevant Minister may order
Customs to detain any goods ‘if the
Minister considers that it is in the
public interest to do so’
In Victoria, under the Greenhouse
Gas Geological Sequestration Act,
the relevant Minister ‘must not grant
[an exploration] permit for a stratum
of land unless he or she determines
that it is in the public interest
[as defined]’.
In the forensic procedure example,
the stated public interests are obtaining
evidence as to guilt or innocence,
and upholding a person’s physical
integrity. In the customs example,
the minister has a discretion to decide
what the public interest is because,
the explanatory memorandum to the
law says, ‘the public interest may change
over time’. And in the exploration permit
example, the Minister has a discretion to
decide whether granting an exploration
permit is in the public interest, defined
as consideration of any of: government
policy, employment creation,
social impacts, overall short-term and
long-term public environmental benefit,
overall short-term and long-term public
economic benefit, and impacts on
aesthetic, amenity or cultural values.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
So although the ‘public interest’
is relevant to each of forensic testing,
importing goods, and exploring for gas
sequestration, a generally applicable
meaning of the ‘public interest’ is elusive.
Clearly the definition of the ‘public
interest’ for purposes of granting
an exploration permit is particular to those
circumstances, and has no application
in forensic testing or importing goods.
It does, however, hint at what a general
definition could be: the prescribed
considerations convey a sense of matters
of public concern (employment creation,
social impacts and so on), as opposed
to matters that are the concern of
a particular person or entity (such as
expanding a company’s business).
A different idea of the public interest
underpins the public interests
in obtaining evidence of guilt or
innocence, and upholding a person’s
physical integrity. These suggest
not a distinction between public
and private concerns, but that there
are social values to be protected —
the same values that are expressed
in the right to a fair trial, the right to
a presumption of innocence, and the
right to consent to physical treatment,
guaranteed in the ACT by the Human
Rights Act 2004. And there is a different
approach again to the public interest
in the customs example, where the
idea of the public interest is undefined.
Reliance on an undefined ‘public
interest’ test is common in legislation;
the High Court has said (in O’Sullivan v
Farrer, 1989) that ‘the expression “in the
public interest”, when used in a statute,
classically imports a discretionary value
judgment to be made by reference to
undefined factual matters’, although
those matters must relate to the
objects of the particular statute.
One constant in these various approaches
to the public interest is that its meaning is
decided in context: in the three examples
above the public interest is identified
having regard to fair criminal proceedings,
community safety, and environmental
and social impact. Similarly in, say,
defamation proceedings, disclosure of
documents, granting visas, censorship
and so on, a ‘public interest’ test is decided
having regard to the various interests
that arise in those particular contexts.
Weighing up competing public
interests is tricky, and — in the absence
of actual direction from a statute —
decision-makers will put relative values
on the various interests. Fundamental
rights and freedoms such as fair trial and
freedom of speech are public interests
that are commonly given priority,
although a balancing exercise ensures
that recognition of the prevailing public
interest goes only as far as is necessary,
with the least possible (‘proportionate’)
compromising of another interest.
Essays by notable Australians
The open nature of the public interest
in law is deliberate, in large part because,
as the explanatory memorandum to
customs law says, ‘the public interest
may change over time’. In 1979 the
Senate Standing Committee on
Constitutional and Legal Affairs reported
on the Freedom of Information Bill
and recorded extensive concerns
about reliance on the ‘public interest’:
‘an ill-defined or amorphous concept
… that eludes definition … whose meaning
may vary at the whim of a minister or
official’. But the Committee decided
that ‘a public interest criterion is a very
useful one’ because ‘it can require
[a decision-maker] to consider many
factors that might otherwise be ignored’.
In law, strict rules of relevance tend
to limit the range of public interest
perspectives that can be heard on
an issue. An implication of law’s approach
to the idea of identifying public interest(s)
according to context is that sectoral
lobbyists and advocates have more
or less (or nothing) to say on a public
policy issue depending on their stake
in that issue. Few public policy issues
raise a generic, all-embracing ‘public
interest’, although few sectoral lobbyists
and advocates will concede they need
not be heard.
25
Section 3:
Climate and
environment
26
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Managing climate change:
in whose interest?
Graeme Pearman
Graeme Pearman AM retired from CSIRO in 2004 after 33 years
of service including 10 years as Chief of the Division of Atmospheric Research.
He pioneered studies of the global carbon cycle, fundamental
to anticipating future climate change, and over-sighted
the development of an Australian capacity in climate modelling
and impact assessment. He operates a consultancy on
climate science, energy futures, the impact of human
and societal behaviour and sustainability.
He is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Monash University.
The role of greenhouse gases in
determining the temperature of the
Earth has been known since the first half
of the 19th century and in recent decades
observations have shown clearly that
human activities are changing the
levels of these gases in the atmosphere.
The science community has articulated
the broad consequences of this for
more than three decades.
Yet in Australia the period from the
late 1980s to the present has been
characterised by a trend from an
internationally leading and proactive
approach to an approach that puts
Australia in danger of incurring
political and economic sanctions
reflecting our growing pariah status.
Maria Taylor has suggested this
trend reflects a shift in cultural values
including, important in the context
of this volume, the demise of the
‘public interest’. Environmental leadership
by the Hawke government has been
overtaken by a dominant commitment
to the neo liberal economic ideology.
Sections of the media also played a role
in communicating the new narrative
about the irreplaceability of fossil fuels
and a general scepticism about the
science of climate change.
Essays by notable Australians
To some it is evident that climate-change
policy was designed to promote action
to support key industries. This cultural
change has had enormous implications
for Australian life: the sectoral balance
of the economy; employment, working
hours and conditions; family life;
volunteerism; attention to domestic and
international welfare and environmental
issues; and so on. Many now question
whether as a result of being ‘wealthier’
we are happier and more secure,
and whether the benefits have been
equitably shared in the public good.
Yet rigorous examination of these
wider consequences is missing.
Humans, all of us, find it necessary to have
personal views of the nature of the world in
order to operate on a daily basis. To a large
extent we can do little more than construct
this view from what our parents told us,
our culture, our religion, our education,
advertisements and at times from what
those whom we admire have told us.
These are constructed views of the world.
27
The problem is that these are largely
based on myth and rarely formulated
from rigorously determined information.
President Kennedy said the ‘great
enemy of the truth is very often not the
lie but the myth, persistent, persuasive,
and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows
the comfort of opinion without the
discomfort of thought.’
A greater reliance on ideological,
often mythical, imperatives
has lowered attention to
evidence-based decision-making,
a regression towards the times prior
to the Age of Enlightenment. There has
been a decline of investment in science
and its representation in governments,
and an expansion of the mindless
view that science’s role in modern
society is about product development
and financial reward. This ignores the
substantial value of building a deeper
understanding of the world we live in,
the natural environment, the operation
of societies and limitations of our own
humanity. It ignores investment in the
power to anticipate and set goals for
a future world that we consciously
wish to achieve.
Climate change is about modification of
the global environment well beyond the
strategic view of businesses. Concern for
its potential impact on future generations
and the natural ecosystems has limited
power in the operation of the markets
and market choice. Further, the impact
of a changed climate may occur
through largely explicable effects
on agriculture, water resources
and security, but also through disruption
of the complex and dynamical nature
of ecosystems in a way we cannot
at this stage anticipate. The point is
that the potential consequences have
serious implications for the public good,
now and into the future.
28
Climate change is already impacting on
concerns over energy futures and policy.
There are many cases where this is poorly
understood in the sense of its impact
on the wider public good. For example,
a recently announced discovery of
a Cooper Basin gas reserve suggests its
exploitation would ‘result in 60 to 120
trillion cubic feet of gas’. This is equivalent
to 6.6 thousand million tonnes of CO2
or 11 times the current annual release of
carbon dioxide from Australia. If exploited
its release might occur over a decade
or more and its spread may perhaps be
international. But this one enterprise
would represent about 83 per cent of
the estimated Australian long-term
‘allocation’ of emissions as its part in the
global effort to give a 75 per cent chance
of keeping climate change near to 2oC into
the future (8,400 Mt CO2 from 2013–50).
Additionally, natural gas is methane
that as a greenhouse gas is effectively
about 34 times more powerful than CO2.
Recent satellite imagery of North American
tight geological formations suggests that
leakage rates could be of order 10 per cent.
The ‘greenhouse emissions’ advantage of
gas over oil or coal is lost for any leakage
of more than 3 per cent.
The point here is who is to decide whether
the exploitation of such gas resources,
and many have been identified, is in the
public interest? There would clearly be
positive impacts on energy supplies,
trade and employment. On the other
hand there are potential negative
impacts on our contribution to the
reduction of global emissions and on
alternative land-uses. There are risks
related to the methane leakage issue
and disruption to societies related to
the transient nature of the businesses.
Who will bear the cost of exposure to
potentially stranded assets and the
downside of biased or narrowly focused
risk assessment? This is to say nothing
of the questions about who really owns
these resources in the first place and
how benefits should accrue for all. Surely
these are not questions for the energy
companies or the energy sector alone.
Governments have a responsibility to
encourage entrepreneurialism and the
economic benefits that may ensue from
such resource exploitation. But we also
expect governments to weigh these
benefits in light of the public Interest.
The federal government’s Energy Green
Paper shows influences of ideological
and sectoral views on energy futures
that are perhaps understandable given
the responsible department, but these
may not be in the wider interests of
the community. Thus a serious rethink
is required to address how best to
deal with complex, multi-factorial
and strategic issues related to the
public good given our modern,
largely sectoralised, society.
The view that economic imperatives
should not dominate policy will be no
more easily ‘sold’ than the need for
action on climate change. It represents
a challenge to prevalent ideologies
and narrow corporate interests
and a broad interpretation of what
constitutes human wellbeing and
welfare (in time and essence) that has
fallen out of favour. As recently stated
in an Age Editorial, ‘…. human society is
built on the idea that the many are one.
This is not socialism or communism,
but humanism. Too often self interest
and ideology, manifested in business and
political agendas, crash against this ideal.’
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Fossil fuel divestment
as a mechanism
for defending
the public interest
Charlie Wood
Charlotte Wood (‘Charlie’) is a passionate advocate
for the climate, sustainable food production and
socially responsible investment. Over the past 7 years
Charlie has volunteered, worked and interned
with Amnesty International, Conservation Volunteers Australia,
the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, the ACT Commissioner
for Sustainability and the Environment, the ANU’s Regulatory
Institutions Network and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
She is currently Campaigns Director, 350.org Australia.
In the fight to solve the greatest moral
challenge of our time, the fossil fuel
industry is public enemy number one.
The damage that this one industry
has wrought is overwhelming, with
funding of climate deniers, corruption
and destruction of ecosystems just
some of its many offences. Too many
to detail here, the industry’s impacts
boil down to this: if all the carbon on
the fossil fuel industry’s books is burnt,
we are guaranteed an unliveable future.
Indeed, the industry plans to burn five
times more carbon than the two degree
red line set by world governments.
Most worrying is that the industry has
won the consent of our political leaders
to unleash this nightmarish future. As Big
Coal, Oil and Gas turn trillions of dollars in
profit, they receive billions in government
subsidies and political concessions.
So long as the industry has free reign
over our political processes, the public
interest is at risk.
Essays by notable Australians
For too long, the agents of climate
change have lacked a well-organised
and effective opponent. In recent years
however, the tide has been turning,
propelled, in large part, by the burgeoning
fossil fuel divestment movement.
This grassroots network of students,
campaigners and investors is naming
and shaming the fossil fuel industry as
climate change’s biggest culprit, speaking
in the language the industry knows best
— money — and hitting them where
it hurts most — their social reputation.
29
From its birth on US college campuses
in 2012, the divestment movement has
spread like wildfire through backyards
and boardrooms. The premise of the
campaign is simple — if the fossil fuel
industry wants to take away our future,
then we’ll take away their social licence.
Although the language of divestment
is financial, the tactic is deeply political.
Divestment is not out to bankrupt Exxon
but rather to lessen the crippling hold
that companies like Exxon have over our
political processes by making it morally
unacceptable to finance fossil fuels.
One need only look at the sobering impacts
that fossil fuel expansion is having on the
public sphere to understand why taking
on the fossil fuel industry should be
everyone’s priority. As noted, the industry
plans to burn five times more carbon than
the climate can safely handle. And with
each new IPCC report, the projected
impacts of climate change grow more dire.
The most recent report, prepared by
over 800 experts and backed by almost
200 world governments, speaks of
climate change as ‘severe, pervasive and
irreversible’. According to the IMF, if we don’t
take urgent action to reduce emissions,
future generations will be ‘roasted, toasted,
fried and grilled’. The IMF is right, however
climate change is no longer a threat only
to future generations — its impacts are
here and now.
The tactic has a proven track record.
From South African apartheid to tobacco,
divestment has played a crucial role in
winning regulation of rogue industries.
The campaign has seen hundreds of
institutions and individuals shift over
$50 billion out of fossil fuels, prompting
debate among major pension funds,
banks and sovereign wealth funds.
Even Obama, Ban Ki-Moon and the
World Bank have sung its praises.
In response, the industry has gone on
a major offensive, throwing millions
of dollars into counter PR campaigns.
Suffice to say, at a time when the
mercury is rising and climate predictions
are growing ever gloomier, the divestment
campaign has put our biggest climate
culprit on the back-foot, winning us
some much-needed breathing time to
get our act together. From its success
so far, it is clear that divestment has
the potential to be a game changer.
While the IPCC predicts climate change
will slow economic growth, increase
food shortages, floods, droughts, human
displacement and conflict, and lead to
greater levels of poverty and disease,
so too it relates how these impacts are
already being felt around the world,
on an unprecedented scale. Already,
the Arctic is shrinking at an alarming rate.
Climate change is already responsible for
over 400,000 deaths annually. According
to the World Meteorological Association,
climate fuelled disasters including storms,
floods and heatwaves have already
increased fivefold since the seventies,
with some of the deadliest droughts
on record responsible for the deaths
of hundreds of thousands of Africans.
Fossil fuel use and climate change are
also drastically transforming the face of
our biosphere. A 2013 study in the journal
Nature Climate Change found that climate
change is likely to cause 50 per pent of
plants and one-third of animals to vanish
from half their current locations by 2080.
Fossil fuel extraction is also changing
the face of our most productive land
30
and water resources. For example, up to
80 per cent of the state of NSW is covered
by mining licenses and applications as
coal and gas companies increasingly force
their way into forests and family farms,
polluting precious freshwater resources.
And if all these social and environmental
impacts weren’t enough, the world is
now waking up to the sobering economic
impacts of our over-dependence upon
fossil fuels. According to analysis from
Lord Stern and the London School
of Economics, fossil fuel reserves
worth up to $22 trillion risk becoming
‘stranded’, unleashing an economic crisis
that Bush-era US Treasury Secretary Hank
Paulson and ex-Liberal leader Professor
John Hewson both agree will dwarf the
Global Financial Crisis. Consequently,
the terms ‘stranded fossil fuel assets’
and ‘carbon bubble’ are now well and truly
cemented within Wall Street vocabulary.
By taking on the power of the fossil fuel
industry to recklessly unleash all of these
impacts, the divestment campaign
offers a powerful means to protect the
public interest and build a future free
from the corrupting influence of Big Oil,
Coal and Gas. As Naomi Klein argues in
her recent book This Changes Everything
climate change is an alarm signal that our
economic system is failing. In this system,
profit is valued over life, extraction over
protection, dollars over sense and the
present over the future. It’s a system
in which there are few incentives to
fight for the common wellbeing of our
fellow species. To change this is to change
everything, but to change everything
will take time. By naming and shaming
the fossil fuel industry as climate’s public
enemy number one, the divestment
campaign could buy us this crucial time,
delivering us some breathing space
and uniting communities and unlikely
bedfellows to change everything,
before it’s too late.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Urban water
stewardship
in the public interest
Mike Waller
Mike Waller was a Director of Australia21 in 2003–2011
and has recently re-joined the Board. He has chaired
the Business Council of Australia Greenhouse Committee.
For six years he was Chief Economist BHP Billiton where he led
the development of the company’s greenhouse strategy.
Prior to this he was head of the microeconomic division of
the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet responsible
for the development of National Strategies on Ecologically
Sustainable Development and Climate Change.
Since founding Heuris Partners, Mike has provided strategic advice
to the Victorian Minister for Transport and Secretary of
the Department of Infrastructure on the restructuring of
Melbourne’s train and tram systems and to the Minister for
the Environment and the Department of Sustainability and
Environment on issues of greenhouse, sustainability
and energy supply. In 2013 he was appointed the first permanent
CEO of the Office of Living Victoria (OLV) established
by the Victorian government to deliver transformational urban water policy.
For a service so crucial to all aspects
of a civilised life, the water services of
Australia’s towns and cities receive far
too little effective public policy attention.
Importantly, performance in this sector
serves as a litmus test for the effective
provision of all essential urban services
and government in Australia.
Urban water cycle services (which include
water supply, wastewater management,
stormwater and waterway health) are
one of the last sets of utility activities
still overwhelmingly under government
control and ownership. With over
$100 billion in assets and annual revenues
of over $10 billion across Australia’s
Essays by notable Australians
urban water utilities and local councils,
the sector comprises widely varied types
and scales of management structures
(from large corporatised state monopolies
to small local government operations).
It is also a sector with an asset base
largely at the end of its useful life that
will need to service a doubling of the
31
populations of our major urban centres
by mid-century. It will need to do so in the
face of major changes in technologies,
industry structure and climate.
In theory, government ownership of water
services should secure the public interest.
In practice, far too often it fails to do so.
Planning and management of the water
cycle are divorced from planning for
the growth of our cities. As a result,
economic signals and incentives do not
reflect the full costs and benefits of
different approaches to service provision.
We are also constantly caught napping
by the one certainty of Australian urban
water supply — uncertainty. When the
next inevitable, albeit unpredictable,
drought arrives, we resort to expensive
and disruptive responses — massively
expensive water supply projects
and/or rationing. Neither sustains
the natural and civic assets (such as
parks and gardens) that support a cooler,
greener and more liveable environment.
And when the rains come, the old
complacency returns. Likewise, our towns
and cities are increasingly exposed to the
dangers and costs of urban flooding.
Why? Effective economic and
environmental outcomes are generally
trumped by ‘insider’ interests
and priorities. These include: vested
producer/supplier interests, political
patronage, confused objectives
and oversight, short sightedness
(in both a temporal and spatial sense),
and lack of deep understanding of the
water cycle and the built and natural
environment of which it is a part.
The prevailing public service culture,
incentive structures and organisational
arrangements in the urban water sector
are inefficient and inhibit innovation.
They generally favour high cost capital
solutions, induce lack of rigour in
applying commercial/shareholder
disciplines, and result in simplistic
and expensive approaches to private
sector involvement driven by financial
engineering, rather than the broader
public interest.
32
We can and must do better. We need,
and deserve, far more rigorous and
transparent public stewardship of
our urban water systems. This would
contribute to raising Australia’s
productivity in the years ahead when
facing the challenges of an ageing
population and declining terms of trade
and assist in addressing the challenges
of urban growth and climate change.
What is required? We must recognise
the value of our towns and cities as water
supply catchments. More people means
more urban development and more hard
surfaces. More hard surfaces mean more
run off when it rains. The challenge is the
risk of more floods, but the opportunity is
a more assured supply of water, close to
its point of use. During the worst year of
the Millennium Drought, for example,
more rainfall fell on Melbourne than
was used for all purposes, but nearly
all of that water went, literally, straight
down the drain. This 20th century
‘once through’ approach to stormwater
planning and management remains
the dominant paradigm in the driest
continent on earth.
Adopting a new public interest
approach will involve:
ŸŸreshaping urban form and building
design to reflect the role and value of
water services in meeting community
and business needs for efficiency
and amenity;
ŸŸgreater competition in bulk supplies
between our dams, rivers, desalination
plants, pipelines and local water sources,
with provision for prices to reflect
supply conditions;
ŸŸgreater competition and contestability
for the provision of water services
against government-owned water
corporations (including mandatory
market competition for all capital
and operation activities on the
basis of desired capability/outcomes not
pre-determined engineering solutions);
ŸŸstreamlining economic regulation
to focus on activities not subject
to competitive processes;
ŸŸmuch greater government focus on
efficiency and shareholder value,
utilising benchmarking of government
water businesses’ management of
revenue, costs and capital against the
‘best in class’ performance across all
industry sectors; and
ŸŸpublishing all physical and financial data
in standard form to facilitate transparent
analysis of water-cycle project and
system-wide costs, benefits and risks
of different servicing solutions.
These reforms would substantially
benefit Australia’s water consumers and
taxpayers by reducing costs: for example,
a three-month efficiency review of
Victoria’s seventeen water corporations in
2014 generated savings of some $1.5 billion,
only some twelve months after the
regulator approved their plans after nearly
two years of review. They would also deliver
secure water supplies and pricing that
enable consumer choice of quality and price
matched to need, reflecting the changing
value of water through cycles of drought
and plenty. Our rivers and bays would be far
better protected from the environmental
damage caused by treating stormwater
as waste, rather than a valuable resource.
The result would be a much more efficient,
capable and innovative urban water sector,
with water deeply integrated with the
way our cities and towns are planned and
managed, that would be much better
suited to meeting Australia’s economic,
social and environmental needs in the
twenty first century.
Importantly, this approach would
provide the template for the planning
and management of other essential
urban services, i.e. services provided in
the integrated and rigorous manner that
provides higher quality outcomes cost
effectively, based on a deep understanding
of the interconnected and complex
nature of the challenges of meeting
everyone’s needs for safe, secure and
liveable urban communities. The people
of Australia’s towns and cities deserve
nothing less.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Managing land, water
and biodiversity
in the public interest
Peter Ampt
Dr Peter Ampt is a lecturer in natural resource management
and extension in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment
at the University of Sydney, and Visiting Fellow at the Institute
of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales.
He teaches and researches with farmer innovators on integrating
production with conservation in New South Wales and with
current and future agricultural and environmental graduates.
More than 50 per cent of Australia’s
land (about 70 per cent in New South
Wales and 80 per cent in Queensland)
is managed by farm families.
Society expects these families to
support themselves through sale of
products with little or no protection
from global market forces. It makes
good economic sense to use scarce
and expensive resources efficiently, so
there is both public and private benefit
in using as little water, fuel, fertiliser and
pesticide as possible. There are many
services provided by the private sector
to increase adoption by farmers of
economically efficient practices because
they are also of private benefit. This has
made Australian farmers very efficient
by world standards.
Unfortunately, efficient doesn’t always
mean profitable. With the exception of
irrigation farmers and those in prime
cropping country, average annual farm
cash incomes are low — around $55,000
in 2014. Ever-increasing costs and an
extremely uncertain climate combined
with low prices have driven increasing
levels of farm debt, which is currently at
around half a million dollars per farm.
The conventional response is to run
ever faster on the productivity treadmill
— just to maintain income. So most
farm families survive by working or
investing off-farm and many discourage
their children from taking on the farm.
Many leave and sell their land, which is
usually bought up by neighbours.
Essays by notable Australians
Farmers are also expected to be good
environmental stewards. Their actions
should not just limit the damage
done to the environment through the
production of food and fibre, but should
enhance the landscape on and around
their farm. Policy-makers have responded
to this public interest by introducing both
‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’. While one hand
provides some support for farmers to
be better stewards of the environment,
the other regulates and attempts to
enforce environmental protection.
Good environmental stewardship is
considered part of farmers’ duty of care
and the ongoing ‘license to practice’
that is needed to retain access to markets
and to ensure that Australia’s clean and
green image is maintained in the global
market place. The food value chain,
33
which in Australia is dominated by
two major supermarkets, has responded
by placing hurdles between farmers and
markets. These take the form of quality
management systems, incorporating
environmental components,
which must be implemented and
audited to retain contracts or to
avoid having produce downgraded.
This may sound as if government and
private enterprise are complementing
each other for the public benefit:
a ‘protected’ environment managed by
‘supported’ farmers producing clean,
high quality food which is supplied to
happy consumers at ever lower prices.
But wait … there is devil in the detail!
There is plenty of evidence that farmers
value the environment and hold
strong beliefs about their important
role in environmental stewardship.
However, their economic situation
severely limits what they can do.
In fact many describe the feeling of
being damned if they do and damned
if they don’t: forced to act contrary to
their stewardship ideals in order to
remain financially viable.
What about good environmental
stewardship practice that is not just
about efficiency? Our biodiversity crisis
requires more habitat for wildlife than
is currently available in reserves and
national parks. In particular, habitat on
the most productive land is required,
but this is almost exclusively being
used for agriculture. So converting that
to habitat will not only take time and
cost money, it will reduce the land area
from which farmers can make a living.
This brings public benefit into direct
competition with private benefit.
34
To counter this we have had a succession
of Australian government policies such
as Landcare, Natural Heritage Trust and
Caring for Our Country to improve our
landscapes by providing public support
for the public benefit. These programs
have supported the development
of regional organisations to deliver
programs to improve our landscapes
for biodiversity and have had bipartisan
support. Unfortunately, these programs
have been plagued by, for example,
chronic uncertainty over future funding,
lack of continuity of personnel due
to short-term contracts, changing
priorities leading to a succession of
changing criteria and a progression
of projects, failure to tackle landscape
scale issues, and cost and blame shifting
between the commonwealth and the
states and territories. Most recently,
about half of the $1 billion allocated to
Caring for Our Country has been diverted
to the ‘Green Army’. Whilst this means
some free, unskilled labour may be
available for public benefit conservation,
it is a cut to the funding available to
support the communities that ensure
green army projects can add value.
At the state level in New South Wales,
the government agency responsible
for this public benefit activity has
been restructured continuously
with a name change on average every
3 years. Most recently, yet another
restructure resulted in the formation
of Local Land Services (LLS) through
the amalgamation (or closure) of the
farm advisory part of NSW Agriculture,
the Catchment Management Authorities
and the Livestock Health and Pest
Authorities. The philosophy behind this
restructure was to provide integrated
service delivery, but based on research
conducted in one LLS in 2014, it has
resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in
people employed on public money to work
with farmers for management of land,
water and biodiversity and the control
of weeds and pest animals. Whilst the
impact of this hasn’t yet hit famers,
the agricultural and environmental
professionals who have shouldered the
burden of this instability have suffered.
Farmers are highly adaptable and
resourceful, and many are breaking
new ground by developing strategies
that are profitable and regenerative.
These innovations would quickly
spread with coherent, consistent and
supportive public policy. It is clearly in
the public interest to have productive
farms producing clean and healthy food
and quality fibre in perpetuity. It is also in
the public interest to produce that food
and fibre in a way that enhances the
capacity of our landscapes to support
biodiversity and provide clean water and
air. Surely this public interest is served
by public investment in high-quality
professionals to work with farmers and
local communities. Instead we have
successive governments reducing this
investment and leaving it to a small
and struggling sector, agriculture,
to carry an unfair and unrealistic burden.
Consistent bipartisan support that also
leverages private sector investment
and innovation would pay for itself
many times over, in the public interest.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Section 4:
Indigenous
futures in the
public interest
Essays by notable Australians
35
Reframing the
terms of engagement
in Aboriginal affairs
Patrick Dodson
Patrick Dodson is a Yawuru man from Broome, Western Australia.
He has extensive experience in Aboriginal Affairs,
as former Director of both the Central and Kimberley Land Councils,
as a Commissioner in the Royal Commission into
Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and as inaugural Chair of
the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Patrick was also
Co-Chair of the Expert Panel for Constitutional Recognition
of Indigenous Australians, and is a current member
of the ANU Council, Adjunct Professor at the
Broome campus of the University of Notre Dame,
and Chair of the Yawuru native title company,
Nyamba Buru Yawuru Ltd.
Over the decades attempts have been
made to improve the relationship
between Aboriginal peoples and the
settler state. The national reconciliation
process, and the various policy and
programs adopted by governments
to address Aboriginal disadvantage,
are examples of this effort. While we
have made some inroads we have not
resolved some of the deeper issues
that continue to divide us.
36
When it comes to Aboriginal Affairs,
the focus of public policy is on the
administration of Aboriginal people
rather than the nature or essence of
our relationship. Other than recognition
of the existence of disadvantage,
there has been very little effort to
understand the differences between
us, and virtually no attempt to
examine how our differences could be
accommodated or viewed in an innovative
or transformative light. Consequently,
there is no agreed position on the
resolution of the core political issues,
and no mutually agreed framework
for how we should move forward.
The pursuit of reconciliation based on
truth and justice has proven a challenge
for our nation. Without truth and justice
there is no trust, and without trust it is
difficult to reset the relationship and
transition to a space where reconciliation
becomes a real possibility. We have
had several opportunities — the 1992
Mabo verdict, the national reconciliation
process and the 2008 Apology to name
a few — to deal with the unfinished
business of the past and progress
the reconciliation project in a just way,
however we have always stopped
short of resolving these matters
in a complete way.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
As a nation we have not engaged in
a meaningful dialogue about Australia’s
colonial past and its ongoing legacy in
a way that enables us to move beyond
the politics of blame and guilt. We seem
to spend a lot of negative energy caught
up in false binaries around white guilt
and black victimhood, white blind
folds and black armbands, collective
rights versus individual responsibility,
symbolic reconciliation versus practical
reconciliation, the Left versus the
Right, and so on. The outcome of this
dissonance is policy that responds to
ideology and ingrained prejudice rather
than the needs or aspirations of those
to whom it is directed.
A fear of diversity and change militates
against us advancing beyond our
unresolved past, leaving a reservoir
of injustice, mistrust and resentment.
In a democracy like Australia we should
be able to ventilate our concerns
and work toward accommodating
if not resolving our differences in a
constructive way. But instead of engaging
in a dialogue to find sustainable solutions
to systemic problems, we tend to
become locked in ideological disputes
around policy and strategy. Too often
there is a polarisation of views rather
than a genuine attempt to listen to each
other and engage in co-creating a new
narrative that has meaning for both sides.
The difficulty for Aboriginal people is
that Aboriginal Affairs policy is conducted
within the normative framework of the
dominant settler state and its institutions.
The normative system is predominately
concerned with rationalising the status
quo and preserving the legitimacy
of its own institutional authority.
For the most part, there is little scope
for Aboriginal peoples’ worldviews or
values to penetrate this system and
drive the direction of policy. Any shift
or devolution of power to enable
Aboriginal people genuine control
and autonomy over their affairs is
also likely to be resisted.
In the absence of a treaty or some form
of agreed political compact, the terms
of engagement continue to be dictated
by the settler state without negotiation
or consent, leaving us vulnerable to the
political whims of the government of
the day. Parliament retains the power
to pass legislation and governments are
free to set policies that affect Aboriginal
people without any imperative to
consider our views. We comprise less than
3 per cent of the national population and
lack the power or capacity to exert any
significant influence over public policy,
particularly in situations where our rights,
interests or aspirations conflict with
the mainstream.
Essays by notable Australians
The structure and nature of power
relations have yet to be decolonised.
Rather than mutual consent and just
recognition, conquest and domination
remain the philosophical foundation of
our relationship, enabling assimilation
to persist as the dominant paradigm for
engagement and inclusion in the modern
nation-state. Even though we are now in
the second decade of the 21st Century,
the possibility that Aboriginal people
should be permitted to set the social,
economic and cultural benchmarks
for our wellbeing and development,
and be enabled to navigate our own
pathways within modernity on our terms,
is something that is still not contemplated
in public policy.
A new approach to address issues of
concern to both Aboriginal people and
the settler state is required to decolonise
our relationship and reframe the terms
of our engagement. Such an approach
must move beyond mere consultation
and give serious consideration to
how we can incorporate the idea of
free, prior and informed consent in
policy and practice. But for this to be
possible there must be a preparedness
to develop a new paradigm that
will entertain the possibility of
a genuine post-colonial relationship.
Constitutional recognition of Indigenous
Australians presents us with an
opportunity to at least take a step toward
this direction, but recognition alone will
deliver little if it is not also accompanied
by meaningful dialogue and substantive
reform. If we are to evolve and
transcend the current state of paralysis
in Aboriginal Affairs then we must give
serious consideration to reframing the
foundation and nature of our relationship.
37
Achieving wellbeing
for all through
reconciliation action
Kerry Arabena
A descendant of Meriam people from Torres Strait,
Professor Kerry Arabena is a social worker with a Doctorate
in Human Ecology.
She was inaugural Chair of the National Congress
of Australia’s First Peoples. She is currently Chair for Indigenous Health
at The University of Melbourne and Director on
the Board for Indigenous Community Volunteers.
She is a founding member of ARLASH
— Alliance of Regenerative Landscapes and Social Health.
A people’s health can be defined as
the minimal vulnerability to threats
(e.g. parasites, viruses, bacteria)
and the maximum adaptive capacity
(i.e. high levels of strength, physical
fitness, and high levels of resilience to
psychological trauma, grief and stress).
In Australia, rates of chronic diseases are
increasing, as is the incidence of mental
illness. Even though evidence is emerging
that diet and lifestyle play a significant
role in these illnesses, specific protective
or causative effects are proving difficult
to isolate and prescribe.
38
The health of a landscape can be
similarly described as the minimal
vulnerability to threats and the
maximum adaptive capacity.
Despite improvements in agricultural
practices and management, the general
health of the agricultural landscape
is declining. Soils are systemically
being eroded and becoming more acidic
and saline, biodiversity is decreasing,
nutrient cycling is failing, and climate is
becoming more variable and extreme.
The next focus for building public
interest capacity in an Australian context
will necessarily be relational — between
peoples and across institutions; situational
— concerned with place; and integrated
— between and across diverse knowledge
systems and ecosystems. The public
interest process will need to be meaningful
for the people involved. I advocate for
a regionalised system of public interest
engagement, supported through a network
of nationally accredited public interest
peaks endorsed by a panel of ‘new’
public interest specialists. The system will
implement ‘thinking global, acting local’
philosophies. This approach is not without
its challenges, but could be achieved through
extending the current Australian concept
of reconciliation from a process between
peoples in a nation state to a process that
invests in reconciliation between all peoples
and the landscapes in which we live.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Public interest processes are founded
in discourse that uses a language that
structures outcomes. We need a new
language in a new public interest
discourse, one that enacts an extended
reconciliatory process and understands
and honours the integrity of landscape
as a whole interconnected life system.
What needs to be reinstated in public
interest discourse is the holistic
relationship between all Australians
with nature. We need language that
celebrates this as being the desirable
state of health and wellbeing for all
people in this country. We all need
to decolonise our minds. The culture
of colonisation is now affecting the
living and non-living processes that
give us life. The mal-development
practices underpinning colonisation are
disrupting the geological functioning
of the plant to a level not previously
known. We are all caught up in this and
we all need to change. We can no longer
promote differences and exclusions;
instead we need to promote unity,
solidarity and equality in diversity.
We all need to reconcile, Indigenous
with non-Indigenous Australians,
and all Australians with the natural
systems in which we live, and with
the other species that cohabit
our Earth. This is a natural trajectory
for reconciliation, a fluid movement
between reconciling a people with
a people, to reconciling people
and a planet.
Alliance for Regenerative
Landscapes and Social Health
Alliance for Regenerative Landscapes and
Social Health (ARLASH) is a ‘community of
practice’ designed to improve landscape,
ecology and human and societal health
through regenerative agriculture.
The community joins together innovative
farmers with scientific, community and
business leaders collectively motivated
to regenerate Australian landscapes so
as to deliver healthy ecosystem services.
This unique but overdue approach
involves the holistic redesigning and
integration of Australia’s broad-acre
and pastoral industries with human,
societal and ecological health aspirations.
There is mounting evidence that
healthy food (as well as water
and other ecosystem services)
produced by regenerated landscapes
can play a transformative role in
addressing society’s major disease
epidemics. Extending reconciliation
between peoples, institutions and
landscapes also transforms the
traditional market concentration and
vertical integration in industrialised
agricultural systems that have reduced
the viability of rural towns to the degree
that many are unsustainable. This is
unacceptable; these communities are
integral to sustaining healthy agriculture
and society.
Essays by notable Australians
‘Caring for country’ programs provide
other opportunities for people to
create health and wellbeing while
managing landscape. These are
community-driven movements toward
long-term social, cultural physical and
sustainable economic development
that challenge and interrupt the
dominant modes of thinking that have
been so destructive to Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health
and wellbeing. Initiatives germane
to caring for country include time on
country, burning of annual grasses,
using country, gathering food and
medicinal resources, ceremony,
protecting country/sacred areas,
and producing art work. Many of
these activities are conducted
as partnerships between community
and mainstream organisations.
A challenge for public interest is this:
if these ‘on country’ approaches to
managing landscape generate health
and wellbeing outcomes for all who
share in the landscape’s ecosystem
services, why is ‘care for country’
only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people? Why can’t all people
care for country? In order to ensure our
country is available for future generations
we have to reconcile older knowledge
traditions with modern ones, then act
on how to live within the structure and
functioning of the planet. Our new public
interest processes need to reconcile
human and ecosystem health, and find
a language for new discourses that
allow this to happen.
39
Section 5:
Refugees and
asylum seekers
and the public
interest
40
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
What Australia’s
refugee policy has
to teach us about our
(not so) liberal
democracy
Joyce Chia
Dr Joyce Chia was until recently the Senior Research Associate
at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law
at the University of New South Wales. She was awarded
her PhD on comparative immigration and refugee law at
University College London in 2009. She has previously worked
as a Senior Policy Officer at the Australian Charities
and Not-for-profits Commission, as a Research Fellow
at Melbourne Law School, as a Legal Officer at
the Australian Law Reform Commission, and as a Research Associate
at the Federal Court of Australia and the Victorian Court of Appeal.
It has been said many times that
Australia’s unusually cruel refugee
policies reflect its peculiar history,
geography and public attitudes.
True enough, but it is not the whole story.
For Australia’s refugee policies also
reflect its politics — and, in particular, its
weak commitment to the ‘liberal’ part of
liberal democracy. This is the part that’s
designed to ensure that the principle of
‘majority rules’ doesn’t end up trampling
the rights of minorities. It means that
it is not enough to say that 70 per cent
of Australians support these policies,
as if this is all that counts. It also means
that the Minister’s view is not always
to be preferred over that of courts or
independent government bodies, simply
because the Minister is elected and they
are not. These institutions, after all, exist
to provide some counter-majoritarian
balance to the democratic system.
Essays by notable Australians
Yet these basic political principles are
commonly ignored by politicians, and they
are poorly enshrined in our democratic
institutions and processes. An obvious
example is that, unlike almost every
other liberal democracy (and many other
countries that are neither liberal nor
democracies), Australia does not have
a national human rights law that can
be enforced in its domestic courts.
41
This partly explains why Australian
laws can be much more severe than in
comparable countries. In these countries,
courts have stopped policies such as
transferring asylum seekers to third
countries, rendering asylum seekers
destitute, and depriving asylum seekers
of access to health care.
These are the big problems in our liberal
democracy that require big reforms.
They may be big, but not impossible.
Although the movement for human rights
legislation has stalled, there is some hope
that internal party reform may be driven
by the need to revive flagging political
parties. As well, the increased willingness
of the electorate to favour new voices is
likely to increase the diversity of voices
within the political spectrum.
Another, less obvious, peculiarity of
the Australian political system is its
extreme party discipline, with Labor
politicians prevented from crossing
the floor and Liberal politicians doing
so extremely rarely. This means that the
spectrum of views in the community
is not fairly represented in parliament,
or reflected in our laws. Further, in an age
when strategy trumps ideology, the two
parties can neutralise each other’s
politically popular policies by agreeing
with them or seeking to outdo them.
This unnatural agreement is exacerbated
by the rise of the career politician and the
declining popularity of party membership.
The result is that a modern politician in
a safe seat is essentially beholden to
the political machine, and therefore less
likely to rebel. This is reinforced by the
consistent media portrayal of internal
disagreements as weakness rather
than a democratic strength, and any
shifts in policies as ‘backflips’ that destroy
credibility, rather than recognise reality.
The effect of these defects in the
Australian political system is that
refugee laws get passed by parliament
with unseemly haste, generally without
amendment, and without much threat of
invalidation by a court. (If it is invalidated,
the general rule is that parliament will
reverse the decision — unless the court
manages to find constitutional grounds.)
42
There are also a host of smaller problems
that might be fixed, or at least improved,
more readily. For a start, we could
markedly improve the quality of policy
development. One reform, adopted
by a number of state governments,
has been to extend the length of the
electoral term, giving governments
more time to develop and consult
on policies. We could foster policy
development by independent voices,
such as by investing in non-partisan
research centres, peak bodies and
think tanks that are not government
bodies — as in the UK and the US where
philanthropists and foundations can
enhance the public debate.
Another reform would be to improve
pre-legislative scrutiny by, for example,
requiring identified bodies to be
consulted and allowing minimum periods
for consultation. All too often, legislation
is rushed through parliament on the
pretence that it is urgent. For example,
the first legislation introducing
mandatory immigration detention
was rushed through parliament in
a single day. Oversight bodies, such as
the Ombudsman and the Australian
Human Rights Commission, ought to
be routinely consulted. Another possible
reform would be to adopt the UK practice
of publishing major draft Bills for
comment and public inquiry on matters
of policy, rather than on the details of
the drafting.
Measures could also be taken
to strengthen the role of
Senate committees. In other
countries, equivalent committees
play a key oversight role and possess
considerable authority. In contrast,
our Senate legislation committees rarely
do more than recommend passage of
government legislation, perhaps with
one or two proposed amendments
(often ignored). Changing the
composition of the committees
could help, in addition to spreading
the heavy workload of the Senate Legal
and Constitutional Affairs Committee
between specialist committees.
Committees should also have greater
control over the scheduling of inquiries
to allow for proper public consultation.
We should also do better in following
up on the recommendations of
government-funded inquiries and
bodies on the effectiveness of
legislation and on the implementation
of legislation. Governments should
be required to publish the reports
of all government-funded inquiries,
unless exempted for particular reasons,
and to provide follow-up reports on
recommendations that it has agreed
to implement. Legislation should be
automatically reviewed after a period,
either by legislation itself or through
routine reviews by committees.
An independent office, similar to
the UK Chief Inspector of Borders and
Immigration, could be established to
systemically review the implementation
of immigration policies and laws.
These are but a few of the reforms that
would strengthen our liberal democratic
institutions and processes, leading not
only to better laws and policies, but also
to better democracy for all those living in
Australia and for those who seek refuge
in Australia.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Lateral solutions to
developing better
global arrangements
for displaced people
David Evans
David Evans OAM is a retired medical practitioner
whose work in Tasmania specialised in Pathology
and in Sexual Health Medicine. In retirement he has completed
a PhD in Humanities with the University of New England
entitled ‘Romance Tragedy in India and Nepal
in the time period 1993–2013’.
My first thoughts regarding those needing
to leave their homeland under the threat
of ‘leave or be killed’ are for their family
and associates not able to get away
who have to remain at their home in
imminent danger.
Refugees who escape are lucky if
they find a refugee camp where life’s
necessities are available. The flight
for a family known to me now living in
Australia was from Burundi to Zimbabwe.
Six years living in the refugee camp was
described as ‘like living in a boarding
school’, yet they told me camp life was
meaningful and positive. This theme
is echoed in a 2014 article in The New
York Times entitled ‘How to Build a
Perfect Refugee Camp’, which reported
that meaningful and positive life is
possible within such confines
The shame of our Australian-supported
refugee camps is that the talents of
refugees are not being fostered and
the concept of positive living in the
camps is hard to find. In part this is
due to the jurisdiction of the camp,
where conditions cannot be first world
western style with social support
equivalent to what we have in Australia.
Such conditions are also not feasible
for the vast majority of global refugees.
Is there a way forward with
realistic possibilities? Could we
build a new country?
Essays by notable Australians
‘New Country’
My vision for refugees is of
a ‘New Country’ with states on lands
allocated by countries hosting long-term
refugee camps all around the world.
For a peppercorn rental and with local
support, each state would be leased to the
United Nations. The UNHCR would offer
UN Citizenship with identifying passport
to refugees registering with UNHCR.
The jurisdiction and legalities would be
established by United Nations.
The ideal refugee camp would train its
own citizens, especially the young, making
them eligible for skilled visas to countries
other than the state where they reside.
Refugees with nowhere to go other than
their present long-term refugee camp
would become UN citizens, some of
whom would be offered placements in
43
other countries while others would make
their refugee camp liveable and train their
young in skills needed around the world.
ŸŸUNHCR also advocates adopting
national refugee frameworks
and accession to international
refugee instruments.Through
stronger partnerships with the
various Governments, UNHCR aims
to enhance asylum space, including
by: identifying opportunities for local
integration; improving livelihoods
for urban refugees; ensuring the
smooth voluntary return of refugees
… identifying durable solutions for
refugees … supporting a sustainable
return for those displaced,
The key elements to realise this
vision are as follows:
ŸŸA place for refugees is provided
ŸŸBasic essentials of food and housing
are available
ŸŸHealth and Security support
are provided
ŸŸFood production is undertaken
ŸŸEducation is fostered
ŸŸSocial activities are encouraged
ŸŸIn 2015, UNHCR will continue to advocate
for a favourable protection environment
in South Asia, including freedom from
arbitrary detention and refoulement.
ŸŸVoluntary local administration
is established
ŸŸThe principle of being self supporting
is achieved wherever possible
What is missing from this report,
however, is the concept of making life
good wherever possible. The ideas
behind the ‘New Country’ approach offer
refugees a chance for self determination
albeit confined to restricted travel within
New Country, in ways that provide the
UN and UNHCR with a way forward for
refugee/asylum seekers.
In the present reality the UNHCR
seeks to provide basic needs whilst
investigating repatriation and
resettlement possibilities. Key aims and
concerns are listed in the ‘2015 UNHCR
subregional operations profile —
South Asia’ report as:
ŸŸThe need for sustainable livelihoods,
reliable community-support networks,
and access to specialised services
for people with special needs.
ŸŸRefugees and asylum-seekers
may face discrimination from local
communities with little understanding
of refugee issues.
ŸŸThe quality of public health and
education in Nepal’s camps has
been adversely affected by the
departure of skilled refugee workers,
who were resettled.
ŸŸUNHCR fills the gaps in terms
of protection, assistance and
durable solutions. It focuses on the most
vulnerable, including women, children,
the elderly, survivors of sexual and
gender-based violence, and those
with special needs.
44
Australia is part of South East Asia and
needs to contribute support for refugees
in the region What we hear from the
present Australian government is that
new refugees will be exported in one way
or another. However, there is no mention
of us taking a responsible position in
housing refugees (with nowhere to
go) in long-term camps of the South
East Asia Region. We need to work for
UNHCR standards in these camps of
the region, using more ‘successful’
camps as the yardstick. A study of
these camps and working with UNHCR
to create affordable positive living that
does not insist on western standards
may be necessary. Refugees confined to
long-term refugee camps want to work
and self provide. Let’s make it happen.
The starting point will be currently
functional refugee camps,
with the following add on elements:
ŸŸSelf-government on embassy-type
land in a host country leased to UNHCR.
The leased land will remain the property
of the hosting country and can be
changed by mutual agreement.
ŸŸThe host country will
provide external security.
ŸŸThe refugee community will establish
internal security. This may need help
from the lessor and lessee if acceptable
administration cannot be established.
ŸŸStandards of care will be on a liveable
needs basis rather than Australian
(western) social security standards
that are unaffordable in most parts
of the world.
ŸŸThe concept of ‘refugees as global
citizens’ will complement the current
UNHCR registration of refugees and
travel by a ‘global citizen’ will still need
visa permission.
Refugees say ‘Give us opportunity and
freedom to work. We will do it ourselves.’
Could Australia lease the first state of
New Country to the UN on some part of
Christmas Island, Manus Island, Nauru
or elsewhere, and be prepared to help
UNHCR with security and allow NGOs
to help socially as well?
In summary, refugee resettlement
placements are few both globally and
in South East Asia including Australia.
The realistic expectation for refugees
is a long period in a refugee camp
without guarantee of a placement.
However, there are examples of
refugees living on the land of the
hosting country who make life meaningful
and progressive if not hampered by legal
restrictions. New Country is a concept for
the self-management and government
of refugees within the confines of
allocated land, which will substantially
assist the UNHCR (in collaboration
with supportive NGOs) in their mission
to provide safety and support for
refugees with nowhere to go.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Section 6:
Mental health
and the right
to die and the
public interest
Essays by notable Australians
45
Improving
mental health
to build a more
resilient Australia
Allan Fels
Professor Allan Fels AO is Chair of the Australian Mental Health
Commission and was until recently Dean of the Australia
and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG).
He also is Chairman of the Haven Foundation,
which seeks to provide accommodation and support
for the long-term mentally ill. He is a long-term advocate of
mental health policy reform and a carer for his daughter.
He serves or has served on a number of government advisory boards
and is patron of many mental health networks. Professor Fels was
Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
from 1995 to 2003 and before that Chairman of the
Trade Practices Commission and Chairman of the
Prices Surveillance Authority.
Improving mental health and wellbeing
is a nation-building issue. It is as
fundamental to a better Australia as
building new physical infrastructure,
economic reform and social investment.
This fact too often gets lost in our political
debate. Every few years mental health
46
rises as a priority, and then is displaced by
other, seemingly more important issues.
This must change, because there are few
issues more vital to the long-term welfare
and wellbeing of the Australian population
than mental health.
Mental health is a huge issue.
Nearly half of all Australians experience
mental ill-health at some point in their
lifetime. It is an issue that cuts across all
sectors of our society and touches nearly
every family, workplace and community.
For this reason, mental health must
be consistently at the fore in our
discussions about the public interest.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
The impacts of mental ill-health
are significant. People with mental
ill-health experience higher rates
of unemployment, are poorer than
the general population, have more
absences from work, and suffer more
from ‘presenteeism’, that is, reduced
productivity at work. In addition,
they are more likely to suffer from cancer,
diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
These factors lead to significant indirect
costs, including informal care provided
by carers and family members, as well
as other related social costs, such as
increased homelessness and crime.
What we also know is that mental health
problems disproportionately affect
some of our most vulnerable people.
For example, the suicide rate of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples is more than twice that of
other Australians, while mental illness
is second only to cardiovascular
disease as the leading driver of
the health gap between Indigenous
and non-Indigenous Australians.
Of significant concern is the fact that
our current system is not designed
with the needs of people and families
at its core. These needs are wider
than health services; they are about
supporting recovery and leading
‘a contributing life’. The concept of
‘a contributing life’ recognises that all of
us need the same things: a stable home,
something meaningful to do, something
to look forward to, and strong connections
to family, community and culture.
While there is significant expenditure
on mental health in Australia, it is not
necessarily being spent on the right things
— those services that prevent illness,
keep people well, support recovery and
enable people to lead contributing lives.
Australia’s patchwork of services,
programs and systems for supporting
mental health is not maximising the
best outcomes from either a social or
economic perspective. Many people
do not receive the support they need
and governments get poor returns on
their substantial investment. In short,
the status quo provides a poor return
on investment, creates high social and
economic costs, and inequitable and
unacceptable results for people with
lived experience of mental illness,
their families and support people.
Clearly, action on mental health is
in the public interest.
As an economist, I probably seemed to
many people an unusual choice for the
inaugural Chair of the National Mental
Health Commission. However, during
my time as Chair, I’ve seen economic
questions everywhere I’ve looked.
What has become clear to me is the
huge opportunity cost of inaction on
mental health. Recent separate studies
by the OECD and the International
Labour Organisation put the costs of
mental health problems at 4 per cent of
gross domestic product. This figure can
be applied here, and it is massive.
Martin Wolf of The Financial Times rightly
identifies mental health as our biggest
health problem, and states that given the
considerable economic costs to society,
treatment pays for itself. This is true.
The business case for creating mental
health workplaces, for example, is clear.
A recent report from Price Waterhouse
Coopers found that for every $1 invested
in mental health initiatives there’s an
average return on investment of $2.30.
Improving mental health must be
viewed as an invest-to-save issue.
Tackling the causes rather than the
symptoms, preventing mental illness and
suicide in the first place, promoting good
mental health for everyone, and timely
support when things start to get tough
add up to the best economic and social
renewal strategy we can invest in.
Essays by notable Australians
Prevention and early intervention,
for example, are absolutely vital. We must
act earlier, and invest in early intervention
across people’s lifespans. About half of
all adults with a mental illness developed
that illness before the age of 15, so early
identification and treatment can make
a huge difference.
We also need to improve awareness
and encourage people to look after
themselves and each other, and get the
help they need. For example, we know
that more than half the people with
mental health problems receive no
treatment of any kind. It takes courage
to knock on a door asking for help
so we must make sure that every
door that is knocked on leads to the
right support, care and treatment that
address health and support needs,
prevent escalation of problems, and
empower people to live a contributing
life. Central to this is a person-centred
approach where services are designed,
funded and delivered to match people’s
needs. We must focus on outcomes
rather than activity and, importantly,
agree and implement national targets
and local performance measures.
Real change will require courage.
Courage will be needed to avoid just
tinkering with a disjointed collection
of linear services, systems and
responsibilities that have long been
shown to not produce the outcomes
people and families need. Courage will
be needed to embed a system that is
truly in the public interest.
There is an extraordinarily high degree of
consensus as to the directions needed
to create a mental health system that
promotes good mental health and
wellbeing and a contributing life. Practical
steps now need to be taken. I hope we as
a society, as well as our political leaders,
can find the courage to see this through,
because all of us will benefit. Importantly,
mental health must not be viewed as an
issue solely for governments. It touches
all of us, and is everyone’s responsibility.
47
The challenging
quest for a right to die
Marshall Perron
Marshall Perron grew up in the Northern Territory.
Leaving school at 14 he tried his hand at a variety of occupations
before winning a seat in the Legislative Assembly. During his 21 years
in parliament he held almost every ministerial portfolio
at one time or another. He was elected Chief Minister in July 1988
and served in that position for 8 years. He created world history
when his private member’s voluntary euthanasia bill,
The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, became law in 1995.
Four terminally ill Australians used the provisions in the Act
before the legislation was overturned by the federal parliament.
He remains active in the voluntary euthanasia movement.
There would be few more classic
examples of the public interest
being denied than the inability of the
terminally ill to determine the timing
and manner of their own death.
A Morgan poll in 1962 asked the question,
‘If a hopelessly ill patient, experiencing
unrelievable suffering, with absolutely
no chance of recovering, asks for
a lethal dose, should a doctor be allowed
to give a lethal dose or not?’ The answer
of 47 per cent of respondents was ‘yes’.
By 1995 the figure was 78 per cent.
In 2012 it had climbed to 85 per cent.
48
Driving these changes in attitude are
a more educated assertive population,
advances in medicine that can maintain
life way beyond any useful purpose,
the knowledge that palliative care cannot
relieve all suffering, and a conviction
that quality of life should be treasured
over quantity. Many of us simply reject
the prospect of a senile penitentiary
existence in a sterile nursing home,
surrounded by strangers.
Thirty one bills supporting the rights of
the terminally ill have been introduced
in Australian state parliaments in the
17 years since the Northern Territory
Rights of the Terminally Ill Act was
vetoed by federal parliament. Most
bills were never debated and only one
has been considered in committee.
None have become law.
You might think that a law that did
not require anybody to do anything,
saved taxpayers money, reduced anxiety
and violent premature suicide and was
desired by twelve million Australians,
would be high on the agenda of our
democratic representatives.
A read of political maiden speeches
invariably reveals a plethora of
pledges to fearlessly and honestly
represent the voters who put them
there. Sadly, powerful sectional
interests soon interfere with
these warm sentiments.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Every time a bill is introduced,
a well-resourced religious lobby
launches a standard campaign of
fear-mongering, distortion and
innuendo that is seized upon by politicians
of religious conviction seeking grounds to
bury the proposal. Genuine analysis of the
doomsday predictions is absent. They are
hastily accepted and repeated to justify
blocking the proposal and so avoid
the wrath of the clergy and powerful
colleagues of faith.
The Australian Medical Association
(AMA) also opposes law reform despite
acknowledging that satisfactory
relief of suffering when dying cannot
always be achieved and that doctors
do occasionally hasten the death of
terminally ill patients. The AMA cannot
contribute to the voluntary euthanasia
debate honestly while it adheres
to a hypocritical stance that fails to
recognise the divergent views and
actions of its own membership on
this issue.
The case that allowing for a dignified
death is in the public interest would
be best served by acknowledging
the need and working with others of
goodwill to devise a responsible law.
Examples abound with eight jurisdictions
in Europe and the USA permitting
elective death in limited circumstances.
Following extensive research, public
hearings and an examination of
operations in lawful jurisdictions,
two recent Canadian studies concluded:
The evidence does not support
claims that decriminalizing voluntary
euthanasia and assisted suicide
poses a threat to vulnerable people,
or that decriminalization will lead us
down a slippery slope from assisted
suicide and voluntary euthanasia
to non-voluntary or involuntary
euthanasia. (Royal Society of Canada)
…. after carefully studying foreign
experiences, we can confidently say
that allowing this practice (Medical Aid
in Dying) would not harm society’s most
vulnerable, because there are ways to
define and structure it to avoid any risk
of abuse. (Quebec Parliamentary Select
Committee on Dying With Dignity).
Political intransigence on this issue
is not uncommon, as demonstrated
by the Oregon experience, which
also provides us with a lead to
a possible solution. Following years
of political procrastination, concerned
citizens founded Oregon Right to Die,
an organisation that drafted a proposed
law and gathered the necessary
signatures to have it listed as a Citizens
Ballot Initiative. In November 1994,
the Death With Dignity Act was passed
by 51 per cent of Oregon voters. The Act
faced, and ultimately survived, a
host of challenges, including court
challenges aimed at having the Act
declared unconstitutional, federal
legislative efforts to effectively block
the law and a federal policy directive
aimed at preventing physicians from
providing assistance under the Act.
The hostile state parliament then
imposed a second ballot initiative aimed
at repealing the Act. The result was an
overwhelming 60 per cent vote to keep
the law which was finally, begrudgingly,
enacted by the Oregon legislature in
1997. By November 2014, 752 eligible
citizens had exercised their right to
choose the time of their death.
Citizens in Washington State followed
the example set by Oregon to circumvent
opposition by minority groups and timid
politicians. Vermont has since passed an
assisted suicide law. The momentum in
the USA is now probably unstoppable.
Essays by notable Australians
While it is unlikely Australian
parliaments will, in the foreseeable
future, adopt the American citizens’
ballot system, the practice of submitting
contentious matters to a public vote could
be adopted. Following a public inquiry,
a proposal to decriminalise voluntary
euthanasia could be prepared by a Law
Reform Commission or similar body and
become law only upon it receiving support
in a plebiscite. This could be a politically
safe model for overcoming resistance
to address this issue.
Our parliamentary representatives may
not want an abortion, to visit a prostitute,
or to own a firearm, yet we have laws
allowing all of those activities in controlled
circumstances. Equally, they may not
want for themselves the option of
a hastened death, however they should
not continue to deny the option for others.
A callous paternalism is evident by
the repeated refusal of our parliaments
to implement a responsible right to
die regime. The public desire is ignored,
resulting in desperate individuals
being driven to grisly methods of
self-deliverance. It is not in the public
interest that we continue to keep dying
people alive, against their will, at great
human and financial cost.
Australia’s liberal democracy is
failing to reflect the needs of society
where attitudes to death and dying
have evolved towards valuing life’s
quality over quantity. We need a structure
devoid of vested interests and religious
ideology to prepare a responsible,
safe regime to permit voluntary
euthanasia. With reticent politicians
out of the way, the public should then
be asked to make the final decision.
49
Section 7:
Inequality,
education and
early childcare
50
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Inequality and
the public interest
David Morawetz
Dr Morawetz is an economist, counselling psychologist
and philanthropist. He is a board member of both Australia21
and The Australia Institute, and is a co-author of the recent
Australia21/Australia Institute report Advance Australia Fair?
What to do about growing inequality in Australia.
One key public interest item for Australia,
growing inequality of opportunity,
represents a retreat from what is
often described as a core Australian
commitment to ‘a fair go for all’.
Over the last decade, the richest
10 per cent of Australians enjoyed
almost 50 per cent of the growth in
incomes, and the richest 1 per cent
received 22 per cent of the gains from
growth. At the same time, scandalously,
one child in six in Australia lives below
the poverty line.
If a public interest body was set up
to reverse this growing inequality,
to increase equality of opportunity,
to champion ‘a fair go for all’,
what might it do?
1.It might aim to shift the Australian
debate back to a point where fairness
and decency — ‘a fair go for all’ —
are non-negotiable starting points,
not distant aspirations. An appropriate
name for such a body might be
The ‘Fair Go for All’ Commission.
2.I t might present publicly the evidence
that when income inequality rises
too much, economic growth falls.
The traditionally conservative
International Monetary Fund, the OECD,
Nobel prize-winning economist
Joseph Stiglitz, The Economist and
the Governor of the Bank of England,
among many others, have confirmed
this. In other words, reducing inequality
is good for the rich as well as for the
poor. It is important that all understand
this if the more conservative sides
of politics are to support attempts
to improve the opportunities of
the disadvantaged.
Essays by notable Australians
3.I t might place major emphasis
on early childhood education for
all children aged 0–5, especially
disadvantaged children, because
early childhood education is so
crucial for future life-chances.
For many advocates of early
childhood education, intellectual
and emotional enrichment for
disadvantaged kids is simply a matter
of fairness. For Nobel Prize winning
economist James Heckman from
the University of Chicago, it is also
sound economic policy. Professor
Heckman established (and many
others have since confirmed) that
investing in early childhood education
for the disadvantaged offers the most
cost-effective path to a wide range
of social benefits: not just higher
future incomes for participants,
but a more productive workforce,
greater economic growth, lower crime
rates, smaller prison populations,
and substantial savings for taxpayers.
51
We can learn much about how
to improve early childhood
education from the experience
of the Australian Goodstart Early
Learning Centres, named one of
the 10 top philanthropic innovations
globally by British-based New
Philanthropy Capital in October 2014.
Hopefully, providing excellent
early childhood education to all,
and especially to the disadvantaged,
is something that all political parties
can agree on. It would mark a huge
step towards increasing equality
of opportunity for all in Australia.
The contributions to this volume
by Michael Traill and Julia Davison
expand on this point.
4.I t might improve the quality of
school education for all students.
A public interest body focussing on
inequality might monitor publicly
the implementation of the Gonski
needs-based school funding plans.
The body might put out a report
each year indicating what has been
implemented and what has not yet
been implemented, and what the
results have been — rather like the
annual reports that appear now
on Closing The Gap. The aim is to
educate the public — who may in
turn put pressure on governments to
continue supporting better education
for disadvantaged students, a fair go
for all. It is not yet too late to have these
Gonski needs-based school funding
plans implemented.
52
5.At tertiary education level, it might
present arguments to oppose
the $100,000 degrees that seem
likely to be one of the outcomes of
the budget changes proposed by
the Coalition government in 2014.
6.I t might reduce inequalities in
health care. The strong public
reaction to the Coalition budget of
2014 indicates that Australians do
not want more inequality in health.
A public interest body looking after
inequality in health in Australia might
note that whereas the government has
claimed that we need a GP co-payment
of some kind to make Medicare
sustainable, recent reports from
three quite different, highly credible
and independent sources all
reach a very different conclusion.
The sources are the government’s
own Australian Institute of Health,
the OECD, and the recent ‘Bettering
the Evaluation and Care of Health’
(Beach) report. According to the
federal Shadow Minister for Health,
writing in The Guardian, these three
reports find that Australia has one
of the most efficient and effective
health systems in the world, with
no evidence that health spending
is unsustainable. A public interest
body might note that these reports
demonstrate that a government
committed to Medicare can deliver
an affordable and sustainable health
system without making low-income
families pay a co-payment every
time they need to see a doctor
or fill a prescription.
7.At a broader level, it might examine
all major pieces of legislation, and
report publicly on their implications
for ‘a fair go for all’. This was suggested
by John Hewson when he launched the
Australia21/Australia Institute report
Advance Australia Fair? What to do
about growing inequality in Australia.
For example, in examining budget
legislation, a public interest body might
point out that current budget deficits
in Australia are being caused by big
reductions in tax revenue, not by big
increases in government spending.
This means that the solution to budget
deficits in the post-mining-boom
era lies in raising more tax revenue in
a fair manner, not in cutting spending
in ways that impact especially
on lower-income people. A public
interest body might point out that,
as outlined in the Australia21/Australia
Institute report, there are many ways
that tax revenues can be increased
significantly while at the same time
reducing inequality. It might suggest
that the government should give more
prominence to its low-profile Revenue
Review Committee instead of focusing
almost entirely on its high-profile
Expenditure Review Committee.
8.I t might encourage media outlets to
run a series of articles or reports on the
many aspects of inequality in Australia.
9.A public interest body might also
continually update the public on
newly emerging literature and
evidence on (a) the negative effects
of rising inequality (including the
negative effects on economic growth),
and (b) the positive policies to
reduce inequality that have been
tried successfully in other countries:
for example, New Zealand’s new
liability investment approach to
welfare reform (see the report
of the recent Senate Inquiry on
Inequality, 2014), and numerous
policy examples from the Scandinavian
countries identified in the book
Northern Lights by Andrew Scott.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
The importance
of a strong state
school system
Vaughan Evans
Vaughan had forty years in the teaching service
including time in infants/primary and in state secondary schools
as a Teacher, Head Teacher (English), Deputy Principal
and Acting Principal. Vaughan worked with Quality Assurance teams
and as a presenter at teacher in-service courses. His teaching involved
periods in both the Peoples Republic of China teaching English
as a Second Language and the United Kingdom. In December 2013,
as a mentor/advisor, he accompanied a team of Pre Service Teachers
to India with the Tara Ed. Organisation.
Who speaks for and protects the
public interest in NSW state schools?
Certainly not the federal government.
Governments under-fund state
education and are slow to champion
the achievements of state systems.
There is a generally held view that the
state system is of a lesser quality than
that of both the independent and to
a lesser degree, the Catholic system.
With more than 70 per cent of the state’s
young people involved in state school
education, such a view is not in the
best interests of all.
Governments need to recast their attitude
to the state system of education to help
improve its status and hence encourage
public confidence. Adequate funding
and a more robust, positive rhetoric in
defence of state schools are essential.
The strongest state schooling systems
overseas are those with vocally
supportive governments.
Essays by notable Australians
The public would be best served by the
extension of equality of opportunity to
the entire school population to achieve
the best possible educational outcomes
The recommendations of the Gonski
report went far in ensuring a more
equitable approach to school funding,
moving towards more even outcomes
from each system. However, a return
to the pre Gonski economic status of
our state and independent systems
will maintain the current bias towards
independent schools, thus serving
the best interests of a minority
of school students.
53
The federal government’s proposed
economic model will see a premature
end to the National Plan for School
Improvement (NPIS) funding
recommendations in 2017. A
neoliberal
approach to funding state education
will prevail and the gap between the
advantaged and the disadvantaged will
be maintained. The general public will
be the losers, as a pool of talent will not
get the best opportunity to realise its
potential. The NPSI offered hope for the
defence of the general public interest
in education through its fairer basis for
fund distribution to the benefit of all
school students, state and independent.
The majority of key players reached
a significant agreement in accepting
the NPSI proposal to contribute to
the base funding for all schools with
targeting for disadvantaged schools
as a fair distribution of funding for
education. Despite its relatively
short implementation period,
positive effects have been noticeable.
Some of the desirable ‘extras’ that
independent schools have been able
to provide have now become available
to their state counterparts. A state
school principal
may no longer have to
decide between employing a grounds
man to ensure that the pleasant
ambience of his school grounds
matches that of the Independent
school down the road — a significant
concern in the mind of the general
public — or to employ an extra member
of staff to assist in the management of
the growing number of children from
disadvantaged backgrounds.
54
Politicians, many of whom have
been educated in the independent
system, appear unaware of the
needs of a system of schooling
which accepts all-comers, not just
those from a higher socio-economic
background. Consequently the
independent system, which is a lesser
drain on the public purse thanks to
the contribution of parents, has been
encouraged to blossom. Not a bad thing
in itself but not at the expense of the
state system.
The independent school system is
perceived by the public as being superior
to that of the state. There has been,
historically, a longstanding devaluing
of state schools by governments,
overtly through allowing a funding
advantage to independent schools at
the expense of the state system and
covertly by not adequately defending
state teaching standards. It is in the face
of such lack of support that the public
has come to see the state system as the
lesser option when considering the best
educational options for their children.
Certainly, teacher unions are
negatively perceived through
their strong and at times, strident,
defence of state education. This is
counter productive but who else
speaks for teachers?
Elements of the media thrive on
the unwarranted idea that state
schoolteachers must be kept honest
through strict supervision. This does
not give people faith in the system.
My experience in state schools
shows the majority of teachers to be
hard-working, dedicated professionals
who are resigned to negative publicity
and underfunding and simply get on
with the job.
State schools have long been
the target for criticism due to their
all-inclusive nature. As far back as
1880, Archbishop R.W.B. Vaughan
characterised state schools as
‘seedplots of future immorality,
infidelity and lawlessness’,
thus giving rise to the Catholic school
system and subsequently that of
the independent schools.
The Archbishop’s concern for the
protection of ‘better’ students from
the taint of the offspring of the rest
gave rise to the hierarchical basis of
our current systems. Does that suspicion
still resonate amongst us? Or is it merely
a reflection of human nature?
It is not helpful to favour a perceived
social elite. A basic democratic principle
is at stake. Such behaviour does not help
maximise the potential achievement
of all young people in our society.
However it will require courage and
political will to make decisions that
will ensure equity of outcomes.
The OECD in the early 1980s suggested
that federal governments should
encourage the independent school
option in order to relieve the economic
burden of the growing cost of public
education on its people. Understandably,
politicians capitalised on a growing
enthusiasm for private schooling
and funded it accordingly. In 2014
the OECD called on the government
to address disadvantage and increase
equity amongst its people. The current
government is not as enthusiastic
about this call.
So it is in the best long-term public
interest for government to restore faith
in the state system of education through
equity of funding and championing the
values of a strong and viable state system
of schooling. Hopefully the Senate’s wish
will prevail and ensure that this happens
in the current term of government.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
It takes a nation
to raise a child
Julia Davison
Julia Davison is CEO of Goodstart Early Learning,
Australia’s largest provider of early learning and care,
with 644 centres across Australia caring for 73,000 children
from 61,000 families. Goodstart employs over 13,000 staff
and has an annual turnover of around $800 million.
Goodstart was created by a partnership of four of Australia’s
leading charities — Mission Australia, Social Ventures Australia,
The Brotherhood of St Laurence and The Benevolent Society
— which saw the potential to operate the failed ABC Learning Centres,
transforming early childhood education in Australia.
Goodstart’s vision is for Australia’s children to have
the best possible start in life. As one of the biggest social
enterprises in Australia, Goodstart works to create social
change by giving children access to affordable,
high-quality early learning. Julia has a strong interest in
public policy having completed a Masters in Public Administration
at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The week after Australia Day each year,
around 260,000 five-year old Australians
start school. Of those, almost 60,000
children — 23 per cent — will start school
developmentally vulnerable in some way.
Children who start school behind often
stay behind, and are likely to finish school
with skills and competencies that have
not equipped them for the workforce
or future life. The economic and social
costs can be profound and long lasting.
The first five years of a child’s
life are when most of their brain
development occurs. It is a period when
children are most open to learning and
when the foundation stones for future
learning can be laid. According to Nobel
Laureate James Heckman, it is a period
when the biggest returns on investment
in education can be achieved.
Essays by notable Australians
Around the world, nations are investing
more in the early years as a means of
improving the ongoing learning capacity
of their future workforce. As nations
increasingly compete on the quality of
their human capital, they recognise the vital
national public interest in having an ‘all hands
on deck’ economy when facing an ageing
population and declining levels of workforce
participation. In this global race to build
human capital, Australia can no longer afford
to leave 23 per cent of its future workers
behind at the starting block of school entry.
55
Access to quality early learning has been
demonstrated in numerous studies to
provide the greatest benefit to the most
vulnerable children. Yet these children
are the least likely group to access quality
early learning, often due to cost barriers.
Quality early learning provides more than
mere child minding. Quality early learning
involves qualified professionals delivering
age-appropriate play-based programs.
Quality early learning magnifies
children’s development, their social
competency and their resilience, and is
very much in the public interest. A study of
2000 Australian children found that those
who attended a quality preschool with
a degree- or diploma-qualified teacher
achieved around 30 points higher on
their Year 3 NAPLAN tests. A long-running
study tracking 3000 English school
children, now up to age 16, found that
children who had attended more than
2 years of quality preschool finished their
GCSE examination (Year 10) with scores
on average around 51 points higher than
those who did not. This represents the
difference between getting 8 GCSE at
‘B’ grades versus 8 GCSE at ‘C’ grades.
Reflecting the overwhelming case
for the importance of quality early
learning, the commonwealth and
all 8 state and territory governments
agreed to a landmark National
Quality Framework (NQF) to raise the
quality of early learning in Australia
just five years ago. It is particularly
pleasing to note that this support is
bipartisan, with both Coalition and
Labor governments championing
the importance of the early years.
Though Australia is playing serious
catch-up with much of the rest of the
world, the decade-long reform process
in the NQF gives us a pathway to get there.
56
However as any informed shopper
will tell you, quality comes at a cost.
And government assistance to families,
to help meet the rising cost of child care
has not kept up. The result has been that
too many families have been priced out
of access to early learning and childcare.
This results in a double negative — for the
children who miss access to early learning
opportunities, and for their parents who
are then unable to re-join the workforce.
Both sets of lost opportunities carry big
costs for Australia that will accumulate
over time.
Price Waterhouse Coopers has produced
some modelling of the benefits of
investing in quality early learning.
They estimated a threefold benefit to
the future productivity of the economy
over coming decades — $6 billion from
increased female workforce participation
if childcare costs were made lower,
$10 billion in improved productivity from
the benefit of raising the quality of early
learning, and a whopping $13 billion
from increasing the participation of
vulnerable children in early learning.
Price Waterhouse Coopers’ modelling also
found that while there was a short-term
fiscal cost to making quality early learning
more accessible and affordable, in the
medium and long term it more than
paid for itself.
Other research suggests that Price
Waterhouse Coopers’ estimates could
be understated. The Grattan Institute
concluded that if Australia’s female
workforce participation rate rose to
that of Canada, our economy would be
$25 billion better off. This is a figure often
quoted by federal Treasurer Joe Hockey
in making the case for increasing
Australia’s low rate of female workforce
participation, which ranks as the fourth
lowest in the OECD.
Public investment should mirror the
public interest, and the public interest
case for investing in childcare and
quality early learning is very strong.
The National Commission of Audit,
the Henry Tax Review, the OECD Going for
Growth report, and the recent Productivity
Commission Inquiry into childcare and
early learning have all recognised this.
It is in the public interest for more children
to start school ready to learn. This not only
gives children the best start, it also saves
the public many millions of dollars. It is in
the public interest to provide additional
support and early intervention for children
facing disadvantages, and the first five
years provide a crucial short window
to redress the development gap. It is in
the public interest to remove barriers to
women’s workforce participation through
the provision of affordable early learning
and care for their children. And it is in the
public interest to invest now in Australia’s
future economic productivity by investing
in the learning capacity of our future
workforce. Australia invests far less in
making quality early learning accessible
and affordable than most industrialised
countries. That needs to change.
As a nation, we should not leave any of
our children behind. We cannot afford to.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Section 8:
Funding the
public interest
Essays by notable Australians
57
The merits of
an efficient
social purpose
capital market
Michael Traill AM
Michael joined Social Ventures Australia (SVA)
as founding CEO in 2002 after 15 years as a co-founder
and Executive Director of Macquarie Group’s private equity arm,
Macquarie Direct Investment. Michael is Chair of GoodStart Childcare Ltd,
Chairman of the Opera Australia Capital Fund, Assetic Pty Ltd,
and a Director of M H Carnegie & Co. Michael stepped down as
CEO of SVA to take on an Executive Director role in October 2014.
Throughout my time at Social Ventures
Australia (SVA) we’ve thought very hard
about why it is that despite a generation
of economic growth, and in many
areas quite significant funding growth,
the data tells us there hasn’t been
much progress in what to us is the core
moral and economic issue we face in
this country — that many Australians
live in a cycle of exclusion and cannot
participate fully in the community.
When ambition and participation in
community and the economy are limited
by the postcode into which we are born,
something is not working.
58
If we looked at this in business terms,
the reasonable conclusion is that we have
an inefficient capital market in the social
purpose sector. Quite simply, based on
the evidence of what hasn’t changed,
large chunks of funding being allocated
have too little regard for results.
In the pivotal area of education
for example, a 45 per cent real
increase in spending in the decade from
2000 has seen no material evidence of
positive change. In fact, global data tells
us that we are lagging on the OECD tables
as benchmarked by performance in the
widely respected PISA data. In terms of
equity, children from bottom 20 per cent
postcodes are on average 2½ to 3 years
behind their peers in the top 20 per cent
by the age of 15. We are also slipping in
aggregate performance.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
We have learnt much from our
experience at SVA of working with
a wide range of high performing
social purpose organisations that,
with the requisite funding, can shift
the dial on issues of disadvantage in
this country. Organisations like the
Australian Indigenous Mentoring
Experience or AIME (which mentors
indigenous high school students and
practically encourages and develops
their educational aspirations) and the
Beacon Foundation (now working in
more than 130 schools in ‘tough postcode’
areas providing pathways to further
employment and education) are making
a tangible and large-scale difference.
Why?
They focus on evidence and are clear
about tracking the efficacy of programs
and documenting what works.
They have outstanding talent with high
quality leadership teams and boards
committed to their mission and bringing
passion and experience to their task.
As a result they have been very good
at accessing capital, i.e. the sustained
philanthropic funding and support they
need to continue to grow the reach
of their work.
The bellwether GoodStart transaction,
in which $165 million of capital was
raised from a unique cocktail of funders
including conventional bank debt, federal
government debt funding and a new
breed of impact investors who invest for
financial and social return, highlights the
different and innovative thinking that
is needed if we are to be serious about
addressing the compelling public interest
case for driving social change. GoodStart
successfully acquired 700 childcare
centres from the failed ABC business.
It works as an effective $800 million
revenue social purpose business
because it is clearly focused on driving
performance — both business and social
outcomes — and is run by a high quality
management team and board, and this
combination has enabled large scale
capital access.
Capital. Talent. Evidence.
These themes are reflected in the
SVA foyer. If we are to be serious about
reconstructing what is in our experience
an often highly inefficient social purpose
capital market, we need to focus on what
gets in the road of these things being
connected consistently.
If outstanding programs can demonstrate
with reliable data that their solutions are
both effective and sustainable, why aren’t
these solutions being invested in at a
level that will solve the social challenge
they are tackling? In too many cases we
have funding by heart, not head. We have
funders obsessed with process and not
results. We often have no funding for that
most obvious of beneficiaries: well run
programs and organisations with a track
record of results that need support to
do more of what they do well.
None of this is simple. Social change
is hard, and measuring it is hard too.
But while defining performance
expectations and target outcomes in
the social purpose world is much more
challenging than business metrics of
performance, we must address what
it takes to do this better.
There are promising signs afoot.
Governments globally, and here,
are increasingly focused on being
explicit about outcome measurement,
and measurement approaches like
Social Return on Investment (SROI)
analyses are increasingly being used.
The growth of impact investing that
underpinned the GoodStart transaction
— using financial instruments to
pursue both social and financial
returns — is another encouraging sign.
It’s a compelling approach for two
main reasons: it attracts new capital
to social challenges, and it requires
measurable outcomes to distribute
returns, a powerful incentive.
Essays by notable Australians
We can each play a part in ensuring
momentum for efficient investment
in social change continues to gather.
Government, by orders of magnitude,
is the major funder in the social
purpose sector. Where change
is happening, it is often driven by
political leaders who understand
the need to take risks, be clear about
outcomes and use their soapbox to
prosecute the case. As citizens we
should demand this of them.
A pioneering, risk-taking investment
like social benefit bonds happened in
Australia because of political leadership.
Brave successful experiments
— like Goodstart Early Learning —
would not have happened without
government support for doing something
new, something that carried risk.
The social sector too must step up
to a new way of doing things. It must
be explicit and brave in measuring
the outcomes of work and programs.
This includes being transparent
when things don’t work as intended,
and candid recognition that the most
valuable learning frequently comes
from failure.
The philanthropic community also
has a responsibility to apply capital
in a more strategic and rigorous way,
using the same energy, intellect and
focus that frequently drove wealth
creation in the first place. There is too
much ‘spray and pray’ philanthropy and
not enough rigour and discipline from
those who should apply the same skills
to their philanthropy as they usually did
in building their wealth.
The education data that shows our
investment in the critical human capital
that will drive our nation forward is
significantly inefficient should be
a call to arms for all of us. We must
build a smarter social purpose capital
market to change that trajectory.
59
Funding the
public interest
Ross Buckley
Ross Buckley is the CIFR King & Wood Mallesons Professor
of International Finance Law, and a Scientia Professor,
at the University of New South Wales. His principal field of research
is international financial regulation, focusing at the moment
on the regulation of digital financial services. He co-edits the
International Banking and Finance Law Series and the Global Trade
Law Series of Wolters Kluwer of The Hague. He has consulted
to government departments in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam
and the United States. He has twice been a Fulbright Scholar
and many times a half-bright scholar.
The public interest must not only be
articulated and defended, it must be
funded. World-wide, most governments
of developed countries struggle
with insufficient tax revenues. This is
unsurprising. Voters generally want
the services governments provide and
resist funding them through taxation.
However, current funding shortfalls
are not caused by an inadequacy of
personal taxation revenue as much
as by an inadequacy of corporate
taxation revenue. This is a direct result
of economic globalisation and the shift
to the knowledge economy. In the days
when companies were national and paid
tax where they earned profits, corporate
taxation revenue streams were larger.
60
The standard practice for multinational
corporations today is to locate their
intellectual property (IP) in a low-tax
jurisdiction and charge very substantial
licence fees to their operating subsidiaries
in high-tax jurisdictions to use the
intellectual property. The result is
that the great majority of corporate
profits end up in a low-tax locale.
A recent example in Australia saw Apple
paying only $80 million of tax on over
$6 billion of revenue for the year 2014.
While the precise details of Apple’s
taxation situation are confidential,
Apple is not selling low-margin products.
It competes on the basis of quality and
innovative design, not price.
If a multinational corporation begins
life in a low-tax jurisdiction, royalty
payments for the use of IP flowing
back into that jurisdiction may be
defensible. However, this is almost never
the case. These companies begin life
in high-tax jurisdictions because they
benefit from their advanced educational,
legal and financial systems. It is only
once established and highly profitable
that a company typically transfers its
headquarters or, more commonly,
the locus of ownership of its IP assets,
to a low-tax country. This is an entirely
artificial legal device to minimise taxation
and the fact that the governments of
the world, acting through the G20,
have not already stamped out this
practice exemplifies the political power
of major multinational corporations today.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Certainly, most of the value of Apple’s
products lies in the IP embedded
in them. Likewise, most of the value
of Starbucks lies in the ambience of its
stores and the innovative drinks and
products they sell — surely few people
enjoy the coffee. But while the core
value of these companies lies in their IP,
there is no defensible reason why they
should be allowed to transfer their IP to
a low-tax jurisdiction and the world’s
major nations are quite able to pass
laws to prevent and unwind this practice.
However, taxation appears to be one
of the most difficult policy issues for
contemporary democratic governments.
The recommendations of the Henry
Review in Australia lie gathering dust
some five years after the report was
handed down. It should be relatively
easy for rich country governments to
make the case against profit-shifting
by multinationals to low-tax countries.
Yet precious few governments globally
today are resolutely attempting to do so.
Campaigning politicians still prefer to
offer less taxation and more services.
Yet this is only achievable by removing
public service inefficiencies, and in the
main in Australia our public service has
been pruned back so hard that much of
its deep expertise and capacity to perform
well have been lost. Surely it is time for
a mature conversation between voters
and their leaders as to how promises will
be funded, and surely a major part of the
answer is the taxation in Australia of the
real profits earned here.
Then again it should have been relatively
easy for the former Labor government
to make the case for their carbon tax.
The cut-through argument was that
hard work and effort are good and as
such should be taxed as lightly as possible
through income tax, whereas carbon
emissions are bad and threaten the
entire future of agriculture in Australia
and our coastal communities and
so should be taxed heavily.
Before enacting a carbon tax,
the government could have passed
a law mandating that every dollar
raised by way of the carbon tax would
be returned to individual Australians.
The funds could have been returned
in a variety of ways. My choice would
have been to return all carbon tax
revenues equally to all Australians by
way of a single government payment
into their bank account on the first of
December each year. Most families find
Christmas and annual holidays financially
challenging. A sizable cash payment every
year on the first of December would have
had tremendous appeal.
Economists will argue against collecting
income tax and returning other revenue
in payments on efficiency grounds and
call instead for income tax rate cuts.
But again the packaging of the reform
matters enormously, and if one wanted
to go this way, I’d have argued for
a rebate on taxes for all Australians of
a set amount (being the total carbon
tax revenue divided by the number of
Australians), coupled to payments to
Australians who don’t pay income tax.
Rebates or cash payments are more
concrete and attractive than raising tax
thresholds or tinkering with tax rates.
A law that required every dollar raised
by the carbon tax to be returned
directly to the people would have
changed the debate.
Essays by notable Australians
Instead the government of the day
attempted to make its initiative politically
palatable by offering a complex package
of some ten inducements ranging
from increases in individual tax-free
thresholds and in some pensions and
benefits, through to a complex raft of
benefits for business, especially for small
businesses, and farmers. The complexity
of the countervailing measures meant
that none cut through politically.
The carbon tax was mostly seen as yet
another impost from government.
The carbon tax should never
have funded the public interest
— its mere existence was strongly in the
public interest, and the confused thinking
in this regard means that not only does
the world’s driest continent not have
an effective carbon reduction scheme
today but we also let slip the opportunity
of proving to the world that a carbon
tax can work well without causing
economic disruption.
The factors needed to make this
important policy measure politically
viable were clarity and imagination —
the two factors, together with courage,
that are usually missing when politicians
consider funding the public interest.
61
Financing the
federation
Alan Morris
Alan Morris is the former Chair of the Commonwealth Grants
Commission and also undertakes consulting and advisory work
for AusAID and the World Bank. His prior appointments have included:
Executive Director for Australia, Korea, New Zealand and Egypt
at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, London;
Secretary, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Tasmania;
Secretary (Chief Executive Officer) and Secretary to Cabinet,
Department of the Chief Minister, Northern Territory of Australia;
Assistant to Executive Director, International Monetary Fund,
Washington DC; Chief Financial Officer, International Finance Section,
Australian Treasury; and First Assistant Secretary,
Department of Finance, Papua New Guinea.
According to the Australian Constitutional
Values Survey 2012, around two-thirds
of Australians do not believe governments
(in Australia) work well together,
and believe the federation needs reform.
While it is perhaps surprising that the
proportion of Australians who think our
governments do not work well together
is only two-thirds, the conclusion that
reform of the federation — even if
it could be achieved — can, and will,
bring about a strong and effective
working relationship between and among
governments seems at best untested,
and probably quite unwarranted.
62
Establishing a sound structural and
institutional framework (which in this
instance we might call the architecture
of the federation), while obviously
highly desirable, is not of itself
guaranteed to produce sound outcomes.
Robust institutional arrangements can
be rendered ineffective by the way key
stakeholders in a position to influence
outcomes behave. Is it the apparatus and
architecture of the federation that needs
reform, or is it the processes surrounding
the working of the federation that need
to change?
These general questions are relevant
in thinking about the way in which the
federation is financed. The architecture
for financing the federation has
been in place, essentially unchanged,
for over thirty years. The specific
questions are — whether we can improve
and strengthen the way the federation
is financed, whether the principles and
objectives that have remained essentially
unchanged over three decades continue
to be appropriate, and, if change is
called for, whether a common sense of
purpose can be found among the nine
commonwealth, state and territory
governments of Australia?
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Australia has a comprehensive
process for financing the federation —
possibly the most comprehensive process
of any federation internationally. This is
fundamentally driven by the high degree of
vertical imbalance (VFI) in our federation.
In simple terms, the commonwealth raises
more tax revenue from its tax bases than it
requires to fund its own obligations, while
the states (and territories) have expenditure
obligations which far exceed the revenue
they can raise from their own tax bases.
This demands a system of fiscal transfers
from the commonwealth to the states
and territories.
Currently commonwealth fiscal transfers
to the states and territories total around
$100 billion per annum, of which more
than half take the form of untied general
revenue assistance (the distribution of
the goods and services tax [GST] pool).
While the significance of these transfers
to state budgets varies, in aggregate
they represent about 45 per cent of
total state revenue. Given the states’
responsibilities for the delivery of services
that are fundamental to the public interest,
this order of magnitude is significant.
The second part of the fiscal architecture
is the way these transfers are allocated
across the states and territories. This is
the principle and practice of horizontal fiscal
equalisation (HFE), a poorly understood
but very powerful principle encapsulating
a simple concept. It is essentially about
promoting equity for Australians in very
different circumstances. Its aim, as far as it
is possible to do so, is to use fiscal transfers
from the commonwealth to the states and
territories to equalise their capacities to
provide access to and quality of services
to their constituents similar to those
elsewhere in Australia, notwithstanding
the very different circumstances they face.
HFE is not, as doorstop interviews
ahead of ministerial council meetings
might encourage us to conclude, a plot
to deny any state a just and equitable
share of the total funding available.
Without unwarranted intrusion on the
policy and priority prerogatives of the state,
its objective is to permit states, in ways
of their own choosing, to provide equity
in access to and quality of services for
their communities.
The major criticism levelled at HFE from the
doorstop is paradoxically an admission that
the process works! States do not receive
equal per capita shares of the GST pool
because their needs are not the same.
And their shares of the available funds
do vary over time, reflecting changes
in their relative fiscal circumstances.
There have been several reviews of
equalisation over the years. Most have
concluded that fundamental change to
the GST distribution system is not required.
The 2012 GST Distribution Review,
for example, found the current system to
be well established, internally consistent
and working satisfactorily if the goal and
definition of equalisation as currently set
out is accepted.
This should not be taken to mean that
improvements to the current system
should not be contemplated. It is time
to acknowledge that HFE cannot do
all the financial heavy lifting in the
federation — there are issues of national
priority beyond equalisation that HFE is
sometimes assumed to address, but which
it is not designed to, and does not, do.
One of the more obvious of these is
Indigenous disadvantage. HFE can
and does recognise the costs facing
particular states and territories in
providing services to Indigenous people,
but it does not provide them with the
resources needed to seriously address
entrenched disadvantage.
While there have been reviews, what has
been lacking is a rigorous discussion among
governments — and between governments
and the community — about the principles
Essays by notable Australians
and objectives of equalisation and whether
these continue to serve the interests of our
contemporary federation. This discussion
should not be put off any longer. It would
be regrettable if dissatisfaction in some
states about their share of the GST
pool were to be the basis for advancing
the debate on changes to the way the
federation is financed. Without a continuing
commitment to equalisation, the system
of fiscal transfers will inevitably lead
to increasing inequity across Australia,
with the states and territories with
weaker economies, weaker revenue bases
and more pressing expenditure burdens
bearing the consequences.
Is this what the Australian
community wants? It is difficult to conceive
that the Australian community would
want a system that will inevitably lead
to increased systemic inequity between
the states and territories and between
Australians throughout the country.
Equity ranks high in the way we think about
ourselves and is a foundation stone of who
we are as a people. The doorstop interview
does little to advance rational and balanced
discussion about the principles on
which the federation is to be financed.
The questions of what is the national
public interest and who would shape and
speak for it are questions that concern
all Australians. While all Australians
would welcome the provision of better
services, would they do so if this were
to be achieved at the expense of other
members of the community and
a less equitable federation?
Might there be better ways to finance
the federation? The forthcoming White
Papers on Reform of the Federation and
Reform of Australia’s Tax System may
well identify avenues worthy of serious
consideration. But that is the easy part.
The political process to forge consensus
about the need for and nature of change
to promote the national interest, and then
to act, is the difficult part. Recent history
does not inspire great confidence that
this will be done.
63
Section 9:
Fresh insights
and mechanisms
for protecting
the public interest
64
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
A contribution from
neuroscience and
evolutionary biology
Lynne Reeder
Lynne Reeder was formerly Executive Director of Australia21
and remains a Board Director. She has worked in universities
in administrative and academic roles, and her PhD thesis
examined the international relations theory of global interdependence.
Lynne trained as a meditation teacher with Deepak Chopra
in the US, and is currently teaching meditation and mindfulness
at a regional hospital-based Wellness Centre. With a long-standing
interest in meditation and its influence on the brain and nervous system,
Lynne recently attended a conference and workshop run
by Stanford University’s Centre for Compassion and
Altruism Research on new aspects of meditation and mindfulness
gained from neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
Any review of the public interest
should consider the aspects of
human regulatory systems now being
articulated within evolutionary biology
and neuroscience by researchers
investigating brain development
from an evolutionary perspective.
One such researcher, Dr Paul Gilbert
from the UK-based Compassionate
Mind Foundation, references
three systems that regulate
human behaviour — threat (protection/
survival), achievement (drive/pursuing)
and affiliation (soothing/kindness) —
and contends that these systems are
now out of balance. Our threat and
achievement systems are working
overtime, while our affiliation system
urgently needs to be enhanced in
order to support our stressed minds
Essays by notable Australians
and bodies. The result when regulatory
systems are out of balance is individuals
getting locked into their threat and
drive systems without considering
the potential damage they can do
— as evident in the example of rogue
traders disrupting financial systems.
Similarly making public policy decisions
based on our survival regulatory system
can result in the influential few being
protected at a time when what is needed
is better-developed conditions that
nurture social connectedness.
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Understanding this will assist us to
move beyond the regulatory systems of
threat/survival and drive/achievement to
better develop our affiliation/soothing
regulatory system. However taking
care of the welfare and wellbeing of the
majority (in contrast to the selfish interest
of a person or group) will require the
community and government at all levels
to protect the public interest when making
complex public policy decisions, and to
put in place the frameworks to deliver
fairer policy outcomes. Improving public
interest outcomes will require a greater
focus on community wellbeing and
social connectedness.
If Australia is to contribute to new
ways of progressing the debate
on the public interest, then both
the structure and content of social
contracts need to be considered.
With regards to structure, The Politics
of Compassion notes, ‘compassion is a
political emotion that promises to help
sustain stable democratic communities,
expand the scope of moral and political
responsibility, and motivate reparations
for the violence that haunts post-conflict
and post-colonial societies’ (Ure & Frost
[eds], 2014:5). Models of compassion
that incorporate the public interest
are already in place.
Studies have shown that higher levels
of social connection support more
trusting and cooperative behaviour,
and as a consequence recipients are
more open to trusting and cooperating
in return. This is not new research.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued
that ‘communities that included the
greatest number of the most sympathetic
members, would flourish best and rear
the greatest number of offspring’.
I recently attended a Stanford University
conference on the Science of Compassion
addressed by four US mayors who have
committed to making their municipalities
compassionate cities. These mayors
referenced a model being developed
as part of the Charter for Compassion
set up by Karen Armstrong with funds
received when awarded the best TED talk
in 2008. This Charter is working with over
230 cities world-wide to create a network
of people caring about the way in which
their communities work for the wellbeing
of all, including in business, in healthcare,
in education, in government, in faith
groups, and in caring for the environment.
The Charter states that creating
a compassionate city requires two
kinds of leadership — from the bottom
up through neighbours, places
of work, community groups and
schools, and from the top down in
the offices of all levels of government.
The result is communities committed
to making compassion a driving force
with a measurable impact.
Recognition of our interdependence
and the increase in scientific data
demonstrating the significant benefits
of compassionate and integrated
behaviour are important components
in progressing societal wellbeing.
Compassion is an important trait of
the affiliation system and has a place to
play in increasing social connectedness.
So at a time when evolutionary biologists
are telling us that compassion is critical
to our resilience and social cohesion,
it is concerning that Antonio Guterres,
UN High Commissioner for Refugees,
recently reflected that the international
community (of which Australia should be
a significant contributor) has largely lost
its capacity to prevent and solve conflicts.
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The Australian parliament signed
the Charter for Compassion on
10 January 2010, the first time the Charter
had been recognised in a parliament
anywhere in the world. Danielle Lauren
then consulting for Australians for
United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees had collected over 100,000
handwritten signatures supporting this.
She noted at the time that the Charter
provided ‘a wonderful opportunity to
spread the principle of compassion to
our leaders to help make Australia a
more compassionate society for all’.
The then Parliamentary Secretary for
Social Inclusion also said ‘For those of
us who work in this place, the Charter
reminds us that it is not just the legislated
laws that shape a nation, but the way
in which we behave to each other.’
However for the Australian parliament
to move beyond simply being a signatory
will require improved understanding of
the way in which our three regulatory
systems influence policy development.
For example it is clear that current
asylum seeker policy is very much
anchored in our threat and drive systems.
Of course the notion of compassion
is not without its critics; it can be
confused with pity and with being
patronising, and in our 24-hour news
cycle compassion fatigue is also a factor.
More importantly compassion needs to
move beyond platitudes when influencing
policy outcomes with measurable impact.
The recent Stanford University
conference concluded by posing
the emerging research question:
‘What are the factors in our society
that separate us, and stop us caring?’
At this time in Australia’s history we
should also be asking, ‘Given that the
Australian parliament is a signatory to
the Charter for Compassion, how are
our legislators incorporating compassion
into all public interest considerations?’
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Leadership in
the public interest
Helen Sykes and David Yencken
Helen Sykes AM is the Director of Future Leaders,
President of the Trust for Young Australians,
Chair of The Australian Collaboration, Vice President of the Council
for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Associate of Melbourne
Sustainable Society Institute, Member of the Future Justice Executive,
Summit Governor of the Hillary Institute,
and Board Member of the Public Interest Journalism Foundation.
She has published and edited many books.
David Yencken AO is Professor Emeritus and former head
of the School of Environmental Planning at the University of Melbourne.
He is Patron of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
He was the inaugural Chair of the Australian Heritage Commission
and the former Secretary for Planning and Environment in the Victorian
government. He was later the founding Chair of the Australian Collaboration.
He has written, co-authored or edited eight books.
No fundamental social change occurs
merely because government acts.
It’s because civil society, the conscience
of a country, begins to rise up —
demand — demand — demand change.
(Joe Biden, Vice President of the
United States)
History shows that the public interest can
vary over time and between societies.
These are, nonetheless, ideals that every
nation should have for the wellbeing of
its citizens. For Australia they include the
protection of core values of democracy
and society and the proper care of
its people. They require the protection
Essays by notable Australians
and nurturing of the physical environment
as the source of sustenance and life.
They ask that we maintain decent
standards of living for all citizens and thus
a fair and efficiently operating economy.
They mean that our artistic and cultural
heritage and traditions are treated with
respect, support and encouragement.
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Many of these ideals, core values and
social needs are under serious threat.
One forceful way of confronting this
challenge would be to try to reach
agreement across Australian society
about the major issues facing the
country and to focus attention sharply
on them. How might that be done and
who should take a leadership role?
Government clearly has a major role to
play but the deficiencies of the political
system in dealing with critical issues
facing Australia and the world are all
too apparent. Business has its part
but works to its own rules so while it
is an important source of enterprise
and wealth generation for the country,
it is not principally focussed on the
broader public interest and often works
contrary to it. The university sector has
a critical role in carrying out research,
promoting research findings and making
its undergraduates and postgraduates
aware of societal issues, but it rarely
takes the main initiative in promoting
new policies to protect the public interest
except through the views expressed by
individuals in university communities.
Neither old nor new media are likely
to don this mantle.
There is another major sector,
the civil society sector (or notfor-profit or non-government
sector), which could play a lead role
in bringing about change that serves
Australia’s public interest. The Australian
Productivity Commission in its 2010
‘Contribution of Not-For-Profit
Sector Report’ points out that the
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)
‘identified 59,000 economically
significant NFPs, contributing $43 billion
to Australia’s GDP, and 8 per cent of
employment in 2006–07’. In support
of greater recognition for the sector,
the Productivity Commission
Report also notes that ‘the level
of understanding among the
wider community of the sector’s
role and contribution is poor
and deserves attention’.
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There are other reasons why this sector
is ideally placed to take a leadership role.
One is the rich array of skills covering
the widest range of issues to be found
within it. Another is the standing of
the sector in the eyes of the public and
the trust in which it is held. Edelman,
the global public relations company,
has just released the findings of its
2015 Trust Barometer. Once again the
survey shows that non-government
organisations (NGOs) enjoy the
highest levels of public trust, ahead of
government, business and the media,
although disappointingly the level
of public trust in all institutions has
fallen this year. The drop in trust for
NGOs has only been small, however,
and still leaves this sector highest
ranked and well-placed to take the
lead in promoting the public interest.
What stops the civil society sector
acting more vigorously? Key problems
are its fragmentation and lack of
resources. Australia is a rich pluralistic
society within which many different
voices speak out freely for the causes
about which they are concerned.
But such diversity can blunt a sharp
focus on the most important issues
and thus the likelihood of the media
or politicians paying serious attention.
A challenge for the sector is how to
make the most effective use of its
diversity and skills to generate a list of
critical issues and get wide agreement
about them. This could, no doubt, be done
in many different ways. Since there is not
space to explore alternatives in any depth,
we focus here on two key principles that
should inform the task and one proposal
that might produce a powerful outcome.
The principles are that the work undertaken
should fully engage the civil society sector
and that it should be intellectually rigorous.
With these two principles in mind we
suggest that a representative group of civil
society organisations should take the first
step by preparing a preliminary list of the
most important issues facing Australia,
inviting the widest possible inputs.
The second step would be to submit
this list to a consortium of academics
from Australian universities for checking,
review and further development.
When the academic review is
completed a series of ‘citizen parliaments’
would be an ideal way to test and
promote the research findings with
community members. All community
consultations should have multiple aims:
to gather further valuable inputs, to create
a learning environment for all concerned,
and to gain the greatest amount
of media attention and reporting.
The civil society sector would have
the responsibility for promoting the
findings of the research, individually
and collectively, so that they become key
issues regularly taken up in the media,
leading in turn to pressure on all political
parties to respond and incorporate
into their policy commitments. Ideally
the exercise should be repeated at
regular intervals. The ongoing research
team should be a dynamic group
constantly kept alive with the injection
of new voices, ideas and energy.
Funding of the project would no doubt
be a challenge. Every effort should be
made to ensure that the funds needed
come from the combined resources of
civil society organisations, universities
and philanthropy and not from
business and government.
Sir Gustav Nossal reminds us that:
‘Community leadership is the
courage, creativity and capacity to
inspire participation, development
and sustainability for strong
communities.’ Australia’s civil society
sector is well placed in Biden’s
words to rise up, demand change
and show that leadership.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Leading police
in the public interest
Mick Palmer
Mick is a police officer with extensive experience in police leadership
and reform in community, national and international policing
in a 33 year career. He served as Commissioner of the
Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Service agency
in 1988–94 and as Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (AFP)
from 1994 until March 2001. Since retiring from policing in 2001
Mick has conducted a range of government inquiries and reviews,
including the inquiry into the immigration detention of Cornelia Rau.
He is a former member of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council
of Australia and is currently an adjunct professor with the
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University.
He is a Director of Australia21.
The question of how well policing
serves the ‘public interest’ has been alive
throughout the development of modern
policing since its creation in London by
the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel in 1929
as a response to the urban disorder that
accompanied industrialisation.
The role of police in these early days was
essentially to protect those with status and
property from those who had little or none.
As a consequence, policing adopted
a military style structure in which command
and decision-making rested at the top of
the organisation and subordinates followed
orders. In this early environment, crime
was local and usually unsophisticated,
offenders were generally easily identified
and a police officer’s beat was the
town or village in which he or she lived.
Leadership was simple and uncomplicated.
A range of issues quickly identified
themselves, however, which continue
to create tensions within the practice
of policing and for police leaders.
The office of constable is
independent and the exercise of
lawful, discretionary, arrest and other
powers is a matter requiring individual,
not organisational, judgment.
The concept of community policing,
easily practised in the early days of
policing, became a more complicated
challenge as communities grew in size
and mobility, and crime and criminality
matured from humble local beginnings
into a creature with national and
international tentacles.
Essays by notable Australians
As wealth, prosperity and public
expectations increased, politicians
found themselves under ever
increasing pressure to reduce crime
rates, increase conviction rates
and improve public safety.
While the government dictates the
size of police service budgets and
the policy objectives and priorities
against which police performance and
effectiveness are judged, the general
public independently make their
assessments of policing performance
and not infrequently come to different
conclusions on how well police serve
their general wellbeing and safety.
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The tragic stabbing murder of Stephen
Lawrence, a young black man, by white
racists in London in April 1993 graphically
illustrates these tensions. Police were
not criticised for failing to prevent the
killing of Stephen Lawrence but for
how they reacted and responded to it,
including their lack of professionalism
on the night of the crime and in their
subsequent investigation. In the
Lawrence investigation, the police service
as well as individuals was found at fault.
This was a major failure of leadership.
Effective response in such
circumstances is at the core of
policing in the public interest.
Police leaders have a responsibility to
assess competing risks and operational
priorities and identify who are the most
vulnerable and exposed members
of our society, what is being done to
protect them, and what more can
realistically be done to do so.
The events of 11 September 2001 added
a new dimension to these responsibilities
in ways never previously contemplated.
The myriad of counter terrorism related
responsibilities created by ‘9/11’ and
its continuing aftermath altered and
increased policing priorities and led to
more autocratic, centrally controlled
policing and greater political involvement
in policing operations. These changes
made it more difficult to maintain
an operational environment which:
ŸŸencouraged discretion and
personal judgment,
ŸŸensured a fair and even-handed
approach was applied to operational
decision-making, and,
ŸŸfacilitated police serving their
communities fairly, proportionately,
impartially and in the communities’
best interests.
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ŸŸSo how, in this increasingly complex
and publicly examined policing world,
can police leaders’ best ensure that
police strategies and operations
do appropriately and fairly serve
the public interest?
The challenge for police leaders is to
create an environment where the vast
majority of what police do is done
with the consent of a community
which trusts them, what they do and
the way in which they do it. The reality
is that effective policing cannot operate
without the support of the community.
This is more, not less, important in an
environment of uncertainty, instability
and extremism-driven fear than in calmer,
more stable times.
In the post 9/11 climate, tough decisions
and actions will be necessary and
sometimes unavoidable. However, every
effort must be made to ensure they are
justified and proportionate. Attention to
detail has never been more important,
nor has the preparedness to admit
fault and accept blame.
While police have responsibility to
respond to all crimes, requests and
complaints, the challenge is to perform
these duties fairly and impartially: to be
as prepared to listen to the complaints of
the minority as to those of the majority,
to assess the concerns of the powerless
as carefully as those of the powerful,
and to understand not only the behaviour
they are tasked to investigate, but also the
reasons for it. To do otherwise is to risk
a culture of rejection which will operate
to further divide an already fragile society.
People with influence create pressure
and governments are too often swayed
by pressure. This does not always lead to
a just and equitable response and police
leaders are often caught in the middle
of political, community and sectional
interests. When this occurs they must
be prepared to act apolitically, honestly
and fearlessly, no matter how unpopular,
with some stakeholders, this may be.
Peter Villiers, in his chapter on Leadership
by Consent in the text Police Leadership
in the 21st Century, identifies a critical
combination of factors that good police
leaders need to keep in mind if police
are to operate with minimal force and
maximum community cooperation.
Many of these have assumed greater
importance in the post 9/11 environment.
They include the need to:
ŸŸUphold the rule of law
ŸŸResist acting as political police,
and deal with crime on its
ordinary merits
ŸŸMaintain a visible presence
in the community
ŸŸRetain a civil not a paramilitary role
ŸŸPrefer to use persuasion rather
than coercion wherever possible
ŸŸExercise the official power of the
law only as a last resort
ŸŸAttempt to balance the rival interests at
stake in any conflict and find solutions
in which no one is the absolute loser
ŸŸDefine ‘other duties’ inclusively
rather than exclusively
ŸŸDemonstrate, by actions, that
the idea of police being a friend is
not entirely mythical.
These factors, if reflected in police
practice, will be a clear demonstration
of policing in the ‘public interest’.
The challenge for police leaders, in this
current autocratic, centrally controlled
world, is to have the courage to afford
their members sufficient trust and
autonomy to exercise their individual
discretions in accord with them, to do all
within their power to ensure their officers
are trained and enabled to act more as
a police service than as a police force.
It has often been suggested that police
are street corner politicians whose
essential role is to negotiate between
conflicting parties and find a solution or
way forward. This role has never been
more difficult or more important.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
The voice
of the people —
kitchen table
conversations
Mark Spain
Mark is Chair of SEE-Change ACT and leader of
the Belconnen SEE-Change group discussed below.
He works as a professional facilitator and is a leader
and learner in developing systems, structures and processes
that build innovation, curiosity and high-trust relationships
with people and their organisations to produce
sustainable business results. He is particularly passionate
about implementing sustainable and ethical business
management systems that build success
for all players, and for the future.
I think the public interest can be better
served when citizens become active
agents in collective decision making.
I am one of ten members of the
Belconnen SEE (Society Environment
Economy) Change group which decided
to test a model of engaging local citizens
in a series of conversations in their
homes with their neighbours.
Kitchen Table Conversations (KTC) were
used in several projects by Mary Crooks
at the Victoria Women’s Trust over
several decades. The first project
called Purple Sage engaged women
in café conversations about what was
important to them during the time of
the Kennett government. This process
strengthened Mary’s courage to ask Jeff
Kennett a question at a public town hall
Essays by notable Australians
meeting where journalists saw the first
signs of Kennett heading towards a loss
at the next election. The second project,
conducted during the long drought
in Victoria, brought scientists, citizens
and government together as partners
in a process that empowered citizens
to have Kitchen Table Conversations
about the role of water in their lives and
how it could be managed effectively.
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This project was called Watermark
and the report it produced still informs
decision-making about water across
rural and urban Victoria. The third project
called Voice4Indi involved engaging
citizens in the federal electorate of
Indi in conversations about what
was important to them. This project
contributed to the momentum which
led to the election to parliament of
independent Cathy McGowan in a safe
Liberal seat held by Sophie Mirabella.
The Belconnen SEE Change group invited
Mary to Canberra to run a workshop on
how to design and run a KTC process
to listen to the voice of people
in Canberra. The group experimented
with two types of conversation, one
starting with participants pre-reading
a one-page conversation starter on
a broad social topic written by one of
the group members, the second asking
participants to do no preparation
but to speak to the question ‘What is
important to you?’ Both conversations
included ten participants. A ‘talking
piece’ was used which entitled only
the person holding the piece to speak,
the intention being to create a climate
of respectful listening to all points
of view rather than one in which
some dominant participants argued
their views while those who were
more reserved felt excluded.
These conversations were engaging
and interesting and people were pleased
to hear the similarities and differences
in each other’s views.
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The group then invited members of
the public to a meeting to explore
‘How to be a Kitchen Table Conversation
Host’, attended by 80 people. A host kit
was given to those who wanted it and
hosts were given 8 weeks to host two
conversations with up to ten neighbours.
The first conversation explored
the questions: ‘What is important
to you? What are your concerns?
What are your hopes?’ The second
conversation explored: ‘What needs
to change? What action will you take?’
The host kit also explained how the
host could find a scribe to record each of
the two conversations. Host and scribe
checked with each participant that the
record accurately reflected their views
and adjustments were made before
each host submitted their report to the
organising group. Twenty-four hosts
from across Canberra submitted their
reports by 30 November 2014.
On 3 December the SEE Change
group held a KTC Hosts Debriefing
workshop attended by 25 people.
Hosts had completed an online survey
beforehand and discussion focused on
what worked well, what would be done
differently next time and what the hosts
had learned. While hosts had a positive
experience, many would have liked more
diversity and differences in their groups.
The organising group has now collated
the reports of the 24 hosts and
180 people involved into an overall
report published on the SEE Change
website at www.see-change.org.au/
voicesofthepeople and distributed
to all participants.
The organising group is encouraged by
the participation and goodwill generated
by this project and would now like to
make the Host Kit and methodology
available to more people with the
intention that community groups of all
political and social persuasion will form
a Canberra Alliance to continue the Voice
of the People Project. The Belconnen
SEE Change Group will provide the
Host Kits and support each group to run
and report on their own public meetings.
This project has strongly demonstrated
that when the right forums and avenues
for engagement are created, citizens
actively involve themselves in public
interest expressions of democracy.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Defending
the public interest
through community
organising
Phoebe Howe
Phoebe Howe is the training program director of the
Australian Youth Climate Coalition. She has supported hundreds
of young leaders in campaigns to change the direction of
climate change policy in government and businesses in Australia.
She is a board member of Climate for Change, an organisation
conducting kitchen-table conversations to educate and engage people
on climate change. As a student at the ANU, she founded
a community climate action group whose campaign
contributed to ambitious climate legislation in the ACT.
The community organising process
for discussing values and issues such
as what is in the public interest leads
to public action that can see vision
brought into reality. Participating in
the process can teach individuals about
power, develop skills fundamental to
constructive public debate, and give
a voice to marginalised people who
have valuable insight in mainstream
culture. At a time when opportunities
for fostering strong public conversations
are lacking, community organising should
be nurtured.
Community organising has been
described as the power of organised
people versus organised money.
Where people have taken coordinated
action in large numbers, they have
subverted the powerful forces of those
who have more resources. People have
put their bodies in front of weapons in
non-violent actions for independence in
India, or for civil rights in the USA, and won
major change. However the basic process
of community organising in itself impacts
on society’s capacity for healthy debate
that can defend our public interest.
Essays by notable Australians
Community organising can teach
individuals and groups about how
power operates. Many are disillusioned
with world affairs and feel powerless to
change anything. Community organising
is about transforming that feeling into
empowerment with the confidence
to act. The Australian Youth Climate
Coalition (AYCC) for example empowers
young people to have their say on climate
change, where they have little say over
decisions that will disproportionately
affect their future. In late 2013 the AYCC
called on a major construction company
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to withdraw its funding bid to expand
a major coal port. Young people had to
understand what would influence the
company’s decision-makers: internal
pressure on staff. After four months of
direct conversations with staff outside
company headquarters, internal
questions and complaints, the company
withdrew their bid. These young people
had a transformational experience, seeing
firsthand how power works, building
their own power base, and exerting
this for the public interest they shared:
climate change mitigation. Community
organising creates an environment for
public debate by activating individuals
with the knowledge that it is possible
to create change.
Community organising can also teach
the skills to successfully engage in
public debate. Though we may be
convinced that participating in debate
about the public interest is valuable,
it can be difficult to see how to
participate constructively. So much public
conversation is combative, unconstructive
and offensive, designed to entertain
and win a point, rather than build shared
understanding. Many people disengage
from public debate rather than risk
being harmed by the process.
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A community organiser invests in
respectful relationships. A key skill is
identifying shared values among the
individuals or groups they are organising.
Organisers must be expert listeners, able
to hear behind emotion or opinion in a
heated conversation the fundamental
values and concerns of the speakers.
The Sydney Alliance, mentioned by
Amanda Tattersall in this volume, teaches
effective listening. The organising model
of the Alliance is grounded in relational
meetings, meetings with no agenda
which consist of telling your own story,
hearing another’s story, developing an
understanding of what the other values,
and seeing where those values coincide
with your own. Relational meetings
quickly build the trust that makes
organising possible. Groups as diverse
as Jewish and Muslim representative
bodies, which disagree on many things,
have taken action together on issues of
shared concern. Done well, community
organising provides opportunity and tools
to engage in effective debate that can
construct what is in our public interest
from the best ideas and knowledge
rather than the loudest voice.
Community organising has grown out
of the struggles of people who have
been marginalised in systemic ways,
and can give a voice to alternative
views that shed new light on issues of
public concern, strengthening public
debate. People who are suffering due
to systemic inequalities have had to fight
for their personal safety, their identity,
or their land. Communities who do not
experience day-to-day hardship have
little reason to agitate and call for change;
though they may be concerned
about injustices, their physical safety
and economic security mean they have
a choice. The marginalised often have
no choice but to organise and push
for change. In doing so they can offer
insights to people living comfortably
in the mainstream and move public
sympathies that can change laws
and policies.
In 2014, Pacific Islander activists
peacefully blockaded the world’s largest
coal port in Newcastle with traditional
canoes. After years of lobbying foreign
governments for international climate
action with no result, and facing
losing their homelands underwater,
their catchcry was ‘We are not drowning,
we are fighting’. The sea level rise caused
by climate change, now claiming their
homes, gave them no choice but to fight.
This act of civil disobedience by telling
a different story about the effects of
climate change caught the attention of
the media. The human face of climate
change moved Australians, who are
among the world’s highest per capita
emitters of carbon pollution, in ways that
scientific facts or news reports of distant
disasters could not. Dozens of Australians
joined their protests leading to arrests
across the country. The marginalised
voices of Pacific Islanders, galvanised
through a community organising effort
and a powerful action, brought climate
change home to Australians in a way
we couldn’t see on our own.
To defend the public interest, we should
nurture the processes that strengthen
our collective capacity to defend it.
Community organising gives us a
chance to learn about our own power
to make a difference. It teaches us how
to engage in the civil debate essential
to building an understanding of the
public interest. It gives an avenue for
marginalised voices to be heard, voices
which can uncover blind spots that
the mainstream are unable to see,
and thus strengthens our capacity to
define and defend the public interest.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Community
organising aims
to win back civil
society’s rightful place
Amanda Tattersall
Amanda Tattersall is the founding director of the Sydney Alliance,
a coalition of religious organisations, unions, educational organisations
and community organisations. She has published Power in Coalition,
the first international comparison of how coalitions are built.
She has an Arts/Law Degree with Honours, and the
University Medal for Law at University of Technology Sydney.
She was President of the National Union of Students,
co-founder of Labor for Refugees (and for a time a member of the ALP),
and completed her PhD both at the University of Sydney
and as a fellow at Cornell University.
In the wake of the Second World War,
Karl Polanyi wrote that the public arena is
made up of three interconnected sectors:
the market, government and civil society.
He argued that democracy thrives when
these three are in balance. If only that
were the case today. Since the late 1980s,
the global influence of the market sector
has increased and, at the same time,
civil society has decreased.
This can be felt every day in
Australia’s cities. We see it in
declining investment in community
infrastructure — everything from a lack
of public transport to unaffordable
housing. First in Sydney, then in other
Australian cities, as well as across
the world, civil society organisations
— like churches, schools, unions,
community and religious organisations
— are rebuilding the power of civil society
using community organising.
Essays by notable Australians
Community organising is a way of
working that trains and builds citizen
leaders inside community-based
organisations. Community organisers
argue that in order to fix our cities we
need to fix our democracy. That means
we need to build strong and vibrant civil
society organisations that act for the
common good.
75
Chicago-born Saul Alinsky was the
grandfather of community organising.
He first organised immigrants and
industrial workers into a diverse
coalition named the Back of the Yards
Neighbourhood Council in the late 1930s.
Alinksy created the Industrial Areas
Foundation (IAF) to spread this success.
The alliance’s first campaigns were local.
The first victory was in Liverpool, in
south-western Sydney, where community
leaders from religious, union and
community organisations advocated
for the creation of ‘15-minute drop-off
zones’ outside six medical centres in
Liverpool City.
Today, community organising
coalitions can be found in more than
60 cities in countries around the world,
including the United States, Canada,
United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.
In Glebe, churches and unions teamed
up with the Glebe Youth Service to
create local jobs for young indigenous
men and women living in Glebe’s public
housing estate. In 2013, this culminated
in a 350-person assembly where
Mirvac CEO John Carfi agreed to create
an apprenticeship program for local
men and women at the Harold Park
Housing Development.
The Sydney experience
The Sydney Alliance translated
community organising to Australia.
The alliance was built slowly
between 2007 and 2011, with a focus
on one-to-one meetings across
a remarkably diverse array of partners.
These include the Catholic Church,
the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies,
the Cancer Council, the Uniting Church,
Arab Council and the nurses’ union,
among others. Partner organisations fund
the Sydney Alliance and supply the people
who lead it. These leaders are supported
by a small team of community organisers.
Community organising borrows from
traditions as diverse as Catholic social
teaching, the Jewish self-help tradition
and union action. The alliance’s extensive
community organising training uses
texts as diverse as the Bible and Greek
philosophy, then mixes those traditions
with the experiences of social coalitions
like Sydney’s Green Bans movement
and modern-day heroes like Gandhi.
With the 2015 NSW state election looming,
the alliance spent 2013 running listening
campaigns across the city. This work
produced our election agenda, which
was launched on March 26 at Sydney
Town Hall. About 1500 leaders from the
alliance’s 49 partner organisations came
together to commit to running public
campaigns that could improve transport,
housing and job opportunities.
The proposed solutions included:
ŸŸdropping the extra charges on the
airport train line to reduce congestion
and make public transport accessible;
ŸŸsetting targets for affordable
community and public housing;
ŸŸfunding a pilot employment support
worker program to reduce youth
unemployment by helping people
from disadvantaged communities
get and keep jobs;
ŸŸmaking every train station disability
— and pram-accessible by 2020.
The alliance will hold a campaign
of suburban assemblies in
Sutherland-St George, Western
Sydney, North Shore and Nepean.
The campaign will climax with
a 3000-person Accountability Assembly
— most likely at the Opera House.
The NSW premier will be invited to
tell the assembly what he has done
to progress each of these issues
after 100 days in office.
Making leaders and
building relationships
The Sydney Alliance is an advocacy
organisation with a difference.
Its primary purpose is to help thousands
of community members develop into
community leaders. We say leaders are
made not born: the alliance provides
training, teams and mentoring that
can gently and intentionally support
people from all walks of life to take
on leadership roles in public life.
The alliance is creating remarkable
relationships between Muslims
and Christians, unionists and
Catholics, schools and synagogues.
It is also breathing new life into
those organisations, by providing
them with a means to not just
talk about the things that worry
them but do something about it.
A similar organisation is
growing in Brisbane called the
Queensland Community Alliance.
There is also interest in community
organising in places as diverse as
Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and
Newcastle. Civil society may have its
work cut out for it, but in Sydney and
Australia it is making a comeback.
Reprinted with permission from
The Conversation 25 August 2014.
76
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Decisions by
the people:
Melbourne City
Council’s experiment
Michael Green
Michael is a freelance journalist in Melbourne.
He writes about environmental, social and community issues.
This article was first published in The Age in December 2014.
When Shuwen Ling received the letter
from the City of Melbourne, she thought
it was spam. Or maybe it was a fine?
‘It was on good quality paper,’ she
says. ‘But when I read it carefully, I
thought: “This is pretty cool”.’ Ling is
nearly 20 years old and it’s three years
since she left her hometown, a few
hours from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
She studies finance and civil engineering
at the University of Melbourne and lives
in an apartment near the Vic Market.
She was one of 6500 people who received
the letter, 600 who responded, and finally,
43 who were randomly selected
to reflect the city’s demographics.
Their task? To make recommendations
on the council’s budget for its first ever
10-year financial plan — spending that is
worth, in total, up to $5 billion. Citizens’
juries, such as this one, are being used
increasingly often around the world.
They’re another kind of representative
democracy, one that steers policy making
away from the entrenched positions of
political parties, lobbyists and squeaky
wheels, and towards the considered
voices of ordinary, well-informed citizens.
In Melbourne, the ‘People’s Panel’ was
coordinated by the new Democracy
Foundation, a not-for-profit research
organisation that says it’s aiming
to move our democracy out
of ‘the continuous campaign cycle’.
Essays by notable Australians
The panellists were posed
this question: ‘How can we remain
one of the most liveable cities in the
world while addressing our future
financial challenges?’ I spoke with
five of them, including Ling, from the
panel’s inception to its aftermath.
The process began in August. In the
following weeks, panellists spent
six Saturdays hearing evidence from
councillors, staff and experts of their
own choosing. They read reports,
did sums, asked questions,
and wrangled over the answers. It was
a bigger commitment than they’d
expected, still most poured themselves
into the challenge. But would the council
act on their recommendations?
77
When Maria Petricevic enters the first
session, she feels a little intimidated.
Dr Petricevic is a Collins Street dentist
— her practice overlooks the town hall.
‘I was scanning the room and thinking:
“Are other people better informed
than I am?”’ She is enthusiastic about
Melbourne — throughout university,
for seven years commuting on the V/Line
train from Geelong, she dreamed of one
day moving north. ‘I just love this city,’
she says. By the second session,
she feels more confident about
her ability to contribute, but slightly
overwhelmed by all the information.
“’It’s been an eye-opening experience,’
Petricevic says in the lunch break. ‘I just
have so much more insight into how
much goes into operating a city’. It is a bright Saturday in September and
the panellists are gathered in a grand
room on the lower level of the Melbourne
Town Hall. Through the windows, you can
see the legs of pedestrians and the bodies
of trams passing by on Swanston Street.
The City of Melbourne’s chief
finance officer, Phu Nguyen,
gives the group a rundown on the budget,
and its longer-term projections.
‘We’ve reached a level of what I call
“Peak Parking Revenue”,’ he says.
‘People are complying more than
they used to.’ Nguyen lays out
the broad challenges for the city
over the coming decade, all with
implications for the bottom line:
rapid population growth, climate change,
technological transformation and
economic uncertainty. The renewal of
the Queen Victoria Market site could cost
up to $250 million, and serious upgrades
to infrastructure and facilities will be
required. On current estimates, he says,
the council will fall short of cash.
78
The panellists split into small groups
for a ‘speed dating’ session with
councillors and senior staff. With the
weight of town hall above them, and
established voices in their ears, it is hard
to imagine the panel’s advice straying
too far from the status quo. But one of
the panellists, Hani Akaoui, an architect
with a thin moustache, a considered
manner and an office at the top end
of Bourke Street, notes that his fellow
citizens aren’t shy about asking critical
questions. ‘We want to be informed,’
he says. Cr Stephen Mayne, chair of the
city’s finance and governance committee,
uses speed dating to pitch his agenda,
including rate rises, more efficient
staffing practices, and selling Citywide,
the council’s wholly owned waste
service company.
‘I can see the potential political power
of the recommendations, so I was
very keen to push them to focus on
the big material issues,’ he says later.
Some were swayed, others irked; all
noted his forceful approach. (The panel
recommended against selling Citywide.)
For the third session, the panellists
are able to request any experts
they want — among those chosen are
demographer Bernard Salt and climate
scientist Graeme Pearman. In the break,
panellist Bruce Shaw, a barrister who lives
in Southbank, expresses his scepticism
about the ubiquitous cheerleading for
the city: ‘If I hear one more person say
Melbourne is the world’s most liveable
city, I’m going to scream.’ (Later, he did
— quietly.) While they aren’t hemmed
in by party politics, the panellists do
bring their own concerns. Shaw thinks
our public transport is poor, especially
the sluggish trams, and must be
made more reliable. Ling is interested
in high-rise developments — her dad
is a property developer in Malaysia.
In Melbourne, she thinks, there are
too many new towers, too tall and
too small inside.
Panellist Renee Hill recently moved to
Kensington with her partner. She works in
marketing in the finance industry, and her
primary worry is about how the city is
promoting sustainability and preparing
for climate change. ‘If we don’t start
planning now, we won’t be in a position
to deal with it,’ she says. ‘That’s really
top of mind for me.’ This represented
one of the main struggles for the panel.
The council’s powers are constrained.
Decision-making on critical issues
such as public transport, planning for
big buildings and systemic responses
to climate change all rest elsewhere.
‘We always have to remember that the
purpose of the exercise is to improve the
budget of the city,’ Akaoui says. ‘It’s not
theoretical, and it’s not master planning;
it’s literally financial.’ An annual budget
of $400 million takes some reckoning.
Can the hoi polloi analyse it? And can
they do it on Saturdays?
Professor John Dryzek, from the
University of Canberra, is a world
expert on deliberative democracy.
He says there’s been an ‘explosion’
of citizens’ forums in the past decade,
and experience has proven lay people
worthy of the task. ‘All you need to do is
give people time,’ Dryzek says. ‘Give them
access to information, enable them to
ask questions of the experts and people
really can get their head around incredibly
complex issues.’ The Danish Board of
Technology has been running these juries
for 20 years, seeking citizens’ views on
controversial issues such as genetically
modified food and electronic surveillance.
Recently, South Australian premier
Jay Weatherill convened deliberative
panels on questions of how to reduce
alcohol-related violence and how
motorists and cyclists can share roads.
Earlier this year, the Darebin City Council
in Melbourne’s north ran a citizen’s
jury to direct $2 million in spending on
community infrastructure. The residents
returned with eight recommendations,
including a new neighbourhood house,
exercise equipment and sports courts.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Each jury requires careful planning and
hard decisions about demographics.
In Melbourne, there are more
than 116,000 residents and nearly
18,000 businesses, but two-thirds
of rates revenue comes from
the latter. The facilitators, new Democracy
Foundation, recommended that the
People’s Panel should comprise an even
split of residents and non-residents
(both business owners and workers).
As a consequence, 60 per cent of the
panellists are male — a proportion said
to reflect the over-representation of
men in CBD businesses.
Jury deliberates
On the fifth Saturday, the
citizens deliberate. But they don’t
finish, so they have to return for an
unscheduled sixth day. To pass a
recommendation, the panel requires
80 per cent agreement. Each person is
given an electronic voting paddle and
five options from ‘Love it’ to ‘Loathe it’.
The results flash on the projector screen
immediately. This process — the jury’s
deliberation — is the system’s promise,
its claim to legitimacy. For outsiders,
however, its merits are impossible
to judge. The panellists had resolved that
in order for everyone to feel comfortable
venturing their opinions, they would
close some sessions to observers. And so,
whenever they were debating or voting,
they excluded their fellow citizens. Shaw maintains that when the
room was closed, no one dominated.
‘The word “democracy” describes
it well,’ he says. ‘Whether or not the
council will regret it is another thing.’
Ling observes that some people who
came with strong opinions softened
them, or compromised significantly.
The facilitators instructed voters to
apply the following test before spiking
a proposal: ‘Can you live with it?’ For the most part, agreement came easily.
‘There’s been a lot more consensus than
I expected,’ Hill says. On the final day, as the clock ticks,
the pressure rises. ‘The people who
were pushing wacky ideas saw that the
game was up,’ Shaw says. ‘We finished
up with a good report, with a realistic
number of ideas presented fairly.’
Their 11 recommendations, released
in mid-November, included proposing
rate rises each year of up to 2.5 per
cent above inflation, more spending
on mitigating and adapting to climate
change, extra bike paths, selling
‘non-core’ properties, reducing new
capital works and pressing the
state government for a higher
tax on developers.
Councillors approve
There’s a pitfall common to many
of the citizens’ juries, however:
their recommendations are often ignored.
The council promises the People’s
Panel a formal response at its meeting
on November 25. At the meeting,
Mayne is effusive as he presents the
official reply: ‘I think they’re excellent
recommendations,’ he says. The councillors postpone their decision,
however, and instead, refer the proposals
to staff for analysis and modelling.
When the council’s draft 10-year financial
plan is released in April, the panel’s report
will be included in its entirety, along with
an explanation about whether or not
each recommendation has been adopted.
Essays by notable Australians
Akaoui was in the gallery that day
— he’d returned early, especially,
from a business trip to Sydney.
He is pleased with the outcome. On the
question of rates, he believes increases
are reasonable. ‘The overall mood of
the panel was that the council is doing
a good job. We’re happy with the city
and we want to keep it at the forefront.’
Among the panellists, the process
engendered loyalty and pride — and, also,
not a little chagrin that they weren’t given
more time. But they had an opportunity
to participate, deeply and meaningfully,
in civic debate. ‘You really should know that people
have been so passionate and committed
to participating,’ Petricevic says,
citing evidence: one man sent his views
by text message from hospital, where his
wife was in labour; another woman was
undergoing chemotherapy, but continued
to attend. Petricevic feels like she has
made a contribution to the city she loves.
She’s also gained trust in the council for its
commitment to community engagement.
‘Other levels of government could
take a leaf out of that book,’ she says.
Ling too, feels she’s made a contribution
to the community, and it has kindled her
interest in the affairs of her adopted city.
Now this panel is over, Akaoui believes
others should begin. ‘I think this shouldn’t
be done once in a blue moon,’ he says.
‘It should be done every year.’
79
What can we do
when self-interest
undermines
the public interest?
Nicky Grigg and Steve Cork
Nicky Grigg is a Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO Land and Water
where she has worked on a diverse range of research projects concerned
with impacts of global change on social-ecological systems.
She is a Director of Australia21.
Steven Cork is an ecologist and futurist, with over 30 years experience
researching interactions between people and the natural environment
and the ways in which humans make sense of complex
social-ecological issues. He is an Adjunct Professor in the
Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University,
Principal Consultant at EcoInsights, and a Director of Australia21.
The philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau,
writing in the 1700s, was concerned
about social processes that encouraged
self interest and discouraged the natural
human impulse for compassion at
a time when people were becoming
increasingly dependent on one another for
their wellbeing. Subsequently, philosophers
and political scientists have debated and
researched the ways in which humans
make individual and collective decisions
in societies. Opinions differ about the extent
to which human societies require top-down
control to achieve the common good.
80
Dominant political and economic thought
in the western world, for example, assumes
that allowing individuals to make informed
decisions based on self-interest, through
elections and markets, is an efficient and
effective way to share resources. But there
are increasing concerns that existing social
processes do not encourage the amount
of communication and information sharing
required for people to understand what is
in their long-term individual and collective
interests and to make informed decisions.
It is not always necessary for self-interest
and public interest to be in conflict. In most
countries, citizens accept some degree
of traffic regulation (the degree varies,
of course) because they understand that
they gain individual benefits (e.g., safety
and avoidance of gridlock) by acting in
the common good. In this essay, however,
we are concerned with situations
where individuals pursuing their long
term self interest, independent of
impacts on others, will not serve the
public interest without some collective
coordination and/or attention to
better access to and understanding
of information and viewpoints.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Many social issues are not so easy to address
because they are complex, information
is unavailable and/or open to multiple
interpretations, opinions differ on the
origins of the issues and the solutions, and
society lacks mechanisms for open dialogue
about such issues. These are sometimes
called ‘wicked problems’. Examples include:
climate change; transformation of our
energy system; governing the distribution
of benefits from a boom in non-renewable
resource extraction; handling waves of
asylum seekers; and making long-term
provisions to care for an ageing population.
Recent research has drawn heavily on
lessons from game theory to explore
social dilemmas, which has proven to be
a powerful way to make sense of some
of the challenges faced when navigating
individual-collective interactions. A social
dilemma is where individually reasonable
actions create an outcome where everybody
is worse off, and these are illustrated by
metaphorical stories such as: the Prisoner’s
Dilemma (two people choose whether
to ‘co-operate’ or ‘defect’, where each
individual stands to gain more by defecting,
regardless of their opponent’s choice, but the
worst option for both is mutual defection);
public good dilemmas (where all can
benefit from a public good, such as public
radio, even if they contribute nothing to its
provision or maintenance); and the tragedy
of the commons (where an individual stands
to benefit from over-extracting a shared
resource, with the costs of the degradation
being borne by all).
These dilemmas illustrate a key risk for
societies managing the public interest:
non-cooperation with the public interest
can be a demonstrably rational decision
for individuals. One common response by
governments is top-down intervention
to discourage this ‘free-riding’. But
others, most notably Elinor Ostrom and
colleagues, have developed alternative
principles based on careful analysis of
real-world cases where communities have
been successful long-term stewards of
common pool resources. David Sloan Wilson
and colleagues have generalised these
findings for groups acting collectively.
Their research highlights many ways in
which we can improve governance for
the long-term public interest, however in
this essay we highlight one dimension:
communication. One robust research
finding is that where there are opportunities
for people to communicate face to face,
their likelihood of cooperating to serve the
long-term collective interest increases.
Several of Ostrom’s principles require
constructive modes of communication
within and between groups of individuals
(e.g. conflict resolution mechanisms,
rights to organise, collective-choice
arrangements, coordination among groups
from different spheres of activity across
multiple scales). We would benefit from a
greater capacity for open dialogue about
difficult issues so that misunderstandings
and misinterpretations can be reduced
and mutual respect and understanding of
alternative viewpoints can be improved.
The capacity of a society to hold productive
public conversations provides benefits to
all of its members. The requirements for
productive conversations among individuals
and across society include trust (including
trusted sources of information, and honest
exchanges of knowledge and experience)
and safe places to explore disagreements
with respect for different perspectives.
Dialogue methods are particularly effective.
Where debate emphasises opposing
voices advocating positions strongly
and seeking to discredit other positions,
dialogue emphasises suspension of
judgment, respectful openness to multiple
perspectives and a willingness to build
constructively on others’ contributions.
Many aspects of modern society work
against these requirements, including:
combative interactions in our media, courts
and houses of Parliament that foster attack
and defence interactions rather than trust
and openness to learning from different
perspectives; powerful vested interests
having greater access to advertising and
marketing opportunities (with no bodies
investing comparable resources into giving
voice to the long-term public interest);
and trolling in public internet conversations.
Essays by notable Australians
Futurists and psychologists have concluded
that evolution has favoured neural pathways
that identify and react to immediate
threats rather than pathways that imagine
future possibilities. While organisations and
societies provide the opportunity for many
views to be shared, the evidence indicates
that people tend to defend their own
views of the world rather than embracing
other views (this is done, for example,
by selective hearing, recall and biased
evaluation of information) and to leave it
to ‘others’ to consider future possibilities.
For these reasons and more, true
conversations are difficult, even confronting.
But if we avoid the discomfort and logistical
difficulties of societal conversations we
leave ourselves individually and collectively
vulnerable to future challenges and
unprepared to take opportunities
to shape futures we desire.
In summary, social dilemmas involving
interactions between individual and
collective interests are a fundamental
part of modern civilisations, but failure
to deal with these dilemmas effectively
is increasing risks to wellbeing and
the sustainability of our societies.
Our democratic and market instruments
currently favour short-term individual
interests at the expense of long-term public
interests, discourage open and respectful
exchange of ideas, and favour competition
and misrepresentation of information
over cooperation and understanding
of alternative views. There is increasing
evidence that strengthening our capacity
for constructive public conversations
would greatly improve Australia’s
ability to deal with emerging and future
social and environmental challenges
and opportunities. The first step is to
acknowledge the need and commit to
searching for ways to meet that need.
81
What can be done
to address the
current imbalance
between public and
private interests?
Alex Wodak
Dr Alex Wodak AM, a physician, was Director of the
Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney
from 1982 until he retired in 2012. His major retirement project
is drug law reform. Together with colleagues, Dr Wodak started
Australia’s first needle syringe program and supervised injecting
facility when both were pre-legal. He was also involved in establishing
the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, the Australian Society
of HIV Medicine and the NSW Users AIDS Association, an organisation
for and by people who use drugs. He is a Director of Australia21.
The public interest, meaning
‘the welfare or wellbeing of the
general public’, has always competed
with private interests. Furthermore,
public and private interests will
always be in competition. What is
so unusual about the current tension
is the extreme imbalance: these days,
private interests almost always
get what they want. The policy
domination by huge companies and
extremely wealthy individuals has
severe adverse consequences for
82
the community in areas such as health,
social cohesion and the economy.
The current extreme imbalance between
private and public interests is now not
merely an Australian phenomenon but
is also international. Examples of this
policy imbalance abound in Australia
and include mining, alcohol, fast food,
transport, taxation and gambling.
The increasing dominance of private
over public interests coincides with
an increasing inequality of income
and wealth. Inequality in Australia
waxed and waned over the years with low
levels reached in the 1970s. Inequality then
began increasing in Australia, growing
under Labor and Coalition governments.
Inequality increased to even higher levels
in the United States where the imbalance
of private and public interests is even
more evident and has had striking
political repercussions.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
The health of Australians improved
dramatically during the 20th century.
For example, average life expectancy
increased from about 45 years
in 1900 to over 75 years in 2000.
About 25 of the additional 30 years
of life expectancy resulted from
improvements in public health while
advances in clinical medicine only added
five additional years. Yet in Australia,
98 per cent of health expenditure funds
clinical services with only 2 per cent
allocated to prevention. In the first half
of the 20th century, improved sewerage
and drains substantially reduced
deaths and disease. In the second half,
the decline in smoking, improved diet
and increased exercise were major
factors improving health. Tobacco control
has been a rare victory for a public
interest David over a corporate Goliath.
Yet in 2014, the federal government
blocked the implementation of a
national agreement to alert consumers to
the potential health risks of some foods.
Some powerful food producers were
the only beneficiaries.
The fate of the proposed Resource
Super Profits Tax (RSPT) is another
example of the recent dominance
of private over public interests.
In 2010, the federal government
proposed the RSPT, modelled on the
well-regarded Petroleum Resource Rent
Tax levied on the off shore petroleum
extraction industry, after accepting
a recommendation from a review of
Australia’s tax system. A distinguished
committee chaired by a highly regarded
Secretary of Treasury had carried
out this review. Vociferous criticism
from the mining industry including an
effective advertising campaign followed,
and after the deposition of the Prime
Minister by the Deputy Prime Minister
a heavily watered down and ineffective
Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT)
replaced the RSPT. The then government
contributed to its own problems through
its political incompetence. Once again,
powerful private interests got their way
and the community lost.
One of the common links in these
examples is the development
of monopoly, or near monopoly,
arrangements used to generate
vast wealth and thereby political power
sufficient to extract huge economic rents.
Taxation arrangements in Australia in
recent decades including the abolition
or reduction of inheritance taxes,
capital gains taxes, private income and
company tax, and generous concessions
for superannuation and negative gearing,
have benefited the wealthier members
of the community and large companies.
The coming to power of Thatcher in the
UK and Reagan in the USA and the fall of
communism in the USSR and its satellites
increased support for the view that private
economic interests are inherently more
efficient than publicly owned enterprises.
The replacement in China of a central
command economy by a free market
system which lifted hundreds of
millions of people from poverty over the
following decades seemed to exemplify
the benefits of a free market economy
with minimal restrictions for large
companies and wealthy individuals.
In the United States, major economists
including Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz
and Jeffrey Sachs have warned that
the currently high levels of inequality
have corrupted the political system
and there is increasing concern that
with a radically extreme Republican
Party often prepared to disregard the
national interest the United States
may have become ungovernable
— surely a warning for Australia.
Essays by notable Australians
What is to be done? The first step for
those concerned by the increasing
dominance of private and corporate
interests over the public good is
to articulate their views.
Could a Public Interest Commission
maintain a better balance in the future?
First some difficult questions would
have to be answered. How will the public
interest be defined and measured?
Where will successful examples of
a Public Interest Commission be
drawn from? How will issues be
selected and enquiries be conducted? And finally, what sort of Australia do
its citizens want — an individualist
Australia with marked inequalities,
poor public services, choked roads
and shrinking taxation on the
American model, or a more collective
and more equal Australia with
less poverty, better public services
but more taxation similar to the
Scandinavian countries and Japan?
A political correction to the current
imbalance can only occur if Australians
start to debate their values and visions.
The political class can only do so much.
Extensive polling shows that a majority
of Australians want improved public
services and are prepared to pay
higher taxes to fund them. However,
if large numbers of Australians want to
see a different country emerge, they
have to be prepared to work for these
changes starting at the community level.
83
Engaging citizens
in defining
national progress:
the ANDI project
Mike Salvaris
Mike Salvaris is Chairman of the Australian National Development Index
(ANDI) Limited. He began his career in the 1970s as a barrister and
legal aid lawyer with Fitzroy Legal Service, co-founding the
Tenants Union of Victoria. He went on to work with the Victoria Council
of Social Service, and then as chief policy adviser to Victorian Premier John Cain
in the field of strategic policy-making and social justice.
He has been a research professor at Victoria, RMIT and Deakin universities.
He has worked for over 20 years in the measurement of progress
and wellbeing, at community, national and international levels.
He has a particular interest in community wellbeing measures as
a means for citizen engagement, community development, human rights
and stronger democracy. He is a committee member of the
International Advisory Group for the Canadian Index of Wellbeing
and the OECD Global Progress Research Network.
The public interest is a concept
with a long, deep history and special
significance for social democracy,
but not easily defined. It is inherently
elastic and adaptable, and operates on at
least three levels. Most literally, it means
the interest of the collective versus the
self-interest of individuals or groups.
84
Secondly, it connotes the broader notion
of the common wellbeing or the public
welfare (manifested in policy terms in
fields such as defence, education and
public health etc). But it also has a higher,
and distinctly ethical and purposive,
implicit dimension, going back at least
to Aristotle and Confucius: ‘the very
existence of the state as a collective
would seem to prompt the formulation
of basic common purposes’ and these
necessarily include the goals and values
of the community as a whole. We might
call this a shared vision.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Whichever element we use as a yardstick,
there seems no doubt that the concept
has been seriously weakened in modern
democracies over the past 20 years,
to the point where critics despair that
the ‘collective pursuit of the public good
has been replaced by the solitary pursuit
of private advantage’, and the idea of
citizenship has been ‘hollowed out by
the sweeping assault of neo-liberalism’.
Ultimately though, the erosion of the
public interest is not an isolated event.
It is only the most prominent symptom of
a broader decline of democracy, and while
neoliberalism may be the major culprit
it is not the only one.
Certainly, ‘the growing interpenetration
of the worlds of politics and business’
has been devastating for the idea
of public interest — but even more
so for democracy itself. Indeed,
the maintenance of the market economy,
rather than the public good, seems
to have become the central rationale
for government, to the point where
the two are actually thought identical
(and where GDP is considered the
key measure of national progress).
Globalisation has reinforced this
trend culturally while at the same
time reducing the power of national
governments to deviate from this
agenda even if they wished.
Along with this larger paradigm shift has
come a suite of changes in government
and politics: the privatisation or
marketisation of key government assets
and services and of the public sector;
a growing culture of secrecy, justified by
slogans like ‘commercial in confidence’
and often accompanied by a process
of creeping corruption (in government
contracts and appointments, political
donations etc); and as well, the growth
of a specialised and self-interested
political class reared on the notion of
politics as short-term management,
electoral success and a well-paid
career, rather than the pursuit of the
common good. Noel Pearson captured
this distinction well when he said recently
that Gough Whitlam personified the older
idea that ‘reform trumps management’.
These specific problems are all made
worse by larger systemic flaws: low levels
of public confidence in government and
in the capacity of the political system to
solve our problems; a failure of innovation
and imagination in our democratic
forms and practices; and a historical
weakness in Australian political
culture and debate, marked by apathy,
complacency and ignorance.
Perhaps underlying all of these is our
collective failure to identify and define
clearly and concretely just what is our
shared vision, the kind of Australia
we strive for in the longer term.
Such a shared vision could be very
different from the politics of shared
platitudes we have now, and could itself
become a more precise and powerful
definition or driver of the public interest.
To fully restore the concept of the public
interest to its rightful place at the centre
of Australian democracy will require
different solutions and approaches
over time, but the key must ultimately
be citizen engagement. It has been rightly
said that ‘only the citizen can bring our
political and governmental institutions
back to life, make them responsible and
accountable, and keep them honest’.
And only citizens committed to the values
and the concrete requirements of the
public interest can bring it back to life.
One important way to engage citizens
in redefining the public interest is by
promoting a process of national debate
about the kind of Australia we want.
This should aim to identify a series
of clear and concrete outcomes, and
measures of our progress towards them,
which together add up to our shared
vision of the kind of Australia we want.
Essays by notable Australians
This is what the Australian National
Development Index (ANDI) project aims
to do, and in this it is part of a growing
global and community movement to
restate and reclaim the public interest
in countries as diverse as Canada and
Bhutan. ANDI is a long-term community
and research initiative, established as
a not-for-profit public corporation,
with directors including Reverend
Tim Costello and Professor Fiona Stanley
and over 60 organisational members
spread across many spheres: welfare,
church, trade union, business, Indigenous,
ethnic, human rights, environmental,
local government, and philanthropic.
Over the next 3 years, ANDI aims
to engage directly with 500,000
Australians across the nation, partnering
with a team of universities to promote
a national debate about what matters
for Australia’s future, our future
common good. From this process ANDI
and its partners will develop a set of
clear and authoritative measures of
progress beyond GDP and produce an
annual index and status report of overall
progress and progress in each of twelve
key domains of wellbeing (such as health,
education, the environment, work-life,
Indigenous wellbeing, children’s and
youth wellbeing, justice and human
rights, etc). Domain indexes will be
released annually, but in different months
to promote continuous discussion and
awareness in the media and the public
about the quality of Australian life
and what Australians believe are the
priorities for true national progress.
In this way ANDI hopes to make
a significant contribution to the
restoration — and better still, the clearer
definition and understanding — of the
public interest as the centrepiece of
Australian democracy.
85
Building better
relationships
across government,
research and the
community sectors
Gemma Carey
Dr Gemma Carey is a Research Fellow at the National Centre
for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University.
She is also co-leader and developer of ‘The Power To Persuade’ initiative,
a symposium and blog about social policy.
Currently, federal and state governments
alone spend over $120 billion a year
on welfare and social services,
while three quarters of a million people
work in community services sector.
Yet inequality in Australia is growing.
This tells us that there are major
systemic issues preventing us from
achieving social change. This essay
focuses on the systemic blockages
between the different groups involved
in the design and implementation of
policy, which impede progress and
social change for the public interest.
86
In the last three decades, there
have been a lot of changes to the
way in which government ‘does
business’. Arguably, the most radical
of these changes is the outsourcing
of public services. Community and
private organisations, in areas such
as aged care, disability, employment
and social support, now deliver large
swathes of our public services. There are
a number of powerful arguments that
underpin this change, including cost
shifting measures and a genuine belief
that those closest to communities are
best positioned to provide effective
and efficient public services to citizens.
Alongside this shift has been a growing
interest in developing closer relationships
between government policymakers and
academic researchers, to ensure public
services and policies are ‘evidence based’.
It has been said that we are now working
in an era of unprecedented collaboration
and partnership between sectors.
Indeed, the complex challenges that
now confront us as a society do not fit
neatly into one sector — collaboration and
closer working relationships are needed if
we are to find solutions.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
However, the rhetoric of partnership
and collaboration is often much stronger
than the reality, or at the very least
masks the contested and fraught nature
of these ‘cross-sectoral’ relationships.
Currently, tensions run high and
stereotypes abound. For example,
when taking up the role of Executive
Chair at the ANU Institute of Public
Policy in 2013, former head of Treasury,
Dr Ken Henry, lambasted academics for
the inability to contribute to public policy
debate, stating that ‘most have retreated
into the ivory tower and become divorced
from real world political debate’. In return,
policymakers are regarded cynically —
seen as only seeking out evidence to
justify decisions that have already been
made or making decisions on the basis
of political expediency. Meanwhile,
the community sector is frequently
accused of pursing self-interest
and crying poor. These stereotypes
are born of a lack of understanding.
They do nothing to further the public
interest through fostering genuine
collaboration across sectors.
Moving beyond the
rhetoric of partnership
Efforts to enhance the relationships
between government and policy
networks have largely been attached to
political agendas and program delivery
imperatives, thereby failing to invest in
the health and longevity of relationships
beyond a particular reform. To move
beyond rhetoric, and create truly
functional and productive (and even
transformative) collaborations and
partnerships, we need to recognise that
the profound shifts that have occurred in
the delivery of policy and public services
have created skill and knowledge gaps.
Operating within complex policy
environment requires more than the
technical and professional skills of the
past, those that we use to do our jobs
as policy designers, researchers and
social workers. It requires ‘soft skills’.
Soft skills include: knowledge of
how to work across difference
and diversity, problem-solving skills,
brokering skills (such as getting
people to the table and seeing
what has to happen next), flexibility
and coordination skills. To ensure that
the type of skills required for ‘policy work’
are developed and nurtured, these soft
skills need to be built into education
and reward structures in each sector.
In addition to developing the skills
to work within complex ‘networked’
environments, addressing the systemic
blockers to better policy requires
us to attend to and understand
‘the whole’, beyond how individual
services, organisations or parts
of government function — that is,
how these different groups and sectors
function in relationship to one another,
and how that functioning can be
improved. Currently, the functioning of
the ‘whole’ is not attended to, largely
because it is beyond the role or scope of
any one group. The job of government is
to pursue political and policy objectives,
the job of academics is to do research,
while the community sector’s job is
to deliver services and advocate of
behalf of citizens. In other words,
it is simultaneously everyone’s and no
one’s job to examine the functioning
of the whole system of actors involved
in policy, and determine what skills are
lacking, what knowledge needs to be
built or harnessed, and what needs
to change for progress to be made.
Building knowledge and attending to
the functioning of the whole system
require us to remove ourselves from
the day-to-day, and create spaces to
‘meet differently’. By meeting differently,
we disrupt the status quo and allow
for robust debate and discussion that
incorporates a greater diversity of voices.
From this, creativity, relationships and
ideas are fostered.
By building soft skills and tending to
the networks of relationships between
organisations and individuals that drive
policy change, we will provide a strong
foundation of collaboration and shared
understanding from which more holistic,
effective and equitable policy can be built.
Essays by notable Australians
87
Democracy flourishes
when the common good
is front and centre
of government
Mary Crooks
Mary has been the Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust
since 1996. She has an extensive background in public policy
and a passionate commitment to social justice. She has designed
and led ground-breaking initiatives including the Purple Sage Project,
Ordinary Women Extraordinary Lives, and the Watermark Australia project,
an example of a nationwide, community engagement project
based around issues of water sustainability. In 2012 Mary
authored A Switch in Time — Restoring Respect to Australian Politics.
Australians live in a robust and enduring
representative democracy. We are free
to debate ideas and express dissenting
views without being coerced or being
placed under house arrest or worse.
We can assemble in the streets and
protest about issues without fear of
victimisation or violence. Any citizen
may stand for public office and we have
the right to vote for people to represent
us in all three levels of government
— federal, state and local. We accept,
maybe grudgingly, our responsibility
to pay tax. We embrace the concept
of a ‘fair go’ and have applied this over
the decades in shaping our institutions,
welfare systems and political discourse.
Mostly, we see ourselves as standing
for equality between people.
88
The idea of the common good
appeals, even if largely at a tacit level:
we acknowledge that our shared
responsibility as citizens in a democracy
is to debate with tolerance, directly and
through our elected representatives,
the best means to create opportunities,
apply regulations, continue to build
(and not sell) our public assets and
provide services that meet the basic
needs of the population (such as
Medicare) and sustain the environment
(such as an emissions policy).
This ethos of governing for the
common good, however, is under threat
— and from within. In the space of
a few months, we have witnessed
defeat at the polls of two first-term
state governments in Victoria and
Queensland. Current polling suggests
that the federal Coalition government
could also become a one-term wonder.
Politicians and media pundits are reacting
to this rotating doors syndrome by
blithely ascribing it to ‘public volatility’,
to poor communications by government,
or to an obstructionist Senate. But there
is something deeper at play. When it
comes to governing for the common
good, our politicians and major parties
are losing the plot.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
The explanation lies in some simple
but powerful propositions. People have
an entirely reasonable expectation that
elected governments — whatever their
political persuasion — will work hard,
and transparently, for the electorate
at large, respect the will of the people,
debate ideas and issues with civility,
implement pre-election promises,
desist from back flipping in dishonest and
cavalier fashion, refrain from introducing
surprise policy measures that are patently
unfair or punitive, work to people’s best
sides, and keep clear of corrupt and
nepotistic behaviour.
Most of all, people expect their elected
representatives to focus on developing
the collective capacity to meet complex
challenges and to govern for the good
of all rather than taking their riding
orders from vested sectional interests
and/or US-based media moguls.
They are frustrated by sledging, such as
when both major parties treat minority
parties or Independents with contempt,
or when good ideas or deserved
contestation are met by derision,
cheap shots or personal attack.
Such corrosive attacks on the common
good were catalysed by the tactics
of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader
during the period of the Gillard minority
government, and were clearly on display
in the first Abbott/Hockey Budget,
exemplified in its draconian unfairness
with respect to young job seekers.
Tossing aside respect for democratic
principles, sections of our politics,
business community and media
persisted with the claim that
the Gillard minority government
‘lacked legitimacy’. Frequent calls for
a ‘fresh’ election were issued despite
the fact that this minority government
was legitimate, was constitutionally
valid and was formed in accordance
with the central provisions of our
Westminster system. We also witnessed
a vicious gender-based undermining of
a female prime minister. This ‘tear-down’
mentality was aggressively promoted
by sections of the Australian media.
A politics of negativity and hate was
fuelled by Abbott and his supporters.
Noted journalists chose to become
players in the game rather than provide
dispassionate analysis. Vitriol was
given undue airplay by radio presenters.
Social media facilitated an unprecedented
level of abusive language and
misogynistic attitudes that flew in the
face of personal accountability and civility.
Despite these crucial cornerstones
for governing in the common good,
Abbott gave oxygen to the climate
deniers who muddied the water on
global climate science. For two years
he campaigned relentlessly against
carbon pricing, playing to people’s
fear of a household economic penalty
despite the clear threat of a planet in peril.
The catch-cry of a ‘Great Big New Tax’
may have been politically effective for
him and his party in the short term, but it
has come at great cost, recklessly shifting
people’s attention from the message of
climate science and the responsibility
on us all to rise to the common
good challenge. The huge reservoir of
goodwill and confidence in government’s
ability to act for the common good and
take correct actions to mitigate climate
change was squandered and will need
to be rebuilt. We are now in a hapless
position with no effective remedy to
reduce emissions, diminished community
confidence, and a significantly tarnished
reputation globally.
Disappointingly, media analysts persist
with the narrative that Abbott was
one of the most effective Opposition
Leaders ever because he dispatched
both Rudd and Gillard. This so-called
measure of political ‘success’ might sit
well with a male-dominated culture of
adversarial politics. But it could equally
be ventured that Abbott was a hugely
deficient Opposition Leader because
his tactical negativity savagely eroded
the ethos of the common good.
Pushing back against the continued
corrosive attack on the common good is
now our formidable challenge. It will take
patient exhortation (at election time and
in between) to remind the mainstream
parties to govern for all; to better
represent the diversity and talents of
the wider community; to focus on building
our collective capacity to take action on
the big issues; and to be become more
grounded in the realities of people’s lives
and aspirations rather than focus groups
and opinion polls.
This is no better illustrated than the
destructive approach he took to the
urgent need for effective action on
climate change. As a nation, we were
actually getting there! We had the
compelling scientific evidence before us.
We had the international treaty
agreements, the public policy framework
formed largely by the Garnaut reviews,
strong community support for action
and policies that reduced emissions, and
finally, carbon pricing legislation in place.
Essays by notable Australians
Democracy flourishes when the
common good is front and centre
of our politics, when governments
implement policies and programs
that advance wealth creation as well
as fairness, social cohesion and the
protection of the most vulnerable,
when opposition parties prepare viable
policy alternatives to take to the people,
and when the media provide impartial
and substantive analysis of issues.
89
The case for
a national public
interest council
Bob Douglas
Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas AO retired from his post
as the Foundation Director of the National Centre for Epidemiology
and Population Health at the ANU in 2001. In retirement,
he works closely with two non-government organisations: Australia21
(www.australia21.org.au) and SEE-Change (www.see-change.org.au).
Both groups are focussed on the challenges facing modern Australian society.
In Australia and indeed across the
democratic world, the public interest is
under siege from corporate and other
special interests. Examples abound.
The most glaring and most important
relates to inaction on climate change.
The effectiveness of the fossil fuel
lobbies in placing their interests
on this matter ahead of the public
interest is the scandal of our age.
I define the public interest as the
long-term welfare and wellbeing
of the general population. There is
no more serious crisis confronting the
welfare of humanity than the effects
of unconstrained greenhouse gas
emissions on the future climate of
the world.
90
But, collectively, the fossil fuel
industries have succeeded in hijacking
the debate, smearing climate science
with falsehood and insisting that
governments re-formulate the problem
as an economic issue. Repeatedly we hear
talk of the importance of the coal industry
to jobs but huge sections of our media
are complicit in the blanket of silence
about the consequences of our continued
use of fossil fuels as an energy source.
During the 2013 federal election
Australia21 published a volume of
essays under the general heading:
‘Placing global change on the Australian
election agenda: essays on vital issues
that are being largely ignored.’ Ian Dunlop,
one of our directors, captured our concern
with these words: ‘Australia is living in
a fool’s paradise, ignoring the most critical
issues which will impact upon this country
in both the short and long term.
Weighty reports are being published
on our official future. Which would be
laudable were it not for the fact that
the critical scenario, of accelerating
anthropogenic climate change and
resource scarcity, is deliberately ignored
— apparently too scary for political
realism to contemplate’.
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
It is fair to say that our efforts to engage
politicians in discussing policy on
climate change, resource scarcity, living
within ecological limits and tackling
fundamental global issues around food
and equity, had absolutely zero effect
on the election agenda. The election
was focused on ‘axing the tax’, ‘stopping
the boats’, and ‘dropping the deficit’.
The corruption of the democratic process
by media interests and by the voice
of big business was clear throughout
the campaign.
I do not believe our democracy can
be mended by more of the same.
Rather we must explore new structures
and new processes to return a modicum
of control to the voters.
In his book Blessed Are the Organised:
Grassroots Democracy in America,
Jeffrey Stout makes this assertion:
‘The imbalance of power between
ordinary citizens and the new ruling class
has reached crisis proportions. The crisis
will not be resolved happily unless many
more institutions and communities
commit themselves to getting
democratically organised and unless
effective vehicles of accountability are
constructed at many levels of social
complexity.’ I think this also applies
to Australian society.
I suggest that as well as fostering the
traditions of Kitchen Table Conversations
and community organising that are dealt
with by other essayists in this volume,
we need to consider the development
of a peak body described briefly below.
Community organising has been
an identifiable profession in America
for decades. Barack Obama began his
working life as a community organiser
in Chicago. The central feature of
community organisation is the brokering
of alliances between organisations such
as faith groups, trade unions, schools,
environmental advocacy and civil
society groups.
The organiser helps to build trust
across groups through facilitated
dialogue sessions. The alliance acts
as a public interest group to lobby
governments on issues of broad
public concern.
The Sydney Alliance is Australia’s
most developed example of this kind
of community organising. It has three
full-time organisers and is beginning
to make waves on issues of state and
metropolitan importance.
Many organisations including
non-government organisations,
faith groups, unions, environmental
groups and professional lobbies
claim to speak for the welfare and
wellbeing of the general public. But they
seldom speak with one voice and pool
their resources to effect or oppose
policy change with anything like the
single-mindedness of, for instance,
the Business Council of Australia (BCA).
Nor do they have the clout of the
Committee for Economic Development
of Australia (CEDA). Both business and
the economy are important but they are
of little importance if the future welfare
and wellbeing of the population are being
compromised by government actions
or inactions.
Essays by notable Australians
Ross Garnaut in his recent book
Dog Days: Australia after the Boom
says that the pressures on governments
to maintain ‘business as usual’ and
neglect reforms in the long-term public
interest are enormous. The entrenched
special interests of those who stand
to lose by reform are well resourced
and well organised and easily have
the ear of government and the media.
Garnaut suggests that the counterpoint
to ‘business as usual’ needs to come from
what he calls the ‘independent centre of
public interest’ represented in multiple
organisations and institutions.
I consider that Australia now needs
a new peak, non-government structure to
coordinate debate on a range of pressing
issues in the public interest. The new peak
body needs to be able to build from the
ideas and concerns thrown up by Kitchen
Table Conversations and the coordinating
efforts of community organisers.
‘Business as usual’ lobbies are
co-ordinated, cashed up and
have a highly sophisticated modus
operandi, ready to spring into
action whenever a whiff of reform
is raised. I am suggesting that the
Public Interest Council could do for
Garnaut’s ‘independent centre’ what
the Business Council of Australia does
for its members and what CEDA does
to keep the economy healthy.
91
Acknowledgements
Thanks to the Australia21 steering group that included
Mick Palmer, Alex Wodak, Lyn Stephens and Bob Douglas
for planning the framework and recruiting authors
and particular thanks to all the authors for timely
submissions and quick turnaround of drafts.
We are grateful to David Morawetz and
The Social Justice Fund for financial support.
92
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Australia21
Australia21 is an independent, non-profit organisation
whose core purpose is multidisciplinary research and enquiry
on issues of strategic importance to Australia in the 21st-century.
Australia21 offers the excitement of new thinking about the link
gives between research and policy. We believe that ideas matter
and that they can be harnessed effectively in the interests
of Australian society by extending public discourse
across research and policy boundaries.
Our capacity to convene expertise from across the nation
means that we are able to delve into issues differently
from a conventional university research institution.
We also provide a unique way for business, industry and
government to meet socially responsible goals and promote
long-term Australian public good and well being.
www.australia21.org.au
Essays by notable Australians
93
Essays by notable Australians
Editors Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?
Who speaks for
and protects
the public interest
in Australia?
Essays by notable Australians
Who speaks for
and protects
the public interest
in Australia?
Essays by notable Australians
Editors Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
Editors Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak
Image: 5 of the 43 randomly chosen citizen jurors who deliberated for 6 days on 2014 Melbourne City Council $5 billion Budget plans
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