Symposium: The Future of the ALP

Lost on the (Third) Way?

Sue Goodwin, The University of Sydney

Peter Botsman and Mark Latham (eds) The Enabling State: People Before Bureaucracy, Sydney, Pluto Press, 2001 (278 pp). ISBN 1-86403-103-4 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Are governments experiencing a crisis of legitimacy in Australia? Have people lost faith in parliamentary democracy? Are people sick of social solutions by state intervention? Is the bureaucracy a dinosaur that must be taught to dance?

According to Peter Botsman and Mark Latham, the answer to these questions is definitely ‘yes’. The Enabling State: People Before Bureaucracy is an edited collection of papers expounding a new kind of governance for Australia. The contributors are concerned with developing social capital, devolving service provision from the bureaucracy to the community, encouraging social entrepreneurs, and reinventing democracy. Put together, it is suggested, these form a model of ‘community governance’ made possible by an ‘enabling state’. Editors Peter Botsman and Mark Latham are well known proponents of Third Way politics and so, unsurprisingly, community governance is positioned between and as an alternative to two Other Ways: bureaucratic governance and market governance. According to Latham, this new form of governance will revive faith in parliamentary democracy and allow communities rather than bureaucrats to facilitate community projects and positive social outcomes. He also suggests that the mood of the Australian people requires a shift in the direction of community governance and the enabling state. “People”, he says, “are longing to belong”.

The book also promises to be a practical guide for public sector reform by providing examples of “new kinds of solutions to major social problems”. It includes chapters on education, health, employment, social welfare, and indigenous welfare. In general, however, the structure of the book works against a coherent elaboration of policy proposals. The book is dominated by the work of Botsman and Latham, who between them have written ten of its fifteen chapters, drawing on papers they’ve presented in other forums. As a result, much of each chapter is devoted to carving out a space for reforms to fit rather than a detailed discussion of specific policy proposals. The exception is Latham’s chapter on education reform, which elaborates steps that might be taken toward developing Australia as a ‘knowledge nation’.

The five remaining chapters include a lucid and moving discussion by Noel Pearson of how the state could enable the rebuilding of indigenous communities, a critique of bureaucracy as a system of organisation by Gary Sturgess and an account of ‘community cabinets’ in Queensland by Glyn Davis. Community cabinets are participative forums designed to enable dialogue and discussion between government and communities, and Davis argues that they are examples of the kinds of mechanisms necessary if public confidence in Australia public institutions is to be renewed. There are also two contributions from the United Kingdom. Both are community development ‘success stories’, presumably included as examples of the kinds of innovations that might emerge in Australia under a reformed approach to governance.

Much of the book is devoted to carving out space for reforms rather than detailed discussion of specific proposals.

Taken as a whole, the book is rather disorganised and not particularly persuasive. One is not left convinced that Australians desire a new form of governance, nor with a picture of what the enabling state would look like. The book’s significance for understanding Third Way politics emerges from omissions in its representation of the Australian welfare state. It disavows any sense that the Australian state has functioned or now functions in ‘enabling’ ways, and portrays welfare provision in Australia in profoundly masculinist terms. Highlighting these two problems undermines the presumed consensus about the nature of state interventions and the nature of bureaucracy in Australia that this book rests upon.

The book almost completely ignores the spectacular array of community projects that have appeared on the Australian welfare landscape over the past thirty years—the women’s health centres, refuges, community housing projects, transport schemes, legal centres, family support services and so on. Many of these were achieved in tandem with democratic-participative reforms to public sectors that took hold in the 1970s. Botsman and Latham, however, seem to have amnesia about these developments. Latham, for example, actually writes the reforms of the 1970s out of his history of the structure of post-war Australian governance: “In the 1950s and 1960s policy makers asked themselves: how many agencies can we run and how many staff can we employ in discharging the responsibilities of government? In the 1980s, at the high tide of neo-liberalism, the public sector faced a different question: how many contractors and corporatised agencies can we use at a competitive price?” (p. 21). With this history in mind, I felt a sense that the editors have betrayed what has come to be known as the community sector in Australia by ignoring its achievements. In turn I felt a pang of sympathy for those public sector workers who have striven, and continue to strive for a more open, participative, and responsive model of public service.

One is not left convinced that Australians desire a new form of governance nor with a picture of what the enabling state would look like.

This is not, of course, to deny that in recent years government support for community projects has been withdrawn in major ways or that discourses of community participation in public decision making have been undermined by managerialist and corporatist reforms. Nor is it intended to romanticise or overstate the transformative capacity of the community sector in Australia. But identifying this oversight does draw attention to the partial representation of the Australian welfare state that Third Way politics depends upon. Crucial to the logic of this politics is the construction of the Australian state as a disabling state, in much the same way that the British welfare state was represented by Thatcher and Major during the 1980s: cumbersome, inefficient and unresponsive—a dinosaur. In The Enabling State, the public sector is consistently portrayed as monolithic and disempowering. Key characters in the narrative are ‘welfare officials’, ‘welfare bureaucrats’ and ‘big bureaucracy’. The Australian state is represented as one which, to turn the title of the book around, puts Bureaucracy Before People.

If, in contrast, we were to move the tradition of state-sponsored community development back into the representation of the Australian state, more useful ideas about community governance would emerge. Perhaps in the Australian context, talk about social capital, devolving service provision and reinventing democracy is better conceptualised as a way of clawing back the legitimacy of citizen participation in policy production and service provision that has been eroded by technocratic and public choice discourses, particularly those that portray the state as ‘captured by interest groups’. Ideas about ‘community led solutions’ to social problems would then necessarily have to engage with the constructive analyses of community participation in policy-making and service delivery that have emerged over the past thirty years. This would mean engaging with the meaning of ‘community’ and grappling with what has become a key question in liberal democracies: the role of groups in governance. It is only by presenting community governance as ‘new’ that Botsman and Latham are able to promote a politics in which the term ‘community’ is not problematised, where social capital is mobilised by specially talented individuals (social entrepreneurs), and where interest groups are dismissed as ‘opportunistic’. As well as being simplistic, such a politics runs the risk of becoming profoundly undemocratic and developing serious legitimacy problems of its own.

Crucial to the logic of this politics is the construction of the Australian state as a disabling state.

The fact that the book does not problematise the concept ‘community’ also reflects a lack of engagement with any feminist analyses of welfare provision in Australia. How many writers have pointed out the way in which the term ‘community’ so often stands in for ‘women’ and how devolving services to the community often simply means more unpaid work for women? Apparently Mark Latham, in particular, is unperturbed by this—his talk of what the community can do routinely slides into talk of what ‘mothers’ can do.

But the gendered division of work and welfare dominant in Australian society needs to be taken into consideration in all of the policy reforms suggested in The Enabling State. For example, the Lifelong Learning Accounts proposed as a central plank of education reforms would disadvantage women in the same ways the superannuation model of funding retirement (on which the model of Lifelong Learning Accounts is based) does. Similarly, the proposals for welfare reform need to consider who the ‘able-bodied adults’ targeted for mutual obligation are, and if having young children or caring for elders renders some adults ‘dis-abled’ for the purposes of paid work force participation.

While there is, of course, no necessary relationship between the presence of women and a gendered analysis, perhaps the lack of attention to this issue is related to the overrepresentation of male contributors. Only one of the chapters includes a female author. Whatever the reason, the omission of the gendered nature of welfare in Australia, like the omissions of the community sector and public sector reforms results in a partial representation of the existing Australian state that hampers visions of a truly enabling state.

Sue Goodwin is a lecturer in the Department of Social Work, Social Policy and Sociology. She is currently involved with an ARC-SPIRT funded project on gender equity in public institutions.

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