Is it possible that local communities and their local government councils can turn around the low expectations and lack of faith many Australians have in our parliamentary and political institutions?
The call for a shift to localism to drive Australia’s future prosperity was a key message delivered by Terry Moran AC, former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and eminent public policy analyst and adviser, to an event hosted by the Eidos Institute and the Queensland University of Technology on ‘Reshaping Culture, Reclaiming Trust’.
It is noteworthy because it is rare. Prescriptions for boosting national income and productivity typically feature centralised, arms-length ‘one size fits all’ policies which are spatially-neutral.
Terry Moran’s contrary view is based on an analysis that public dissatisfaction with politics springs from the fracturing of communities, the lack of a compelling resonant mission for Australia’s future that people can believe in, and perceptions that government’s focus is on serving the interests of business and the well-off, not those of families and wage earners.
Drawing on social research and recent Government program reviews, Terry Moran contends that while Australians are “grumpy”, they do not want to blow up our democracy, rather they want to save it.
They see the purpose of democracy as ensuring people, including the most vulnerable, are treated fairly and equally, and that our political system should solve problems that matter to improve people’s lives and prospects.
In particular, Terry Moran argued that the decades-old consensus on the benefits of economic openness and reform based on lean government, more privatisation and balanced budgets has run its course.
This is exacerbated by the loss over recent years of deep-seated subject matter knowledge and expertise in the Public Service and by the narrow backgrounds of most political advisers.
In short, community sentiment has shifted against small government, outsourcing and the primacy of business. Australians, in fact, want stronger government delivering essential services that are affordable and effective. They also see the need for better regulation for fair treatment and for redress when things go wrong.
Structural reforms to rebuild public sector capacity and to change culture take time, so Terry Moran recommends finding new ways of working at the local level.
The public administration term used is “subsidiarity”. Subsidiarity is the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level or closest to where they will have their effect, and the central authority has a subsidiary function.
The hallmarks of this local approach include:
- Local control of decision-making on the use of funds from diverse Commonwealth sources.
- ‘Joined-up’ service delivery, not separate services aimed only at single issues such as employment, health, income security, education and the like.
- Promotion of flexible connections at the local level with networks, service providers, local government and opportunities.
- Localising accountability with an active role for government with specialist local knowledge on the ground, and strengthening the expertise and capacity of local government.
The intention is to facilitate locally-connected, place-based approaches to the delivery of critical services to achieve better results. This will also serve to improve the experiences people have in dealing with government, and hence their engagement and social connections in their communities.
Looking local for the next wave of Australia’s prosperity promises not only more effective use of public money and sound community service delivery, but also an opportunity to boost social cohesion and a sense of belonging that comes with localism.
See Eidos Institute website at http://eidosinstitute.org/trust-and-culture
Rebecca Huntley, ‘Australia Fair. Listening to the Nation’, Quarterly Essay 73, March 2019