Here in Australia we are gearing up for a Federal election. As this happens the country will start a discussion and the character of that discussion will define the election.
Over the last thirty years the basis of that discussion has changed. The main topic of political discussion can be characterised as economic rather than social.
The perfect example is the major effort of the “Gonski reforms” which have been labelled as major reforms to education but they are almost entirely focussed on the financing and economics of schooling leaving the topic of what and how we teach our children entirely untouched.
If we wish to have a national conversation about education perhaps we might start with why we are graduating so many lawyers, economists and MBAs while we don’t have enough nurses, teachers and engineers. We might like to argue about why we are increasing TAFE fees while we don’t have enough skilled workers.
You can also look at the growing prominence of media reporting on the state of the economic market and economic news. The ABC station 702, for example, twice during the day has a report on the Australian Stock Exchange and major economic news as well as mentioning that major news during the hourly news.
Then we get to the political debate that talks so much about topics such as tax rates and government rebates such as the Family Tax Bonus, Baby and First Home Buyers Grant. When we were discussing the Carbon Tax much of the debate centred not on what was best for the country but who might be better off after the offsets were factored into family budgets.
If we do want to discuss the national economy perhaps we could talk about the restructure of our workforce. Do we want a nation where a huge rise in casual and contract labour that now has a rising number of Australian workers underemployed and unsure of their jobs?
At the same time education, health and welfare get short shrift in the conversation. How much emphasis is given, for example, to the fact that the New Start payments to the unemployed have not had even CPI increases in many years? We have a government that thinks it is permissible to force single parents, mainly women, into increased poverty by shifting them to New Start despite 68% of them already holding down a part time job.
Why do we not have regular radio reports on statistics that reflect the success we have with the social fabric of the country? We could have reports on the number of calls to Lifeline, the number of homeless fed by the Wayside Chapel, the number of women currently in emergency accommodation or the number of children in foster care. As we tackle the problems of alcohol problems in Kings Cross we might want a report on the number of alcohol admissions to St Vincents Emergency every week. These are elements of our social fabric that we would wish to improve.
When I look at the efforts of this Labor government I see a party that has lost control of its soul and the political and cultural conversation. Has the focus of the Gillard government been any different to that of the Liberal Howard government that preceded it? With small exceptions I think no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there are not major differences between the two parties. If for nothing else we can thank the Gillard government for the Gonski reforms, National Disability Insurance Scheme and National Broadband Network but they come from a Labor party that is talking far too much about money and not enough about social fabric in exactly the same way as previous governments for many years.
We live in a country where our economy rivals any in the world, where most of us have a standard of living that is the envy of most countries. Shouldn’t we give up worrying exclusively about those things and engage in a conversation about our social and cultural fabric instead?