Economics and finance, Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia

22 July 2016

The incoming Turnbull Government should heed the lessons of the developing world by ensuring change has social meaning, John Hewson writes.

One of my first and most inspiring economics lecturers at Sydney University, Hermann Black (who became Sir when ascending to the role of Chancellor, a post he held for some 20 years), often used a quote from the economic development literature that “the sting of change is not in change itself, but from change which is devoid of social meaning”.

Hermann used to relate wonderful anecdotes likes the one of a UN agricultural expert trying to convince an African tribe of the merits of vaccinating their cattle, by standing in the middle of their village to conspicuously drink a whole bottle of the vaccine, hopefully to give them the confidence to do so.

The simple point was that unless that ‘society’ actually accepted the need to protect their herd from disease, and also understood and accepted the need to change what they had been doing – that is accepting a ‘solution’ by way of a vaccine – they would fight against it, perhaps even violently.

How is it that a view so well understood in dealing with developing nations is so easily forgotten in a country such as ours?

How could an Australian Government advocate a co-payment for attending a doctor, without any attempt to prepare the ground for such a change, without any attempt to demonstrate and explain the need for such a charge, without an overarching health policy against which to understand and accept why such a change is necessary?

Similarly, how could an Australian Government advocate granting additional fee setting abilities to our universities, without an overarching higher education policy against which to understand and accept why such a change is necessary and, importantly, to be satisfied that our universities would be constrained somehow in the exercise of such power?

Hence, it was so easy for the community to oppose these two measures that were the hallmarks of the first Abbott/Hockey Budget in 2014. The ‘changes’ proposed were all too easily opposed as ‘devoid of social meaning’.

Yet, the Turnbull team seems to have learned little, if anything, from that experience.

As the results of our recent election would suggest, many Australians found it very difficult to accept that a mantra of “Jobs and Growth” would address their concerns about job security. Equally, many employed in ‘traditional industries’ were concerned about the ‘inevitably’ of new innovations and new technologies creating ‘new jobs’, that they seemed destined to miss out on.

This was especially true when accompanied by ‘scare campaigns’ about health, schools and hospitals, allegations to which Turnbull and his team seemed to have no answer.

It was also especially true when the centrepiece of their election slogan seemed to depend on a cut in corporate tax, to the initial benefit of the ‘top end of town’, but that the electorate was left to believe would “trickle down” to the bulk of our society.

Given that the electorate has generally lost confidence in, and respect for, the major political parties, including the Greens, they all need to focus back on the quote from the developing world.

Good policy has at least three key stages: first, get electoral acceptance of the problem/challenge, its magnitude and urgency; second, set out the possible policy options to respond effectively; and, third, for the government/opposition to select their preferred option, and then for them to go out to explain/defend it.

Just advocating change, simply wanting to be seen to be responding to some challenge or other, without building the community constituency to support the change, will inevitably be seen as ‘devoid of all social meaning’.

This article was also published by the Southern Highland News.

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Hewson, John. 2016. "Making Change Mean Something - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.