Social Wage to Social Enterprise

Talk to Mission Australia 

Grassroots Managers Retreat

13 March, 2001

Peter Botsman - Director, Whitlam Institute

Thank you very much for the invitation to be here today.  For me it is the middle of a much needed break between jobs, between leaving the Brisbane Institute and starting at the Whitlam Institute, but March 2001 is also a strategic point in a historical transition towards a new kind of state and a new process of governmentality.

So there are two reasons for being here at this precious personal time. First, I have the greatest respect for Patrick and Mission Australia and the work that is being done, particularly under the heading of social entrepreneurship.  Second, if you care about this country, then this is one of those hot periods when ideas are of the utmost importance.  Any opportunity to speak to a major national organisation is an opportunity that you have to grasp with both hands.  So here I am grasping …

It is also I suspect a paradoxical time.  It is a time when great institutions are going to have to change on the social side to adapt to the national and global changes that have occurred in the economics of enterprise, work and commerce. In my last remarks to the Brisbane Institute, a little more than two weeks ago, I said that at the moment, having an idea in politics, was a bit like having a dead fish in your pocket. People either smelled the fish and looked at you peculiarly, or ignored you and looked the other way.

Paul Kelly, Australia 's most prominent political commentator, who followed me to the rostrum, gave a speech about Australia 's 20th-century.  He said that this problem of the current lack of ideas in politics was related to the 24-hour political cycle and the way in which politicians have to be able to respond almost instantly to issues. With the greatest respect to Paul, I don’t think that is it. The reason I can't agree, is that this complacency about ideas, and about the need to do things differently, is not just something that applies to politicians.

A number of people here will remember my very gentle and friendly speech to the ACOSS Congress last year in which I encouraged ACOSS to do two things. I asked ACOSS to form committees of their executive to study a) the enabling state: that is how our first massive level of social funding as a percentage of total government spending could be invested into more constructive, community capacity building activities; and b) social entrepreneurship: that is the way in which small organisations and community activists ‘can make a difference' by drawing on private investment or by re-energising passive or stultifying government investment.

Now I was gentle, I think.  Noel Pearson has been more brutally honest, because his community is at the very pointy end of what is, in effect, a complacency about new ideas and new ways of investing in, and supporting people and communities.  But the point is this, the current complacency about ideas does not come from our 24-hour media culture, it comes from a fear of the changes that must inevitably come to our social institutions, peak bodies, welfare organisations and forms of government just as radically as they have come to economic institutions over the last two decades.

When the centre of gravity shifts, when the whole premise of Australia's welfare state changes, that is, when the post-war certainty of a secure, fairly paid, 40 hour a week, 45 year-long job becomes open to a narrowing class in our society, then the walls come tumbling down. Isn't that what we are living through? I can understand people grumbling, being afraid and being suspicious.  But I can't agree with those, who knowing all that has happened, having commissioned survey after survey of what has happened, are complacent about new ideas, and about reinvesting social funding into new activities and ways of doing things that might make a difference. When that happens, when that complacency occurs, I think we know what's going on. People are defending their own jobs, their own comfort zones, their own areas of expertise, ahead of helping others. There is a sense of collusion between an old-style politician, an old-style bureaucrat and an old-style welfare advocate or unionist, each of them protecting their own interests.

There were a couple of comments published in last Saturday's Courier Mail about the Brisbane Institute's future direction by Cath Rafferty, director of the Queensland Working Womens' Centre; Shirley Watters, director of QCOSS, and Bernice Smith, director of the Youth Affairs Network Queensland. Rafferty was quoted as saying, the Institute was "possibly patriarchal", overly focused on new ideas and not enough focused on "those that society has left behind".  She went on to say "they may well say that’s what Mark Latham or Noel Pearson were all about … but there are structural issues which had to be recognised and really thought through, not just with one bright idea".  Shirley Watters,in beautiful COSS style, followed on by saying "by focusing too much on the new there is a danger of throwing the baby out the bathwater and not re-examining what has happened in the past, which should show a maturity of debate".  Watters wants the past andthe future to be aired in debates at the Brisbane Institute in the future.

Then came Bernice Smith, who argued that if the Brisbane Institute were to go beyond its role as a discussion and information group to a "a practical stage", then of course she tells us, "they would need to start talking with peak bodies".  Well I guess my first reaction to Bernice is: Why?  What is so disappointing about these comments is that they are so lazy and complacent about their own positions and practices.  There is simply no recognition that "structural issues" always send us back to the same old starting point, cliches and conclusions. I have spent most of my career thinking about "structural issues" and I realised after working in so-called "practical" areas that it was leading me to a dead end.  I started to realise that many of our peak councils have created a fortress around their thinking in the inner-city of most of our capital cities. There is a kind of circuit between the welfare bureaucracy and the welfare governmental bodies that is downright collusive.

Part of the reason why politicians are in the dark is because these paternalistic peak bodies bottle up year after year to simply state how bad things are and then, ask for more money.  Not only does this create a bad political culture, the tragedy, in a state like Queensland, after a period of majority labour government rule over the last 15 years, and the prospect of 10 more, is that both sides know social spending will never, in our lifetimes, create a solution nor, even if you believed it will, is there the political resolve to lift per capita social spending up to that of New South Wales or Victoria. It's a perverse game that is played. Yet we want to re-hearse these tired old arguments, and not only that, have a go at those who have a few new ideas about what should be done.


The strategic question for Queensland social welfare is: can it shift to a new paradigm, and in doing so, fix the inadequacies of its past, and those of its Southern cousins, in the face of new economic uncertainty and challenges which make the wage earners welfare state as we have known it, redundant? In other words, can it move to a new paradigm quicker than those States which have heavily invested in the older welfare state and its forms? I see any other strategy as simply self-serving, it's like people who deny an impending cyclone to maintain their morale, and as a result, are just swept away. That I think deserves to occur to peak welfare organisations and also charitable agencies that don't start thinking critically about their own practices lobbying and “structural” philosophy.

But I didn't mean to get so distracted from the main game.  The fact is that of course there's nothing more practical than a good idea.  The idea that I think Patrick Mc Lure, Noel Pearson, Mark Latham, Andrew Mawson and others have developed, is that we must start to reinvest a large percentage of the traditional social wage into social enterprises that are controlled by communities through new forms of democracy.  I think we're moving away from the paternalistic, bureaucratic, the welfare state to the active, entrepreneurial, public and privately funded social enterprise state. The implication of this for Cath, Bernice Shirley is profound. It means that there is less room for paternalistic and pastoral advocates and more need for people who have specific business, organisational skills, andknowledge, and who are capable of nurturing and creating new enterprises that will create a living wage for people who are currently missing out.

The challenge is to divert both unproductive private and public capital investment into an array of social enterprises that will operate in areas as diverse as disabilities and employment creation.  In this new quest organisations such as the Brotherhood of St. Laurence and Mission Australia , the modern Salvation Army and other modernising chartities are so important.  Almost without knowing it, organisations such as yours have been creating skills that are going to be essential in the new social enterprise culture. Excepting the challenge of the Job Network ethos created by the Howard government, new skills have been developed and I think the risks have been worth taking.  In 1996 I tried to convince the ACTU and the CPSU that the jobs network represented a strategic opportunity for Australian unions to insert themselves into the mainstream of the workforce of the future.  But they were unwilling to take the risk and get into the unemployment market.  The irony is that the union movements that have a role in job search and income support across the world have the highest rates of unionisation.  In these times its not hard to figure out why. But it’s a shame for the Australian union movement.  However, fortune favours the brave and I think we have to take off our hats to organisations like yours who took quite a battering in the only logically pure incorrect and now I think deserve to be seen as the leaders and supporters of the new social enterprise state.

But there are, as you know, profound challenges. Last week I attended my first meeting of Families in Partnership in a year.  Families in Partnership is, as some of you in South West Sydney will know, the disabilities cooperative that I am very proud to be associated with.  It struck me that, in working through the difficulties of operating in the space between public agencies, and the community, between having a voluntary group of mothers as a Board of Directors, with paid employees, experts and professionals also working together that we were in fact creating a very new kind of organisation and in solving these problem of how we work together, we were breaking new ground.  It takes an extraordinary level of management skills and personal commitment to make these organisations work and the lessons we learn from solving them are precious.  That is partly what the social entrepreneurs network is all about. It is about trying to share the the lessons and the people and the skills that are currently very precious and in demand across the country.

In all of this Mission Australia has certainly been a leader and can I end by asking you, as the grass roots managers of Mission Australia across the country, to move to a higher level of innovation. The fact is that we need to move beyond that period of self doubt caused by the rather ruthless assault by the Howard government on organisations like the CES. It certainly is no fault of the organisations that are now moving into the ground once covered by the public sector, that there are major inadequacies in the fabric of employment support.  The point is that it is now impossible to go back, contrary to what my critics in Brisbane suggest. We have to move forward to create the new kinds of organisations and social enterprises that will not only support those who have been most disadvantaged by the last twenty years of unemployment but will give them a future. Unless we create these institutions then we will live in a world of compounding inequality and in my view putting our backs into the prevention of that scenario is far better than debating what has or should have been.

The thing that the ideologues of the social welfare system have to recognise is that in our current circumstances the institutions of the old wage earners welfare state are as repressive and hopeless as any of those established by the Howard government. It is our job to create new institutions, new social enterprises that transcend those of the past and the inadequacies of the present. In that respect, though it may not seem sometimes seem this way, your jobs are amongst the most important and exciting that I think there can be. Your job is to give us some hope and some new ground that we can clamber up on above the rising tide.