The New Politics

Speech to the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane's 

Anglicare Conference

Parliament House Annexe, 27 May, 2000

Peter Botsman


There is a new politics abroad in this land.

I would go so far as to say it is a revolutionary politics, but I mean revolutionary in a gentle sense. I am not talking about a revolution that means violence or an immediate overthrow of existing institutions, I mean revolutionary in the sense that we are living at a time when all sides of politics, left, right and centre are having to reassess themselves, and no-one, left, right or centre, feels comfortable about their old beliefs and strategies. Moreover everyone right, left and centre is worried and suspicious about these new horizons of politics that are beginning to emerge. We have seen the rise of Pauline Hanson on the right. So we can see how economic insecurity can lead to the creation of a destructive politics, and though Hanson has reached her zenith, it is clear that the business of politics must also change with the new circumstances if we are not to see more of the Hanson like characters. So tonight I want to talk about a positive politics, this revolutionary new means of addressing the problems of inequality and disadvantage in our society.


What is this new politics? Basically its about giving power to those who according to the right, left and centre should not, cannot, or are incapable of holding power. It's about saying that the dispossessed in our communities are not stupid, and that in many, many ways, they are smarter than we professional do-gooders are at finding solutions to the problems they face. It's about saying that community cabinets and the most exhaustive consultations are simply the first tiny steps, the most important thing is to actually transfer power in its manifold forms to people and to allow them to use it.

Politicians and big bureaucrats go purple when you tell them about these things. Some think it is naove. Others think that what this new politics is about is the fastest kamakazi ride out of the Minister's chair: "You mean you want to transfer the $120 billion that is spent on social welfare back to the people".

Sir Humphrey has just fainted.

The professional journos and media minders who haunt each politicians office have tabloid headlines of horror imprinted in their minds:

"Minister allows billions to be wasted. Firing squad awaits." And worse: "Minders and Senior Public Servants implicated". Others imagine the horrors that faced the Victorian and Western Australian governments when they invested in commercial companies that subsequently collapsed with catastrophic consequences.But this is not about making a wretched investment decision in a company or industry sector.

What this new form of social investment is about is investing in people's capacity and initiative. It is about reviving and lifting people up from a situation of passivity. It is about turning, what many everyday are beginning to realise, is a failing investment and turning it into a safer and more constructive investment. Nor is this new type of investment about wastage.


I want to give you a small example.

Here in Queensland Minister Anna Bligh and Director General Ken Smith of the Department of Family and Community Services have started a unique experiment that involves Flexible and Intensive Family Support payments to people with disabilities. What this new payment system is starting to do is say: the Department is no longer investing in disability, it is making a start to invest in people's capacity. That is it is not saying that if you have a mild disability then you are worth this much in payments, if you have a severe disability then you are worth this much in payments then you are worth this much. The Deparment has started to throw all this out the window.

It has started to invest in people's capacity to solve the problems they face in their lives. In other words the Department is saying: what is the sum of investment, what form should it take and what is the best way we can help you achieve your goals of greater capacity and independence?

Well guess what, sometimes, not always, but sometimes, in this state where every disabled person is in a third world category of need compared to even the Northern Territory's spending on disabilities, sometimes, people under this new scheme, I am told give back money because they say: "we didn't need all that to achieve our goal. So we're giving some back".

Sir Humphrey has fainted again. "We simply can't under spend" he would say "By crikey the Treasury will come after it all."
Now this is just a small example. A very small example, just the tip of where we need to go in the reform of disabilities, and perhaps Ministers' minders are right to be worried because, as you can see, there are lots of situations where these sorts of open-ended, needs based payment systems could get an unskilful politician into trouble. Or let me re-phrase that: it would get an old style politician into trouble.

It would get a politician who wanted to turn up at every household for a picture to say "hey I got your severely disabled son or daughter this extra money" into big trouble because inevitably there would be someone who abused the system. And there would be the Minister's picture next to the problem, and under the Westminster system it could be taken by an Opposition as saying this Minister is directly responsible for the allocation of that money and that abuse. Embarrassment all round.

But this will not occur in the new scenario and politicians versed in the new politics will not allow this situation to occur.
In the new politics there will be a new set of checks and balances. What we will be saying is that after a careful process of allocation it will be people and communities who will accept the responsibility, the benefits and the blame when things go wrong. Empowerment cannot be a one way street. We cannot say: here take these resources but don't take any of the responsibility. We have to say: you have a responsibility to ensure that this funding is invested in the best way possible for your son or your daughter and we hold you responsible for this.

And our new politicians and our new civil social entrepreneurs will say: "We expect failures". Before you learn to walk, you must fall. Failures within this new politics are acceptable, and they will not lead to a Ministers or a DGs scalp they will lead us to do things better. "Failures are to be expected, because if we don't fail then we won't have achieved anything". Because within this new politics, within this new framework we have set up, we are investing in the social capital of our community and this has allowed us to achieve far more than we could have ever dreamed under the old system. But failures are part of that process and for every failure here are ten successes, ten minor miracles that could not have occurred if we used the old systems of accountability, when I as Minister or Director General handed out money that had ten bureaucrats countersigning each cheque and paralysing entrepeneurship and initiative because our number one priority was to worry about each indiscretion that might occur.


"Gulp" says the old kind of bureaucrat, the old Sir Humphrey, I have been displaced. But it is not just Sir Humph that is under threat, it is also the left assumptions about social welfare, and I will come to the church in a minute. But let me concentrate on the left for a moment. A one time mentor of mind, a grand man of the Australian Labor Left once had an expression that I have always remembered. He used to say: "If you have your roots in the people, you can bend with the breeze". This is a saying that would seem to accord with this new politics of empowering people, of placing the resources of the state in the hands of individuals and communities and letting them decide how those resources should be developed. But it doesn't and I will tell you why.

The left and the right have only just emerged from a winner take all, totalizing politics. For older lefties from the end of the second world war right through to today having your roots in the people means that you work with ordinary people and you win their absolute trust. For many within our current political system it means winning a command of numbers within the factional process. In the tough environment of the Cold War within the labour movement, it was not initiative, it was not entrepreneurship, it was not how smart you were that carried the day.

Many people who were talented and smart were casualties. And the survivors depended on absolute, trust and solidarity that was all important. And as a member of the left you were entrusted to deliver back whatever resources and power you could back to your people. That was what was important and unfortunately that legacy carries through into many of the ways in which the sons and daughters of the older generation of the Left carry on today.

"Which side are you on" was the credo and the mark and the bitterness of the Cold War and the Left became synonomous with saying no to the immoral, large scale actions of the State and once again trust and solidarity meant that you would not forget your origins, forget your cause, betray the people you represented. It is in this legacy that we can find much of the inflexibility and the suspicion that many people on the left treat these new ideas and positions about handing back responsibility to people and communities. In many ways it threatens the traditional bloodlines of the left.

It is also of course a matter of pride that the left, from the shearers strikes of the 1890s, was the moving force behind formalised social benefits delivered through the State to their people who stood by them through thick and thin. It was the stability of a government job, the certainty of an old age pension, or a social security pension if you were laid off, that have been the greatest achievements of the left over this century. So this is what as a left representative you were entrusted to deliver back and it was this that gave you your glory. It is this that makes it so hard for the left to hear any criticism of the social welfare state.

Today throughout the welfare industry that spirit continues. Progressive people move in and out of advocacy and charitable institutions, the public bureaucracy and they continue to invest in this liberal, left ethic of trust and ensuring that the best possible delivery of benefits back to those in need is made. It is a shock for an old leftie to realise that this strategy is as much a part of the problem for people in disadvantaged communities, as the person who says that those who are dispossessed and disadvantaged should have no benefits and should stand on their own two feet against the might of our society and the great divide in our resources and opportunities.

The problem is that no-one even in the great depression could have contemplated a situation where you can live in a society in which there is the greatest of riches and the greatest level of poverty side by side. Certainly only the most acute observers and forecasters forecast a situation where on one side of one street in a suburb like Hoxton Park in Sydney or Inala in Brisbane you can have 5% unemployment on one side of the road and 45% unemployment on the other, where households can go for three generations without holding down a job, and where whole regions and country towns can be simply closed down.

What the left have not realised is that it is not a Cold War that we are fighting any longer, it is not about solidarity and trust, because solidarity and trust simply deliver inadequate compensation and perpetual benefits that require you to passify any capacity you have in relation to some bureaucrat.

This is a Hot War we are now fighting, and those who can define the future are the winners. We have to deliver the capacity to make the future back to our disadvantaged communities. It is about initiative, resources and power, and in communities where industry does not exist, or where there are not enough opportunities to go round, the capital that has to be re-deployed to give people a chance and to keep them in touch with the other side of the street is social spending. resources. Why? Because it is the only thing there is. So it is not a matter of taking it away but of finding new ways of investment that put people back in charge of their own destiny.

So this is not just about "work for the dole" or through some "CDEP program delivering a bit of cheaper labour to a Council to fix the local roads" it is about linking and investing whatever health, social security and education money that is being invested into a community into the capacity to make the future, to create opportunites and to create independence. In other words if you are an old style left Labor politician who simply guarantees the payments come in each week, it is not enough in this Hot War. You are as bad as the other guy!
Now let me come to the church.

In the lacunae of politics, where suddenly there are no "correct" left and no right positions, where suddenly traditional supporters of formalised State benefits such as myself have realised that we are sentencing people to death if we do nothing about delivery and capacity and empowerment. People, politicians and communities are turning to the Church and we find the church in a new position of responsibility, flexibility and potential when it comes to the delivery of social spending and investments.

Now I want to share a joke that one of your number passed on to me in the process of researching this speech. "How many members of the Church does it take to change a light bulb?" "Ten, one to change the light bulb, and nine to lament the way things used to be". If you are as this joke suggests simply about the past, then you too will like the Left fail the people you are seeking to serve.

The challenge for you is the same challenge as faces members of governments. Will you become less bureaucratic? Will you invest in people not monuments and structures? Will everything you do be about empowering people to take control of their own communities and lives? Will you let go of significant resources and place them in the hands of capable hands in the community and let them make the key decisions, which you will then support with every resource and skill you can muster?

These are things that count in this new politics. Of course these seeds of new ways come very much from your midst. When the Reverends Thomson and Mawson passed through town a few weeks back, it was like a summer storm.

Andrew told us how he changed his church into a child care centre, how his community built a life centre not a disease centre, how parks were designed by communities to create leaps in knowledge and imagination, how he created a "communiversity" for people who never dreamed they could go to university. In short here was a revolutionary from the church, aided and abetted by one of your number Archbishop, Peter Thomson.

Mawson and Thomson influenced Ministers, Director Generals, Social Entrepreneurs and Champions alike and then they passed on spreading the message to Carr in NSW and Howard and Beazley in Canberra Their message to people in high places was: Transfer power to the micro level of community politics and foster entrepreneurship, creativity, investment there. That is the challenge which we all face, left, right and centre, and it is a politics that is equally challenging for all of us in this room. It will lead to new alliances, new problems and controversies, and new failures but ultimately I believe it will lead us on to transfer new capacity and independence to the people who are doing it tough in our land. And isn't that what we are all about?