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is ‘what kind of a society do we want?’. The reason why the Productivity Commission’s approach worked politically for so long was that, in the 1980s, it was rightly recognised that the Australian economy needed to be more market-oriented. So long as this was the top political priority then the Productivity Commission could get on with the job of making markets more competitive. Now, however, we see that mounting problems around social cohesion, demands for equality and the needs to address environmental problems, have robbed that agenda of its political legitimacy. As the UN 2030 Agenda shows, we now need greater balance between economic, social and environmental objectives – a balance that we can only achieve through democratic, political process. As Spies-Butcher asks, where, for example, do care and cooperation fit in the society we are striving for? The whole of society simply cannot only be about market-style efficiency. It is only when we have agreement about what we are trying to achieve, he insists, that we can know what is or is not ‘productive’. ‘Focussing on the kind of society has profound implications for our assessment’, he writes. Framing the whole discussion in terms of ‘productivity’ in the narrow sense presented by the Productivity Commission ‘puts the cart before the horse’ and risks ‘nonsensical outcomes’. Power to Persuade proposes that this proper starting point for our new governance conversation takes us well beyond the competency of what remains basically a commission of economists (according to the Productivity Commission website, the head of the Inquiry into Human Services is a former economics professor and chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Mergers Review Committee, while the Special Adviser ‘holds a Bachelor of Business from Curtin University, and spent three years working as a bank teller’ before joining the public service). As Curchin observes in her Dialogue contribution, if we are to seriously progress the new governance conversation it has to be led by people equipped to lead a discussion about the ‘ethical limits of markets’. She introduces the thinking of Michael Sandel, most notably from his book, What Money Can’t Buy. This puts at the centre of the policy discussion the need to explicitly address the normative dimensions of the ‘public interest’ or common good which, as Smyth shows, has been marginalised at the Productivity Commission. Like

the centuries of thinking about the public interest which had preceded neoliberalism, Sandel rejects the full commodification of all aspects of human life. Importantly – as David Tennant indicates so clearly in his Power to Persuade contribution on rural and regional social services – the commodification of services in the name of contestability actually drives out the kinds of altruism and voluntary endeavour which should be at the centre of successful community making. Curchin writes that we ‘have to articulate the ethical limits to the operation of markets’ and recognise values such as ‘human dignity, democracy and justice’, which ought to ‘trump profitability’. This central task of governance renewal, she continues, is not one well left to economists but must involve sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and moral psychologists. Even more importantly, she concludes, it ‘necessitates deliberation by the general public. We need a public conversation about what values we as a society care about, and what non-market norms are worth preserving’. In a similar vein, Helen Dickinson’s contribution indicates that for markets to work in such a way as to create good outcomes (for governments and citizens), there are a number of principles that must be in place, including the ability of consumers to act with a degree of sovereignty to achieve desired outcomes, and do so rationally (meaning that there can be a judgement on the basis of sound evidence); that there are few barriers to entry; and all partners have a reasonable degree of intelligence and information about services. Yet, as we start to apply these ideas to a public service context we find that they do not hold up. Of course, she writes, this conversation must include economists, but as Tony Atkinson has been reminding us, for a fruitful dialogue the economic discipline will need a serious renewal of its welfare economics. He observes that ‘welfare economics was a subject of importance half a century ago, now it has largely disappeared from the mainstream’ (Atkinson 2011). He recommends to economists the theories of justice associated with Rawls and Sen as starting points for renewal. In this spirit Melbourne University’s Elise Klein offers an overview of Sen’s capability approach. As with Curchin, the importance for this kind of approach is that it leads to an emphasis on a democratic process involving citizens in the identification and creation of what is in effect the ‘public interest’.


SSF Report  
SSF Report