The questions that count

Should we fear a big society?

Feb 29, 2012

Miriam Lyons from the Centre for Policy Development describes the UK political shake up which is finding support here.


In the UK, the phrase “Big Society” is a household term — a catch phrase for the current transformation of British society as public services are cut and replaced by private enterprise, voluntary and community services.

It’s presented as a progressive, inclusive philosophy  — who doesn’t want a big society with contributions from all sectors of society?

But its critics describe it as a grab bag of ideas melded together as an excuse to cut down public spending and a state’s responsibilities.

British PM David Cameron used the theory to “redefine the role of the state as a provider of public services.” On a practical level that has meant more than £80 billion in cuts to public spending; the dismantling of the NHS and up to 700,000 job cuts to the public service.

In the UK, the winners have seen large corporations such as Serco and A4e which have received the bulk of the outsourced work which was previously done by the public service.

But in Australia we’ve heard little of it. While the Opposition has signaled massive cuts to the public service if it were elected, a debate about the role of the state in Australia society is non-existent.

Miriam Lyons of the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), says that could be about to change. In its paper on “Big Society” CPD explores what it could mean for Australia. Read it here.

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron embraced it as a political philosophy first championed by Philip Blond, a theologian, lecturer and founder of the conservative think tank ResPublica. He was also Cameron’s adviser before the 2010 election.

Lyons says Australians can learn a lot from the negative impacts of ‘Big Society’ in the UK

“We’ve already seen some aspects of the ‘Big Society’ agenda here, with governments that want to outsource and privatise everything that moves”, says Lyons. “The extreme and rapid dismantling of the state in the UK shows us what we might expect if we continue down this path.”

Read about what the media and others are saying about a Big Society.

The whole debate raises some interesting questions about how publicly unpopular theories can be successfully framed to garner support.

For example, John Howard’s ‘voluntary student unionism’ sounded like a positive policy because most people are opposed to things that are compulsory. By removing its fund base, Howard rapidly killed off student activism in Australia.

On the other hand, Greenpeace made huge inroads in their campaign on genetic engineering by introducing the notion (and language) of ‘genetic pollution’. When industry began to use the same expression, Greenpeace’s influence was clear.

You can read more about reframing issues here.

Equally, Friends of the Earth have successfully reframed the marvels of nanotechnology by framing these emerging sciences as ‘Frankenstein-esque’ and ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’.

Take a look also at the re-framing of the recent ALP tussle for leadership here.

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