Dec 24, 2014

Governments can’t create community spirit, but they can support inclusion – Opinion – The Guardian

“‘A good way to get people to become full participants in what life has to offer – including the dignity of work – is to help them engage with their local communities.’’

“Just because you’re better than me, doesn’t mean I’m lazy.” So sang a young Billy Bragg in his song, To Have and To Have Not, in 1983.

The context of the emergence of progressive artists such as Billy Bragg was a potent reaction to the British government of Margaret Thatcher.

A few years after Bragg’s song, Thatcher famously declared “there is no such thing as society”, as she sought to ideologically justify policies that left people to fend for themselves.

Implicit in Thatcher’s bleak worldview was the idea that if you were disadvantaged, it was your own fault. That’s heartless and absurd. Ignoring or marginalising people who are disadvantaged, or even dysfunctional, will do nothing to improve their circumstances.

Indeed, a good way to get people to become full participants in what life has to offer – including the dignity of work – is to help them engage with their local communities.

However, I fear that this trend toward pushing people down rather than lifting them up will escalate in coming months with the appointment of Scott Morrison as minister for social services.

Assisting people into work is a common objective because we have all seen the harm welfare dependence can lead to. But the hidden message in Morrison’s appointment is that he is about to be unleashed on people who allegedly refuse to work.

Newspapers have been briefed to expect “welfare reform” under Morrison. Columnists and editors are already using terms like bludgers and rorters.

In the lead-up to Christmas, the Abbott government has announced funding cuts to non-government organisations like Shelter Australia, Blind Citizens Australia, Deaf Australia and Down Syndrome Australia.

Such groups play a vital role in supporting communities. And their success is usually driven in part by community volunteers.

Although there are those in the Abbott government who subscribe to Thatcher’s doctrine, we’d do well to remind ourselves that it is completely inconsistent with Australian values.

The values of mainstream Australian are on display right outside your door right now – out in parks, pubs and churches where people are coming together to celebrate Christmas.

In the real world, far away from our nation’s parliaments and tabloid hotheads, people are giving each other a fair go. They are dropping in presents to their neighbours. My family looks forward to our next door neighbour’s annual gift of a homemade ginger bread house.

Right now, people are rejoicing in what unites them. They are encouraging each other, not blaming each other. They are embracing their common humanity and trying to develop human interactions in ways that enrich their lives.

Instead of setting people against each other, governments would achieve more if they did more to nurture communities.

Governments can’t create a community spirit. They can’t make people be tolerant of each other, except through the personal example of political leaders. But one thing they can do is deliver a physical environment that promotes community engagement.

Promotion of inclusion through support of communities is one of the drivers of federal Labor’s determination to develop comprehensive policies on our cities. For too long, Australian governments have shown inadequate interest in urban policy and the way in which well-designed cities facilitate the human contact that people crave and which enriches their lives.

We spend so much time designing our buildings that we give inadequate thought to the spaces between those structures. If properly designed, these spaces can provide focal points for local communities that encourage interaction and inclusion.

It might be as simple as providing more shade around buildings and more parks in our neighbourhoods. Greater use of mixed precincts that include residential and public or entertainment space would also help bring people together.

We need more parks, public areas and entertainment options that deliver the environment in which communities flourish. We need well-resourced libraries where people can come together to share interests.

And we need to do all we can to ensure that hubs where people cross paths most often – like shopping centres and train stations – also include places where people can interact.

Some dismiss such ideas as not the province of the Commonwealth. There is a role for commonwealth leadership to assist state and local government as well as non-government organisations, to make our cities more productive, sustainable and liveable.

When governments don’t value communities and when they treat people as little more than economic units, people become alienated. Of course, better urban design of itself won’t stop welfare dependence. Governments should seek to encourage people into the workforce by providing adequate resources for education and training and by eliminating welfare fraud.

But better urban design will certainly help more than treating welfare recipients like cannon fodder in the political debate.

Thatcher was simply wrong when she said there was no such thing as society.

It’s right outside our door and we are all part of it. If we make our communities work in positive ways, their power far exceeds that of the sum of their component parts and can be used to achieve great social outcomes.

But first we need to reject the idea that anyone on welfare has given up and does not want to work. As Billy Bragg sang more than 30 years ago, “Just because you’re going forward, doesn’t mean I’m going backwards.”


This article appeared in today’s edition of The Guardian Australia.