UK’s ‘Big Society’ guru tutors Australian Libs

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In June 2011 Tony Abbott introduced the director of a UK think tank who presented a keynote address to a conference convened by the Menzies Research Institute, the Liberal Party’s in-house think tank. 

Abbott welcomed ResPublica’s CEO Phillip Blond as a ‘friend of Australia’. During his Australian visit, Blond also briefed Opposition cabinet members and local government officials and published a critique of the Australian political landscape in which he advocated major changes to the relationship between the public, private and community sectors.

Blond’s visit went largely unreported at the time. Why should his visit matter to Challenge readers? Why should Australians care about public sector changes in the UK?

In the UK, Philip Blond is known as a principal architect of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda. Under this radical reform program, the UK Government is slashing hundreds of thousands of Government jobs and outsourcing massive chunks of the public sector, while promising to strengthen communities, encourage volunteerism and entrepreneurialism and diversify service provision.

This debate has run hot since David Cameron’s election as Prime Minister in May 2010. Cameron’s changes are quickly fulfilling his election promise to ‘redefine the role of the state as a provider of public services’. Initially marketed as a strategy to empower communities, encourage a diversity of service providers, and foster volunteerism and mutualism, the ‘Big Society’ changes coincided with an £81 billion reduction in public spending.

In the UK, the ‘Big Society’ debate about the role and size of the public sector, and the corresponding roles of the corporate and community sectors, receives prominent daily media coverage. This is not the case in Australia, where the mainstream media tends to ignore any serious consideration of public sector issues.

Many Australians are unaware that our national public service is currently experiencing dramatic cuts. Late last year, the Gillard Government reduced the public service budget by $2.2 billion by increasing the ‘efficiency dividend’ from 1.5% to 4%. This measure and the public sector budget cuts announced in the May 2012 budget are forcing agencies and departments to retrench thousands of public servants and scale back services in order to achieve a modest surplus.

This is little hope of reprieve in sight, as the Liberal Opposition has pledged to retrench 12,000 Australian Public Service employees ‘for starters’ if elected, and to slash a staggering $70 billion from government spending. These cuts, like those currently occurring, directly impact on the services we receive and on our society.

In Australia’s increasingly uncertain political environment, it is vitally important that we learn as much as it can about the reality of the UK’s Big Society in order to understand what these changes would mean here.


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