Speech by Hon Kevin Andrews MP

Address to the bccm ‘make it mutual’ workshop

Location: National Press Club


I’d like to thank the Board of the BCCM for the opportunity to open this workshop.

I welcome the opportunity to present my views on the role of civil society in 21st century Australia.

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As you know there was a time in Australia when mutualism was the most dynamic social and economic movement.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Australians, imbued by an egalitarian spirit of pragmatism and independence, pioneered mutuals and friendly societies across the six colonies.

Found in every community, these institutions were voluntary and self- regulating. They offered employment, health, funeral and other insurance by pooling small amounts of money or income to protect themselves from the vagaries of economics and happenstance.

It was the height of Australia’s self-insurancing voluntary organisations, composed of committed citizens who came together to address their local community needs.

By the eve of the First World War – precisely 100 years ago – around 400,000 friendly society members helped to fund benefits for over one million Australians.

It’s interesting to note that during this same period fewer than 100,000 Australians were receiving benefits from the Commonwealth Government.

However, a technocratic spirit began to take hold in Australia as the nation travelled through the traumas of the Depression and the Second World War.

Typically in Australia, we took our cue from the United Kingdom.

The northern summer of 1941 was one of the bleakest eras of recent historical memory.

Hitler’s Wehrmacht was marching from triumph to triumph across North Africa and the steppes of Russia.

The on-flowing tide of Imperial Japanese belligerence was relentless, engulfing even the Indo-Chinese territories of a defeated and humbled France.

The final redoubt of liberty in Europe – Great Britain – was barely hanging on, threatened with starvation from below by German U-Boats and bombardment from above by German aircraft.

And yet in this darkest of dark hours, the War Cabinet of Winston Churchill embarked on a truly remarkable initiative.

Remarkable not only in its optimism about the ultimate victory of freedom over fascism, but also in its ambitious vision of a kinder, gentler Britain.

Better known by its colloquial title the ‘Beveridge Report’, the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services laid the conceptual foundations for the modern welfare state.

It constituted a great social war plan against what was described as the “five giants” of social dysfunction: Want, Disease, Squalour, Ignorance and Idleness.

While the place that Lord Beveridge wished to take Britain was notable, so were the means he chose to get there.

Rather than a confident assertion of supreme state authority, the ‘Beveridge Report’ reflected the virtues of limited government:

“The state in organising security should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility;

In establishing a national minimum it should leave room and encouragement for each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.”

In other words, Lord Beveridge made clear that any new initiatives by government were meant – not to supercede existing social institutions – but to complement and indeed utilise them.

* * *

Ladies and Gentlemen it pains me to say that over the past seven-plus decades we have strayed somewhat from that principle.

In both Britain and Australia, the Beveridge ideals of a lighter-touch safety net was swept away by an ambitious but bureaucratic welfarism in which social insurance models were replaced by state-run entitlements programmes.

* * *

But if anyone can be said to exemplify the original intent of the ‘Beveridge Report’ – it’s the Business Council of Co-Operatives and Mutuals.

Today your council represents over 13 million Australians who belong to 1,600 co-operatives and mutuals throughout the country.

And the sector plays a substantial role in our national economy, generating a very healthy turnover of $17 billion per annum.

That’s a very good start.

I have to say though it’s not a patch on the $130 odd billion behemoth that I am administering in my role as Social Services Minister.

The question we should explore is how we – the Government – can help you – the co-operative and mutual sector – take things to the next level and re-capture that verve and spirit that before the post-war consensus eroded Australian mutualism.

We’re fortunate to have with us today Mr Peter Hunt – CEO of Mutuo – to tell us how it’s being done in Great Britain.

The UK Government has created Public Service Mutuals that address a broad range of public needs in the health, human services, housing, disability and emergency services areas.

Mutuo works as an advocate for the co-operative and mutual sector, promoting good public policy that fosters new and better ways of addressing social problems.

It’s good public policy that enhances your ability to do what you do best -helping people and communities.

Today we have the good fortune of having access to Mr Hunt’s expertise and experience.

We should be able to learn a lot.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen I’ve had a longstanding interest and involvement in civil society.

I’ve served as an official with various sporting organisations, on hospital boards and with social service agencies.

It’s this personal experience at the coalface of civil society that forged my views about the critical role of organisations that arise organically from the community in response to human need to the needs that people in local communities perceive.

And those views have only been reinforced by what I’ve seen as a Parliamentarian and Minister over the past 20-plus years.

Over those two decades I’ve seen communities – both Indigenous and non- Indigenous – where the basic structures of civilised society have eroded – and even collapsed:

  • Places afflicted by dire poverty where women and children are at constant risk of violence.
  • Places where dependency is the rule and self-sufficiency the exception.
  • Places where most people are employed are on the public or not-for-profit payroll;
  • Places where the last vestiges of individual initiative have evaporated, leaving behind the social residue of hopelessness and despair.

It’s these cumulative observations that have forged my views about the capacity and limitations of government.

And I’ve generally concluded that while certain core functions of government are indispensible, we should strive to minimise the institutional footprint of the state wherever and whenever possible.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen those in Government must always be on guard against the temptation to think that their wisdom is equal to their power.

As Friedrich Hayek warned in The Fatal Conceit:

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

Rather than a cumbersome ‘top-down’ ‘government-knows-best’ approach that smacks of patronising paternalism, we believe in bottom-up, grass roots enterprise.

We believe in adept and adroit not-for-profit organisations that can adapt to changing circumstances and evolving needs.

We believe that no-one knows local communities better than local community members.

They have the best grasp on the problems in their backyard and how to best address them.

And no group of Australian organisations better embodies these principles than the co-operative and mutual sector.

* * *

That’s why The Role of Co-operatives in Delivering Australian Public Services published by the BCCM last November is such an interesting and timely document.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to meet Melina Morrison of the BCCM and Gillian McFee of the Public Services Mutuals Task Force to discuss this report.

And in that meeting I’m happy to report we found considerable common ground.

The co-operative and mutual sector has tremendous potential to foster innovative modes and methods of addressing the unmet needs of our society.

They also have untapped reserves to help Australian society arising from the challenges we face today including:

  • An ageing population
  • The delivery of advanced health services
  • The social and economic exclusion of people with disabilities
  • Addressing housing supply
  • The imbalance between taxpayers and welfare recipients; and
  • Building a more dynamic economy as well as greater community capacity.

So I look forward to working with you as we seek to develop the most effective and efficient ways of meeting the social and economic challenges of Australia in the 21st century.

THESE are the pivotal questions of our time upon which turn our prospects for prosperity in the future.

And these are the questions on which the co-operative and mutual sector very well may have something to say.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen our governing philosophy is informed by a few humble truths:

  • First that Government is NOT the fount of all wisdom;
  • Secondly that a vibrant, dynamic economy and business community are essential to fund the social services we need, expect and deserve; and
  • Thirdly that voluntary mutual co-operation is crucial force to building a responsive and vibrant civil society.

Thus the task of balancing economic vitality and social responsibility will require a willingness to entertain new ideas that some would deem bold, and others might even think audacious.

* * *

In general we’ll be looking to make your lives easier by lightening the compliance burden inflicted by duplication and regulation.

Our aim is to reduce the cost of regulation by at least $1 billion a year, each and every year.

And for my part, DSS will move towards a single comprehensive contract model with each organisation that delivers services on its behalf.

We’ll simplify the auditing process so that only one financial report will be required annually from each contracting organisation.

We’ll work to streamline reporting requirements by reducing the amount of data that must be provided to government.

And we’ll try to make the transmission of those data as easy as possible through automation.

* * *

We also intend to abolish the ACNC, a body that simply generates precisely the sort of useless red tape that this Government is trying to eliminate – as promised.

Organisations like the Australian Institute of Company Directors already do a superb job of supporting directors and boards in both the profit and the not-for- profit sectors.

We see no reason for this Government to reinvent an already smoothly turning wheel.

When it comes to good work already done by private-sector organisations, our job should be to facilitate — not to duplicate.

* * *

And this same ‘bottom-up’ principle is also the motivating force behind our decision to set up a National Centre for Excellence for civil society.

The abolition of the ACNC and establishment of the Centre will move the focus from the stick to the carrot.

We want to transfer the focus from coercive regulation to collaborative education, training and development.

The Centre will support the wide range of organisations that make up civil society – regardless of size, type or their mission.

Its ambit will include charities, clubs and associations that focus on social welfare, the arts, environment, health, medical research, animal welfare, education and so on.

And the Centre’s mandate will encompass both organisations that receive government funding and smaller local community groups that get little or no direct government support.

A one-size-fits-all attitude can never work because the needs in the tiny rural hamlet of Fitzroy Falls, New South Wales are vastly different from the needs in inner-urban Fitzroy, Victoria.

And the requirements of a human service agency might be light-years away from an arts centre or educational institution.

It’s a fundamental tenet of the Coalition worldview that civil society should be neither an instrument nor an agent of the state.

You’ll always know your business better than we do and that’s why our ultimate aim is to transfer the ownership of the Centre to the sector itself.

* * *

The co-operative and mutual sector will have an important role to play in this Government’s effort to care for those in need while living within our means.

And working with you we want to implement policies that will put Government, not in the drivers’ seat of policy, but under the bonnet providing the power that will help us all to steer a good Australia to an even better place in the future.

Thank you.