Mark Latham | AFR | 9 February 2012
Recently The Australian newspaper has had a lot of fun with Labor’s fuzzy embrace of the concept of social inclusion. In particular, it has highlighted the haplessness of the new Minister for Social Inclusion, Mark Butler. When asked what the concept meant, Butler fell back on the cliché of “social inclusion meaning different things to different people”.
When pressed for greater detail, the best he could say was: “Social inclusion is about government delivering services and supports to people experiencing social exclusion in different ways.”
Behind the Monty Pythonesque humour of a minister defining social inclusion as the opposite of social exclusion, rests a sad political truth.
Labour-leaning parties no longer have anything worthwhile to contribute to the egalitarianism of society. The class war has ended. People who grew up working class now aspire to the ownership of capital. After two decades of robust economic growth, Australia has entered an age of affluence and social mobility.
The losers left behind in this process, however, are forever falling further behind. They are part of an entrenched underclass, just 5 per cent of the population – easily ignored by the political system. The Liberal Party assumes they vote Labor, while the ALP takes them for granted. Their closest contact with Labor politicians is through ethnic branch-stacking.
In no part of the Western world have left-of-centre parties found a solution to the problems of the underclass. Their fallback position has been to establish publicly funded committees such as social inclusion boards, thereby giving the appearance of caring about the disadvantaged, while in practice achieving very little. This is the modern version of the warm inner glow.
I first wrote a critique of Canberra’s Social Inclusion Board during the term of the Rudd government. The board had commissioned a number of measurement studies but failed to lift a single Australian out of poverty. Since then its work has deteriorated further.
Its focus has shifted to an abstract human rights agenda under the banner of “racism, discrimination and stigma”.
As Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson has pointed out, the greatest failure of left-wing politics is to sit in inner-city coffee shops talking about the rights of the poor without ever expecting the poor to do something right for themselves. It constructs a victimhood mentality, ignoring the importance of personal responsibility, hard work and education. This is how the social-worker ethos of the welfare state prevails, mopping up the consequences of poverty without confronting the core problem.
Whenever governments resort to a rights agenda it is a sure sign of their failure to influence the life circumstances of the disadvantaged.
Poverty is treated as an abstract concept that can be dealt with through amendments to human rights legislation and the funding of anti-racism campaigns. The real-life crisis of the underclass – manifest in gambling and drug addictions, domestic violence, street crime and unemployability – is unaltered.
When Julia Gillard, as the responsible minister, launched the Social Inclusion Board in May 2008, she promised a “new way of governing”. Like most things from the Rudd era, this was a case of impossibly inflated expectations. Far from pioneering new forms of governance, the board’s work has confirmed the failure of the social democratic project.
The problem of the underclass is no less severe today than when the ALP came to office in 2007. None of its policy announcements has moved Australia closer to social inclusion.
Indeed, in a terrible commentary on the firepower of the Labor movement, the only measure that would have helped the poor – mandatory precommitment for poker machines – was forced onto the government by an independent MP, Andrew Wilkie.
Even there, Labor has buckled to a self-serving campaign by the clubs industry – the same voices that once condemned the introduction of random breath testing, a reform that has saved more than 15,000 lives in NSW alone.
Gillard would rather play a numbers game in the House of Representatives (swapping Wilkie’s support for that of the Liberal renegade Peter Slipper) than confront the way in which gambling addictions harm the life prospects of children in gambling-infested homes.
Undoubtedly she rests easy at night, comforted by the work of her Social Inclusion Board and its new way of governing. As Gough Whitlam said of the Labor Left, the impotent are pure.