Australian place based policies increasing federal power

This morning I read Margaret Simon’s 2004 Quarterly essay which was on Latham’s world: the new politics of the outsiders. I really like Margaret Simon’s work and found Faith, money, power (2007) very helpful for situating my honours research last year within the Australian political context and understanding my experience of undertaking the research. I was not disappointed by her essay on Mark Latham. Over summer I only read part of one of Latham’s books, and I think I put it aside until later because I felt there were so many overlapping ideas to which I had so many contradictory reactions. I feel more confident with my own contradictory reactions after reading Simons’ reflexive account of her own response. Simons provides a contextualised discussion of the policy ideas found in Latham’s books and it really struck me how the move towards federal control and funding but place based administration that Simons finds in Latham’s books has become core labour policy in the Rudd government.

Following this logic, Latham goes on to argue for a pooling of federal and state government resources in health, education and welfare. “Place managers” and local authorities should decide how to use and distribute these resources. The “silos” of government departments have to be eliminated. The local area, rather than the centralised government agency, should be the organising unit.” (Simons 2004: 85)

Gosh! We just need to adjust the temporal order and we have the current roll out – social inclusion, health, education. Homelessness and housing are also looking at increased federal level control. I can understand the ideological drive behind place based programs and the assigning of responsibility for a range of tasks and outcomes to ‘place managers’. However, my conservative streak stirs up this sense of worry.

The problem is that it is in the interest of government to deal with as few players as possible. It is easier to keep track of who might say what in the media, it takes less contracts and it results in less transfers of funds to check. I know I am biased due to my own work experiences, but I wonder if this actually results in greater savings overall and I am sure it does not necessarily result in better services. This matters in ‘place based’ projects because, as community development projects utilising a place based model seem to demonstrate, the same organisations will roll out the same aspects of services across areas. If the place manager is ultimately accountable to the minister then they need to minimise political risk and using organisations that have been tried and tested, even if they are remote from the local community, can be a good way to go about that. It is in the place manager’s interest to limit who can talk on behalf of the ‘place’, because public comments that may make the minister look bad will need a counter attack prepared and it will fall back to the place manager to make sure this is ready.

The further away the minister with ultimate program funding responsibility is, the easier it is for that minister to expect to be receiving the outcomes and numbers that they want rather than having flexible and timely responses to system needs. It is also easier for the people who come up with the funding provisions to forget the problems that come with advocating a single ‘best practice’. After all, the middle people can reshape and cut down what gets back. Examples such as hospitals in Victoria misreporting patient numbers demonstrate that when something happens public outcry can be deflected from the minister.

I do not think that ‘place based’ policies are evil, I am just very wary of what actually unfolds when they are implemented in real world communities. After all, the real world is much messier than the carefully chosen language and friendly images of government websites. I think that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2008 report, ‘Person or place based- not knowing what works’ [http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/person-or-place-based-policies-tackle-disadvantage-not-knowing-what-works], makes some great points and I think more empirical work needs to be done that moves beyond evaluations to look at what ‘place based’ really means.

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