Presentation to Chief Minister’s forum by presmaster

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Presentation to the ACT Chief Minister’s Forum
14 October 2003


Dr Cosmo Howard
National Institute for Governance
University of Canberra


The National Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra was recently
contracted by the ACT Government to conduct four fora to help with the formulation
of the Territory’s Social Plan. The first of these fora concerned the topic of enhancing
economic opportunity in Canberra. The second addressed the challenge of improving
health and well being in the Territory. The third forum was focused on promoting
safe, strong, cohesive communities and the fourth dealt with issues surrounding
education and training in the ACT. We invited academics, government officials,
private sector spokespeople, representatives of non-government service providers and
advocacy organisations to the fora. Participants were asked to comment on the
recently released Towards a Canberra Social Plan document, and to highlight
priorities, tradeoffs and specific interventions that might contribute to the
achievement of long-term social objectives in the Territory. This morning I want to
summarise the important themes and observations that we recorded during the fora.

The Social Plan should be a visionary response to identified problems
Contributors to all of the fora agreed that the Social Plan should incorporate an
explicit statement of our shared values and priorities. Few forum participants
disagreed with the goals outlined in the draft plan, although some did want other
objectives, such as equality and poverty reduction, to be mentioned.


Participants suggested that the Social Plan should be more than just a statement of the
Government’s aspirations. They argued that the document would be particularly
powerful if it combined an inspired statement about long-term visions with a
sophisticated and detailed analysis of the problems and challenges confronting the
ACT. It is clear that policy visions and objectives cannot be separated from social
problems. Rather, problems provide the context for policy goals. For example, to
suggest that health and well-being can be improved in the ACT is to acknowledge that
we face problems and challenges in health care, both presently and in years to come.
Furthermore, striving for a policy vision without addressing the challenges that impact
on that vision is likely to be futile. So, for instance, it will be extremely difficult to
secure enhanced economic opportunity if policy makers do not have a thorough
understanding of the factors that affect economic growth and employment conditions
in the ACT.


Participants in the fora argued that in each of the policy areas, a strong understanding
of the problems and challenges must be established before the process of
operationalising visions and implementing responses commences.
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So what were their observations about the problems and challenges confronting the
ACT?


In the economic forum, participants pointed out that we are fiscally a small
jurisdiction and that we do not have our hands on the key macroeconomic ‘levers’.
While aggregate employment statistics suggest that Canberra performs well, it is
important to break down the general figures and to acknowledge the existence and
persistence of economic inequality in the Territory. Women, young people and the
long-term unemployed disproportionately face barriers to work. While some
participants at the economic forum argued that growth is crucial, others emphasised
the importance of sustainability and liveability and the fragility of our ecological
surroundings. Some wanted to ensure that the wealth and human capital which is
generated in Canberra stays here, but others argued that Canberra should increase its
economic interdependence with the rest of the country and the world.


In the health forum, participants acknowledged the generally positive performance of
the ACT, but they also pointed to a number of factors that may compromise the well-
being of Canberrans. The high cost of housing results in significant housing stress in
the Territory. The ageing of the population will have a significant impact on
Canberra, and evidence presented by experienced practitioners points to a rise in the
prevalence of personality disorders and psychological ‘malaise’ in the Territory.
Indigenous Canberrans, especially aboriginal men, are disadvantaged according to
primary health indicators.


The communities forum heard of the dilution of the traditional Canberran concept of
the neighbourhood school. Although we are an affluent community, we need to
recognise and identify pockets of poverty and disadvantage. Some young Canberrans
feel excluded. The distance that some residents must travel to access social
infrastructure disadvantages those living on the geographic edges of our urban
settlements. We should also recognise that the ACT’s carers are predominantly
female and disproportionately poor.


Finally, participants at the education forum wanted to go behind Canberra’s
impressive school retention rates. While many students do very well, others ‘fall
through the gaps’, and the opportunities for residents without tertiary qualifications in
white-collar occupations are limited. Funding levels in real terms have not improved
since 1990 and there is a sense that teachers are overworked and expected to teach too
much. While some participants suggested that schools should provide new subject
matter that engages young people, others noted that the curriculum is already
overcrowded, and that an emphasis on important subject content should be reinforced.
Several participants noted that the likelihood that a person will engage in life-long
learning is strongly influenced by their early experiences in the education system.
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This leads me to restate an important theme that emerged in each of these fora:
although many of the general statistics for the territory are impressive, they
sometimes conceal a disadvantaged minority. Many felt that addressing the needs of
this group should be the ultimate priority of the social plan.


The need to provide integrated responses


As well as understanding these issues, we also need to think about how the
Government’s responses to these challenges will work with each other. In outlining
the problems, I have hinted at some tradeoffs, such as the potential tension between
promoting local industries and promoting links with other regions and the possible
conflict between promoting excellence in education and enhancing the prospects of
the disadvantaged.


Two important general points were made in the fora about trade-offs and priorities.
The first was that it is very important to ensure that tradeoffs are genuine and not just
the product of a lack of integration or coordination in government. Many of the
participants argued that different aspects of the social plan are highly interdependent:
so for instance, it is difficult to improve the educational retention rates of those who
have poor health and well being, limited job prospects and are disconnected from the
community, if nothing is done to address these barriers. At the same time, education
is an important determinant of individual, community and economic wellbeing. It is
important that policy responses are constructed in a way that minimises tradeoffs and
promotes synergies between the different spheres of government activity.


It would be naïve, however, to think that we could overcome all trade-offs and
dilemmas just by stressing the importance of integrated analysis and whole of
government approaches. At some point, hard choices will have to be made.
Participants at the fora were in favour of a consultative approach similar to the one
used when a proposal for a dam on the Naas River was debated. The most effective
way to address real policy trade offs, they argued, is to present the details of the
different options to the public. With comprehensive information, the general public is
ideally placed to make decisions about priorities. Some contributors also argued that
this is a valuable strategy for generating consensus when dealing with potentially
divisive policy dilemmas. As a result, many participants argued that the social plan
document needs more detail on the nature of the social challenges and problems
confronting the ACT.

Proposed interventions


Participants proposed a number of specific policy initiatives in order to assist in the
achievement of the goals outlined in the Social Plan. Several argued for a bill or
charter of rights that would include human and social rights and would specify
minimum working conditions. Some advocated rewarding ACT businesses with tax
breaks for achieving positive social outcomes. Others suggested creating a banking
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facility to promote local venture capital. Some argued that we should broaden the
employment profile with more apprenticeships and government job creation.


In order to promote health and well being, participants felt that there was a need to
reignite COAG and to address vertical cost shifting in the federation. The quality of
health care provision should be improved, and collaboration between health care
providers and community members should be promoted.


Participants felt that the ACT community would be strengthened if more attention
were given to the problem of domestic violence. Young people need more
opportunities to participate and fears about crime must be addressed. Some suggested
reinstating the local school as a ‘hub’ for neighbourhood activities.


Finally, the performance of our education and training systems could be enhanced if
we concentrated on developing linkages and smoothing transitions between different
sectors. More resources must be devoted to those who are currently disadvantaged in
education and greater attention should be given to early childhood teaching. One
participant believed that the professional development of teachers requires more
support.


As part of our work for the ACT Government, we are currently preparing a report on
the four fora. This report provides more detail on the perspectives and proposals that
were presented at the fora.

								
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