1 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. 2 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. 3 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 4 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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