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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Sunshine and shadows « Previous | |Next »
April 16, 2003

There is an article in todays Australian Financial Review by Tony Harris called, 'Reform has a sunny side' (subscription required, AFR 15 4 2003, p. 70). He is reviewing Michael Pusey's new book, The Experience of Middle Australia.

The book charts our social experiences of economic reform from the 1980s to the late 1990s by drawing on opinion polls, focus groups and responses from between 200-400 'middle Australians'. It unveils the dark side of economic reform: people being worse off; having less security; reduced welfare; negative superannuation returns. The social experience is that middle Australia has carried the unfair share of the 'adjustment burden' of economic change.

Harris's objection is that sociology can only see the downside of reform. We should see the sunny side of the economic reforms. These have increased the overall standard of living and enabled Athe Australian economy to weather economic storms, including the Asian financial crisis and the recent US recession.

Tony Harris leaves it there with his message of a needing a bit of balance---sunshine and shadows. This theme is taken up by Claude Smadja in the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture 2000, 'Living in an Era of Anxious Prosperity. He attempts to capture both sides of economic reform.

He says that things are bouncing along in the world economy quite nicely in terms of prosperity but people are anxious. We citizens are anxious because of the speed of change; a governance vacuum due to the disintegration of traditional political power of the state; and an abdication of governments due to the shift to a smaller role of government.

The response by Claude Smadja, who is the MD of the World Economic Forum,to this state of affairs is twofold. He acknowledges that financial markets create friction, chaos and confusion leading to more backlash and alienation. He then argues that political leaders and goverrnments need to play a more assertive role as the ultimate arbiters among diverse interests in order to ward off endemic social instability. (The state as umpire).

Claude Smadja sums up his core thesis thus:

"And so we are in a situation where we need, in some respects to catch up on the political front and the social front with rapid development that we have seen on the economic and technological front. We need to think a little bit more about new political models that our societies need to put in place to cope with changes."

The 'we' here refers to the big corporations who need to develop some corporate social responsibility. Janet Albrechtson will have none of this "politicizing of commercial enterprises" because "Directors are paid to save the company not the world." However, Smadja, argues that this corporate social responsibility makes good sense in terms of their long term business interests because there is a need to heed off those non-government organizations in civil society who are expressing the concerns of citizens, their anxieities and uncertainities. They are increasingly seen as an alternative to the established institutions of liberal democratic life.

On this account liberal democratic governments are being squeezed by big corporations and activist NGO's. This is especially so in relation to the environment where both government and coporations are on the defensive from NGO's who point out the destructive environmental consequences of economic growth.(eg., the Murray-Darling Basin).

The Howard Government in Australia sees as one of its tasks converting knowledge into jobs and income through a 'can-do community' by harnesssing the creative energy of the people through leadership. An example of this is Landcare. However, this enabling role of government in a globalized world is made more difficult because of the democratic impulse that is now represented by the NGO's in civil society.

In terms of the environment the recognition of the democratic deficit of the institutions of the state becomes obvious at the level of the local action plans. "Harnessing" ciitizens to further the public good does not involve a deepening or broadening of democracy at a time when the River Murray runs dry.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:31 PM | | Comments (0)
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