Issue 5

SO, HOW DO YOU DO THINGS OVER THERE COBBER?

By Laura Forster, Policy and Communications Consultant, CSPP

Laura Forster, a communications consultant with the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP), spent some time in Australia after she graduated. SPN asked her to reflect on some comparisons and contrasts between Scotland and Australia:

Australia is one of only two countries out of the 30 OECD countries not to enter into a recession. Rather than pursue a deficit reduction policy as we have in the UK, Australia opted for a fiscal stimulus in the form of $900 cash handouts to increase consumer spending and allied to a continuing boom in the exploitation of mineral resource. So although both countries adopted forms of Keynesian policy, the way in which each government chose to respond to the recession has led the UK (and therefore Scotland) and Australia to be in very different socio-economic places.

Having worked in a public policy think-tank in Australia, the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), I have seen first hand how this has enabled Australia the freedom to focus on other areas of policy, such as social policy, rather than economic policy.

As Scotland has had to deal with the consequences of Coalition policies such as welfare cuts, part of those austerity measures, we have not yet got around to addressing the issues that Australia is currently focusing on. They are now able to look at what they call their ‘Common Wealth’. This covers their ‘soft assets’ such as standards of behavior in public life and quality of family and community life, which they fear are threatened by problems such as widening inequality and high levels of personal debt. Though these problems are also present in Scotland as, since devolution was launched, the inequality gap has not lessened in education, income, or other aspects of life.

As Scotland has had to deal with the consequences of Coalition policies such as welfare cuts, part of those austerity measures, we have not yet got around to addressing the issues that Australia is currently focusing on

It therefore appears that both countries worry about similar issues but our focus is elsewhere. With a different approach we could be closer to solving the inequality gap that plagues Scotland. As a result of Australia’s social policies its cities now feature in the top 10 of ‘most livable cities’ lists, which include factors such as wealth, income, the availability of housing and employment. So, does Australia just have more time to address such social issues, as economic problems such as the recession and welfare cuts haven’t stood in their way? Is Scotland suffering from social inequality which might be lessened by more fiscal control?

However, it is not just Scotland that could be learning from Australia. While not needing to address problems that result from a recession, Australia is able to study us - to “turn our gaze to the radical public sector changes that are in full swing in the United Kingdom and to consider what they could mean for Australia.” (CPD). Focusing critically on David Cameron’s Big Society they take the view that weakening the public sector doesn’t automatically strengthen the community. In my opinion, Scotland and Australia seem to agree here. Australia might be able  to learn from our experiences, as there are some fears that the  ‘Big Society’ themes are generating interest and support amongst conservative think tanks and politicians in Australia.

Though the debate of ‘localisation versus centralisation’ that keeps resurfacing in Scotland may sound as if it sits well with David Cameron’s idea of a Big Society, the direct and immediate impact has been welfare cuts which have forced local government to change the way it delivers services.  However this is what Australia, like Scotland, fears. One survey found that two fifths of people see the Big Society as a cover for spending cuts and the Australian think tank I worked at took the same view.

By contrast, the size, role and function of government receive much less critical debate in Australia. So why is it so heavily debated here? Is it because since devolution Scotland hasn’t made up her mind where power should lie?

Public services are delivered at a much more centralised level in Australia than they are in Scotland. The CPD highlights that Australian states can draw a parallel with Scottish Local Authorities as the states exercise many of the public service responsibilities of Local Authorities here. Australia’s population is 22 million with only 8 states, so the median population covered by such an entity is 2.75 million, whilst Scotland’s median population per municipality is 115,000. Although this is not like our European counterparts who are even more localised, as Halldor Halldorsson and Jan Westmaas pointed out at this years COSLA conference, Scotland could learn something from Australia about the impact of centralisation. Maybe the recent changes in Scotland’s police force perhaps show we are taking the first steps in this direction.

By contrast, the size, role and function of government receive much less critical debate in Australia. So why is it so heavily debated here? Is it because since devolution Scotland hasn’t made up her mind where power should lie? And is where authority and decision making should rest being decided on a unilateral basis for different public services, or for all public services? It seems we’re still struggling with these questions whereas, although Australia also believes it has similar top–down processes that need to be changed, they don’t question that the problem may be where the decisions are made. 

While think tanks in Scotland are questioning this and other issues such as education, transparency of democracy and health, Australian think tanks are writing reports such as ‘farming smarter; not harder’ which are discussing how they can help feed the world: a much more worthy cause. It appears that Australia overall has a grander vision. However is it that Scotland requires more resources to be able to debate such topics? Currently Scotland has very few think tanks and these were created after devolution - so with independence could we see more such organisations emerge?

The Scottish Government is looking towards what they believe will be a ‘better‘ Scotland come 2014. Not surprisingly a lot of discussion recently has focused on the independence referendum and whether or not this would better address Scotland’s social and economic problems. 

Could we, without the constrictions of welfare cuts and having to debate what changes this will cause, be able to focus on other policy areas that are more likely to close the inequality gap in Scotland? Or does Scotland require more resources to even begin to look at this?

By Laura Forster, Policy and Communications Consultant, CSPP

Issue 5

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