Community well-being key to economic, social health

The COVID-19 crisis challenges the idea that neo-liberalism is the best way of ordering economic and community life

By Ray Cleary

April 25 2020Since the mid-1980s in Australia and across many parts of the world, including China and Russia, the shift in our economy from “mixed” to “free market” has been applauded by both sides of politics. The shift was a global movement espousing that the national good is to be the equated with economic growth. In the same way, most economists, whether in academia, the banks, or other major financial institutions, have lauded the shift, arguing that “the market” is the best way to achieve improved standards of living and that at the heart of any community or society is individualism.

The best form of government, these voices declared, was small and non-interventionist in the activities of the private corporation. I recall that it was Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of England, who declared there was no such thing as society, only individuals who create and sustain the State. Similar expressions were used by Ronald Reagan, then President of the United States, and echoed by the Hawke–Keating governments here in Australia, whose policy changes included the deregulation of the Australian dollar in 1983. The primary task of government was not to be a service provider, but to support the market. This included the privatisation of community and government-owned assets, including banks, airlines and health services. In addition, many services previously provided by government were outsourced to the private sector and charitable organisations.

Another outcome of this shift was a growth in independent schools, hospitals and other related community health facilities. Governments have been reluctant to go into further debt and have called on those who are disadvantaged to bear the brunt by reducing or restricting a wide range of welfare payments, other than the age pension, with one Australian treasurer in recent times calling on us all to be “lifters, not leaners”.

This approach to economic policy has seen the gap widening between those who have and those who do not. One outcome not fully recognised has been the shift in our nation’s values over time, with a greater emphasis on the individual, rather than the community, and greater demands on our welfare agencies to respond to increasing needs. I recall a leading economist saying to me many years ago, when he and others were promoting and advocating for a market approach to government decision-making, that I need not worry, as the work I was involved in at the time as head of Anglicare Victoria would always be needed to pick up the failures of the market.

The view of economic policy that I have described has been widely held, not only by political and corporate leaders, but by people of all walks of life, including many church attenders. Suddenly, however, with the coronavirus spreading across the world, governments have been forced to intervene in the economy and the lives of communities in ways they never imagined. One revelation is that the health of our economy depends upon the well-being of the community. This, of course, has always been central to Christian faith. Relationships and the well-being of all is a central tenet of how we are called to share the bounty and the gifts of the creation with all people. Small and large businesses have recognised that without consumer spending there is no business. Here in Australia we have shifted from smiling face statements about a federal government surplus to an unprecedented deficit and debt.  Further, there is now a greater recognition that our health and aged care sectors need to receive greater funding if we are to avoid a similar crisis in the future, and greater recognition also of the importance of scientific knowledge and research, rather than ideology, in addressing policy issues.

Reflections on the impacts of this crisis require more than simple marketing and ideology. What is required is deeper thinking that notes and accepts the wisdom of experts and the resetting of our national and personal priorities. It further requires a different approach to establishing priorities that represent the well-being of all the community, not only the strong and powerful. It challenges neo-liberalism as the best or most appropriate way of ordering our economic and community life and requires a greater commitment to health, housing, safety, welfare payments and building social coherence as first priorities. For the churches, it will mean new ways of sharing the good news, of engagement with community, and of listening to the struggles of our own times.

Not everyone will agree. Some will see the current crisis as a hiccup and will want to return to, as they see it, “the good times”.

The Revd Canon Dr Ray Cleary, a former CEO of Anglicare Victoria, has held a wide range of roles in the Anglican Church in Melbourne and nationally. He is Sambell Lecturer in Pastoral and Public Theology at Trinity College Theological School.