As I write Anglicare Australia is days away from its 20th Annual General Meeting. In the light of the longevity of many of our members this is not long; however it is a land mark, marking 20 years of sibling organisations wanting to work closely together to alleviate poverty and disadvantage in Australian society.
We often characterise the benefit of coming together as Anglicare Australia as producing a network that is bigger than the sum of its parts. In coming together the members become more, and give life to better outcomes than would forty disparate organisations.
Just as our network is bigger than the sum of its parts so too are the people we serve. Clearly a person is more than the sum total of the chemicals that go to make up the human body, we can go further and assert they are also much more than a set of needs and wants, skills and strengths.
In this our twentieth year as Anglicare Australia we are working with the changes to services to move towards consumer directed care especially in aged care and disability services. There are many good things in this notion. Anglicare Australia itself advocated for it and celebrated when the NDIS gained bipartisan support and has supported many of the aged care reforms and changes. That individuals get some control and say about the services that enable their lives is paramount.
But these are complex policy changes and will require tolerance as some things need tweaking or even changing. Bipartisan support may need to last beyond the passage of the bills; it needs to be open dialogue and a commitment to a solid outcome. As we all know good outcomes often incur some mistakes (and acknowledgement of those mistakes) along the way.
We have some reservations about consumer directed care too though.
Of course there are the issues of restructuring of processes and ways of working that our members have to undertake to respond in this environment, and these changes cost both in money and human terms. They are difficult and time consuming, but if the outcomes are better services and therefore better lives for people then this disruption worth having. Nor is it only our sector having trouble. The difficulties that government is experiencing with its processes and the gateway resulting in providers not being paid are evidence that big organisations find change no easier– they just have more money to do it!
The true reservations are deeper. Anglicare takes issue that a person can be reduced to a customer in every situation. There needs to be a far more sophisticated discourse about when it is empowering to be viewed and treated as a customer and when this flips over and actually disempowers, reducing that person to nothing more than a set of needs and wants that can be met with products and service offers. In effect removing the recognition of that person themselves, their very “personage”.
True human life occurs in relation with others, with our environment and with larger spiritual and intellectual ideas. If this were not the case we could simply source each newborn with a package and a case manager to see that they get the best value from services that feed, bathe, and amuse them. To reduce childhood to this is ludicrous and extreme; it renders life pointless - we are more than the sum of our wants and needs.
The government has accepted the Harper Review of Competition Policy’s report. That report cautiously recommended “patch testing” the introduction of competition into human services. We should remember that this is as far as the Harper Review panel went (as our submission to the subsequent and current Productivity Commission inquiry pointed out). Anglicare Australia was part of a small group feeding into the Harper Review and the panel accepted our concerns about opening services which are in their very nature relational to the lowest price bidder.
There are places where competition may help the efficiency and variety of a service, but there are also places where the need is more than one that can be adequately met by a marketised, transactional service. Unless the true meaning of life is the consumption of products and services – a notion that not only breaks our planet but also our spirit neither environmentally nor mentally sustainable – then we need to give this deeper and more sophisticated thought. We need to accept that the government cannot fix everything in one short policy announcement and that there is complexity in human life.
The reduction of citizens to mere consumers takes us very quickly to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous assertion that there is no society, only a collection of individuals. If that is the case then there is very little role for those who cannot afford to consume or who do not wish to consume. Our government’s job becomes simply about ensuring there are goods and services to be bought. And, saddest of all, any leadership about what a society aspires to, what makes Australia different to any large corporation, why we would form a country in the first place, is redundant.
Just as Anglicare Australia has a bigger impact that the sum of its parts; Australian society is much more than the sum of its composite individuals. We need to take a careful guardian role to ensure we fight against policies that reduce citizens to consumers indiscriminately.