From the outside looking in, it would appear social welfare has been a priority of the Mark McGowan Labor Government’s first term. It has collaborated with the community services sector to initiate four separate strategies to address homelessness, housing instability, mental health and family and domestic violence; invested in a trial of extended support to young people leaving the care system; initiated a review of child and adolescent mental health services; and, during COVID-19, engaged in a partnership with community services to ensure vulnerable cohorts didn’t fall through the cracks during the pandemic.
Similar social welfare issues, which have rarely made a blip in previous election campaigns, have attracted key policy announcements by all major parties in the lead-up to this Saturday’s State Election.
It would be natural to assume the West Australian community service sector is experiencing its heyday, but a closer look at recent social policy tells a different story. Those at the coalface view the social policy agenda of the McGowan Government as restrained; showing an eagerness to make progress but lacking authentic initiatives to address the wicked problems facing the sector. With a $3.3 billion surplus at its disposal, the incoming government has a historic opportunity to achieve generational change while supporting the continued growth of Western Australia’s thriving community and health sectors.
Matching words with action on social policy
In the four years since coming to office, the West Australian Labor Party has sought to foster a reputation for fiscal prudence by streamlining the public sector and budgeting for surpluses even during the pandemic. Combined with a robust strategic social policy agenda, the McGowan Government has been able to grow its support amongst a WA electorate that could be crudely cast as leaning economically conservative, but socially progressive.
When this is considered in tandem with its successful COVID-19 controls, it is easy to understand why the McGowan Government is expected to win the upcoming election easily – a fact even acknowledged by opposing Liberal Party leader Zak Kirkup, who admitted defeat nearly a month out.
Despite some steps in the right direction, many of Western Australia’s deepest social issues have persisted or worsened over the past four years. For example, under this government, Western Australia’s stock of public housing has declined by more than 1,000 units, while the waiting list has increased to more than 15,000 That waiting list is anticipated to grow up to 10 per cent more when the rental eviction moratorium ends later this month, alongside changes to the JobSeeker unemployment benefit and JobKeeper wage subsidy. This is the outcome of public policy failure by successive state governments, yet the problem is the incumbent’s to resolve. The Government could easily put a fraction of its $3.3 billion surplus towards clearing the waitlist and improving the outlook for those West Australians, but it has only committed to constructing 260 new social houses annually over the next decade.
The new advocacy role of the community service sector
The community service sector has by-and-large lost patience with the meagre progress secured through the traditional measure of direct engagement with ministers and their departments. While this is still an essential part of government advocacy, it no longer ensures that the community and health sectors are sufficiently resourced. It is important to remember that adequately funding the sector doesn’t just benefit the people who depend on these services; health and community services are now Western Australia’s true growth sector, set to employ more people than construction or mining in the next five years.
The community service sector is now more able to advocate publicly due to the gradual evolution of our peak bodies and larger not-for-profit organisations. Investing in policy analysis, advocacy and proactive communication has made for more effective public and media campaigns that aren’t shy about calling the State Government to account.
The community sector’s escalated democratic role is more important than ever. With increased numbers seeking assistance, agencies such as Anglicare WA have become the conduit for our most vulnerable to be heard by government.
Public perception audits conducted by the community service sector have uncovered widespread support among West Australians for improved and increased support for people experiencing hardship. As a community, we’re less concerned about small government and individual gain, and more concerned about the greater good.
Despite the disappointing and inadequate response to Western Australia’s social welfare needs we’ve seen in recent years; I strongly believe the social policy platform put forward by our sector has been heard by those seeking a return to public office this weekend. Rather than simply seeking the ear of politicians, the community services sector in WA has taken policy engagement directly to the most influential decision makers: West Australian voters.
While this new approach to policy advocacy may not have a noticeable impact at the polls this Saturday, it will become a greater force in state politics as it continues to evolve and mature.