We have all experienced that frustration in meetings called to solve a problem when no one seems willing or able to name its cause. We talk about it as the ‘elephant in the room’. In this book, Gabrielle Meagher, Susan Goodwin and their fellow contributors have exposed a genuine elephant in the room of Australian social policy: the marketisation of social services. It is my fervent hope that Markets, rights and power proves the catalyst for a revolution in the way we think about the role of social services and their governance in Australia.

It is not as though we have not had a thriving research industry focused on bits of the market animal. Public policy researchers have peered through the lens of ‘new public management’ searching for traces of hierarchy, market and network. The Grand Pooh Bahs of the Productivity Commission have worn themselves to a frazzle in the quest for ever-new market mechanisms to generate more ‘efficiency’. But none of these has been asking the basic questions of social policy about what and how social services can best contribute to the welfare of the nation. This book does just that. It demands that, before we even mention the words management and efficiency, we ask what are the economic and social goals we are trying to achieve? And who is best placed to deliver on these: state, market or civil society?

You would think that there would be ready answers to these questions within the social policy research community. But there are not. This book really breaks a silence. As the reader will see, the triumph of economic rationalism in the 1990s sought to replace the logic of citizenship with the logic of the market in the social services as much as in the economy. I believe that one effect of this was to create an increasingly timorous and defensive social policy discipline which narrowed its focus to issues of compensation and protection, becoming almost exclusively taken up with the role of the tax and transfer system in combating poverty. Social policy shrank to the dimensions of ‘welfare’ while social services were abandoned to a netherworld overseen by experts in productivity and management.

Nevertheless, I imagine most readers have had an uneasy sense that there was something amiss in the land of social services. People like myself with a footing in the voluntary welfare sector have long bemoaned the distortion of civil society organisations into ‘little fingers of the state’. Others, like Stebbing in this book, have pointed out the way so-called privatisation has masked huge transfers of public monies to prop up private health insurance and the retirement savings of the rich.

But, to date, these kinds of studies have been more or less single issue concerns. What is so important and path-breaking about this book is the way it lines up the experience of all the social services to show just how pervasive the impact of marketisation has been on the welfare state and thereby on Australian society. And from a social policy perspective what a sorry story it makes!

As we read in the Introduction, the welfare state was built on the idea that the social services – especially education, health and housing – should deliver equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in society regardless of their class, race or gender. But chapter by chapter we observe the myriad of ways in which this national aspiration to ‘civilise capitalism’ has been undone by the opposing agenda of marketisation, in which our governments have sought to offload these responsibilities for society on to private markets and to leave it to individuals to get what they can pay for. If you ever doubted that market freedoms for the pike brings death to the minnows then read on to see what the book calls the ‘vicious cycle of public sector decline, as underfunded public services become services for the poor, and a two-tiered system emerges’.

Seeing it all together in the synoptic view of this book you might well shake your head and wonder how it all happened. I surmise that the social services simply got caught up in that indiscriminate microeconomic reform frenzy of the 1990s. Deaf to social policy researchers, policymakers listened only to economic rationalists bent on extending market forces into a social service sector which, after all, constitutes a significant proportion of the national economy. Thanks to Gabrielle and Susan, we can now see the social damage that has been done and begin the task of constructing a new reform agenda for the social services.

Indeed, it is a most opportune time to bring on the revolution. For the first time since the 1990s policymakers doubt the market principle as the one size fit for all occasions. Some Australian politicians might be talking of the end of the ‘age of entitlement’, whatever that might really mean. But no international agency today takes seriously the old economic rationalist assumptions about ‘growth first’ with the social benefits left to trickle down. Economic growth with social equality is the new game in town. What will this mean for social services?

On this point I offer my final congratulations to our authors. In the recent past too much social policy scholarship in this area has seemed a sheep-like bleating about the evils of markets and ‘neoliberalism’ with no framing of alternative, progressive possibilities. Our authors are not out to say that the market mechanism is some kind of force for evil but rightly recognise that it is indeed appropriate in the more ‘economic’ domains of society. Their point is that when it comes to broader, more complex, social goals then the instruments of market competition are simply not the right ones.

Here they point to the alternative logic of ‘association’ and I believe that their case is compelling. A strong cohesive society will shoulder responsibility for all its members and do so in a way which gains their trust and gives them an effective ‘voice’ over the decisions that affect their lives. If we are to truly embrace the new global aspirations to end poverty and promote inclusive growth then we must learn from the lessons of this book. Competitive markets in the social services are not suited to these goals. It is time to reconstruct our social services on the very different logic of ‘association’.

Paul Smyth

April 2014