Macquarie Street woes are a symptom of a bigger problem

Fifty years ago this Wednesday, Karl Polanyi, one of the most remarkable political theorists of the last century died. And, after the past messy week in NSW politics he must be turning in his grave.

Polanyi was a social theorist who lived through the trials of World War II. In contrasting his experiences with totalitarianism and democracy, he argued that there are three distinct but inter-related sectors in public life – the market (corporate life and business), politics (our politicians and the state) and civil society (community-based organisations like churches, unions, community organisations, schools). Democracies work best when each of these sectors is equally balanced. And, democracy struggles and corruption becomes likely, when these three sectors are out of balance.

It’s this systemic crisis in our public arena that keeps tripping up political life in NSW. Macquarie Street isn’t simply in trouble because of “bad eggs” in the Labor Party or the poor conduct of an absent-minded Premier.

In NSW, the three sectors are way out of balance. We have a very strong and influential market sector and we have a declining civil society. As a consequence, corporate interests frequently overwhelm the government. There is insufficient civil society strength to hold politicians to account.

Of course, Polanyi’s model is a little crude. Not every corporate is trying to corrupt the government, and civil society isn’t a saintly source of good. Indeed, the cultural problems in civil society are evidenced by the Royal Commissions into the churches and unions. And, there are many corporates working for social good, especially those taking the lead in advocating for new transport and housing infrastructure to make the city a better place to live.

The biggest consequence of the imbalance between market, government and society is the loss of an effective culture of accountability in government. The decline in civil society often means it focuses on its own survival rather than public accountability. 

And our other accountability medium – the media – is simultaneously facing challenges of its own. The business model for investigative journalism is in crisis, because people are choosing to use digital tools to access their news. The biggest consequence is that there are less coordinated resources to fund teams of journalists to uncover what is below the surface. The few talented journalists there are “crazy busy” reporting on what is already emerging as opposed to having the resources to uncover deeper abuses of power.

So, how does this change?

Nothing will happen fast, but it is undoubtedly true that a stronger civil society is part of the solution. 

Luckily, seven years ago a conversation began in Sydney between religious organisations, unions and community organisations. 

Inspired by the success of “community organising” in the United Kingdom and the United States, civil society leaders began considering whether they should build a new kind of community that sought to fundamentally transform the relationships, practices and political strategies used by civil society.

The idea caught on, and by November 2007, 13 organisations committed $130 000 to help create the Alliance. A year later 22 organisations, big organisations like the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, the Arab Council Australia, the Nurses and Midwives Union and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, committed $1 million to a three year organising drive. Inspired by the sucess of “community organising” in the United Kingdom and the United States, civil society leaders in Australia began considering whether they should build a new kind of community that sought to fundamentally transform the relationships, practices and political strategies used by civil society.

Between 2009 and the public launch of the Alliance in 2011, the Sydney Alliance trained over 2000 community leaders. The education was as radical as it was unusual. The focus was on improving the skill of relationship building inside and between organisations. It was also about building a culture of accountability. In these early stages, frank, difficult conversations between the organisations were frequently. People had to negotiate how they would disagree as well as how they would focus on the things that united them.

Jump forward to 2014 and the Sydney Alliance has just launched an agenda for the State Election. It includes solutions for housing, transport and jobs. 

This is new. It’s still early days but never before have organisations as diverse as Catholic Schools and unions, the Baptist union and the Cancer Council, UnitingCare and the Cleaners union, Granville Boys High and Engadine Community Church come together with a clear set of changes that aim to make Sydney a better place to live for everyone.

The timing of this work has been fortuitous. Some of our Christian leaders say it’s “the hand of god”, and some of our atheist unions feel uncomfortable when they say that. But the Sydney Alliance works nonetheless because its leaders know that to make the city a better place, and to make politics in Macquarie Street healthy again, that we need to create a culture of accountability in public life. 

Amanda Tattersall is the founding Director of the Sydney Alliance and author of Power in Coalition.

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