What about STEM? Well, the projections are not that good either, for we do not have a strength in commercialising research. We are largely a branch plant economy. Overseas-owned firms spend their research bucks closer to home rather than here. We don’t have companies that can make cars, much less trains, planes or ships of any note. And our handful of internet giants are minnows on the world stage.
What’s all this got to do with the royal commission? Despite healthcare and social assistance being our fastest growing and biggest employer, much of the work is precarious, casualised and underpaid. And it is mainly done by women.
It depends on vocational qualifications that are not fit for purpose, having been designed by a cottage industry more interested in compliance and keeping wage costs low than a highly skilled workforce able to drive productivity growth and innovation.
Aged care is an industry that has been increasingly captured by private companies more interested in making a buck from sales and property development than delivering a first-class service, and which demand a healthy premium in order to invest. The royal commission’s detailed research shows that the fast-growing private sector is the worst-performing part, if quality, safety and cost per bed, not financial returns, are the benchmark.
And so it is in most of the other areas that make up the healthcare and social assistance industry, from disability and childcare, to mental health, social housing and homelessness, to mention only a few.
The social economy is so far primarily owned and operated by Australian firms. That situation is changing, with even private Singaporean companies now delivering childcare here, at public expense.
Can we expect the royal commission to realise the opportunity to grow a first-class social economy? If it is to do that, it must see one large industry, in which workers should be enabled to move back and forth and in between, from looking after children at the start of a long career, to supporting those with a disability mid-term, then maybe the elderly toward the end, with other trajectories possible along the way.
That means multidisciplinary teams that emphasise prevention rather than just support. It means more flexible education and training, founded on the ethics of care and not just human rights, with multidisciplinary courses from health to social work that can be topped up later with smaller chunks of micro-credentials, and perhaps an apprenticeship to begin.
It will need to recommend the slow redirection and lifting of government subsidy toward the more effective public and not-for-profit sectors, which are class-leading in quality and safety according to its own research. That much-needed boost will pay for better pay and conditions needed to attract the brightest and retain the best, so that productivity rises in the way it always does when you invest in people and not just things.
It could learn much from the Victorian government’s royal commission into family violence. It quickly saw the workforce as being crucial. And it didn’t see welfare but long-term investment in the public good.
A family without violence means children with a brighter future, women who stay well and work, and others who get to see their loved ones live long when otherwise their lives might have been cut short. There’s a return all right and it is substantial, more than enough to justify a big spend.
This may not be what the federal government would wish to see, nor maybe parts of the opposition that yearn for yesteryear, foremost among them the blokes surrounding the Member for Hunter who can’t imagine a tomorrow without blue collars and beer-filled bars.
If you are in any doubt about these trends, just ask the National Party’s Darren Chester, who has noticed there are now more social economy workers in his seat of Gippsland than farmers.
And that is probably the main reason why this should be of interest to the Libs and the Labs, for the fastest-growing industry brings with it fast-growing votes, and that isn’t manufacturing, and certainly not mining, much less gas.
Yes, where that royal commission lands has crucial implications, not just for aged care but our long-term economic success. If all goes well and its recommendations get a genuine run, it might help determine who gets to be prime minister, if not at this year’s election then maybe the next one.
Professor David Hayward is emeritus professor of public policy at RMIT University.