Caring services or corporate markets

Caring services or corporate markets?

Ann Wansbrough, Public Meeting 14 March 2001

All people who value their democratic rights and freedoms, and their humanity, should be concerned about the negotiations that are being undertaken regarding trade in services.

I am a Minister of the Uniting Church. The church is questioning the WTO approach to trade in services, because we believe that it puts trade ahead of people. The market becomes a god-like mechanism that is supposed to bestow well-being on nations who sacrifice their sovereignty and values upon its altar. In good old fashioned Christian terms, it is a form of idolatry.

It is supposed to be more democratic than democracy, because one casts one’s votes in the form of dollars paid for commodities – and absolutely everything, every day, is reduced to a commodity.

As a Christian minister, I also oppose such trends because I consider free market fundamentalism to be as dangerous, and as divorced from reality, ethics and rational debate, as any other form of fundamentalism.

As an Australian citizen, I oppose the agreement on trade in services because it undermines the rights of Australian citizens, and the rights of citizens of every nation. A world in which the number of votes one gets is dependent on the number of dollars of foreign exchange one possesses, is a very, very long way from anything democratic.

Let’s be clear – a world governed by the global free market is a world in which huge numbers of people have absolutely no votes at all, since they have no foreign exchange. Bill Gates and his rich colleagues each have more votes in the free market system of governance than some regions of the world. The least developed nations are disenfranchised. Their needs, their values, their goals have no voice whatever in governance by the free market.

And the talk of a free market is nonsense anyway. We all know that the people who hold the power are not consumers, but corporations. The decisions are not made at the cash register, but in the boardrooms.

The concept of a global free market is bankrupt.

On Monday, a columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that the Uniting Church, and others who oppose free trade are idiots.

Well, I don’t know how anyone else named in the article responds, but I have to say it does not worry the church. There is a good biblical tradition that points out that what seems foolish to the world may, from a Christian point of view be wise. Christians have been considered idiots for 2000 years. But we have survived.

Let me change my tack a little, and explain the focus of our concerns about the GATS.

GATS covers a wide range of services.

We are not suggesting that there are no services that should be traded internationally. Some, like engineering services are of little concern. Indeed, one can probably make a good argument that the type of expertise required for some technical services should be traded internationally. If you want a waterproof and safe harbour tunnel, you want the best available expertise designing it and supervising its building.

But the problem is that WTO economists treat all services as if they are of this type. The WTO assumes that services like electricity, water, banking, energy and insurance are merely consumables for households and inputs for industry. But they are much more than this. They have human rights implications for individuals. People need reliable, affordable, accessible services .

When we move to health, education and social services, human rights are again at stake. But the problem here is that the very nature of the service is placed in jeopardy when it becomes the subject of trade. The WTO proposals fail to recognise this. They assume everything can, and should, be traded.

What is more, they accept the right of corporations to whatever tax money is available for services. They see public, not for profit and for private providers of services as in competition, and all as equally entitled to any "subsidies" that are available.

In health and social services, the WTO recognises no real difference between the provision of technical and human services. For example, between diagnostic services involving highly sophisticated technology and expert interpretation, which perhaps can be traded, and the provision of treatment facilities. In fact, in the paper on health and social services, they don’t even distinguish between services for humans and services for animals – they include veterinary services.

I think I would rather be their cat or dog than their child or ageing parent. Kennels, stables, nursing homes, child care centres, substitute care in foster families – they apparently don’t see any difference between these. For the WTO, all can be provided appropriately via international trade by corporations, and all are legitimate means of making a profit.

The WTO clearly lacks an understanding of human existence, human need, and human responsibility.

You cannot trade in care. People in need of care, whether child care, health care, aged care, counselling, or whatever, are not merely consumers. Care is, by definition, about human relationships. It is personal. It varies from culture to culture. It must be accessible, reliable, affordable and appropriate. It also needs to be an expression of community. Care is always about community.

But there is another problem – whose agenda is served?

The agenda of a caring service must be the agenda of the person requiring care, not the shareholder. The agenda of education must be the educational needs of the child, not the agenda of the shareholder.

The agenda of a health service must be the health of the patient as a human being, not the agenda of the shareholder.

All these forms of services involve more than the provision of professional expertise, or accommodation.

Part of the provision of community, health and education services is community development – facilitating local communities shaping the services that they need.

My congregation’s child care service is run by a management committee of church members, and parents. Parents have a part to play in the day to day life of the centre. They perform voluntary work. They help shape the service. The centre is an expression of both religious commitment on the part of the church, and civil society – a voluntary association on the part of parents. The centre is part of the life of the local community. It is not a business. It is not trading.

When local congregations ring up the ageing and disability unit of Uniting Care, wanting to start a nursing home, we don’t say, O good, we can increase our empire – or our profit. We encourage them to engage the local community in discussion, to determine what sort of caring service is really needed. We can do this, because we don’t have a financial interest. We are not-for-profit.

The quality of care of many community services, health care services and educational institutions is profoundly enriched by voluntary work –being a member of the University Senate, being a pink lady in a hospital, being a lifeline counsellor.

Whether the services are run in the public sector or the community sector, people get involved because the agenda is providing better care, better education, a better healing environment.

These and other forms of community commitment to care are crucial to outcomes. That commitment is not for sale. Care is not a tradeable commodity.

Unfettered international trade in services is a threat to the whole concept of civil society and community action to meet human need. It changes us from being citizens, to being consumers. It changes us from being members of communities, into being consumers. It diminishes our humanity and our democratic life as a nation. It diminishes our ability to care for one another through cooperation. It undermines legitimate forms of mutual obligation, such as paying for services through tax, by reducing services to consumables that a corporation delivers to an individual. It destroys solidarity, It siphons off money that should be used for nation building and the enhancement of civil society, into money for commercial investment for the benefit of shareholders. We human beings become mere means to someone else’s ends.

And those who promote the global free market think that we who oppose it are idiots?

I leave it to you to judge.