Abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house is rescued

Dr Andrew Leigh reckons the massive drop in support for the ALP in NSW isn’t due to any inherent defect in party organisation but rather to the broader trend of declining social capital. I think he’s pulling a long bow. But the bigger question to my mind is whether social capital really is on the wane or whether it’s just taken a different form.

Writing in the Australian Financial Review this week, he argues that

people are failing to attend Labor Party meetings for the same reasons that activity is declining in most other political parties, in Rotary and the RSL, in unions and churches. Compared with two decades ago, we are less likely to know our neighbours and have fewer trusted friends.

The decline in social capital, he says, “is driven by several factors, including long working hours, car commuting and television”.

Dr Leigh is a former professor of economics at ANU and the author of Disconnected (best described as a sort of Australian version of Putnam’s Bowling Alone). He’s also the new ALP Member for the Federal seat of Fraser in the ACT, so it’s just possible that his take on the underlying ills of the ALP in NSW is a little less than objective.

I’m not convinced that all or even most of the precipitous fall in ALP membership can be sheeted home to people having less ‘spare’ time to devote to community activities or less need to ‘go out’. For example, I’ve pointed out before that car commuting doesn’t appear to be an issue – the median commute by car in a city like Melbourne is 30 minutes and half as long as the average commute by public transport. And I think there are often simpler explanations for declining civic participation e.g. changing demographics surely explain most of the decline in RSL involvement and better education the decline in church participation. A key reason we don’t know our neighbours as well as we used to is that cars have given us the geographical scope to be more discriminating about who our friends are.

But more importantly, I’m not sure that the jury’s back yet on whether social capital actually is declining. It’s true that I don’t know many people today who are active in the RSL, unions or churches, but I do know lots of people who participate in a host of other sorts of social activities that Dr Leigh doesn’t measure.

For example, virtually every woman I know above a certain age is in a book club and I know plenty of men-in-lycra who meet regularly to cycle and talk over coffee. People did these sorts of things twenty or more years ago, but they seem to be much more popular now. Many fewer women volunteer in the school tuck shop these days but that’s because many more are at work than twenty or thirty years ago. Work is in most cases a distinctly social activity where the need for trust, the scope for reciprocity and mutual reliance, and the opportunity to form deep relationships, is arguably much greater than in the tuck shop. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any activity as demanding of trust as market interactions, as Dr Leigh acknowledges in Disconnected.

I also expect that all those young people who are having children much later in life than previous generations spend more time out socialising with friends and meeting prospective partners than their parents, saddled with young children, ever did. I’d be surprised if that doesn’t involve at least as much trust and intimacy as any RSL, union, Rotary or church meeting.

Another social capital building activity not measured by Dr Leigh is parental involvement in education. I’d hypothesise that it’s more common these days for parents of primary school children to know each other than it used to be. They meet at school drop-off and pick-up and increasingly rely on each other to look after their children at “plays”. Their children may be less self-reliant and (arguably) less fit than they would be if they walked unsupervised to school like their mums and dads mostly did, but a positive consequence is that their parents are interacting more and building social capital. And negotiations over plays aren’t ‘weak ties’ like a chat with your friendly barista – you have to know and trust other parents if you’re going to put your child’s wellbeing in their care.

This sort of social capital isn’t coming from formal organisations. Nor is looking after someone else’s seven year old during a “play” usually defined as volunteering. Nevertheless, I submit that it’s just as important in building social capital and, in fact, relies on stronger ties. A key reason that parents know each other better in this day and age is that 80% of primary school children get driven to school – even working parents can get to know other mothers and fathers when they drop little TinkerBell at school.

So I’m yet to be convinced that social capital really is declining, as distinct from simply changing. To my mind the jury’s still out. And by and large I think there are simpler and more plausible explanations for the declines in RSL, church and union participation that should be considered alongside those proposed by Dr Leigh.

In the specific case of political parties, I think people might be less active in them today because they’ve wised up to the fact that often they’re run by a careerist elite and aren’t different enough from each other to excite conviction and commitment. As Rodney Cavalier points out, nobody in Sussex Street listens to the local ALP branches.