Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The Participation of Vulnerable Australians in Markets for Essential Goods and Services

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The Participation of Vulnerable Australians in Markets for Essential Goods and Services

Article excerpt

The hegemony of neoliberalism has seen the market virtually canonised and mainstream neoclassical economics successfully shaping an understanding of the market as being synonymous with the economy and capitalism more generally. But mainstream economics portrays the market as a normative ideal framed around a set of abstract assumptions incompatible with reality. This conception and assumptions have been roundly challenged. A burgeoning discourse has cogently demonstrated that real-world markets do not emerge in some vacuum, are persistently vulnerable to failure, influence the relationships of individuals, and their operation depends on highly complex non-market institutional arrangements into which they are deeply embedded (For example: Altvater 1993; Boyer 1997; Coriat and Weinstein 2005; Hodgson 1988; Martinez 2009; Prasch 2008; Tsakalotos 2004).

Nevertheless, the rhetoric and mechanisms of the neoclassical market have become embedded in Australian public policies. This has lead to a radical transformation of markets providing essential goods and services, and traditionally the domain of state intervention. These markets include those for education, health insurance, public housing, electricity, water, and services for the disabled, aged and unemployed. Contractual arrangements with private sector providers have replaced direct provision by government. There have been significant price increases well in excess of general price and wage movements. Complex new regulatory regimes have been implemented. Public sector assets have been privatised. A spectrum of market configurations and governance regimes now characterise these markets. Participation is highly dependent on access to the internet. Market outcomes are inconsistent with policy rhetoric. The strong interrelationships between markets pose adverse cumulative impacts for end-use consumers if one market experiences significant disruption. Government is also performing multiple roles as regulator, owner and manager of significant assets, manager of contested markets, market operator, and buyer (Chester 2010).

These markets, radically restructured by market-based public policies, have a widespread impact across the community and determine--to a significant measure--the health, standard of living and social inclusion of the population. Markets are not purely about relationships between inanimate objects, between goods and services, which is the strong impression evoked by any mainstream economics text or government publication. Markets involve people, their preferences (influenced by opinions, values and advertising) and relationships with others. Market rules and prices will influence people's accessibility to, and participation in, a market and thus impact on their standard of living and well-being. Yet, economists have shown little interest, until more recently, in the "real constitution" (Coriat and Weinstein 2005: 1) of markets. Paradoxically, even less interest has been shown in the rules, challenges and barriers that an individual may face as s/he seeks to participate in a market despite the methodological individualism of neoclassical economics. These rules, challenges and barriers form the article's primary focus which seeks to elucidate the necessary actions, induced by market rules, an individual must take if s/he is to 'consume' essential goods and services provided by contemporary Australian markets.

The form and extent of an individual's market participation--and thus, consumption--will be framed by each market's rules concerning eligibility, permitted behaviours and penalties for behavioural breaches, the requisites for transactions to occur, and the accessibility of information for consumers provided by suppliers. An individual's resources, skills and abilities will also determine if the scope of market participation is limited in any way relative to other market participants. Consequently this article's focus on individuals is skewed towards those Australians deemed vulnerable (because of low income and another characteristic such as age, unemployment, housing tenure, English proficiency) to determine the challenges and consequences for their participation in contemporary markets for essential goods and services. …

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