There is, at present, a lot of discussion about penalty rates, led by the Productivity Commission.  And it occurred to me: perhaps we in the Community Development sector have been silent on this issue for too long.  What’s it got to do with community? Well, there have been suggestions that penalty rates for evenings and weekends are no longer necessary because we live in an ‘increasingly 24 hour world’.

Leave aside the centuries of struggle to achieve an 8 hour working day – an achievement that we still mark with an annual Public Holiday. Leave aside the personal and family stress of having less and less shared leisure time.  Evenings and weekends are, for most of us, the very life-blood of community.  And yet this part of the debate has been missing. Listen to an argument for retaining penalty rates: If employees are going to miss out on family time, rest days and special occasions because of work, they should be rewarded for it.” (James Adonis) . “Community time” is not mentioned. “Family time” is – and that’s good, but we are silent on community.

Listen to an argument against retaining penalty rates We live in an increasingly 24-hour world, and most consumers want it to stay that way. There are real convenience and lifestyle benefits that come from being able to go shopping whenever you want.” (Myriam Robin). So we help people as consumers, while staying silent on their place as community members.

Community grows around shared time, together.  The barbecue with friends; the local sports; the voluntary planting in the parks; the young people hanging out; the community planning workshops; the local meetings; the weekend ‘play dates’ of the young school kids.   In the name of strengthening the economy, do we simply let community life wither and die? Or gratefully turn to social media to maintain a barely measurable virtual pulse?

So much of our modern economic debate, particularly in Australia, is simply ignoring what matters in human lives, and certainly ignoring community. More human-focussed economists in Britain and Europe have been engaging in a fascinating question: how would you plan an economy that maximises happiness, rather than GDP? Here are some (researched) factors that generally increase happiness: reasonable working hours; economic equity; time with friends; volunteering; holiday and leisure time.  All of these things don’t just increase happiness – they increase the strength of community life. Yet most economic policy makers would argue that these will hurt productivity; hurt profits; hurt economic growth.  What is good for community, it seems, is bad for “the economy”; this “economy” that is supposed to be our servant, rather than our master.

Lest I sound like a mad lefty it’s worth emphasising: community development is an approach that sits comfortably with both left wing and right wing philosophies.  The (thinking) left emphasises the need for collective responsibility and support; not just individualism. The (thinking) right urges less government, and more personal responsibility – the idea that we shouldn’t rely on government to look after us. These two ideas overlap and combine at self-supporting community. Consider this quote from a right wing thinker, Elle Hardy: “A strong civil society helps to keep government out of our lives, strengthens our interactions with the free market, and aids inclusiveness – none of which the Australian right is doing effectively.”

“Civil society”. That’s community. It really matters. It’s worth fighting for. And if we don’t keep remembering that, we’ll allow reasonable ideas like ‘consumer choice’ and ‘profit’ and ‘industrial flexibility’ and ‘convenience’ to blind us to the long slow death of this essential element of well-being.

Working conditions matter for individuals. They matter for families. But they also matter for community life, and if we who love community don’t speak for that life, who will?