The debate relating to whether Australia is under pluralism or elite power will continue to characterize numerous power-related discussions. The reason is that each party continues to enhance their points in support of either of the powers. Pluralism supporters profess that Australia is a democratic state that falls under both political and socially-related influences, amongst others. On the other hand, the elite supporters believe that decisions in Australia are made by a few members in a minority group. The group members have power, money/wealth and influence (Drum & Tate, 2012). This paper reveals that maternity leave decisions are influenced by elite theory more than other theories. It also presents the strengths and weaknesses characterizing the understanding of maternity leave in Australia.
Background and Discussion
Pluralism refers to a kind of democracy operating via the level of organized interests and groups to articulate popular demands and make sure that the government is responsive (Lassman, 2011). On the other hand, theorists such as C. Willis define elite theory as the focus of power, privilege and wealth on some minority group (Pepperday, 2002). Defining such theories amongst other theories allows one to form the foundation of the argument.
The majority of the people perceive the elite theory through the definitions offered. Thus, understanding who deserves to be identified as elite is relevant. As indicated, the elite have power, influence and wealth. Apparently, lobby groups, which are mainly linked with advocating for the rights of the various social groups, fall under the category of influence. Due to the funding made by the international community, amongst other avenues of gaining funds, lobbying groups tend to have wealth, thereby reaching the wealthy. Human rights policies give them power, which qualifies lobby groups as part of the elite. In fact, Heywood (1997) indicates that some lobby groups are so close to the government through these key factors that they appear to be part of the government.
From a pluralism angle, the interests of such lobby groups influence the government, hence the creation of policies that balance the interest of the state and government. Nevertheless, as clearly indicated by the elite perspective, some of these elite groups are so powerful, influential and wealthy that they tend to become part of the government. It, therefore, appears as though the lobby groups are representing pluralism as they are representing the interests of people, yet they are elite (Sheehan & Sekuless, 2012). Consequently, this further indicates that the elite theory should not always be viewed from the negative side.
In matters pertaining to employment policies and conditions, the influence of lobby groups has been impactful (Kay, 2011). Apparently, this is inclined more to the issue of paid parental leave, inclusive of maternity leave. Until 2011, women faced numerous challenges when they needed paid maternity leave of up to a year. In fact, the only available leave was unpaid, which was maternity leave of up to three years. In July 2011, women entered another level of working and parenting. However, this came at a price mainly paid by lobby groups and human rights groups. It is believed that this was made possible through elite theory.
One might argue that the lobby groups which have been in action advocating for the balance between work and parenting in the working environment represent the pluralism aspect of power. They are one part of the dual fights between the interests of the government and interests of the people. Although this view may contain some truth, it is evident that the members of the elite group are influential in the same issue. One of the people who introduced the issues of parental leave paid by the government was Pru Goward, who was once a confidante of the ministry of the Prime Minister. It was indicated that she was not supported by the Prime Minister when she highlighted this issue because it did not support business interest. Although she was identified as an insider, she was kept out of the loop when she joined trade unions and lobbyists in advocating for the rights of employed pregnant women. In fact, she did not talk about this issue with Howard for a year after its introduction (Fitzgerald, 2006). It is evident that the elite members were having their way in this scenario.
From the lobbyists and advocacy groups’ perspectives, their influence on the government was not the same. The larger and more financed a group is as compared to the others, the more the group’s influence seems to increase. For example, trade unions, which appear to be more financed, are more influential than small lowly financed lobby groups. Moreover, human rights groups, which are mainly funded by such large organizations as the United Nations, seem to have more influence than locally financed groups (Fitzgerald, 2006). Thus, this scenario indicates that even though pluralism seems to be working, elitism appears to be the propelling power of issues and decisions.
Advantages of Elite Theory
One of the advantages of elitism is that it only requires an entity or individual to have influence and power, thereby entering the circle of making decisions. Apparently, this indicates that a lobby group that enters this circle can make the relevant impact necessary. In majority of the scenarios, the most influential groups have been most vocal in matters relating to women’s rights in the working environment. Most of these groups are trade unions and internationally funded groups, including feminist groups (Carroll, 2013). Consequently, they have made the impact needed as the implementation of paid maternity policy started in July 2011. Relevantly, pluralism emphasizes numbers, while the elite theory emphasizes quality (power, influence and wealth) (Cardinal & Headon, 2002). The latter may be found in one group, thereby experiencing a difference through one group.
Another advantage of the elite theory is that only a limited number of people make the decisions, hence the relevant parties can do the same more swiftly. The lobby group or group that manages to penetrate the circle has to influence a few parties, thus, influencing the overall decisions. In other theories, pluralism for example, all interest groups supporting the interest of the society have to first fight (symbolically) with other parties who have their main interests (business owners). In fact, they will simultaneously influence the decision of the government. In some cases, these society interest groups fight amongst themselves, thus, causing lack of cohesion/unity, which is relevant when making an impact (Jupp, Nieuwenhuysen, & Dawson, 2007).
Through this theory, group and government election processes are also affected. One of the reasons Goward supported the issue of having paid maternity leave as far as women employees were concerned was because she is a woman. Although personal interests might affect decisions negatively in elite theory, they work to the advantage at times, as in this case. Notwithstanding the fact that Goward may have been blocked initially, her influence and that of other powerful lobby groups were able to make an impact (Millns, 2002).
Although elite might be deemed to place too much power on a minority group, it can be used as a tool of balance. In fact, it can be used to control hyper pluralism, which weakens pluralism. In this era of empowering women and other groups in the societies, there is a rapid increase in activists and lobbyists. A significant share of these groups is being funded internationally, thereby strengthening the factors that would increase their influence on the government. If pluralism is in control, then too many powerful social interest groups wound inhibit government functioning. Since elitism limits this number, the government is able to deal with the same (Pepperday, 2002).
Disadvantages of Elite Theory
Since the decisions are made by a minority group, the process of eliminating a member who appears to be contrary to the group’s interests is faster than in other theories (Sawer & Hindess, 2004). In this case, the main group’s interest is to get rid of the issue of having paid maternity leave. As indicated earlier, Gordon seemed to be rejected by the Prime Minister. The reason is that she failed to abandon an issue that would uplift women workers. The Prime Minister was able to ignore Gordon because the elite theory empowered him to act the same. Thus, it prevented this issue from being discussed for a whole year. Through the theory, business owners were able to enforce this elimination and lack of support.
A significant weakness of this theory relates to the interests of the various group members. It is clear that the interests of the elite may not always coincide with the interests of the majority group. It is evident that the interests of business owners and other government officials did not align with the interests of women workers (Barraclough & Gardner, 2007). The reason is that business owners would have increased funds/taxes they have to pay to the government, while the government would have increased expenditure. Hereby, this may have contributed to its implementation delay.
Another weakness is that the lobby group in the elite minority circle may not be as strong as the other members. Initially, Gordon was the only member who seemed to be in support of the issue; hence, she was ignored for a year. If a lobby group is overpowered by the other members, then the motion fails. In other cases, the lobby’s influence, power and wealth become ‘weaker’ as compared to those of other members of the elite group (Hakim, 2004). In such a scenario, the lobbyists fail to penetrate this circle, hence, living no advocacy for women. Apparently, this is why there were no discussions held on the issue for a year.
Elitism has paved the way for some ancient, inefficient and ineffective ways of leadership such as dictatorship, aristocracy and bureaucracy, amongst others (Haigh, 2012). In such forms of leadership, the leaders feel that decisions should be made by a few parties or individuals. In this scenario, the decision seems to be left to the Prime Minister. Although the trade unions have an advantage of possessing more influence, power and wealth than other countries, making the needed impact, this approach is risky.
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The influence of pluralism and elitism in the Australian context may continue to trigger debate over the years. However, it is clear that elitism is still influential in a positive way as far as making the paid maternity leave is concerned. Although there are issues indicating that the theory has both weaknesses and strengths, the whole elite theory should not be perceived negatively. Due to the influence of a few lobby groups that had managed to penetrate the elite circle amongst other elite individuals, it was possible to make the needed difference. The theory can be used to strengthen some issues found in other theories such as hyperpluralism.
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