Universal Service?

Telecommunications Policy In Australia and People with Disabilities

By Michael J Bourk

Edited by Tom Worthington.

Context for Policy Analysis

Technology develops its own momentum, and can be used as an instrument of the strong against the weak. The only thing that can stop ‘imperialism of instrument reason' is a vigorous revival of the political process and an insistence that changes, both major and minor, be analysed thoroughly and argued out in a spirit of passionate scepticism (Edward de Bono in Jones, 1995, 243).
Spin no sterile yarns, my fellow planners, for they do not provide us with the passion, reason, and power needed to construct our paths into the future (Daniel Burnham in Throgmorton, 1996, 257).

This chapter links recent theoretical developments in policy analysis to the overview of telecommunications policy for people with disabilities that will be presented in following chapters. In particular, the mutually constitutive effects on policy by discourses and material conditions are analysed. In particular, this chapter will analyse the significance of discourse, worldviews and rhetoric in policy.


Definitions of ‘discourse' vary as a result of different political emphases people give to the word. At the simplest level, a discourse is a communication of thought by conversational or literary processes. Kress (1992, 182) observes that discourses are also embedded with values or belief systems by particular institutions. In addition, spoken and written texts are marked by a number of ``social institutional voices that speak through the individual'' (Kress, 1992, 114). Consequently, discourse is a social construction constituted by the consensus of worldviews and values of individuals collectively creating a group.

Discourse also has a political dimension. Michel Foucault is regarded as the seminal analyst of the politically constituted nature of discourses. Lee (1992, 51) observes that the pluralised term ‘discourses' is derived from Foucault (also see Rabinow, 1991). In addition, according to Foucault, discourses are based on a normative premise that they reflect truth - although Foucault himself, rejected such universal narratives (Foucault in Rabinow, 1991, 7). Consequently, discourses are practices that legitimise the worldviews and actions of individuals and institutions. Rabinow (1992, 7-12) identifies three ways in which the subject is objectified through discourses and social practices thereby transferring power to the speaker as an institutional representative:

  1. Dividing practices in which subjects are objectified by alienating them from themselves or others;
  2. Scientific classification in which restricted disciplines of knowledge constitute objectified subjects according to the boundaries of particular scientific categories; and
  3. Subjectification in which people turn themselves into active subjects or meaning-giving selves.

According to Rabinow, all three modes are related but analytically distinguishable (1992, 11). The first mode places an emphasis on diminishing the social status of certain groups. Foucault's analysis of the isolation of lepers during the middle ages or the confinement of the poor are two examples (Rabimow, 1992, 8). The second mode is related to the first but emphasises the elevation of scientific inquiry whereby the first mode may be an outcome of the sciences' raised status. Finally the third mode emphasises the active role of subjects, in contrast to the former two modes where subjects are passive. However, the subject remains objectified by the external mediation of institutional figures. For example, in his analysis of nineteenth century sexuality, in which subjects assert their roles as active sexual subjects, Foucault argued that people were still constrained by psychoanalysts or confessors who were medical or religious mediators (1992, 11).

Dividing practices are prevalent in medical and charity discourses of disability. Medical discourses and practices have traditionally institutionalised people with disabilities and lowered their social status. Categories that emphasise physiological impairment such as the blind, deaf and lame have been used to justify their isolation from mainstream society. In addition, financial assistance to groups was predicated on placing people with disabilities into medical categories which qualified for aid. Consequently, policies for people with disabilities have traditionally been made by medical experts qualified to speak on matters, and people with disabilities were rarely consulted or given opportunities to participate in policy making.

The importance of discourses in framing approaches to disability policy is most readily seen when there is a shift in approach. For example, in 1983, the new Social Security Minister, Don Grimes challenged medical discourses as demonstrated by his nationwide disability services review which instituted a consultative process with a variety of disability groups (See Chapter eight). Most importantly, Grimes replaced the National Advisory Council of the Handicapped (NACH) with the Disability Advisory Council of Australia (DACA), as a peak disability policy group as the latter group's members mostly identified themselves as having a disability.

Scientific classification emphasised the credibility and legitimacy of restricted disciplines of knowledge in discourse and practice (See Rabinow, 1992; Jones, 1995; Mumford, 1964; Throgmorton, 1996). Lewis Mumford has written extensively about scientific self-legitimisation (See Mumford, 1964). According to Mumford, Descartes' ahistorical equation of thought with existence (I think therefore I am) was based on the notion that all behaviour and activity submitted to scientific laws:

Under a rational system of ideas, all minds would be forced to submit to scientific ``laws'' as the subject of an absolute realm ruler to his edicts. Law in both instances, as Wilhem Ostweld was later to point out, established the realm of predictable behaviour: this simplified choices and economised effort. Thus the ultimate aim of science, the proof of both its truth and its efficacy, would be to make all behaviour as predictable as the heavenly bodies (Mumford, 1964, 82).

Once human behaviour, the most unpredictable natural phenomena, is captured by science, the process of self-legitimisation is complete. The social sciences such as economics, political science and sociology are divided between those who take positivist and holistic approaches to their discipline. Positivism emphasises the empirical nature of natural and human phenomena. According to Jankowski, positivism postulates that true knowledge can only be constituted by independent variables which can be observed and measured in an objective and unbiased manner (Fontana, 1988, 669, Jankowski and Wester, 1991, 49-50). Jankowski and Wester are critical of positivism's claim to objectivity and prefer to take an holistic approach to social inquiry.

Holism emphasises the interconnectedness of dependent variables, which consist of human, material and symbolic elements. The insistence that the whole of a social system is greater than the sum of individual social elements is the central premise of holistic approaches to social sciences. Consequently, social outcomes cannot be accurately measured (Fontana, 1988, 390). Holistic approaches analyse social phenomena and the social institutions which influence behaviour at a number of levels and describe outcomes using thick descriptions. Thick descriptions are broad encompassing perspectives on specific analyses (Jankowski and Wester, 1991, 63).

Later chapters argue that telecommunications policies for people with a disability have traditionally been dominated by positivist scientific discourses as demonstrated by:

In contrast to dividing practices and scientific classification, subjectification emphasises an active though constrained subject. The rights discourse (See Fulcher, 1989; Darrow, 1996; Newell, 1998) describes such a subject. People with disabilities become active subjects in that they initiate active self-formation. They demand the rights of access and equity to consumer and social goods and services as other citizens and consumers. In addition, people with disabilities have challenged traditional linguistic structures and terms that objectify them. They are not a disabled object (the disabled) but a subject with a disability (person with a disability). Consequently, a holistic approach to disability replaces a positivist perspective. A person with a disability cannot be measured or summarised by a physiological impairment. The complexity of a person is more than the sum total of their impairments. However, despite the active status a person with disability achieves with a rights discourse, he/she is constructed by the external authority of law, a material condition. Consequently the dividing line of practice is evident.

People with disabilities currently have to appeal to the DDA (1992) for access and equity, people without disabilities do not. Therefore, discourses, while powerful are themselves influenced and often constrained by external material conditions which often introduce other discourses into the policy process. (eg. financial constraints; other legislation; social actors; technology). For example, when Telecom became a Government Business Enterprise (GBE) in 1989, it is argued that a marketing discourse constructed people with disabilities as unattractive markets and a liability in terms of commercial priorities. Consequently, altered material conditions introduced and favoured a new discourse that contested for dominance among existing engineering and charity discourses.

In summary, discourses are structured systems of speech or written texts that operate within institutions and are politicised. In addition, discourses legitimise the speaker's position and objectify passive and active subjects in relation to the institutional speaker. Finally, discourses and material conditions mutually interact in policy formation. Discourses in policy are informed by institutional belief and value systems commonly called worldviews.


Worldviews are abstract totalising systems of philosophical thought demonstrated in practical application. Fontana translates the German weltanschauung as world-outlook which is a:

general conception of the nature of the world, particularly as containing or implying a system of value-principles. Any total philosophical system may be so styled which derives practical consequences from its theoretical component. It is common for important but comparatively local scientific discoveries or conjectures to be generalised into total systems of this kind, for example those of Newton, Darwin, Marx and Freud (Fontana, 1988, 905).

Fontana's definition is useful in that worldview can encompass ideological, theoretical and cultural components. James Throgmorton (1991, 1996 ) emphasises that the roles are not purist and that it is doubtful whether any policy maker or audience occupies any singular category (1996, 43). Throgmorton gives an extensive analysis of rhetoric and strategy adopted by those occupying in varying degrees, scientific, political and advocate roles in a complex dispute about nuclear power policy in Chicago. The dispute centred around Commonwealth Edison Company's plans to extend their nuclear power plant program, significantly raise rates and silence the voice of opposition. Throgmorton's analysis incorporates an investigation of discourses, worldviews and rhetoric demonstrated by social actors to persuade audiences to accept their arguments.

Worldviews and Rhetoric of Policy

Rhetoric of Policy: a conceptual model
Rhetoric of Policy: a conceptual model
  • Society is based on Rights and Wrongs- Values oriented
  • Moralist
  • We bear critical responsibility for well-being of all who live in our communities
  • Utopian, Idealist,reformist
  • Important decisions require their informed participation
  • Compromise equals capitulation
  • Pluralist politics maintains a system of oppression
  • Access & equity is normative
  • Concern for social implications of policy for minorities
  • Goal is to transform PO & set A& E precedents
  • Write & Speak in vernacular
  • Use anecdotes
  • Community meetings,slogans
  • emotional appeal
  • moral language
  • Symbolic action (eg protest rally) to create ground-swell P.O
  • Passionate
  • Policy is another part of the ‘game’ of politics
  • They are elected officials who get things done
  • They operate in a context of incremental change, fragmented authority, legal constraints, self- interested competition for electoral position, power & survival
  • Goals are to gain & hold political power & make 'good’ policy
  • Speak of friends, enemies, alliances, loyalty, favours,deals, reputation, spin, positioning (presenting desired self-image).
  • Past is relevant- emphasise good trends & claim credit, ignore bad or shift blame to opposition/ envir. factors
  • Empathise with constituents & show understanding of their problems
  • Show that they are qualified for elected roles
  • Policy equals outcomes rationally decided by ‘solving’ problems
  • Arguments over value can’t be decided rationally
  • Guided by a narrow theoretical framework from their home discipline
  • Seek to describe, explain & predict phenomena in a theoretically coherent way
  • Narrowly focussed on single discipline tools & techniques
  • Use technical language
  • Emphasise objectivity
  • Dispassionate
  • Seek supporting empirical evidence usually from same discipline or pool of thought
  • Increase cumulative stock of knowledge in a particular discipline eg economics, telecommunications
  • Identify ‘best’ most rational way of attaining goals chosen through irrational processes

(Source Throgmorton, 1996).

In addition to the roles occupied by policy planners, are the parallel roles of their audiences. Throgmorton defines audiences as active and hermeneutic oriented:

Each of these audiences can be thought of as an ``interpretive community'' (Fish, 1979) that is engaged in a ``normal discourse'' (Rorty, 1979) or conversation... Engaged in different discourses, each of these interpretive communities also has ``an agreed-upon set of conventions about what counts as a relevant contribution, what counts as answering a question, what counts for that answer or a good criticism of it (Rorty, 1979, p320). Thus when disagreements arise within these communities, members try to persuade one another with rhetoric authorised by their ``agreed-upon'' conventions (Throgmorton, 1991, 156).

The hermeneutic function of audiences is significant and informs Throgmorton's conclusion that policy is understood from different perspectives. The acceptance of policy by particular audiences depends on the intelligibility of specific arguments to the group. Many cultural theorists now emphasise the fragmented, active, interpretive, schematic-affirming nature of audiences which engage with the mass media (eg. see Fiske, Morley, Ang in Lull, 1995, 111- 112). Lull observes that an emphasis on the active role of audiences in recent culturalist theory replaces earlier functionalist theories which constructed a passive, homogeneous audience:

The theoretical turn in cultural studies came in response not to the limitations of effects research, which tended to characterise audiences as passive victims to the media, but to the equally misguided idea that media texts impose meaning and influence upon their audience... One of the key theoretical developments in cultural studies research in recent years has been to show how audience members create their own meanings from media content to control certain aspects of their experiences with media. Ien Ang's (1985) analysis of Dutch women's interpretations and uses of the international TV series Dallas, Janice Radway's (1984) account of female empowerment brought about through reading romance novels... are seminal examples of the expansion of cultural studies analyses into empirical research on audiences... These studies all document culturally and historically specific ways in which audiences actively interpret and use mass media (Lull, 1995, 112).

Similarly, policy audiences are fragmented, active and construct meaning from policy statements that reaffirm their world-views. Consequently, social actors involved in telecommunications and disability policy processes have used rights, charity, technocratic, and consumer discourses to create, understand and interpret policies. A contingent factor that decides the acceptance or rejection of any discourse relates to the community to which it is addressed.

A later Chapter will argue that Telstra's defence in Scott and DPI (A) v Telstra was framed by a charity discourse of disability that constructed the corporation's expenditure on disability concessions as a relevant issue in the HREOC inquiry.

As Richter infers from Throgmorton, the differing values reflected in varying worldviews problematised positivist and modernist constructions of society:

They were further forced to confront the fact that their modernist ``pretence to ...neutrality, objectivity, and universal Truth and Goodness'' was problematic as applied to social policy (Throgmorton, 1996, 4-5). In other words, planners found that they could not, in fact ``specify goals that perfectly represented society's values, nor use lawlike scientific generalisations and associated predictions to choose the one best way of achieving those goals (26) (Richter, 1997, 5-6).

Consequently, noting the failure of science to solve the pressing problems faced by planners, some analysts (Throgmorton, Rivlin, Schon, Roe in Richter, 1997 ) began interrogating policy processes to explain the failure of modernist policy solutions. Policy analysis was approached on post-structuralist terms that emphasised the active, interpretive, fragmented nature of audiences and the fluidity of meaning (Richter, 1997; Throgmorton, 1996). Throgmorton and Roe explored the narratives of policies. Successful policies were those that were explained with acceptable narratives to the audiences affected. Narratives that did not account for the values, beliefs and practices of particular communities were more likely to receive negative responses from affected audiences. (Richter, 1997; Throgmorton, 1997).


A new appreciation for the power and relevance of rhetoric in policy making has recently emerged to address the pluralistic concerns of interpretive communities (See Throgmorton, 1991; 1996; Richter, 1997). Traditionally rhetoric was viewed at best as ornamental dressing to beautify policies or at worst dishonest practices to manipulate audiences into accepting questionable policies (Throgmorton, 1991, 155; 1997, 38). However, Throgmorton infers from Nelson, Megill and McCloskey that rhetoric is persuasive discourse and rhetoricians engage in analysing conversations within disciplines:

What then is rhetoric if not mere ornament? According to Nelson, Megill and McCloskey (1987), it is persuasive discourse within a community or honest argument directed at an audience; it is `` the quality of speaking and writing, the interplay of media and messages, the judgement of evidence and arguments (Throgmorton, 1996, 39).

Consequently rhetoric becomes a powerful tool to position persuasive and relevant messages to specific audiences. Alice Rivlin, currently vice-chair of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve wrote in a 1973 article from a similar perspective which repositioned the value of rhetoric in policy:

``... a new tradition of forensic social science was emerging in which scholars write briefs for or against particular policy positions... bringing together all the evidence that supports their side of the argument, leaving to the brief writers of the other side the job of picking apart the case'' She approves this trend as reducing hypocrisy and claims of objectivity, (Rivlin in Richter, 1997, 8).

An example of rhetoric in action emerged from a joint consumer and Telstra consultative process known as the Telstra Consultative Councils (TCCs). The TCCs proved to be forums where the skills of rhetoric were exercised. At times heated but usually professionally restrained the social actors representing Telstra, consumer and community groups, including groups representing people with disabilities used the TCC process as a forum to strategically present their cases (pers. comms. CTNPA, AADPA, PDPIA, REAMT 1997).

According to the President of DPI(A) and a CTN Policy Adviser, people who were deaf used their interpreters as effective intermediaries to challenge senior management's control of the forums. In addition, the AAD Policy Adviser used Telstra documents with detailed statistics and comparative analyses with the US TTY experiences as tropes to persuade his Telstra audience (pers.comm. PDPIA, 1997). Likewise, Telstra documents were used again in the HREOC inquiry by the complainants to challenge Telstra's case. Similarly, it is argued that Telstra employed rhetoric in its press releases following the HREOC inquiry to down-play the findings' significance.

Further, Throgmorton lists useful areas that rhetoricians would examine:

The HREOC inquiry proved to be a fertile area to investigate the employment of rhetoric based on and directed towards differing worldviews. In addition, various discourses underlined the positions taken by social actors in the process. However, it is a simplification to state that the Australian Association of the Deaf (AAD), the Consumers' Telecommunications Network (CTN) and HREOC held pure advocate worldviews while Telstra took a scientific perspective. The interconnectedness of cultures challenges purist assumptions. In addition, such a position denigrates the TCC process.

The influence of prolonged exposure on social actors and their audiences to differing discourses, worldviews and rhetoric is detailed later, discusses the emergence of hybrid worldviews. Nevertheless, this thesis does argue that institutions have a tendency to frame policies by discourses that indicate the dominance of particular worldviews in the policy process.

Further Information

Copyright © Michael J Bourk & Tom Worthington 2000.