Reclaiming Community? from Welfare Society to Welfare State in Australian Catholic Social Thought

By Smyth, Paul | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Reclaiming Community? from Welfare Society to Welfare State in Australian Catholic Social Thought


Smyth, Paul, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Introduction (1)

How should states, markets and civil society combine in the delivery of social services? This has become a key theme in Australian welfare reform with the communitarian revival on the left and right of Australian politics. Both conservative communitarians and Labor advocates of the "third way" court "the community" as a partner in the welfare regime of tomorrow. (2) The strength of communitarian and associational currents informing Australian history suggests that they are moving in an opportune direction. This paper brings a perspective from Australian civil society, from the Catholic Church in particular. In terms of health, education and welfare, the Catholic Church has long been the major non-profit service provider in Australia and, indeed, a more significant influence on Australian public policy than has been realised. Its one hundred years of engagement with these questions suggests that while a more elevated role for civil society may be desirable in the production of social services, the capacities of this sector should not be exaggerated.

A growing and important Australian literature on welfare and civil society has tended to neglect what the third sector comparativist, L. Salamon, refers to as its "social origins" or "historically embedded relations with the wider institutional formations including state, market and family". (3) Catholic social services provide a particularly useful vantage point for reviewing these historical "social origins" not only because of their size within the sector but also because of that Church's long-standing engagement with the development of welfare states internationally as well as locally.

Francis Castles, for example, noted the unacknowledged impact of the "Catholic World of Welfare" on European welfare states (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain) highlighting in particular its coherent set of social policy principles, namely: the principle of "subsidiarity"; an emphasis on the family as a fundamental unit of society; less emphasis on the rights of the individual citizen and more on the individual as a member of a social group with a need for the state to value the group; a view of some inequalities as natural and acceptable; and heavy emphasis on the provision of a "family wage" and high levels of social spending to support families. (4) All of these principles can be found in Australian Catholic social thought, forming, through their adaptation to the Australian context, what van Kersbergen might call a "little tradition" deriving from that "grand tradition" of Vatican social teaching which has presented itself as a "third way" alternative to both liberalism and communism since the latter years of the nineteenth century. (5)

Australian Social Policy and Rerum Novarum

Any review of the social origins of the third sector in Australia must begin with that most distinctive feature of Australian social policy historically, i.e. a preference for using wage regulation rather than "welfare" to promote social goals. (6) From a social democratic perspective this preference became a source of embarrassment over time as Australia proved a laggard in the international development of welfare states; hence the phrase, "a wage earners' welfare state". Catholic social thought provides a different perspective. As Castles noted, the Church promoted the family and civil society over the citizen individual and sought accordingly, a family wage as the basis of social protection. Indeed the first of the major Vatican texts on social teaching Rerum Novarum (1891) (RN) promoted the just wage and, arguably, supplied some of the core ideas of the Australian wage earner social policy model. From this perspective the very idea of a wage earners' welfare state was oxymoronic. A minimum wage system, in the Catholic view, would not only protect workers from the worst excesses of monopoly capitalism but it would also free families and civic associations from dependence on the state.

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