Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Influence of Faith-Based Organisations on Australian Social Policy

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Influence of Faith-Based Organisations on Australian Social Policy

Article excerpt


The article on 'Religion' in The Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State argues that dominant modernism and secularisation explanations of social change, especially that religious practices and belief would decline as modernisation advanced in the post-war period, have contributed to the lack of recognition and research of the role of religion in social policy in Britain and Europe (Van Kersbergen & Manow 2010). Australian historiography of social welfare and policy has also stressed the importance of the decline of religion and the rise of the secular nation state in the post-war period, while historians of religion have also accepted that Australia is and has been a predominantly secular society (Breward 1993). Within this context there have been many excellent studies of denominations, social welfare agencies, religious orders and individuals, but little sustained analysis of the influence of religion on social policy even though faith-based welfare organisations dominate the delivery of welfare services in Australia to an extent that exceeds other developed countries.

Understanding this uniquely Australian situation requires a fresh look at the history of church-state relations and the importance of the theological and social ideals that influenced churches and the agencies they established. This paper argues that in Australia, religion has been both a cultural and political force in terms of social policy, especially through the impact on principles of social policies--fundamental tenets of faith translated into modern ideas of social justice--and through the political impact of religion on the institutional set up of the welfare state via political parties and systems of interest mediation.

Historical overview

The dominance of religious organisations in social welfare policy and services is not a post-war development but originated in the colonial period. The rejection of the English Poor Law model in Australian colonies, especially the non-convict colonies of Victoria and South Australia, meant that religious organisations partly funded by colonial governments provided welfare services and influenced social policies from the founding period. This distinctive third sector of welfare provision between public and private developed as an attractive option for colonial governments (Mendelsohn 1979).

During the last years of the ! 9th century, divisions emerged within religious groups between those who argued that responsibility for care should lie with the individual and family, and those who argued for greater acceptance of collective responsibility exercised through an interventionist protective state. Support for the latter position included Roman Catholics influenced by the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) and liberal Protestants influenced by social gospel theology. Theological ideals were especially influential in the period leading up to Federation. Cardinal Moran, then Archbishop of Sydney, delivered a lecture inspired by Rerum Novarum on 'The rights and duties of labour' in 1891 that was attended by government officials and representatives from political parties, including most of the 35 newly elected New South Wales Labor Party MPs (Haeusler 2003). The Central Methodist Mission established in 1891 at Wesley Church in Melbourne attracted MPs and speakers from the trade union movement to its Pleasant Sunday Afternoons where the importance of a protective role for the state was advocated by church leaders, labour representatives and members of Parliament (Howe & Swain 1993).

Support for an interventionist state came from religious thinkers who were influential in the broader theological and philosophical discussion about individual versus collective responsibility. Francis Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University, a leading member of the Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM) and a founder of the Worker's Education Association (WEA), was a leader of this debate, arguing:

Liberalism, as well as socialism, cannot do without government intervention, whether to call such intervention grandmotherly legislation, or simply the necessary extension of the economic functions of the State. …

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