Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Mark Latham, the Third Way and the Australian Welfare State. (Articles)

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Mark Latham, the Third Way and the Australian Welfare State. (Articles)

Article excerpt

This article explores the political philosophy known as the Third Way, and its approach to the welfare state. Third Way ideas are seen as a response by social democrats to the global social and economic changes impacting on traditional welfare states. Attention is drawn both to the views of prominent British Third Way advocates such as Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens, and to the campaign by maverick Labor MP Mark Latham in Australia. An analysis of both the positives and limitations of Latham's views and their impact on the Labor Party's welfare policy debate is provided.


Over the past five years, the political concept known as the Third Way has become highly influential particularly in Britain, but also in some other Western countries. Prominent advocates have included the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the former US President Bill Clinton, and the German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder.

Yet, the Third Way remains a highly contested and ambiguous term. Its supporters claim that it is a genuinely new centre-left political ideology which incorporates the best aspects of both social democracy and neoliberalism at a time of global social and economic change. However, its critics (particularly on the Left) argue that it is merely a pale imitation of Thatcherism designed to legitimise British Labour's surrender to global neoliberalism.

This article suggests that the Third Way (as reflected in still-developing British policies) does not constitute a mere repackaging of the Thatcherite agenda. There are significant differences, for example, between Third Way and neoliberal attitudes to inequality, poverty, and welfare spending. Nevertheless, the Third Way does appear to accept more than any other modern centre-left ideology the predominant role of the market in addressing social problems.

The Australian Third Way advocate Mark Latham also favours private, rather than public, solutions to social and economic inequities. In addition, his critique of the existing welfare state and its inadequacies appears to be particularly close to that offered by Australian neoliberal politicians and commentators. Unlike British Third Way advocates, Latham makes little reference to structural causes of poverty and inequality. His intervention appears designed to reinforce the Australian Labor Party's gradual abandonment of traditional interventionist and redistributionist ideas.


Traditional welfare states were based on the assumption of stable families and well-functioning, full employment labour markets. Social assistance focused principally on the elderly. Income support for the able-bodied young was designed to compensate for temporary income loss, not to provide long-term benefits (Giddens 1998, 16).

However, since the mid-1970s, advanced welfare states have been subject to on-going cutbacks and restructuring. The so-called crisis of the welfare state was initially prompted by the oil shock of 1973 which led to slower rates of economic growth, government deficits, excessive unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates.

In addition, changing social patterns have confronted the welfare state with new challenges and pressures including: 1) Labour market changes characterised by persistently high levels of unemployment; 2) Changes in family structures characterised by increases in divorce and single-parent families; and 3) The projected ageing of the populations leaving more elderly citizens dependent on government support for longer periods (Leadbeater 1997, 7; Hills 1999, 39-40).

Many commentators refer to a demographic, fiscal, and legitimisation crisis confronting the welfare state (Saunders 1998, 20-31). Consequently, there has been an international trend away from collective and universal principles of social solidarity towards greater individual, family and community responsibility for welfare. One author calls this a shift from a welfare state to a welfare society based on local networks of care (Rodger 2000). …

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