Magazine article Review - Institute of Public Affairs

Awkward Problems in Social Policy

Magazine article Review - Institute of Public Affairs

Awkward Problems in Social Policy

Article excerpt

Women and welfare after Howard

Utopias are easy to imagine.

Far more difficult is the task of imagining what a new liberalism movement would look like if some attention needs to be paid to electability. In the case of social policy (policies about human welfare and behaviour), arguments about electability are often overshadowed by emphatic moral claims.

Part of the challenge for the Liberal Party has been the influence of conservatism on its organisation, but the rise of the conservatives within the Party does not fully explain the difficulties that it experiences in dealing with social issues. With the notable exception of welfare policy, there has been a failure to engage with the complexity of most social policy issues. Advocates of liberalism have failed to develop in social policy the philosophically informed, but evidence-based, ideas seen in education, public management and many other areas.

Social policy is a wide field, encompassing discrimination, childcare, same-sex legal equality, maternity leave, affirmative action, poverty, welfare-as well as the highly controversial and polarising issues of drugs, abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research. Two areas of social policy, welfare and public policy concerning women illustrate the awkward complexities social policy presents for liberalism. In the case of welfare, the liberal virtue of self-reliance informed major policy innovation while women's policy suffered the twin ills of big government conservatism and a failure to draw upon a core principle of liberalism: equality of opportunity.


With the introduction by the Keating government of 'Working Nation', the political culture in Australia changed from a consensus that unemployment benefits are there to look after those whom society has failed, to a division into those who believe that welfare is a stepping stone back into societal participation (Labor's rhetoric) and those who believe that welfare is a barrier to social participation (Coalition rhetoric).

In either case, the result has been a change from the situation that prevailed until the 1980s (where all unemployed people were entitled to government support), to one where only those actively trying to obtain work could receive benefits.

Research shows strong support for 'Work for the Dole' across all educational levels. Significantly, support for 'Work for the Dole' programmes is higher in people who have been vocationally trained than all other groups. These tradespeople are the so-called 'Howard Battlers', who, through their own efforts, have achieved a decent income and lifestyle-and think that others should make a similar effort.

In a strong economy, and with unemployment at record lows, it is the ideal time to capitalise on this feeling in the community that anyone who wants a job can get one. To do so, it is important that future movements articulate the case for further reform towards personal income responsibility for those of working age. For example, the contemporary trend to move middle-aged dole-recipients onto disability payments needs to be rejected as a major problem, not just for the welfare system but for the individuals themselves.

Welfare payments to single mothers present particular ideological challenges for both conservatives and liberals. For conservatives, there is the problem of balancing their moral objection to exnuptial births against their desire to see women stay at home and look after their children. Conservatives appear not to recognise any contradiction between forcing sole parents to work and advocating tax breaks or welfare payments for married women who stay at home. On the other hand, liberals have to reconcile their support for individual choices about family structure with the evidence of diminished opportunities for children of sole-parent families.

Under the Howard government, tentative steps were made to limit sole-parent benefits and these reforms were driven by the same concerns as those surrounding unemployment benefits-welfare dependency is bad for the recipient, and especially children. …

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