Social Policy Whisperer: A New Politics in Social Policy?

By regular contributor Ben Spies-Butcher (@sensibleBSB).

The dramatic turn around in the Federal Government’s budget policy is broadly seen as a response to the politics of the first budget. Poll aggregates confirm a drop in the government’s standing coinciding with its first budget, and the difficulties it faced passing legislation in the Senate have also made some measures unrealistic. The nature of these changes, though, seems to reflect a broader realignment of politics in the developed world.

First, the budget backed down on some controversial reforms, but continued with others. The Medicare co-payment and changes to pension indexation were both abandoned (although other savings in the same areas took their place). Deregulation of university fees, however, already twice defeated in the parliament, remained.

Second, the budget initiated new spending, targeted in part at small business, but also at families with children. The childcare package targets working women, the people most confronted with work-care dilemmas, and is more generous than the Productivity Commission in subsidizing care for high income households.

Combined, these changes seem to fit a pattern emerging around the developed world, reflecting changes in the economy, society, and through this, to political constituencies. That might provide more insight into the structural dynamics underlying social policy development.

This research has identified two important new constituencies that appear to be shaping the direction of social policy internationally. One is a group of older, traditionally left-leaning manual workers who have been alienated from politics, and are now attracted to the right based on cultural and social issues. The other is the growing numbers of working women, who are increasingly a core constituency of the left.

These new divisions cut across the cleavages of much of the twentieth century. Then, the left’s constituency was dominated by unionised blue collar men. In Australia, women tended to be a little more conservative.

Much has been made of ‘Howard’s Battlers’. There is certainly evidence that Howard’s initial victory reflected widespread disenchantment amongst blue collar workers. This shouldn’t be overstated – income remains important to how people vote, although declining union density does weaken this.

But this support base appears less reliable and a growing constituency of older workers, in particular, are now open to conservative appeals around social issues.

But as Gingrich and Hausermann  point out, this may be changing how conservative parties govern. These voters may be socially conservative, but they remain strong supporters of public healthcare and pensions, core elements of social policy. That has seen conservative governments around the world become less hostile to these elements of the welfare state, which are supported by their new constituents. Certainly older Australians seemed alarmed by the original health and pension proposals.

Alternatively, Iversen and Rosenbluth have shown that women are drifting to the left, and this drift is linked to women entering paid work. The gender gap has also become a prominent part of Australian politics, especially when Gillard led Labor and Abbott led the Coalition.

The priorities of working women may be less directly focused on traditional issues of redistribution, and more on enabling work. Gingrich and Hausermann note that this has also seen an international trend for progressive parties to shift their platforms in this direction – something we saw under Labor with paid parental leave and support for equal pay.

Too large a gender gap clearly threatens conservative governments. Promises around paid parental leave, and now commitments to childcare, likely reflect this new politics.

Of course, there’s a lot more in the budget that does threaten public healthcare and potentially limits pensions. And these political dynamics also show how other constituencies – especially young workers, and those marginalized from work – are vulnerable.

But it might show a longer term shift occurring in politics, that limits some attacks on social policy, and that places new issues on the agenda. For those involved in social policy, understanding the politics that drive governments is useful for advancing more effective policy responses.