Social Policy Whisperer: Criticism isn't enough, where do we go from here? Reactions to the response to the budget

We've seen widespread criticism of the budget (some of it on this blog!), particularly around cuts to social policy and the (potential) removal of the safety net. While critique is important, Prof. Paul Smyth from the University of Melbourne draws our attention to the lack of feasible alternatives put forth in post-budget commentary. In particular, Paul urges us to think wider than individual social policies to begin to (re)image what the Australian welfare state should look like for this century.


Reactions to the social policy aspects of the Federal Budget confirm for me that what John Buchanan and I argued in our book Inclusive Growth in Australia (Allen & Unwin 2013) is true: we are in the midst of a paradigm shift from neoliberalism to a new policy framework which integrates growth with equity and sustainability.   I may be completely wrong and ‘ending entitlement’ actually anticipates a brave new world of ‘small government’.  But if we are indeed past the point of no return for Thatcherism then it really behoves the critics to be out there with their positive alternative.  The post Budget debate thus far suggests they have a long way to go.

The anti-budget uproar suggests that the Australian public won’t stomach the proposed attacks on the ‘safety net’ but beyond the anger do you hear a clear and inspiring alternative policy narrative?

I do worry that so much of the critique is almost as backward looking as the Budget itself.   Thus people write of the end of the ‘social contract’ or Fair Go and how we need to rally to defend it.  But what are we defending?  Which policies?

One professor wrote about the Harvester Judgement as our abiding social policy achievement - as though the long defunct ‘wage earners welfare state’ was still with us!   Others narrow the whole social policy discourse down to taxes and income support as though defending a meanly resourced ‘safety net’, because its cheap, somehow represents the radical aspirations of Australia’s Fair Go!

A lot of this nostalgia can stifle creative thinking about a new welfare regime designed to enable citizens to meet the so called ‘new social risks’ of the twenty first century.  We need more than just outrage at unfairness and clinging to the flotsam and jetsam of broken policy regimes.  We need new ideas which capture the changed nature of the life course and well researched proposals that show the new mixes of wages, income and services people will need for successful living.  Encouragingly the ALP under Jenny Macklin has launched a research program designed to renew its social policies along just these lines.

We also need ideas which actually embrace the real achievements of the free market reformers of the nineties but go on to show we can do much better economically with a society that’s less unequal and more sustainable.

A great place to start is to not accept the idea that ‘Oh yes under Howard and then Labor we saw a lot of profligate social spending which we now have to cut so we can grow the economy’.  Welfare progressives seem to be letting this go through to the keeper and even join the mouthing off at ‘middle class welfare’ as though social policies should be something only for the deserving poor!

Sure the high income earners got a lot of fiscal welfare during that period which is now unsustainable and that and the accompanying tax cuts have done much to leave us with a revenue black hole.  That has to be addressed.  But much, much was achieved in this period in policy areas such as the early years, youth and the ‘education revolution’ which helped re-establish the role of social policy as economic investment.  And when we couple that with the suite of policies designed to support dual income ‘working families’  I believe that the last decade will be seen as laying the foundations for a new Social Contract after so much of the previous model proved itself outdated.

While we cannot ignore the proposed social policy initiatives in the new Budget we can say that they are unlikely to represent the longer term future in a world seeking growth which is both more equitable and sustainable than that experienced over the last thirty years.  In that context better to discuss alternative futures than bewail long lost pasts.


Posted by Gemma Carey