The future of welfare: Social policy no longer the 'Poor Cousin'

I was fortunate to chair Day Two of The Conversation\ Informa ‘Future of Welfare’ conference on October 31st. It showcased what is emerging as a brave new world of social policy research and advocacy in Australia. As Labor MP Jenny Macklin observed in the concluding address to the conference: social policy is no longer ‘the Poor Cousin’ to economic policy in the Australian political scene. What struck me as distinctive features of this brave new world?

First was the highly positive tone of all the presentations. As something of a ‘welfare reform’ veteran I well recall the late twentieth century descent into the barren years of Australian social policy research when conference agendas obsessed with the evils of ‘welfare dependency’. Neoliberalism reigned in politics while greatly reduced welfare research communities were largely reduced to throwing futile rocks in protest. Imagine a whole day passing at this conference without Charles Murray once getting a mention!

In part this movement on from impotent protest arises from a new generation of highly robust and authoritative critiques of some of the signature policies of the neoliberal period. In this vein Jeff Borland’s analysis of programs that work for the unemployed underlined the failure of Work for the Dole while Mathew Gray’s presentation on Income Management in the Northern Territory showed that is not only failing to achieve its objectives but is also a very costly program.

Work for the Dole and Income Management are of course still popular items with the federal Government. But with these kinds of credibility gaps opening up around its flagship projects, the whole neoliberal welfare reform agenda becomes politically endangered. Indeed the biggest laugh of the conference came from Gray’s observation that even Twiggy’s research had found that income management ‘is complex (and) can be considered paternalistic and comes with a cost that renders it unsustainable and unsuitable for broader application’.

But the conference tone of optimism was not just based on a sense that we might be seeing off some of the sillier manifestations of neoliberal welfarism but on the breadth and depth of research evident in rebuilding the positive goals of social policy. Inspirational presentations by Frank Quinlan of the Mental Health Council of Australia and Ara Cresswell of Carers Australia reminded us that social policy has to be about so much more than ‘getting people off welfare’. One sensed that their policy communities have built quite comprehensive policy frameworks to meet some of the ‘new social risks’ Australians face outside the workplace today. Listening to them one felt a world away from the days of ‘no such thing as society’.

But what impressed me even more was the unselfconscious way in which they demonstrated that what could be good for society could also be good for the economy. This suggested to me that we might well be growing out of a phase where welfare researchers often hotly resisted any idea that social policy might be a sound economic investment. Isn’t that subordinating society to the economy?

Today we seem to be emerging on a new terrain where the relationship between society and economy is being reconceived as interdependent rather than mutually hostile. As Borland and Whiteford have highlighted, if we want to do something about unemployment it’s the relevant economic policy levers that are most critical. Income support and labour market programs are important but cannot carry the whole burden. The big drivers lie in economic policy: macroeconomic, infrastructure, innovation and so on.

Importantly this new sense of the interdependence of economic and social policy was also apparent in the two ‘political’ addresses at the conference. While Patrick McClure emphasised the importance of moving people from welfare to work, and a simplification of payments he also canvassed the wider framing of welfare reform to include social investment to support people across the life course and also to strengthen community capacity.

Jenny Macklin’s paper provided a very appropriate conclusion to what I saw as a new generation welfare conference in Australia. She outlined the key elements of Labor’s new social policy framework based on Inclusive Growth. While highlighting the productivist value of social policy she stressed equally the social dimension of economic policy. The true test of economic policy is not just growth but whether or not it delivers on an inclusive society. Ending the conference it was hard not to conclude with Macklin that It will be the contest between this agenda and neoliberal austerity which will shape this new chapter in Australian social policy.