Sydney School of Education and Social Work events – 2014 Archive

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Reform and rhetoric in Australian social policy

19 September 2014    

Social policy is a highly contested field in Australian politics and society. This one-day symposium brings together researchers to discuss how contemporary social policy is being talked about, designed and debated.

Intended audience: social policy researchers in universities, NGOs and government; doctoral students; journalists

Symposium program and abstracts

8.45–9.15amRegistration and tea/coffee
9.15–9.30amWelcome and introduction


Welfare for some, illfare for others: social policy and the Abbott Government
In an essay titled "What is social policy", Richard Titmuss wrote: "What is 'welfare' for some groups may be 'illfare' for others". Titmuss was ahead of his time in urging political commentators and social policy researchers to consider the broad welfare landscape and the mechanisms of distribution in making assessments about the share of burdens and benefits in a given society. His somewhat neglected concept of the "social division of welfare" invites us to think about the moral and institutional distinctions between public, occupational and fiscal welfare. This paper applies this analytical framework to the contemporary situation in Australia, particularly the social policy and politics of the Abbott Government and the proposed directions of reform in the recent Federal Budget and the discussion paper on "A New System for Better Employment and Social Outcomes", prepared by the Government’s Reference Group on Welfare Reform. The paper highlights how it is possible to devise different means for achieving similar ends when we are prepared to go beyond the dominant narrative of "work-first" as the solution to the problem of "welfare dependency". Alternative directions for policy reform are outlined that reflect a contrasting set of assumptions and values about how to achieve sustainable prosperity and social well-being in Australia.

Greg Marston

Queensland University of Technology

11–11.30amMorning tea


The rhetoric of evidence in child support policy reform
Single parents in receipt of Centrelink benefits, who are overwhelmingly mothers, are compelled to seek child support from their ex-partner in order to receive above the base rate of Family Tax Benefit payments. If the single parent receives child-support payments, the rate of other government payments is reduced, making child support an important part of household income and deeply connected to the welfare system. However, child support is one of the most complained about areas of social policy, and since its introduction in 1988 there have been several rounds of significant reform, with a federal parliamentary inquiry carried out in 2003 and another currently in progress. The impetus for these inquiries has been lobbying from ‘fathers’ rights’ groups, which complain that fathers pay too much, that they have to pay despite being denied contact, and that payments are not used on children. These allegations are counter to women’s claims that payments are often not made and when they are, are often of a trivial amount. Despite these conflicting accounts, the outcomes of the previous reform process benefitted paying fathers almost exclusively, and resulted in low-income mothers losing on average $20 per week in combined child support and welfare income. This presentation sheds light on why reforms advantaged fathers, through analysis of the role of anecdotal and social scientific data in the 2003 inquiry process, how data were constructed and presented as legitimate or illegitimate along gender lines, and the social processes through which the voices and interests of women were marginalised.

Kay Cook
RMIT University


Australian disability reform and political participation
An epochal social policy reform in Australia is the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Much is to unfold concerning the realities of what the NDIS will offer Australians with disabilities, and society at large, and to what extent the NDIS will deliver on its promise of being a transformational change. This paper engages with the complex dynamics of disability social policy, with a focus on political participation and its close relationship to communication rights. The right to political and public participation is a key article in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (article 29). Crucially, it interacts with article 21, which deals with freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information. From this vantage point, what does the unfolding case of the NDIS tell us about communication, social policy and political participation? How did – and does – communication evolve concerning NDIS? What kinds of voice and what types of listening does the NDIS afford for people with disabilities, in relation to the transformation of disability in Australia? How do new digital technologies and media cultures offer new relationships between communication and political participation? What are the implications of the NDIS for political participation for people with disabilities?

Gerard Goggin and Dinesh Wadiwel
University of Sydney



What Tony Abbott talks about when he talks about welfare
Politicians’ public talk provides important insights into their thinking about problems, policies and politics. Mr Abbott’s talk on social policy topics has included such easy-to-recall rhetorical figures as "lifters, not leaners", "workers, not shirkers", and "earning or learning". But such figures are, of course, not simply slogans; they are part of Abbott’s personal political discourse on social policy, and study of this discourse beyond the slogans reveals much about Mr Abbott’s social-policy thinking. This paper presents findings from an analysis of the 39 texts in which Tony Abbott has talked about welfare since the election of September 2013. It explores the similarities and differences in how Mr Abbott talks about "business welfare", "middle-class welfare" and income support for unemployed youth. Analysis of subtle, perhaps unconscious, discourse features shows how some politically inflected positions are naturalised and others problematised, while constituencies are carefully managed.

Gabrielle Meagher and David Wilkins
University of Sydney


Will private funding solve NGO’s financial woes? Insight from the NSW community sector
Government agencies depend on community-sector organisations to deliver publicly funded services, and funding from government is the most important source of income for community organisations. Currently, however, policymakers are suggesting community organisations become less dependent on government grants and procurement and more self-sustaining, and are both urging non-profits to diversify their funding base, and attempting to stimulate private investment in organisations operating for the public good. This presentation will show that although federal and state governments wish to promote non-profits’ access to philanthropy and other forms of private funding, community-sector organisations face significant barriers to accessing these. Multivariate analysis of survey data collected from senior managers in 576 not-for-profit community-service organisations offers insight into the factors influencing receipt of private funding. Our analysis demonstrates the complexity of private funding streams and the factors shaping access, providing a basis to discuss the uneven impact of privatisation in community services, and the challenges in developing sustainable resource models for the sector.

Natasha Cortis and Megan Blaxland
University of New South Wales

3.15–3.30pmAfternoon tea


Why can’t we have a simple welfare system?
For more than half a century, policy experts have been putting forward plans to simplify the income-support system. Some of the more radical plans, such as a negative income tax, would replace our current system of allowances and pensions with a single unconditional payment paid on the basis of need. The simplifiers see reform as a technical problem: an effort to balance the goals of poverty alleviation, maintenance of work incentives and affordability. A simpler system would achieve this aim. Much of the complexity in Australia’s current system stems from two features: separate payment types for recipients who are expected to work and those who are not; and for those who are expected to work, measures designed to deter long-term dependence on income support and enforce participation. These features resist simplification because much of the rationale for them is political rather than technical. Even if where it is economically inefficient, policymakers are reluctant to abandon a system that distinguishes between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ recipients and treats the two groups differently.

Don Arthur
Catholic Social Services


Rebuilding Australian social protection: strategies to combat emerging inequalities
Australia's model of social protection – lauded for doing a lot with a little – is facing fundamental challenges. The country's much-vaunted unemployment success looks to be fading fast. Newstart is one of the meanest unemployment payments in the OECD, women's workforce participation is comparatively poor, child care is expensive and fragmented, out-of-pocket medical costs are among the highest in the OECD, and there are fundamental tax inequities built into the second tier of social policy that continues to privilege the better-off in health, family and retirement. Our argument is as follows: design features of the model are generating inequalities because they deliberately constrain tax revenues, build inflationary pressures into a fragmented system of private social services and engineer massive tax benefits to the better off. As inequality rises, there is a need to consider the prospects for major social security reforms that might involve redesign of basic features of Australia's welfare model. Our paper offers a preliminary assessment of several areas of need and of realistic opportunities for reform, opportunities that are sensitive to changing modes of governance. These include concrete suggestions for reforms to Newstart, retirement incomes, child care and the financing of public health care. We link reform proposals to addressing major gender and class inequalities that are serious problems for the future.

Shaun Wilson and Adam Stebbing
Macquarie University

Event details

  • When: 9am–5pm
  • Where:

    Room 612, Education Building A35, Manning Rd, University of Sydney
    Education Building A35
    Click image for interactive map.

  • Cost: Free but registration using the online form below is ESSENTIAL

  • RSVP: Registrations close on September 12. Places are limited. After completing the form below, click 'register' once and wait for the screen to refresh. You will receive a confirmation email.
  • Contact:

    Jane Harvey

    Research manager 

    Sydney School of Education and Social Work

  • More info: Download the symposium schedule and abstracts (pdf, 128kB).

  • Keynote speaker: Professor Greg Marston started his professional career as a youth worker in the early 1990s, before working in policy and community-development roles for a variety of non-profit community organisations. His research examines the impact of social and economic policies on ordinary Australians, and the organisational dimensions of human-service practice. He has recently co-edited a book with Evelyn Z. Brodkin on the implementation of welfare-to-work in a variety of countries – Work and the Welfare State Street-Level Organizations and Workfare Politics (Georgetown University Press, 2013) – and co-authored The Australian Welfare State: Who Benefits Now? with Catherine McDonald and Lois Bryson (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).


Reform and rhetoric in Australian social policy

Where Room 612, Education Building A35, Manning Rd, University of Sydney
Education Building A35
Click image for interactive map.


19 September 2014

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