Australia’s Welfare Wars – Book review

Phillip Mendes (2002) Australia’s Welfare Wars. University of New South Wales, Sydney.
Book review by John Tomlinson
Australian Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 474-476, 2004.

Phillip Mendes has produced a comprehensive account of the policies, the ideologies and some of the players in the Australian welfare state. The book provides an extensive analysis of both the Labor and Liberal Parties’ Federal social welfare policies over the last 20 years. It does so by providing a history of Australian welfare during the last century – particularly since the Second World War. It provides considerable detail about Victoria’s welfare history.

At one level it deals with the clash between social democratic universal welfare provision and globalised neoliberal “enabling States”. Mendes understands that calling the neoliberal or third way version of welfare an “enabling State” is a misnomer. Because they are predicated upon self-provision, it would be better to call them disabling states.

The book is divided into three parts: the history, political and ideological context of welfare; a review of Labor and Liberal welfare policies from Menzies on; and an analysis of the welfare ideologies of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the churches and some of the other welfare players. Mendes’ book is an unapologetic polemic, yet its analysis is remarkably mainstream. It was written to defend the welfare state against the onslaught of the economic fundamentalists upon the social provision provided to the most vulnerable in this country. It is a committed critique but the commitment is to an essentially Fabian approach.

When Mendes looks at some of the non-government players, particularly ACOSS he does so with particular authority as his PhD discussed the history of ACOSS. He is a kind observer of ACOSS and perhaps exaggerates their power in policy debates. He is not uncritical of ACOSS, noting in particular their disastrous role in the introduction of a GST in Australia, their failure to help build an organization of unemployed people, and their lack of commitment to Indigenous Australians. For 6 years in late 1980s early 1990s, I was director of the ACT Council of Social Service and was constantly frustrated with ACOSS’ attempts at social policy horse trading. I suggested at the time that had ACOSS made a realistic assessment of its capacity to influence policy it would realise that all it had to trade was fleas.

Phillip Mendes is also kind to the social welfare arms of the churches. This is particularly so in relation to their current preoccupation with privatised and increasingly commercialised provision of much of what was government or not-for- profit services. He provides a not uncritical look at the Australian Association of Social Workers but, again, in a refined and civilised manner not calculated to cause distress to the blue rinse set, nor prick the professional pomposity of the membership.

This book takes an essentially optimistic look at the chances of saving much of the existing welfare state. When he looks at the Howard Government’s efforts to impose “mutual obligations” on Disability Support Pensioners, Mendes again optimistically concludes that Prime Minister Howard’s political pragmatism will lead him to realise that such an extension of “mutual obligation” is politically costly. The delay involved in publication means he probably wrote that in mid 2002. By late 2002 not only has the Government reintroduced this policy but the Labor Party has announced it will not oppose it. Furthermore the Government has announced it wants to extend “mutual obligation” to refugees who hold Temporary Protection Visas. The sheer ruthlessness of the Howard Government’s treatment of the poorest Australians was on display in early 2002 when ACOSS revealed that 386,946 breach penalties had been imposed on social security recipients, mainly unemployed people, in 2001.

Phillip Mendes’ book is a useful addition to Australian welfare writing because it utilises classical political science categorisations of the ideologies which impact upon the welfare state. The book accurately describes the range of ideological positions taken by Labor and Liberal social policy ministers. I think that if Mendes were to have started to write this book in 2003 he would include a section on the Australian Greens who are becoming an emerging force on the Australian political landscape.

The two areas of Australian welfare policy to which this book does not give sufficient regard are Indigenous social justice and refugee/asylum seekers issues.

It is a book which is clearly and carefully written, well researched, easy to understand and is certainly accessible at an undergraduate level. It provides a host of detail, Mendes is obviously well read. He is not oblivious to the old Left’s more virulent critiques of economic fundamentalist welfare policy, acknowledging many in the text.

It is a good introduction to Australian social welfare policies and politics. It contains a number of useful reflective mechanisms at the end of each chapter. I will be setting this book as a set text in my social policy class. It provides some very useful quotations of politicians from Chiffley, Menzies, Whitlam and Fraser which it counterposes with quotes from the Hawke/Keating and Howard eras. This will be particularly useful to those younger students who have difficulty thinking of alternatives to current Howard policies.

Clearly Mendes is committed to a better, fairer, more equal Australia. However, the book is written in a manner which will not distress the Lady Bountifuls enrolling in Social Work courses. It is a book for the study not the barricades.