Book Review – Social Policy in Australia: Understanding for Action

Social Policy in Australia: Understanding for Action by Alison McClelland & Paul Smyth 280 pages RRP $59.95

Australian Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 41, No. 3, Spring 2006: 375-376.

The first two sections of Social policy in Australia are disembodied versions of the Melbourne social policy debate. I was left with impression that anything South of Melbourne, West of Canberra or North of Sydney was regarded as being of little consequence. The book could confidently be taken into coffee shops in Lygon St or even Rose Bay without the risk of startling the customers. In their efforts to conceptually dissect social policy both Alison McClelland and Paul Smyth give components of the social policy process more brand names than readers will be likely to encounter on the shelves of their local supermarket. Perhaps the editors would be assisted by a quick reading of Naomi Klein’s No Logo.

McClelland has a long history in Australian Council of Social Service circles where she has a reputation for competence, attention to detail and caution. The first section of this book reinforces such perceptions. Both McClelland and Smyth have considerable exposure to the way governments determine policy and this may be one of the reasons the possible alternative scenarios they foresee are so circumscribed. If politics is the art of the possible and pragmatic policies take the path of least resistance then McClelland and Smyth are pragmapols: which is a new brand name (jargon) they might like to consider including in their next book.

This book would have more vitality had the editors condensed the four chapters written by McClelland and the three by Smyth into one chapter apiece. This is not to suggest that they have not presented a competent review of the social policy literature and I am sure that students in university level social policy courses will find much of their analysis a useful guide to current policy debates in Australia. But general readers and social policy aficionados may find the detail tedious which is a pity because these seven chapters do present some emerging ideas rather well.

In line with the Howard Government’s preoccupation with mainstreaming Indigenous programs and ignoring asylum seekers, the editors decided: “Rather than adopting a demographic approach that focuses on different groups (such as children and families or Indigenous Australians) we have chosen the key policy areas that contribute to the welfare of all groups (p. 144)”. If the editors had not taken so long setting out the basic social policy parameters, they could have had a chapter dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. There could have also been one discussing the treatment of asylum seekers. As it is, asylum seekers are virtually ignored and Aboriginal issues, when they are discussed in this book, appear as an afterthought.

The third section of Social Policy in Australia is where the book comes alive. Steven Bell and John Quiggin provide an excellent analysis of what has been a consistent failure of governments (since the mid-1970s) to solve the income / work related problems of people who find themselves jobless, underemployed or in precarious employment.

Steven Ziguras outlines the existing system of social (in)security and its inadequacies as an income support system. He does this well. When Ziguras considers possible future income support options (pp. 175-6) he dismisses the possibility of a guaranteed minimum income because of its high cost. The introduction of a guaranteed minimum income deserves more serious consideration, it was first suggested in Australia in the early 1970s. Ziguras totally ignores the extensive Australian and international Basic Income literature (Basic Income Guarantee Australia, Basic Income Earth Network).

Tony Dalton provides a reasonably comprehensive analysis of housing policy. He points out that the Higher Education Contribution Schemes (HECS) and compulsory occupational superannuation reduce the capacity of young households to purchase housing but then backs away from the logic of his own argument when he says; “Identifying these aspects of public policy should not necessarily be seen as an argument against HECS or compulsory occupational superannuation (p. 189)”.

Jenny Lewis describes the history of health insurance in a careful but critical manner. She points out that: “Abolishing the private health insurance rebate would lower cost overall, and slow the loss of health professionals from the public to the private sector, which is exacerbating shortages in the public sector (p. 207)”.

Jane Kenway dissects what these days passes for education policy in this country and reveals the extent to which neo-liberal market orientations have eroded decent educational outcomes. Clearly, it is a chapter which should not be read by vice chancellors with irritable bowel syndrome who would prefer to live relaxed and comfortable lives in John Howard’s Australia.

Deborah Brennan investigates the range of community services provided to children, older residents and citizens with a disability. Not surprisingly, given her background in child care studies, Brennan’s description of the extraordinary depth of involvement of Liberal Party heavyweights in the provision of commercial child care is where she is at her best and most passionate.

Alison McClelland concludes the book with a very useful and clearly articulated chapter describing the Australian taxation system. She revisits the widely-held myth that Australia is a highly-taxed country before going on to outline several alternatives which citizens would be wise to consider if they desired a fair and efficient tax system.


Basic Income Earth Network
Basic Income Guarantee Australia
Bessant, J. Watts, R., Dalton, T. & Smyth, P. (2006) Talking Policy: How social policy is made. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.
Klein, N. (2002) No Logo. Picador, New York