Talking Policy: How social policy is made

Talking Policy: How social policy is made.
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin. 2006 ISBN 174114518X
Book review published in Australian Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 40, No. 4, Summer 2005: 569-570.Judith Bessant and Rob Watts are academic colleagues and friends with whom I have discussed social policy issues over many years.

Talking Policy is an interesting and informative book which will make a contribution to Australian social policy debate. It is predominantly aimed at the undergraduate students. The book begins with a very useful 10 page glossary of terms and concepts which the authors employ. The glossary is simply written and will undoubtedly assist students in their first couple of years of social policy studies. I read the glossary before starting on the text and found it a useful guide to the way the authors were using some concepts.

At the back of the book there is a “Timeline of events 1890-2004.” This concise social and political history of Australia I also read prior to reading the text, and was surprised by how many events I misremembered as having happened in different years.

Talking Policy has an introduction followed by 10 chapters and is divided into two sections: the first deals with ways to think about social policy and the second looks at how social policy is made. Chapter I, in the first section of the book, sets out how the authors conceive of the theory of social policy and some first year readers may find this a little tough going but provided they have read the introduction and use the glossary they’ll manage and will find it is a downhill ride for the rest of the book. I found the authors’ attempt to respond to the post-modern assault on social policy interesting. They have moved further from a structuralist approach than I’d feel comfortable with but they have balanced that by maintaining the importance of economic and historical analysis.

Chapter 2 compares the Australian welfare state with other types of welfare states and explains how we have come to adopt a highly targeted, means-tested, categorical system of income support we have. At one level the book is a sustained polemic against the obligations which, since the late 1980s, are increasingly imposed upon recipients of income support. Chapter 3 looks at the history of Australian welfare provision. There is little discussion in the first part of the book about the impact of welfare policies on Indigenous Australians. The authors note that the 1967 referendum “Aboriginal people won the right to be counted as inhabitants of Australia in the census, and they won the vote (italics added pp. 98-99).” The first of these statements is correct. The fact is that Aborigines gained the vote a few years earlier. What the 1967 referendum did was to provide the Commonwealth with the power to make laws in respect to Indigenous people.

Chapter 4 discusses the essence of Australian liberalism, the rise and fall of Keynesian economics and the restoration of neo-classical economics. Chapter 5 provides an insightful exploration of inequality and the current ‘justifications’ for the increasing inequality which is being inflicted on our nation. It also discusses mechanisms behind the failure of the welfare state and the taxation system to address the growing inequality. Chapter 6 pulls together some of the earlier themes by placing them in the context of poverty, ethics and social policy. There is a very readable discussion about the ethics of negative and positive freedoms. In this Chapter, the authors expose several short-comings in the utterances about the need for Howard’s ‘mutual obligation’ regime emanating from Peter Saunders of the neo-conservative think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies.

The second part of the book discusses, in an accessible manner, the way social policy is made. I found the most useful part of this discussion was provided by the lengthy analytical case studies provided at the end of each chapter. Case study 1 is a discussion of mandatory sentencing in Western Australia and the Northern Territory 1991-2004. It amply demonstrates the force of racism which exists in these two places and the propensity of governments to act in breach of international covenants Australia has signed and ratified in order to pander to such racist feelings in the electorate. Case study 2 is an exploration of the role of the media in relation to chroming and drug policy in Victoria. Case study 3 is a historical analysis of university fees and the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.

The title of Chapter 10, the concluding chapter, provides an insight into the authors motivation in writing this text. The title is “Conclusion: On truth, the state and social policy.” In this chapter, there is a section entitled “Truth, the Howard government and the Stolen Generations” which deserves to be read by all Australians who want to understand the depth of racism in this government and in this country. In the penultimate paragraph of the chapter the authors warn “The problems of persistent unemployment and under-employment are not likely to go away. Inadequate income and increasing unequal distribution of wealth are promoting the slow erosion of the rough and ready kind of egalitarian values and practices that were once widespread.”

The authors entitled their book Talking Policy because “Talk is one of our most engaging social activities, far outweighing other activities like eating, sleeping, having sex or even watching TV (p.293).” This observation, if it accurately describes what is happening in Australia, might well account for the declining birth rate but it seems to me to be a case of misplaced priorities.

On a more serious note, Talking Policy is a useful book and it deserves to be read by social policy practitioners if for no other reason than it will make them rethink some of their positions. But there is a better reason than that to dive into this text and that is that if enough social policy workers get swept up in its optimism and ethics we might finish up living in a better country.