Family policy grapples with modern complexities


Family policy grapples with modern complexityHis name was Joe. He was a trade union official, a former communist, influential in the building industry and a good bloke. I phoned him at his home on a Sunday afternoon in the late 1960s about a case in the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. He said he was busy and would have to ring back: "I'm concreting over the lawn ready for my retirement." He was serious.

As someone who preferred grass to concrete, I was a bit shocked by this. But at the time I hardly noticed that he was articulating his own personal vision of life after work and of life being divided into rigid compartments of school, work and retirement, which meant doing virtually nothing as one recovered from the years of labour in the workforce.

Usually it meant watching television, a few beers and, by today's standards, an early death.

This world was what has recently been characterised as "the wage-earners' welfare state" in which men were the breadwinners and women remained at home, as an unpaid workforce, performing domestic functions, including the care of children and relatives. There was not much employment mobility.

Men often had only one job in their lifetime and earned wages sufficient to support an average family. Their jobs gave them employer-paid entitlements to sick leave, annual leave and long service leave. The state provided an old-age pension.

These were the essential elements of the social security system and part of the "Australian Settlement", largely devised by Alfred Deakin with the substance added by the support of the industrial arbitration system. And for three quarters of a century it worked.

Though it was not obvious, at the time I had my phone conversation with Joe, this whole world was being undermined. The widespread use of the contraceptive pill was accompanied by increased demands for gender equity, both in the workplace and the home. Rapid technological change was making traditional work skills obsolete and creating demands for new ones.

And in the 1980s the whole basis of the economy was changed from one which was protected and isolated from the world to one which was faced with the realities of international trade and competition. The combination of new technologies, social changes and the opening up of the economy meant changes in jobs, in families and in personal relations. The traditional security of the provence of law and order provided by the Australian settlement has now almost disappeared. Lifelong employment is rare.

All these things and many more important changes which influence the life courses of individuals have happened in less than half a century.

Family policy grapples with modern complexityIn his book Weighing up Australian Values, Brian Howe (pictured) modestly describes his aim as being "to establish a values driven social policy, which takes account of change". What he is more precisely concerned about is how a society like Australia might make the transition from the social policies of the past, which worked reasonably well in protecting people from serious poverty to new social policies which provide a similar sense of security and relevance to our contemporary world.

The starting point is that the life courses of individuals are so different from those of individuals before the recent period of massive change. People change jobs, juggle responsibilities between family life and work, enjoy less leisure and increasingly share the burdens of caring and raising a family. Technological changes raise the importance of education and re-training.

The second area of coping with complexity is education, "especially for vocational education and training in the knowledge economy". Again it is a matter of arranging the life course to accommodate a variety of pressures of which maintaining skills is undoubtedly one.

In respect of each of the issues raised in his book, whether it be the analysis of the problems or some of the proffered solutions Brian Howe has researched the topic thoroughly and drawn extensively on the work and experience of European social policy thinkers such as Professor Gunther Schmid of the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin.

In Australia, as he points out the old economic model is obsolete, but "the new neo-liberal economic paradigm model excludes the possibility of social reform." This book doesn't; it is "concerned about the risks to which Australian are now exposed."

Howe has in effect given us a new paradigm for thinking about social policy in Australia. It is an important book and should create food for thought for a gaggle of social policy wonks. It might also challenge Australian politicians to think about the purpose of their existence in Canberra.

Two things are particularly refreshing about it. Firstly, since he left the Australian Parliament Brian Howe has been thinking about future generations of Australians in a creative policy way proving that for some there can be a very worthwhile life after politics. Secondly it is nicely written.

In an introduction to the book Gunther Schmid mentions the fact that in the late 19th Century British and European Scholars were influenced by social policy experiments in Australia and New Zealand. Once again he says, with this book, Europeans have the opportunity to learn from "Down Under". Whether Australians similarly take up the opportunity remains to be seen. I think we should.

Brian Howe's Weighing Up Australian Values: Balancing transitions and risks to work & family in modern Australia is published by UNSW Press. (RRP $29.95, ISBN 9780868408859, website)



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Existing comments

So glad to see you back in Eureka John. As a long time print subscriber, it is very good to have you back.
meredith jones | 17 April 2007

Heaven forbid that both sides of polics sit down and actually discuss how we are to proceed in the 20th century!
peter evans | 17 April 2007

a very engaging article. I look forward to reading the book.
Ralph D. | 17 April 2007

A fine review of a timely book. Thinking beyond neoliberalism is taking longer than it should.

Bob Smith
RFI Smith | 17 April 2007


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