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Reframing social policy

16 September 2013

Australia has much to learn from social policy in Europe, reports Sue Regan.

What can we learn from current social policy developments in Europe? While Australia’s economy is faring better than any across Europe, we share many of their social policy challenges, particularly how to respond to an ageing demographic, rising inequality and the intergenerational disadvantage of certain groups.

Joakim Palme, Professor of Political Science at Uppsala University and a leading Nordic social policy figure, is currently in Australia. He will be speaking at the Australian Social Policy Conference at UNSW and will be visiting Crawford School to deliver a talk titled ‘Social Policy in an age of austerity’ on Thursday. Professor Palme will reflect on the variety of political, social and economic forces at play across Europe and provide an overview of the record and potential of a ‘social investment strategy’.

Central to this social investment approach is an attempt to reconcile economic and social goals, and to argue that a strong economy needs a strong welfare state. Palme’s emphasis relates to the context of an ageing society and the need to shift some attention away from older generations toward the future tax base – children and young people. He argues that the sustainability of pensions and health care systems can only be secured by investing in future taxpayers.

This long-term perspective is particularly hard in the current context given the short-term fiscal consolidation occurring across Europe. How to promote long-term social investment under the pressure of shorter-term fiscal concerns clearly has resonance here in Australia.

The social investment strategy can also be viewed as an attempt to forge a framework to guide policy and action. By identifying the range of challenges and clarifying long-term goals, it illuminates the breadth of policies (including education, training, flexible working and childcare) that need to brought inside the social policy tent. The terminology of ‘social investment’ may struggle in Australia, but the potential of a guiding framework - which could garner support for a whole-of-government social policy strategy - remains.

The Australian Treasury’s well-being framework is one example. The Social Inclusion agenda has also provided a guiding set of objectives and policies for people who are most in need. But will either survive the change of Government? What overarching frameworks, and under-pinning concepts, could shape social policy over the coming decade in Australia?

Social policy exists to address social needs, but it is an inherently interdisciplinary and applied subject. Only through drawing on theory and evidence from a range of social science disciplines, including economics, psychology, political science and sociology, can social policies be effective in tackling the welfare concerns of individuals and society. Social policies also need to be grounded in the realities of policy delivery if they are to work in practice.

The social investment approach attempts to meet these requirements for ‘intelligent’ social policy, drawing on a wide range of academic literature and mindful of the practicalities of policy adoption and implementation. Australia might also learn from the efforts to get traction and momentum for a social investment strategy across Europe, and the recognition that the challenge is as much political, as it is policy-related. This awareness of the political dimensions of reforming or reframing policy is an important factor in forging sustainable social policy.

Professor Palme’s public lecture is being co-hosted by the HC Coombs Policy Forum and the Social Policy Institute at Crawford School of Public Policy. Professor Palme’s visit to Australia is supported by the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

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