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Social Policy for the 21st Century: Justice And Responsibility

Social Policy Research Centre Conference
July 1999, University of New South Wales

Juliet Elworthy
Senior Policy Analyst
Ministry of Social Policy

The conference Social Policy for the 21st Century was the most recent of the Social Policy Research Centre's (SPRC) conferences, intended to provide a major forum for social policy analysts and researchers to discuss their research and policy interests. The conference theme reflected an orientation to Australia, with its explicit agenda to focus on policy issues relating to "the wellbeing of Australians in the next century". However, the issues covered through the conference placed the discussion in a wider context. This is illustrated by the following excerpt from the conference programme:

Over the last decade targeting has been extended and intensified. In the same period, demographic changes and uncertainties in employment and family life have caused growing numbers of individuals and families to depend on the welfare safety net. There is also an increasing emphasis on the responsibilities incumbent on citizens, and widespread public support for the idea that welfare entails duties as well as rights.

These are key issues for New Zealand government agencies and, in particular, those whose brief concerns social provision. In recognition of this, representatives from the Social Policy Agency and the Children, Young Persons and their Families Agency attended the conference.

What were our overall impressions of the conference? In terms of logistics, the conference was both large (over 500 participants) and well organised. Its format included 40 individual sessions, six forum sessions, and three keynote addresses (including Peter Townsend's Plenary Address: Poverty, Social Exclusion and Social Polarisation: The Need to Construct an International Welfare State). The individual sessions were run in eight parallel streams, providing a good selection. They covered issues of income, employment, service provision, social trends, and analyses of globalisation.

We took away an impression that New Zealand has much to share about its experiences. Papers where New Zealand experiences were shared covered topics such as family change, health status, economic status, retirement income, and the Code of Social and Family Responsibility. New Zealand's Strengthening Families approach was also talked about, albeit briefly, in the final forum of the conference, titled Strengthening Families: What Role for the State? All of the New Zealand papers were presented by people from the academic sector. Representatives of New Zealand government agencies have provided papers to previous SPRC conferences and it would be useful if policy makers in the New Zealand government sector made a commitment to providing papers for the proceedings in future conferences.

The Australian Government, from both commonwealth and state levels, seemed adequately represented among the audience, but less so among presenters of papers. Overall, presenters tended to be from the academic and community sectors, and the papers from the government sector tended to be more constrained, and oriented to reinforcing existing policies, compared with those from academic and community presenters. We found little reference to Aboriginal experience and issues, in contrast with the emphasis on biculturalism to which we have been accustomed in the context of New Zealand policy. The opening keynote address to the conference made reference to the "stolen generations", and the social policies which underlay this phenomenon, with the thought-provoking premise that history needs to be seen in terms of social policy. Unfortunately, there was little other reference to Aboriginals, except as special-needs clients of social services.

The sessions on globalisation and restructuring were often stimulating, although overall the discussions did not seem to be informed by clear frameworks for analysis. The papers delivered at the sessions on service provision tended to focus on immediate local situations, and were often concerned with the process of Government contracting to purchase services from community-based organisations. While this system is now well established in New Zealand, it is still developing in Australia and papers conveyed a sense of concern about the process with a recurring theme that Government might use the contracting process to "control" organisations and limit dissenting voices. Papers in this area indicated that, unlike in New Zealand, there is a significant body of evaluative material developing in response to the social service reforms.

Interestingly, concern about government "control" in a contracting environment was not confined to social service organisations. The SPRC plans to tender competitively for funding for the first time, and there is concern about its possible vulnerability due to the critical stance it has taken on some government policies.

Overall, the papers on income maintenance and employment seemed of more immediate value from a New Zealand perspective than the papers on globalisation or service provision. Papers on income maintenance and employment were more likely to be grounded in systematic research, and to have potentially wide application. Peter Larose's review (which follows) singles out for discussion one of these papers: In Defence of Poverty Traps, by Bruce Bradbury.

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Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 13

Social Policy for the 21st Century: Justice And Responsibility

Dec 1999

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