The future of welfare

Welfare reform should be seen a chance to enhance lives, not cut costs, says the Deputy Director of Anglicare Australia

By Roland Manderson

August 3 2017This month, I was invited to give a speech on priority investment and the future of human services.

It got us thinking about the point of human services, and the point of welfare. For us, it’s about governments doing what markets cannot, ensuring that opportunities are shared and that everyone has enough to live a decent life.

Human services exist to deliver a social good – a responsibility that extends beyond simply providing services to playing a valuable role in our community, civic and moral spheres. But more and more, they are being targeted for cost cutting and false ‘efficiencies.’

This is one of the paradoxes of our tax and transfer system. Australia has tried more than any other country to target assistance, attempting to provide a safety net with very low taxes, but in recent years we’ve seen the parsimoniousness of this approach that revives the judgmental attitudes of the nineteenth Century, inviting social division.

For years, Anglicare Australia has been calling for a different approach to welfare and investment that recognises the real problems – that there are not enough jobs for people who can work, and for those who can’t, income support payments are much too low.

The Productivity Commission is grappling with some of these questions in its Inquiry into Human Services. The brief for its Inquiry is to explore how increasing competition could enhance user choice; and hence, presumably, deliver better outcomes for those people using the services.

At Anglicare Australia we’ve been working with the Productivity Commission, responding to its Draft Report and giving evidence at a recent hearing in Canberra. Our focus is on those areas of human services that members of our network are a part of. 

We are disturbed by the Commission’s recommendation to have social housing tenants pay market rents. The assumption is that a more competitive market, coupled with changes to rent assistance payments, will deliver housing for people on low incomes and create incentives for State Governments to build and invest. But this is despite the market’s abject and growing failure to deliver housing over the past twenty years, and a disappointing track record from State Governments.

The Productivity Commission is right to point to the thousands of people on low incomes trapped paying unaffordable rents on the private market. But pushing thousands of even more vulnerable people into the same failed market makes no sense. 

We are aiming, instead, to secure more social housing and stronger tenant rights, making housing more affordable and more secure for those most in need. That might seem obvious but – inexplicably – Australia is still a long way from putting such a plan in place. 

In other areas, the Inquiry’s focus has broadened beyond efficiency to explore how other key human services might be delivered better. In Indigenous, palliative care and community services, the Commission is proposing much more positive, holistic reforms to human services.

The Commission’s draft report includes valuable explorations of the responsibility of government as a steward of the market; as well as the co-design of services, being clear about the outcomes government is funding, and working more respectfully with the organisations and communities where the services are delivered.

Where I’d urge the commission to go further is in taking guidance from the Brotherhood of St Laurence, for example which put very strong arguments about the social value of human services in its submissions to the inquiry.

And we’ve urged the Commission to try to bring its analytical thinking to the community benefits of co-production, where the people who use the services are part of the design and delivery.

These aren’t new ideas. They just sit, still, too far away from the frame that limits Australia’s welfare discourse.

Welfare reform and priority investment shouldn’t be seen in the public debate to be a cost saving exercise. Because in essence, it isn’t. Or it shouldn’t be. It should be an investment in our community, our society, and enhancing our lives.

Roland Manderson is the deputy director of Anglicare Australia.
This piece was originally published as an editorial in the July 2017 issue of
Aspect, available here.