29 January 2014
The political debate about support for families that has erupted this week has highlighted once more that governments are generally not very organised when it comes to social policies.
Taxpayers already spend billions of dollars on family assistance through the various tax credit schemes like Working for Families, paid parental leave, early childhood education subsidies and so on. I am not arguing that we should not be doing so – we absolutely should – because, clearly, advancing the wellbeing of families is the primary responsibility of any government. But I am querying the wisdom and efficacy of such spending and whether the resources are actually getting to where they are most needed.
These sacred cows are never challenged. The political response is simply more of the same – a bigger and bolder pie if you like, when a healthy salad might be what is required. And even when governments do pretend to take the issue seriously, the results are largely ignored. The 1972 McCarthy Royal Commission’s report has been forgotten for years, and the 1987 Social Policy Royal Commission’s report was dismissed by the Labour government of the time as a five volume door-stop.
Yet all the while, we continue to pile up new social policy initiatives in an unseemly manner, reminiscent of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party as this week’s events show. What is missing is any sense of evaluation of whether all these grandiose schemes actually work. One of the last serious attempts to do so was the United Party’s initiatives in 1996 during the National/United coalition to introduce a Social Responsibility Bill, equivalent to the Fiscal Responsibility Act, to measure the impact of social policy initiatives. It failed because after months of investigation officials told the government it was simply all too difficult.
Last year, as part of the National/UnitedFuture confidence and supply agreement, the Families Commission was charged with the production of an annual Family Status report, very similar to an initiative introduced by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in Britain. The aim is simply to measure the impact of government policies on families.
The first such report is due later this year. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes no more than an annual door-stop, or something taken seriously by politicians when setting their election year lures for sceptical voters.