Australia’s welfare system: a review of reviews 1941-2013

30 Jun 2014


This paper is a ‘review of reviews’ undertaken into Australia’s welfare system between 1941 and 2013. It covers mainly those reviews most like ‘public inquiries’ i.e. time-limited policy reviews that typically involve external experts appointed by, but operating (to varying degrees) independently of, government. The focus is on reviews where social security or the transfer system is a primary concern, so it does not cover reviews associated with wider welfare concerns such as housing, health or education.

The reviews completed in this period were many and varied. The descriptions and analysis of the reviews are based on published material. In addition to a wide-ranging historical narrative, and to provide some depth to the analysis, the paper explores a selected number of reviews in some detail. These are:

>    The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Social Security (1941-1946), chaired initially by the Hon John A Perkins MP and later by HC Barnard MP and tasked with identifying ‘ways and means of improving social and living conditions in Australia.’

>    The Commission of Inquiry into Poverty (1972-1976), chaired by Professor Ronald F Henderson and commissioned to undertake a wide and far reaching inquiry into poverty.

>    The Social Security Review (1986-1988), led by then Associate Professor Bettina Cass and focusing on immediate and longer-term reform of income support programs.

>    The Reference Group on Welfare Reform (1999-2000), chaired by Patrick McClure, and set up to provide advice on preventing and reducing welfare dependency.

>    The Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support (2004-2005), chaired by Professor Patrick Parkinson and tasked with reforming the Child Support Scheme.

>    Australia’s Future Tax System Review (2008-2010), chaired by Ken Henry and commissioned to set out a 21st century vision for the tax and transfer system, and the associated Pension Review (2008-2009) led by Jeff Harmer which reviewed pension payments.

The reviews are considered collectively under a simple framework. This framework uses three main criteria: review characteristics (what they look like); review process and activities (what they do); and review outputs and outcomes (what they produce and achieve).

The analysis provides some insights into the use of reviews in the welfare domain:

>    Broad and in-depth reviews of the transfer or social security system have been very rare. In the post-war period, there have been only two – the Henderson Poverty Inquiry (which also looked at wider aspects of welfare) and the Cass Social Security Review. Most reviews have focused on a particular aspect or parts of the social security system, or considered this in the context of a wider review (for example, a tax review or Commission of Audit).

>    A great variety in organisational forms has been used – Committees of Inquiry, Reference Groups, Task Forces and Reviews Panels, but no Royal Commissions (in the post-war period). Different forms have served different functions.

>    Reviews have, however, used similar methods (but with varying emphasis and effort) – undertaking research, conducting public and stakeholder consultation exercises, synthesising knowledge and building consensus. International comparisons were a common feature of the reviews.

>    The impact and influence of the various reviews has been mixed. To varying degrees, all of the reviews have influenced public discourse and enhanced the evidence base. Most have contributed to changes in public policy, in the short- or long-term.

>    Many common themes recur throughout the reviews, for example, the links between the social security system, employment and the labour market; the obligations of welfare

1recipients (conditionality); the targeting and means-testing of payments; the adequacy of benefits and incentives/disincentives to work; and the relationship between the tax and transfer systems. These are all challenges and tensions that prevail today.

The ‘value’ of reviews stems from a range of factors:

>    They are versatile and multi-functional (combining research, consultation, consensus- building and analysis in one entity and to fit the task at hand).

>    They provide time and a space outside of the day-to-day demands of government (and beyond the limits of departmental or institutional boundaries) to refresh knowledge and think critically, creatively and long-term.

>    They are ‘public’- involving stakeholders and the wider public, publishing terms of reference and reports and thereby engendering transparency in process and findings.

>    They are usually led by, and involve, external experts, bringing expertise and knowledge to the policy process that is often not available within government.

>    They are (to varying degrees) independent, operating at a distance from government and populated mainly by external members.

>    But, they are also connected to government - commissioned by government, resourced by government and frequently involve public servants in their membership.

The analysis finds that there would be merit in on-going evaluation of reviews (and public inquiries in general) and of introducing a method by which knowledge (of members and administrators) can be captured and shared, for example through a Review Handbook or a mediated alumni program for ex- reviewers.

Publication Details
Published year only: 
Subject Areas
Geographic Coverage