Published by EH.NET (October 2011)

John Murphy, A Decent Provision: Australian Welfare Policy, 1870 to 1949.? Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. xvii + 270 pp. $125 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-4094-0759-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jill Roe, Department of History, Macquarie University (emeritus).

This title appears in the Modern Economic and Social History series, edited by Derek Aldcroft. Its author, John Murphy, is an associate professor in history at the University of Melbourne. His book is a welcome addition to the series, and makes a significant contribution to a field that sometimes seems to have fallen into disarray.

The question posed by A Decent Provision is this: Is there, or has there been, an ?Australian way? in welfare? If so, what are the main aspects of its exceptionalism? In this valuable and illuminating study of Australian welfare policy from the colonial charity debates in the 1870s to the achievements of Labor in government at the national level during and after World War II, Murphy shows how a non-contributory, means-tested system of provision emerged and remained intact in Australia until the mid-twentieth century, and to a considerable extent, survives to the present day.? He also shows that how the system survived was not as straightforward as is sometimes supposed.

The nine chapters in A Decent Provision fall into three main periods: the late colonial years, the interwar years, and the 1940s, with chapters on the early twentieth century and the Depression pivotal to 1940s outcomes. The ghost of the British Poor Law hovers over all, with colonists determined to be free of it even though they were not exempt from the problems it addressed. Arguably keeping the state in the background made things worse for the poor, and fear of pauperism persisted. Nor was that fear assuaged by the growth of subscriber-based asylums and hospitals, church charities, and self-help societies. The introduction of non-contributory old age pensions in Victoria and New South Wales in 1900 grew out of the stigmatizing ?mixed economy of colonial welfare.? Murphy argues that the means-tested pension was backward looking; but he also shows why New South Wales? provision was better than Victoria?s, due not only to the greater strength of the labor movement but also a longer and stronger experience of charitable administration.

A pivotal Chapter 4 outlines the policy developments of the new Commonwealth, with the introduction of non-contributory old age and invalid pensions nation-wide and universalist maternity allowances to complement compulsory industrial arbitration, all within the white Australia policy.? In a vivid phrase, Murphy sees these developments in the ?glow of the New Protection? (p. 102). The theoretical contours of his interpretation also emerge, with American Jacob Hacker?s notion of an ?path dependence? in The Divided Welfare State (2002) and Francis Castle?s account of antipodean exceptionalism in the Working Class and Welfare (1985) most relevant.

Later chapters address a renewed emphasis on charitable endeavor, the failure of attempts to introduce social insurance in the interwar years, and the ?catch-up? achievements of the Labor government in the 1940s, culminating in the Consolidated Social Services Act of 1947. Regarding charitable endeavor, in the new field of repatriation Murphy utilizes Stephen Garton?s The Cost of War: Australians Return (1996) to demonstrate, on the basis of statistical evidence, that the resultant Commonwealth provision for veterans really did create a parallel welfare state in Australia after the Great War. A similar argument about the failure of charitable provision is also key to the Depression experience, wherein State administrations? hopes to leave unemployment relief to charities failed miserably, except perhaps in the non-judgmental Catholic sector, an area to which Murphy has made a particular contribution in recent years.
In what to my mind are the outstanding chapters of A Decent Provision, Murphy takes a fresh look at why conservative attempts to introduce a contributory regime failed in the 1920s and again in 1938-39. It emerges that it was not so much labor antipathy or even the real difficulties of escaping an established path of benefits a la Hacker, but employer concerns about added costs to the family wage already paid under the arbitration system. That is to say, Murphy proposes a variant of the Hacker thesis, that early choices would shape later options (p. 155) in conjunction with Castle?s class-based approach.

It is in this way that Murphy arrives at a far from triumphalist interpretation of the achievements of 1940s Labor governments. Having been ambivalent about a contributory system in the interwar years, the Labor leadership found the way, with the help of Keynesian economics and tax reform, to strengthen existing provisions.? Theirs was a solid achievement, but limited to targeted income supports, and with the male breadwinner still central to provision (p. 226). The minimalist approach, not to be sneered at however, was applied also to Aboriginal women?s needs (p. 213)

Perspectives have changed greatly since the heyday of statist social policy studies in the 1970s, and understandings of earlier provision in Australia have been quite hard to track in recent times, with emphasis on the voluntary sector, including the religious sector, and the problems of race and gender. While Murphy has based his interpretation on the most recent theoretical models, his analysis rests on careful, up-to-date research and scholarship, a balanced approach is sought, and the classic works get their due. It is to be hoped that A Decent Provision makes its way speedily into teaching and research, and indeed policy-making. As is emphasized in a brief conclusion, which contains a summary of sometimes startling policy changes since the 1940s, the big issues do not go away.

Jill Roe published Social Policy in Australia: Some Perspectives, 1901-1975 (ed. with commentary) in 1976. Her most recent publication is ?Voluntary Action and the Rural Poor in the Age of Globalization,? in Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World (2011).

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