As some of your speakers earlier today will have made clear, adjectives like 'conservative' can be a bit risky, especially when we all think we know what we mean.
You can take for granted that we don't mean old- fashioned welfarist social policies, with burgeoning social security budgets, trying to solve problems simply by chucking money at them. But neither do I mean a return to that other mythical social utopia, where blacks, women, homosexuals and any other uppity group either don't exist or at least know their place if they do.
...Mainstream social conservatism is to me - and I don't think that I am here stretching the definition beyond permissible limits - based solidly on classical liberal notions of free individuals working within the necessary constraints of their own duties, obligations and responsibilities. Here I think the rights of the free individual are the mainstream; his obligations are a renewed conservative emphasis.
This is not conservatism of the nostalgic kind. We recognise that human beings in society react to institutions in certain ways, recognise that some institutions have put incentives to behaviour in the wrong places. The accepted wisdom of post-Beveridge Britain, post-Johnson America, post-Whitlam Australia has slowly given way to a more sober appreciation of the fact that what we have actually done in the social area has fallen badly short of what we were trying to do. The writings of people like Julian Legrand in Britain and Charles Murray in America have been important here. In Australia the evidence has not been assembled as usefully, the arguments have not been advanced as clearly.
There is no reason, however, to believe that we have done any better. Putting together the bits and pieces, however, it is already possible to say that here as elsewhere, many social policies have not only produced undesirable outcomes, but have worsened the outcomes they were meant to improve. At best, they have, too often, failed to make an impact In making this point I don't wish to overstate it There are areas where positive public action has resulted in measurable improvement in social con- ditions. The simplest example is in the field of aged welfare where the poverty statistics clearly show that since the early '70s the aged have been largely removed from the group living in poverty measured by the records of those who administer emergency relief. The extension of benefits in this area has without doubt contributed to that improvement in the financial position of the aged in the community. What I am trying to say is that we are not in the business of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
But in turning to areas of failure it is not hard to find examples. We can look at
to name perhaps only the most obvious cases.
As Charles Murray in particular makes clear, there are no easy, ideal solutions. Politicians, even if they are a little better informed (I hesitate to say wiser), still have to do the best they can. But clearly in the areas I have named, as in many others, the solutions we do come up with have to be better designed, with a better understanding of likely outcomes.
It is dangerous to generalise about the position of the unemployed where circumstances vary so much from region to region and individual to individual. Policy making is also made very difficult by the fact that most of the available evidence is anecdotal rather than systematic, but even in an economy which is currently not providing employment opportunities for many individuals there are areas where it is clear that the incentive to take available work is simply not there. Where the work is seasonal, where it is arduous, where it involves regular attendance on a factory production line, where it is simply not interesting, there is obvious resistance to regarding it as acceptable work on the part of some of the unemployed. My own experience suggests that these problems will never be solved by the administrative application of a work test alone. The margin of advantage between a low wage, less pleasant work and being on unemployment benefit, and making some additional income (declared or undeclared to taxation and social security) is too slim for many. Other countries solve the problem by having systems which provide unemployment relief for limited periods only. We will certainly need to provide in our forthcoming policy pronouncements for policy changes which will alter the balance and increase the incentive to work.
...An area which has seen increased irresponsi- bility is in the abandonment of domestic responsibility for spouse and children by far too many. Single parent families are common in Australia and sadly that seems likely to continue. Children with only one parent are comparatively rare yet a majority of children living with one parent are not sustained and supported by the other.
As I have said before there is nothing hard or 'right- wing' about the proposition that the primary responsibilities for the case of children rests with the parents. That simple proposition which has been traditionally accepted in Australia is affirmed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. The system in Australia at present is not designed to promote that basic personal responsibility. The social security system rightly provides a safety net for the single supporting spouse and relevant children. The Govern- ment has however removed the requirement to seek the support and assistance of the non-supporting parent as a condition of obtaining taxpayer funded assistance. In turn, the Family Law Act requires the court to fix maintenance after having regard to the availability of social security assistance. When maintenance is pay- able it is in fact often not paid because the methods of collection are inefficient.
In all these areas change is required, not least to provide a signpost to society that personal responsibilities are required to be met. At present the signpost points in the opposition direction.
...A policy for Aboriginals which is at the same time effective, generous, moral and politically workable, will not be easy to achieve.
The political and moral difficulties flow from the now well-established white backlash which will limit support for Aboriginal advancement programmes. The practical difficulties, the failures, are apparent to all and yet even the much criticised policies of the last 10 years have achieved a reduction in infant mortality rates and improvements in areas such as housing At the same time there are daunting areas of policy failure and the frequent anecdotal evidence of unem- ployable Aboriginals is now buttressed by follow-up research done by the late Dr. Charles Rowley, which shows a sharp rise in unemployment among Aborigi- nals in rural New South Wales between the years 1965 and 1980. After noting that 1965 was a drought year, Dr. Rowley records that the unemployment rate for Aboriginal men was then 21% and in 1980, 53%.
Of course there has been a decline in demand for unskilled labour and the bad news is accompanied by an indication of some increase of employment in more skilled areas. But I have seen enough of the situation to know that high unemployment and a high incidence of alcohol abuse are two of the legacies of the policies we have pursued in the past.
Failure of the education system to make any considerable breakthrough notwithstanding special programmes of assistance is another area of concern.
Here, as in other areas, the question is how we find policies which will put incentives for Aboriginal Australians in the right place. How do we devise policies which will encourage, if not require responsible individual behaviour, which lies at the heart of improvement in areas such as health, education and employment?
Clearly the hand-out mentality is counter productive in that context. We must be prepared to be generous to the statistically most disadvantaged in our community but the generosity must be in providing opportunities for advancement through self help. An example of the sort of approach which must be added to and improved is the provision of community work in lieu of unemployment benefit in remote Aboriginal communities under the community Development and Employment Programme.
In touching on these few areas of social policy, I am simply trying to illustrate a consistent theme can be spelt out in practical policy proposals, all of which have in common
Most of these policy reforms will, of course, have an effect, a positive one, on the economic side; but I should perhaps add then that this is not the basic motive. What we will be setting ourselves to achieve is a responsible and caring society which is based on responsible and caring individuals. All of us are entitled to that, not least I might add, the children of Australia.
Speech to CEDA National Issues Forum: Melbourne, 30 October 1985