PAST JUDGEMENT: SOCIAL POLICY IN NEW ZEALAND HISTORY Edited by BORNWYN DALLEY and MARGARET TENNANT OTAGO UNIVERSITY PRESS
Reviewing a book on the history of social policy in New Zealand in the midst of an election campaign inevitably focuses the mind on its value to the present and the future. Editors Bronwyn Dalley and Margaret Tennant set out to create that link by highlighting the ways in which historical perspectives can and should infuse contemporary policy debates with understandings that are more subtle, complex and multidimensional than usual.
At first glance, the 14 contributions to Past Judgement: Social Policy in New Zealand History canvass a random mixture of specific policies and general themes, written by academics, officials and practitioners. Their varied typologies, methodologies and disciplines turn out to be surprisingly complementary and are woven together in an introductory essay on "History and Social Policy" by Margaret Tennant. This provides a thought-provoking framework for appreciating the relevance of history to contemporary policy, the relationship between high policy and operational practice, and the place of the human dynamic in translating this to lived experiences.
Several themes emerge strongly and clearly from the collection.
First, understanding social policy means looking beyond its formal manifestation and stated intentions in statutes, policy manuals and political pronouncements to see what happens at operational levels and where policy intersects with people's lives. Reflecting on the history of old-age pensions ("Beyond the Statute: Administration of Old-age Pensions to 1938"), Gaynor Whyte stresses:
Eligibility rules, pension rates and other legislative criteria are just one element in the life of income maintenance schemes. The social and economic environment in which they are administered, negotiated and delivered also influences outcomes. (p.139) Too often, retrospective critiques of policy agendas, philosophies and practices assume a high ground for contemporary understandings that is unwarranted. As a result, those critiques are generally oversimplified. They fail to acknowledge the relevance of context and ignore the creativity with which practitioners can circumvent or amplify aspects of social policy in practice. Equally, such critics forget that present approaches are themselves transitory and liable to face similarly harsh assessments by future commentators.
Bronwyn Dalley's discussion of child abuse ("Deep and Dark Secrets: Governments' Responses to Child Abuse") argues that the phenomenon of child abuse, and related public debates and case work files, are products "of their times" that reflect prevailing concepts of the family, gender roles and dysfunction. Bronwyn Labrum ("Negotiating an Increasing Range of Functions: Families and the Welfare State") challenges contemporary analysts more directly in her essay on families:
Too often there is a considerable gap between what policy-makers in the past thought...