Still kicking? The Royal Commission on Social Policy, 20 years on.

Author:Barnes, Jo


In 1988 the report of the Royal Commission on Social Policy was published. This massive five-book opus included an extremely wide range of issues within its definition of social policy. The report was controversial and highly criticised at the time and has continued to arouse criticism since. In this paper we consider both the content of the report and its impact on a number of areas of continuing social policy significance. We find that, within those areas, a surprisingly high number of the proposals and recommendations have been put into practice, to a greater or lesser extent. Accordingly, we conclude that the report deserves to be evaluated in a more positive light than has often been the case.


The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones. (Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar) The purpose of this paper is to consider what effects the Royal Commission on Social Policy has had 20 years after its 1988 report. The content of the report was controversial at that time and much of it was criticised or dismissed. Our interest is in trying to establish what influences, if any, the report's findings have had on social policy developments since 1988. To put it more simply, we wish to investigate the extent to which the Commission was either a waste of time, energy and money or, on the contrary, a relevant and valuable contribution to debates on, and the development of, social policy.


The basis for social security, social welfare and social policy in New Zealand through the mid-to-late 20th century was laid down in 1938 by the (then) Labour Government's Social Security Act, which established a comprehensive modern welfare state funded by general taxation (Knutson 1998). In 1972 a Royal Commission on Social Security reviewed the benefits-related aspects of social security, concentrating on the extent, adequacies and levels of various benefits available to those deemed to be in need. Its report was written in what later proved to be the quite exceptional circumstances of the long boom that followed the Second World War. This boom in the developed industrialised democracies saw rising productivity levels, which were the basis of continuing low inflation, economic growth and increased social spending (Marglin and Schor 1990, Glynn et al. 1992, Royal Commission of Inquiry 1972:6-7). In those circumstances, the Commission's recommendations that there should be a substantial increase in the benefit system as a whole, which would allow beneficiaries to enjoy a standard of living "much like" that of the rest of the community and which would enable them to participate in and belong to the community (Royal Commission of Inquiry 1972:65), was both socially acceptable and fiscally affordable.

Unfortunately, shortly after the Commission released its report, the golden age came to an end. What followed at the global level for Western democracies was a prolonged period of recession, characterised by "continuing inflation and stagnant business activity, together with an increasing unemployment rate" (Conte and Karr 2001:n.p.). For New Zealand, "The period from 1973 to 1984 saw deteriorating terms of trade, declining balance of payments, increasing inflation, rising unemployment and minuscule or negative economic growth rates" (Knutson 1998:16). New Zealand was engulfed in the same stagflationary recession that was blighting all the major industrialised democracies. From 1975 to 1984 the government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Muldoon, increasingly intervened in the economy to try to resolve this crisis. When a snap election was called in 1984, sufficient former National supporters voted for a "free market" New Zealand Party, newly established by property investor Bob Jones, to enable Labour to win the election comfortably (Kelsey 1995).


The new government chose to deal with the crisis by implementing a series of radically neo-liberal economic policies, a move unprecedented in the Labour Party's own history and in the history of social democratic parties in the developed nations (Kelsey 1995, Castles et al. 1996, Easton 1997). The government deregulated, liberalised and privatised at a rapid pace. Its approach was popularised as "Rogernomics", in recognition of the key role played by free marketeer Finance Minister Roger Douglas. His political agenda for change was backed by the intellectual support of Treasury and the leaders of those major corporations affiliated to the Business Roundtable (Kelsey 1995, Harris and Twiname 1998).

Within the maelstrom of successive New Right economic reforms and the heated debates about them, in 1986 the government established a Royal Commission on Social Policy. Why did it do so? It can be argued that it was an attempt by Prime Minister Lange to salvage some of Labour's social democratic heritage and to ring-fence social policy from the more extreme elements within neo-liberalism who wanted to restructure the welfare state on US lines (Easton 1997, O'Brien 2008). Treasury opposed the establishment of the Commission (Kelsey 1995), and it has been argued that the Commission was to be "hindered by Treasury at every stage of its deliberations" (Castles and Shirley 1996:99, Cheyne et al. 2005:11-12)

The remit given by the warrant to the Commission was both extremely wide-ranging and at the same time highly constrained. Its terms of reference "were in two parts. The first hall set out what was to be investigated, the second ser out the standards of a fair society and the principle of the social and economic foundations o f New Zealand" (Easton 1997:135). The standards and foundations contained a number of "non-negotiables"; for example, adherence to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi but also acceptance of a "mixed economy" and the "responsibility of all people to be self reliant" (Cheyne et al. 2005:49). Within this framework, the Commission was to determine what policy changes were needed to "secure a fairer, humanitarian, consistent, efficient and economical social policy" and thereby "achieve a more just society" (Royal Commission on Social Policy [RCSP] 1988 I:v).

The potential conflicts and contradictions within that list of policies and goals were enormous. For example, it does not necessarily follow that a "more fair" society is also a "more just" one, as political philosophers have long been well aware (see, e.g., Rawls 1972). And a fairer and more humanitarian policy might well be in contradiction to one that is efficient and economical. The Commission was left with a difficult task, to say the least.

The Commission was meant to submit its report in September 1988. Its warrant also instructed it to consult widely and to adopt procedures "which encourage people to participate in your proceedings" (RCSP 1988 I:vii). In response it constructed an elaborate mechanism of public and interest group consultation that generated approximately 6,000 submissions. It held meetings throughout the nation, many of which took place on marae (McClure 1998, RCSP 1987). But its deliberations seem to have been undermined by other activities of the government. (2) In December 1987 the government established 17 task forces to enquire into social policy issues, and also introduced an "economic package" that covered relevant social policy issues such as taxation, income maintenance and superannuation (RCSP 1988 I:721-722). These were in addition to the investigating committees into hospitals, education and social security administration which the government had previously established (Easton 1997:135). It is difficult not to conclude that this Commission was set up to fail.

Facing the prospect of its report being marginalised and all the work that it had done being made irrelevant (O'Brien 2008), the Commission decided to issue an "interim" report in April 1988. Published under the title The April Report, it was intended to be its "first Report" (RCSP 1988 I:722), but it was to be the final document produced by the Commission. The 1972 Royal Commission' s report was contained within a single volume, but The April Report comprised four volumes in five separate and lengthy books.

The report incurred, or has since gathered, criticism for a range of reasons. For instance, Easton (1997:135) characterised the report as comprising "four volumes and 4,004 pages ... of essays of varying quality--many mediocre, some downright embarrassing and a few of merit", and goes on to criticise it because it "almost entirely ignored poverty" (as a deciding theme of social policy) "covering the topic in a brief two (out of four thousand) pages". Shirley (2005) accused the Commission of having failed to provide a coherent framework for addressing social issues. McClure claims that the report was in fact used as a doorstop at the Commission's farewell celebration party, that it was presented in an unwieldy form, that it failed to tackle the issue of social policy funding at a time of budget deficit, that "few read it" and that it was "easily ignored by public servants and politicians" (1998:227-228).

There have also been more positive comments on the report. Kelsey (1995), for example, locates the values it identified (such as support for public spending on and provision of education and health services) as being important to New Zealanders as a core element of what they thought of as being a "good society". Cheyne et al. (2005:11, 50) argue...

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