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A Delicate Balance

September 2007, no. 294

Weighing up Australian Values: Balancing Transitions and Risks to Work and Family In Modern Australia by Brian Howe

UNSW Press, $29.95 pb, 207 pp

A Delicate Balance

September 2007, no. 294

One of the major cliches of recent years is the retiring politician’s parting statement, ‘I’m leaving politics to spend more time with my family’. Indeed, the tensions between work and family commitments have become a regular topic in the media. Newspaper articles sometimes cite the views of prominent social scientists, whose academic publications affirm the popular view that society as a whole benefits from fostering a working environment that acknowledges the importance of family and community. With Weighing up Australian Values, Brian Howe, a former deputy prime minister (1991–96), becomes the latest in a long line of Australian authors to promote public policies that encourage work-life balance.

As a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments, Howe gained much experience in portfolios that addressed community welfare issues, such as social security, health and housing. His current work as a professorial associate in the Centre for Public Policy (University of Melbourne) continues his interest in social reform: Weighing Up Australian Values is a product of Australian Research Council funded research into future directions in Australian social policy. Howe’s book presents a strong case for governments and business to take greater responsibility for the social consequences of economic policy.

Since the 1980s, Australian governments have been legislating to produce a less regulated labour market, which has created greater flexibility for business to set working conditions for employees. As Howe argues, business frequently ignores the changing social needs of workers. For example, despite the increased participation of women in the workforce, many employers have been resistant to creating working conditions that are family-friendly.

Howe’s solution to reconciling current market ideology with the social needs of a modern society is to pursue the notion of transitional labour markets (TLMs), an idea formu­lated by German social scientist Gunther Schmid. Among other things, TML policies are designed to alleviate, or at least anticipate, the risks involved when an individual combines or substitutes work with non-market activities such as caregiving, education and civic involvement. In short, Schmid and Howe believe that government has a legitimate role in investing in individuals at various stages in their careers. Such investment could turn the risks involved in transitional processes, such as phased retirement, into opportunities for a better life for the citizen and society at large.

The notion of time sovereignty in the workplace is one of Howe’s key recommendations. The author advocates time banking, whereby workers accrue credits for working intensively at certain phases of their careers, and can subsequently use that credit for extended leave or shorter hours. Howe approves of the social policies of some European countries which have leave schemes that institutionalise sabbaticals, and encourage unemployed people to gain work experience while the regular worker is on leave. Howe does not, however, explore how social policies can be developed to cope with the inevitable tensions created when the short-term worker is again placed in the dole queue when the ‘real worker’ returns.

Aside from time banking, Howe argues that workers should have the flexibility to undertake lifelong learning while gainfully employed, reasoning that, since employers have drastically reduced their commitment for internal skills training, they need to allow their employees the time off necessary to upgrade skills. The author champions the creation of lifelong learning accounts, which would involve regular salary sacrifice on the part of the employee, topped up by contributions by government and employers. The lifelong learning account could then be used by the employee for training purposes. The scheme could also be applied to the unemployed. Some unemployment benefits could be set aside for learning accounts, which could then be drawn upon by the individual.

Howe is especially focused on the contribution that governments can make to secure a fairer TLM process. The author also believes that part of Australia’s national agenda should be to ensure that maternity leave is available to all female workers. Unfortunately, Howe introduces European TLM concepts without providing the reader with a detailed blueprint for Australian reform. The extent to which Howe is content to uncritically quote and paraphrase Gunther Schmid’s writings is excessive. Many Australian social scientists, including Don Edgar and Barbara Pocock, have been grappling for several years with these issues. It is therefore surprising that much of the Australian literature on family-friendly work policies is largely underplayed in the text in favour of European examples. Moreover, while Howe makes liberal use of Australian statistics to bolster his case for reform, these figures are at times five to ten years out of date.

As Howe acknowledges, for the TLM idea to work there needs to be a change of culture in both government and industry. Such a culture would value the contribution to society of education and training, parental care and the pursuit of cultural enrichment. Yet, it might be asked, ‘How can a culture that values both work and non-work activities flourish if economic rationalism remains the dominant framework around which work is structured?’ Howe is largely silent on this question. Nevertheless, Weighing up Australian Values is a useful introduction to public policy ideas about the work-life balance that have been debated and partially implemented over the last two decades, chiefly in Europe.

Lyndon Megarrity reviews 'Weighing up Australian Values' by Brian Howe

Weighing up Australian Values: Balancing Transitions and Risks to Work and Family In Modern Australia

by Brian Howe

UNSW Press, $29.95 pb, 207 pp

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