A comparison of the evidence base of Separated Family Income Support legislation passed during the 41st, 42nd and 43rd Australian Parliaments

2017-11-27T22:55:46Z (GMT) by Nancy Louise Scherger
In 2008, early in the term of the newly elected Rudd Government, commitments to evidence-based policy emerging from the Australia 2020 Summit raised community expectations and implied change in the way government social policy decisions would be taken and implemented. In order to test this promise, I examined the Budget Appropriation legislation relating to separated family income support over the period 2005 to 2013, covering the 41st, 42nd and 43rd Australian Parliaments.

Since there is little agreed between researchers, policy makers and legislators about the effective transfer of information, knowledge or the results of scientific research into policy and legislation, I adapted the ‘Knowledge Governance Approach’ that cuts across the fields of knowledge management, organisational studies, strategy and human resource management. When combined with strategies to measure material used in policy and legislation ranging from empirical research to uniformed rhetoric, this framework resulted in a replicable, comparative, quantitative and quantitative study of the three Parliaments.

Researching this topic, however, was not straightforward as few individual Parliamentary Members identify the ‘evidence’ they have relied on, and references are not cited in enactments. Further complicating this challenge, the Australian community continues to be shaped by Western and traditional mainstream European philosophy, dominated by male gender bias. This produces ‘binary thinking’ and perpetuates ‘the fundamental enforcement of masculine rights to space and power’. These influences appear to be reflected in many gendered social imbalances, such as the maintenance of traditional marriage, the nuclear family, failure to assign an economic value to child care, and wage disparities between men and women. These societal divides affect female-headed households disproportionately, so that they do not seem to be recognised as a specific sociological group faced with sole parenting demands, and have been progressively transferred to general lower income support allowance categories that force them to compete for employment with others without caring responsibilities. In light of these entrenched social, cultural and legislative constructs, irrespective of the commitment to base policy on evidence, it was hypothesised that there would be no difference in the evidence used by legislators over this period.

The research finds that there was no statistically significant increase in the reliance on evidence following the Rudd Government commitment and confirms the continued use of traditional gendered stereotyping, cultural norms and language. Non-evidence-based statements were observed to increase statistically significantly during the 42nd into the 43rd Parliaments. These findings heighten concerns that internalised lifelong messaging and ‘second generation gender bias’ permeate our legislature, preventing change and preserving the ‘… heritage of inequality’ for female-headed sole parent families.

To address these inequities it is proposed to introduce ‘rules of evidence’ into Parliamentary debate, mandate a method to cite the evidence relied on in enacted legislation (so that it can be easily accessed, tested and either verified or disproven), and establish a Parliamentary Research Office. Integrity in the content and use of evidence through these steps would help to confront the socially constructed gendered world views disadvantaging separated female parents and their children, while supporting broader community positive governance change.