Founded in 1930, the Brotherhood of St. Laurence has long recognised the importance of research, policy and advocacy.

BSL has had a research capacity since 1943 when the first research officer was appointed. The Social Policy and Research Centre is currently Australia’s largest social policy research centre in a non-government welfare organisation, with more than 25 full-time staff.

What has changed and what has stayed the same?

There have been several stages in the evolution of BSL's Social Policy and Research Centre, each reflecting subtle shifts in the purpose of research and its role in driving social change.

‘Gut feeling and a sense of injustice’ (1940s–1960s)

In the early days, BSL research was designed to reinforce the advocacy and campaigning efforts of the organisation.

Fr Tucker, the organisation's founder, used research to inform new programs and improve existing welfare services.

Janet Paterson, the first Director of the Brotherhood's Research and Social Action Department (1965), noted that early research activities were driven more by a ‘gut feeling and a sense of injustice [rather] than [by] theoretical analysis’.

Dissemination included pamphlets containing hard-hitting messages, and BSL research articles appeared in radical publications such as Dissent.

Challenging negative stereotypes, changing community attitudes, identifying areas for policy reform (late 1960s–1990s)

From the 1960s to 1990s research at BSL responded to the perceived hardening of community attitudes towards poverty.

The research highlighted the experience of people living in poverty so that their problems would not be ‘overlooked’. This emphasis was reflected in qualitative studies aimed at ‘revealing’ information on issues such as high-rise public housing, family service delivery and unemployment. The Brotherhood developed a significant reputation for this type of research.

Running alongside these studies were some significant projects and activities that focused on social and economic policy, including work on the efficacy of the Henderson poverty line, child poverty, youth homelessness, the future of work, and taxation.

University research, evaluation capacity and life transitions, big picture policy ideas (1990s–present)

In the 21st century, BSL's research became more formally linked with the University of Melbourne with the establishment of a joint Professor of Social Policy/General Manager of Research and Policy position to lead the centre.

Emphasis was placed on building research capacity and leadership through the partnership. The work was guided by broader social frameworks such as ‘social inclusion’, 'place-based disadvantage' and 'inclusive growth'.

The BSL also shifted to a ‘life transitions’ approach to describe its work, and for the first time, a corresponding focus on children, youth, working-age adults and older adults was structured into research priorities.

The name Social Policy and Research Centre (SPARC) was adopted in 2022 to capture the fact that our research and evaluation work is not an end in itself, but rather is always directed at system-level reform and policy outcomes. We build evidence that will inform social policy and spark change to reduce poverty.

Consistent research themes

Over more than 70 years, certain topics have remained important in the BSL research activities. These include:

  • housing, particularly public and low-income housing options, the experiences of public housing tenants and the issues related to high-rise ‘flats’ in Melbourne
  • employment and unemployment, low-wage jobs and wage levels in general, the costs of living for unemployed persons
  • income support, specifically the adequacy of payments, age pensions, and cost of living requirements for recipients (at various times the focus on welfare has also led to Brotherhood research on tax reform, mutual obligation and job services)
  • family poverty and child poverty, including household-level poverty and ‘slums’ in the mid-20th century; children in poverty in the 1980s and 1990s; and youth unemployment, ageing and poverty issues in the 2010s.

Research and especially advocacy on aged care and defence of older, vulnerable Victorians, has also been a consistent area of focus across the decades although not to the same degree as the other themes.

Other research priorities

Other research areas have attracted the attention of our researchers over the years, include:

  • food security and food cooperatives (1983)
  • women and social security payments (1984)
  • the pressure of school costs, private rental, dental and health services and low-wage work (1990s)
  • the future of work (mid1990s)
  • tax reform (1997)
  • mutual obligation (2003)
  • employment and training (2004–)
  • social investment and social inclusion (2004–)
  • climate change and energy security (2008–)

Visionary leadership

The Centre has been blessed with strong leaders. Each has been driven by a passionate commitment to addressing poverty and inequity through knowledge making, evidence, advocacy and influencing:

John Reeves – BSL's first Research Officer appointed 1943, investigating public housing issues

David Scott – ‘organising secretary’ responsible for advocacy and public influence 1954

Elaine Martin – social worker appointed in research capacity 1963

Janet Paterson – first Director of Research & Social Action’ Department 1965

Judith O’Neill – Senior Research Officer 1967

Graeme Brewer – published ‘ground-breaking’ qualitative research on unemployment 1975–80

Concetta (Connie) Benn – Director of Social Policy, Research & Innovations 1977, led influential Family Centre Project (FCP) in early 1970s

Jan Carter – Director of Social Policy and Research 1985, launched Life Chances longitudinal study

Alison McClelland – Director, Social Policy & Research 1992, built strong links with ACOSS especially around tax and transfers issues

Professor Paul Smyth – General Manager of Research & Policy (joint professorial position with University of Melbourne) 2003–2013, built strong international links with social policy researchers

Professor Shelley Mallett  – Director of the Social Policy and Research Centre (joint position with the University of Melbourne as a Professorial Fellow of Social Policy) 2013–

(History largely compiled from BSL archives)