Housing in a federation: from wicked problem to complexity cascade?

James Walter, Carolyn Holbrook

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4 Citations (Scopus)


The Commonwealth's periodic attempts at housing and urban policy reform since the 1940s have been made in the face of a federal structure that allocates responsibility for such matters to the states. This paper explores the experience of federal governments since the 1940s, considering the various styles of political leadership, varying ways in which the problem has been framed, and differing policy settings that have been employed in resolving policy challenges. The historical narrative clarifies phases of active engagement and reaction, linking these to fiscal asymmetry and distribution of federal-state responsibilities, historical 'gateway' events, and transitions in policy paradigms. We argue that housing is a perpetual concern (both a basic need and an aspirational objective) and is so integrally related to other policy domains-in which decisions may have unintended consequences for housing-that it is never conclusively resolved. The complexity (and uncertainty) consequent upon these inter-relationships ensures that housing remains a wicked problem. The visual metaphor of a complexity cascade, however, may assist a more nuanced appreciation of the direction of policy travel. © 2015 Institute of Public Administration Australia.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)448 - 466
Number of pages19
JournalAustralian Journal of Public Administration
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Complexity cascade
  • Federal-state relations
  • Housing
  • Policy domains
  • Wicked problems

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