Social policy is having to adapt to changes in the Australian economy and in Australian society more generally. The role of the state is receding and expectations of what it can achieve are being lowered at a time when the economy is generating increased material prosperity combined with growing inequalities and heightened insecurity. Against this background, there is a need to understand how the nature of public opinion is changing so that the degree of support for new (or existing) public programs can be ascertained. The federal government has foreshadowed social policy as its main priority over the next few years and is shaping the parameters of a new welfare state built upon the principles of self-reliance, incentives, affordability and mutual obligation. Yet rather little is known about how widely these principles are shared within the community, and how public opinion has changed in response to broader economic and social change.