Australian social policy has seen apparently contradictory developments over the period of economic restructuring. Social spending has increased based on a highly redistributive model while inequality has grown. This article explores the relationship between Australia's experience of economic restructuring and the political dynamics of an emerging 'dual welfare state'. Importantly, the article argues that Australian reformers did not reject the state per se, nor egalitarianism as an objective. Instead, reform sought to combine greater competition with compensation, generating larger inequalities in market incomes alongside growing social spending. The article explores how Labor combined neoclassical ideas about competition with a commitment to a 'small state' version of social democracy. This did moderate inequalities through the period of restructuring, but it also altered the dynamics of political contestation. The article provides two typologies to understand this political dynamic, arguing forms of marketisation opened the door to a political contest over the nature, rather than the extent, of public provision, while the model of targeting reinforced paternalist tendencies inherent in neoliberal reform.