CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Family: The Heart of the Matter?

Apr 15, 1994

The International Year of the Family Council has launched its first discussion paper entitled “The Heart of the Matter: Families at the Centre of Public Policies.” The paper is the first stage of a consultative process that will culminate in a Final Report to the Government by the end of the Year.

The Chairperson of the National Council, Professor Bettina Cass, launched the paper yesterday in Canberra, saying that family policies were a crucial part of the government policy agenda: “Australia’s response to the International Year of the Family should promote a major shift towards strengthening support for families and reconciling our economic and social policy priorities.” Sounds good, but as one continues through the 25-page executive summary of the 92-page report, one soon realises that such pro-family rhetoric is actually backed up by very little substance.

Professor Cass assures us that families are not in decline – to suggest otherwise is a “myth”. Many divorcees, homeless youth, and struggling families might beg to differ. Indeed, the urgency of a solution will depend on the urgency of the problem, or the perceived problem. If it is assumed that the situation is not too bad, then only mild or cosmetic solutions will be offered.

That is the fundamental problem with this report and indeed with the mindset of the IYF Council. It cannot afford to admit that families might really be struggling, that government policy has tended to exasperate the problem, and only some radical changes to family policy will offer real hope to families.

The first step is to admit that the most evident family trend of our time is the deinstitutionalization of marriage and the steady disintegration of the mother-father childraising unit. The IYF Council barely mentions marriage in its report and it continues to perpetuate the canard that any form of family relationship is as good as another. The point is that overwhelming sociological evidence from here and abroad shows what commonsense already dictates: that children do best in a two-parent family and that marriage – with all its faults – is the best means yet devised for ensuring that environment. But of course to say such things today is not only politically incorrect but “intolerant” and non-inclusive.

The essence of the report goes like this: “Hi, we’re from the government, and we’re here to help you.” The drift seems to be that the government needs to do this and that for the family, with little emphasis on empowering parents to do the job themselves. Now obviously parents can’t do it on their own, and a sympathetic and supportive social structure is needed to help parents carry out their tasks. But there are two ways a government can interact with the family. It can either usurp the role of the family and take over its responsibilities, as the modern welfare state often does, or it can enable and empower the family to fulfil its historic functions. The former style is especially in evidence in countries like Sweden. The effects on the family of such cradle-to-grave welfare-ism have been disastrous.

The other way is for the government to help families to help themselves. A number of proposals come to mind. Financial help like income splitting, a homemaker’s allowance or simply lower tax rates for families might be considered. Equity in child care would be another obvious starting point. The current injustice to stay-at-home mums needs to be addressed. Support for the institution of marriage should also be given priority, both in terms of Family Law and in marital preparation and enrichment programs.

Such major reforms are hardly being discussed by the Council. They get a mention, here and there, but only as “ideas that have been proposed by various individuals and community groups”. As a case in point, income splitting is only mentioned in passing. It seems if the government were serious about such a proposal, it would at least be doing some costings, giving us some ball-park figures.

The proposals that are being canvassed seem to be fairly cosmetic in nature.  For example, the report proposes an “infant parenting allowance” for parents during the baby’s first three months of life (again, no figures are mentioned). But unfortunately a child tends to keep growing after three months. This proposal is a good start, but it doesn’t nearly go far enough. It is also a trap, in that parents are inveigled not to make the break with the workforce which the arrival of a baby warrants. This is quite important, if one considers the interests of the child, which Penelope Leach, for example, is now suggesting we do more carefully.

Another proposal, emphasis of work-place flexibility, is also helpful, but it doesn’t address the real problem. First, it assumes that most mothers want to be in the paid workforce, something which survey after survey has shown to be not the case. Many are there because of economic conscription; they would rather be at home with their young children if real freedom of choice were available. Second, it exaggerates the figures. The report states that most mothers are in the paid workforce. The problem is, the Bureau of Statistics defines full time workers as anyone who works an hour or more a week. If you take out all those mums who work a few hours a week, or only a few weeks out of the year, or whose children are grown up, then the figure jumps way down. In other words, most mothers with young children spend most of their time at home. So why emphasise work-place flexibility? Why not encourage assistance to those who choose to stay at home with their children?

Given that the Council is dominated by careerist feminists, and given that the Health Services Minister said last year that government policy was to “support labour market participation by parents with young children,” it is not surprising that the family which chooses to leave mum at home is getting short-changed.

Another proposal is equality in parental gender roles. Now if that simply means getting fathers more involved with their children and the chores around the home, fine. But one gets the impression that more is being promoted here – that parenting roles are simply learned and therefore completely interchangeable. However, family organization is based on very real, biological differences between men and women, and the evidence suggests that children suffer when these differences are overlooked or minimised. Indeed, evidence from Northern European countries shows that marriages in which a “role-reversal” has taken place have a high likelihood of breakup.

Last year the report of the National Commission on America’s Urban Families identified three prevailing national responses to family fragmentation: 1) deny the problem; 2) treat the symptoms; 3) change the economy. The Australian government seems so far to have adopted these approaches.

Family life is intimately woven into the larger social fabric. When families are weakened and undermined, societies suffer and social problems are exacerbated. Until the government faces these very real facts, its Year of the Family posturing will remain but lip-service. The Cass Report unfortunately gives us more of the same.

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