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Family Matters article

August 1993


The author argues that the government has failed to develop policies which improve the lot of families. Why is it, he asks, so difficult to achieve a family friendly policy framework? Three main reasons are proposed. First, there is a suspicion that family is a too conservative concept for policy-building. Second, the approach to social policy is piecemeal. The third reason lies in the nature of our government. It has too many levels, too many departmental policy contexts and an arrogant attitude towards letting people determine their own needs and how best they may be met.


This issue of Family Matters devotes a lot of space to articles about Australia's indigenous people. They are presented as a collection of indigenous voices about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family life has been affected since white settlement. Doubtless there are other views about some of the issues raised, but they tell a powerful story of disruption, dislocation, deliberate social policies aimed at denying and destroying the value of indigenous forms of 'family' life.

Although the trappings of 'charity' and distrust of 'inferior' forms of family care permeated the treatment of other social groups in the 19th century, through adoption, orphanages, compulsory schooling and other child welfare interventions, nowhere was it more horrific than in the child capture experienced by our indigenous people. Systematic racism, denial of the validity of other family relationships and their deliberate disruption by authorities who 'knew best' are shocking when one recognises the strength of such ties and their ability to survive as the basis of a proud identity over the years.

During 1994 we may well find that we have much to learn from the more inclusive family forms, the sharing of responsibility for nurturing and supporting children and other family members, the adaptation to a complex environment that characterises our indigenous people.

Rather than guilt, we need recognition; rather than shame, respect; rather than intervention, empowerment; rather than special programs, inclusion in a more caring community.

Failure of family policy

If the year 1994, International Year of the Family (IYF94), does anything, it has to be the bringing together of the conflicting and disparate threads of what passes for 'family policy' in Australia.

On the one hand, we have the Department of Social Security further reducing eligibility for family allowances, yet on the other hand the dependent spouse rebate is converted to a cashed-out home child care allowance that even the wealthy can get. We have the earlier attempt to divert young people from 'the dole' now undermined somewhat by reducing Austudy levels for those aged 16 years and changing eligibility to receive the payment.

Policy makers seem to have forgotten about equivalent income (income in relation to family size and needs) and decided that any family earning a combined income of about $60,000 must be 'rich' and not worthy of assistance with their key social task of raising Australia's next generation. And we have the sorry spectacle of revenue raising (yet again) from those 'comforts' and 'necessities' of life - alcohol, tobacco, and the ubiquitous motor car. No attempt here at progressive measures; we all pay the same increase. Families with children are hit harder by increases in indirect taxes because children are consumers but do not earn income.

The point is not that no policies have improved the lot of families, but rather that policies are all over the place, have capricious effects on different sorts of families and individuals, and do not consistently treat the task of rearing children as worthy of support.

Even worse, the last year has witnessed incremental but savage cutbacks in state funding for those very services that help prevent family conflict, breakdown, abuse and homelessness (see Robyn Hartley's article elsewhere in this issue.) It is not that such services don't need close examination for rigidities, inefficiencies and cost-effectiveness. But cuts are made to family-supportive services in favour of the more costly 'ambulances at the bottom of the cliff', where family pressures have reached crisis point and are often beyond repair. One has to ask how 'rational' is economic rationalism when it refuses to count the long-term savings from early and constructive intervention.As I said, in some exasperation, some years ago: 'Will a real family policy please stand up?' (Family Matters, No.19, October 1987).

Why is it so difficult to achieve a 'family-friendly' policy framework?

First, there is a deep and abiding suspicion that 'family' is too limiting, too conservative a concept for policy-building. There is a fear of, if not an express hostility to, viewing taxation, social security, health, child development, youth/women's/ageing issues within a family-responsive framework. Instead, the needs of individuals or particular interest groups are given priority. Yet as this Institute has always argued (and demonstrated through its research), every individual has a family, its form changes over time, and policies that ignore those very diverse family contexts do damage not just to family life but also to the individuals who live within them.

Second, there has been a piecemeal, incremental, patching-up and tinkering at the edges approach to social policy. Instead of developing some broad but clear objectives to use as a guide for policy strategies and then measuring their effectiveness, we have had narrow targeting and a greater division of interests between the rich and the poor.

Where are the statements, such as the following, that might lead to programs truly supportive of family and community life?

  • Investing in the quality of early childhood development is crucial for later educational success, reduced health costs, the creation of a multi-talented 'clever society'.
  • The task of being a parent is a first priority to ensure children grow up to be healthy, intelligent citizens of a tolerant and productive community.
  • Parents who work at home on child-rearing and other caring tasks need to be supported.
  • Social learning via participation in and responsible contributions to the community by children and youth are the keys to citizenship and a caring society.
  • Institutions outside the family (schools, businesses, banks, social welfare services) all have a duty in partnership to assist families in their caring tasks and should be responsive to family needs.
  • Preventive, supportive family services are preferable to, and more cost-effective than, crisis intervention later on in the process of family disruption and dysfunction.
  • Family and individual autonomy are to be encouraged over prolonged dependence on the state.
  • Family-supportive resources are preferable to family intrusive services.
  • The best judge of services is the client, not the remote administrator.
  • Universal access to family-supportive resources and services will meet diverse and changing family needs better than targeted, narrowly-defined and stigmatising service programs.
  • Every region/locality can define needs and draw on existing resources more effectively than any state or federal bureaucracy.

I could go on, and readers may disagree, but the point should be clear. At present we do not have a framework for actions that are consistently 'child friendly' or 'family friendly', or which put family support as a policy priority.

The third reason for this sorry state of affairs lies in the nature of government in Australia. Too many levels, too many separate departmental policy contexts, too arrogant an attitude to letting people determine their own needs and how they could best be met. This leads to inconsistency, combined with a 'controlling' mentality that denies diversity and stifles innovation at community level. The 'hand-out' rules, rather than the 'hand-up'. The main game is lost in policy incrementalism.

This Institute has always held that family diversity and change are inevitable in a modern world of increasing options, that no one family form is necessarily the ideal, to be imposed on all. But our research has also shown how strong is the goal of a mutually supportive relationship, how central to people's lives is a sense of security and trust, how harmful the obverse of conflict and disruption. We learn our basic social values within whatever family forms we experience as children. So despite the values of choice, autonomy, individual rights and ambitions, it is surely not asking too much that social policy should be directed towards encouraging stability, harmony, family choice about styles of living, devising inclusive ways of helping families 'do their own thing' within a responsive and responsible community ethic.

We need a high level of public discussion and debate about such issues during IYF94. An encouraging sign is the designation of a Minister for Family Services (Senator Rosemary Crowley) within the mega-department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services. But some radical rethinking and restructuring may be needed if we are to hope for a clearer set of priorities for Australian family support.