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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1128

Mr WEBSTER(1.45) —It has suddenly dawned on the professional party machine men who run the major political parties in this country that declarations of commitment to the family are election winners. Subsequently, each party will come before the electorate sometime in the next 12 months with family policy packages and family oriented election slogans. I can hear the people around Australia, especially the mothers, saying: `Hear, Hear! It's about time.' The task ahead of the Parliament will be to turn the slogans and declarations into prudent and comprehensive policies. I believe it will be the responsibility of the Parliament to transcend party politics on this issue. Our task as parliamentarians will be to consider the tax and welfare options on the basis of the community good and the rights of children rather than on the basis of electoral advantage, party allegiance or factional pressures. Many years ago Australia affirmed as a nation the declaration of the rights of the child. As a result we are beholden to a moral obligation to uphold the following principles:

Principle 2

The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.

. . . .

Principle 6

The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.

Unfortunately we stand as a nation of hypocrites. More and more of our children are being denied the opportunity to be raised in a loving and balanced relationship with a mother and a father. More and more are living in poverty and disadvantage as a result of the explosion of single parent families. More and more of our children are deprived of any father at all. Our laws make divorce all too easy, our social security system robs marriage of its status by rewarding divorce or de facto alternatives, our tax system punishes any couple which chooses to provide their children with the full time care of one parent, and our community tolerates the developmental perversion of our children which results from the increasing exposure to pornography, violence and drugs. Last year a task force set up by President Reagan grasped the nettle on this issue by declaring:

Intact families are good. Families who choose to have children are making a desirable decision. Mothers and fathers who then decide to spend a good deal of time raising those children themselves rather than leaving it to others are demonstrably doing a good thing for their children.

Public policy and the culture in general must support and reaffirm these decisions-not undermine and be hostile to them or send a message that we are neutral.

One of the things we will have to do if we are to be serious about the family in this regard is undertake a hard-headed review of welfare-something that is long overdue. Not all compassion is effective. Some acts of compassion are counterproductive. Much of our welfare in fact works against the family. It is soft-headed. Consider the conclusion of one review of United States welfare in the 1960s and 1970s:

A government's social policy helps set the rules of the game-the stakes, the risks, the payoffs, the tradeoffs, and the strategies for making a living, raising a family, having fun, defining what `winning' and `success' mean. The more vulnerable a population and the fewer its independent resources, the more decisive is the effect of the rules imposed from above. The most compelling explanation for the marked shift in the fortunes of the poor is that they continued to respond, as they always had, to the world as they found it, but that we-meaning the not-poor and un-disadvantaged-had changed the rules of their world. Not of our world, just of theirs. The first effect of the new rules was to make it profitable for the poor to behave in the short term in ways that were destructive in the long term. Their second effect was to mask these long-term losses-to subsidise irretrievable mistakes. We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead. We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap.

Last year I issued to my colleagues and me this challenge, as recorded in Hansard:

Will we acknowledge that there is an optimal family structure which should be promoted by tackling the social, economic and political pressures which currently subvert it? Do we have the intellectual and moral capacity to discern appropriate policy mixes which will create an acceptable balance between individual aspirations and marital and family need and obligation? For example, will we continue to ignore the fact that there is a socially preferable mix of home and parental duties, occasional child care and casual employment for a woman in the first years of her responsibility as a mother, and are we incapable of reviewing policies and employment practices to support such a mix? Do we have the courage to speak to an increasingly hedonistic, nihilistic community about self-sacrifice and the forgoing of personal options, especially in the interests of children? Are we willing to speak the truth about individuals who shirk parental obligation, tear up marital commitments, abuse their spouses? Or will we shirk our responsibility for fear that our own lives betray the values we need to promote, and hide beside some vacuous principle of neutrality? Are we to become mere problem solvers, technocrats who believe in nothing and affirm everything so as not to offend anyone.

That challenge still stands, but it must be supplemented by the following one: Whether the packages our party advisers put together for the elections favour tax or welfare reforms will not matter. What will matter is whether we can ignore our minders-organisational and ideological-and work together to stop the harm current policies, by commission and omission, are doing to families. Whether we can create a pro-family cultural and political environment for this nation, whether we will put children before opinion polls and party and whether we will act as statesmen rather than politicians are the important questions.