The word “family” is not used much in legislation. This might surprise many Australians, because parliamentarians never seem to stop talking about families and family values.
The trouble is, to use “family” in legislation would require precise definitions and the reality is families come in all shapes and sizes and “family values” means different things to different people.
While they haven't yet made clear what they mean by this, the new Family First Party has called for “Family Impact Statements” for all potential Commonwealth legislation. What they seem to have missed is that parliamentary representatives are constantly taking into account the impact of legislation on families - and individuals. It's our bread and butter. It's what we do every day.
Conflicts arise not because one political party is “pro-family” and one is “anti-family”, but because we have different notions of how to support families and individuals, and because we have different notions of what defines a family. Labor's approach to families is non-prescriptive and non-judgemental. We support individual choice and want maximum tax relief and income support for Australians with dependent children.
Australian families have always been more diverse than the “typical families” trotted out during election campaigns to illustrate policy announcements, and policy makers ignore this at their peril.
In making policies for Australian families, it is vital that we deal with true notions of what families today are, and true notions of the pressures they face.
We shouldn't make policies based on some idealised notion of family in which two parents live with two children: Where father has secure employment and mother has infinite time to take full caring responsibility not only for the children, but for her aging parents and parents-in-law, and often also for sick or aged neighbours. (I’m not sure that this “ideal” ever existed, and if it did, I’m not too sure it was ideal for women.)
It’s no good saying that they are “pro-family”, as the Howard Government does, and yet make life more difficult for most families by creating an industrial relations environment in which work is increasingly insecure and casualised, meaning families can’t budget or plan ahead.
It’s no good saying you’re “pro-family” and presiding over massively increased hours of unpaid overtime. A recent report by the Australia Institute show that we work the longest hours in the developed world, longer than the Americans, Germans and even the Japanese.
That means not only that people are spending more hours away from their families, but that volunteering for community activities like coaching the kids’ sporting teams has become impossible: Our whole community suffers.
John Howard said in 2001 that balancing work and family was the “BBQ stopper” issue, yet everything his government does seems to make it more difficult for Australians to balance their work and caring responsibilities.
When asked during the election campaign what his government had done to address the “BBQ stopper” he looked blank, paused, swallowed and said he thought giving someone a job was the best way to help them manage work and caring responsibilities.
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