CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Family First senator throws down gauntlet
, August 27, 2005
Senator Steve Fielding's provocative maiden speech has driven a spear through some of the current orthodoxy inside the Howard Government, that unbridled market policies are the best and indeed the only way forward.Those who thought that new political party Family First would be a soft political operation spouting feel-good slogans about the family will be rethinking their views following the recent maiden speech of Senator Steve Fielding.
The Victorian senator, who won a surprise election victory in the December election, has forced some of the fervent economic rationalists inside the Howard Government into an urgent rethink - particularly those who declare themselves "conservatives".
It was widely held that because Senator Fielding was a social conservative that he would probably support the government on most issues.
However, Senator Fielding's provocative speech drove a spear through some of the current orthodoxy inside the Howard Government, that unbridled market policies are the best and indeed the only way forward.
"Thirty years on from the cultural revolution, we can examine the results. And they are not what many intended," he said.
"Demolishing our traditional social structures has simply enslaved us to the market.
"And, where once the labour market respected the fact that workers had family responsibilities, today workers struggle to balance their paid work and family life."
Senator Fielding said that while families in Australia had become materially richer, they were also experiencing huge social problems, including high divorce and suicide rates, increased illicit-drug use, increased obesity and insecurity and uncertainty about the roles of parents and children.
Much of these problems could be blamed on open-slather market policies.
"The major parties struggle to reconcile their professed 'family values' with their 'free market' mantra - they struggle because the two cannot be reconciled," he said.
"The mantra of choice, competition and consumerism is in conflict with family and community.
"Often it seems we live in a world where few values matter except those of the market."
Among the "controversial" calls from Senator Fielding in his first speech to the Parliament was for a return to the norm of the eight-hour working-day and official re-recognition of a basic family wage.
The fact that the calls were controversial and that they provoked immediate criticism in some sections of the media for being backward-looking, is an indication of how far free market policy has impinged on families.
In an era in which weekends are disappearing, shopping hours are virtually unlimited and where parents are working longer and longer days, Fielding's suggestions are an uncomfortable reminder that the markets are there to serve people, not visa versa.
"One hundred and fifty years ago, our forebears fought for the idea of eight hours' work, eight hours' rest and eight hours' leisure," he said.
"It wasn't just about shorter working hours - it was also about the chance to participate fully in community life."
Present during Senator Fielding's speech were a few members of the House of Representatives, including Treasurer Peter Costello, who, according to some reports left the Senate chamber midway through.
Perhaps the criticism of a conservative government's economic policies actually being corrosive to family and community cut too close to the bone.
Job security, better wages and conditions, family-friendly workplaces, the family wage are among the specific issues Senator Fielding is laying down as markers.
Senator Fielding has put the government and the electorate on notice that his fledgling party is serious about policies which support and nurture families and family life.
This is no bad thing during an era in which so many social, economic and cultural factors are attacking the institution.
Senator Fielding has six years to get some runs on the board and to build on his base as sole Family First representative; but he is already making an impact on the policy debate.