March 25th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Telstra - is there another way forward?

COVER STORY: Aged Care: where to from here?

BOOKS: 'The High Price of Heaven', by David Marr

TAIWAN: Taiwan election presents new challenge for Beijing

ECONOMICS: World economy: the rhetoric, the reality

PAKISTAN: Feudalism: root cause of PakistanÂ’s malaise

BUSINESS: Innovation, technology and the forces of change

Letter: Free trade and predatory policies


AGRICULTURE: How government kick-started land settlement

LAW: No Native Title on mining leases: Federal Court

POLITICS: SA swings away from major parties

FAMILY: Mr HowardÂ’s "forgotten people": AustraliaÂ’s families

JUSTICE: The facts behind the furore on mandatory sentencing

COMMENT: The war against drugs is not lost it was never started

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Immigration policy: whose view will prevail?

Letter: Federal control of resource development

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Mr HowardÂ’s "forgotten people": AustraliaÂ’s families

by John Styles

News Weekly, March 25, 2000
On January 29 this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Prime Minister John Howard's Federation Address with a blazing front page banner headline. "PM FLAGS FAMILY CRUSADE" it announced.

Exactly five years earlier, Melbourne's Sunday Herald Sun ran a John Howard "family" story upon the eve of his return to the Liberal leadership. Its headline declared, "HOWARD PUTS FAMILIES FIRST".

The Melbourne paper reported that John Howard planned "to resurrect the controversial families' policy as the central plank of his election strategy".

The "controversial" policy that senior Liberal sources had told the paper Mr Howard was eager to regenerate centred on alleviating the plight of the "traditional household". The article said Mr Howard believed traditional families were "under siege", had been "hit by high interest rates" and were "struggling to look after children while holding down jobs".

In 1996, with family-friendly measures enshrined in the coalition's election document, traditional families had reason to look to the incoming Howard Government with hope.

But on 1 July this year, the Howard Government will introduce a tax that discriminates against the traditional families that John Howard has always said he would support.

The tax in question is not the GST.

The agent of discrimination against many traditional families is the Timor Levy, which will hit many single-income, child-rearing families while ignoring households that derive the same or higher incomes from dual sources.

Starting 1 July this year, to help fund Australia's involvement in East Timor, the Federal Government will impose a 12-month income tax surcharge of 0.5 per cent on taxable incomes from $50,001 to $100,000 p.a., and one per cent on taxable incomes over $100,000 p.a.

John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello would like us to believe that the Timor tax is fair.

Following the announcement of the levy, Mr Howard went on ABC TV's 7.30 Report and told Kerry O'Brien, "I think the Australian community, while they may not like this, they will see it as a fair and decent way of coping with an unexpected problem. And I repeat, it's only for people earning over $50,000 and it's only for 12 months. It comes off after that 12 month period".

And in a press release last year, Treasurer Costello said, "The Government considers that the arrangements for the levy as announced are fair."

In other words, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer think it is fair that in a single-income family, with dependent children and a parent that stays at home to look after them, the breadwinner, earning say $60,000 p.a., is required to pay the levy. While in a similar family unit, two breadwinners each earning $50,000, for a combined annual income of $100,000, escape.

It is significant that in a society that has become acutely sensitive to so many forms of prejudice, this blatant act of discrimination against "traditional" families has occurred without expressions of outrage from those who control the public debate.

The Howard Government deserves credit for its initiatives that have benefited families. The income tax reductions introduced in the Government's first term, for example, were a positive measure. The sound economy, brighter employment outlook, health insurance rebate and relatively low interest rates are good for all Australians.

But the fact remains that without an allowance for some form of notional income-splitting in assessing income tax and special taxes like the Timor levy, single-income households are penalised.

It is a significant commentary on the state of affairs in this country when the very idea of providing such taxation equity for traditional families is labelled "controversial", as it was in the days when Mr Howard entertained the idea.

It was also significant that income-splitting for families was ruled out of consideration at the outset when the coalition formulated its taxation reforms.

In his 1995 manifesto, entitled The Australia I Believe In, John Howard said that at the 1996 Federal Election Australians would be "determining whether families are going to be subjected to more financial victimisation by national government, or whether national policymaking is going to give greater recognition to the central role that families play in our society and, in particular, whether the national government is going to act to reduce the growing pressures and costs being borne by families".

The Coalition's election manifesto was quite clear. "We will relieve the financial pressures on low and middle income families bringing up children," the document said.

"We will give families with young children greater freedom to choose whether one parent cares full-time for their children at home or whether both are in the paid workforce," it stated.

"We will address Labor's current discrimination against parents who choose to remain at home to care for their children in the early formative years," Mr Howard's statement of beliefs proclaimed.

That was 1995.

Fast forward to January this year to the Prime Minister's Federation Address, the declared aim of which was "to focus on the broad challenges confronting national policy making and to outline the priorities of the Federal Government in meeting them".

It represented what the Sydney Morning Herald called John Howard's "family crusade". As a "crusade" for traditional families, it compared poorly with his 1995 credo. In his 2000 Federation Address, Mr Howard steered well clear of that hallmark of the traditional family: full-time parental care of children. In the address, he made not a single direct reference to it.

Mr Howard referred vaguely to "the choices available to families in terms of education, health, family care and work opportunities".

"Social policies," he said, "will also need to take increasingly into account the rapidly evolving nature of family circumstances, in particular, the changing financial relationships between family members and the expanding role of women in our society more generally."

Mr Howard also called for greater workplace deregulation to accommodate "the differing ways in which families will want to combine work and family responsibilities".

It was that kind of fresh 2000 thinking, presumably, that imagined the education system as an alternative source of child day care, inspiring the Prime Minister's call for school hours "that better reflect modern family realities, needs and work patterns".

And in place of that steadfast 1995 guarantee "to address Labor's current discrimination against parents who choose to remain at home to care for their children", we have the year 2000 watered-down version: "Many parents are forging more flexible arrangements with their employers so that they can work from home and provide care for their children at the same time".

The prime ministerial wish list, as expressed in Mr Howard's 2000 Federation Address, reflects some of today's social realities. But those realities largely were brought about during 13 years of Labor rule. They were the kind of policies and initiatives that John Howard told us he despised. Now, it seems, that flawed fabric has been woven into his own agenda for the next 10 years (should his Government be around so long)..

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