POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES: by Senator Steve FieldingNews Weekly
How family-friendly is the free market?
, November 10, 2007
The ideology of free-market economics, which dominates Australian politics, is often in conflict with conservative and community values, argues Family First leader Senator Steve Fielding.May I stress at the outset that I support free enterprise, not unfettered free markets.
In our market-driven world we are constantly told that we are individuals and that we have choices. We are told that we make rational decisions in our own interests.
This philosophy overlooks the fact that we are also emotional human beings - members of families and communities - and very much influenced by our relationships with others.
The number one question parents ask themselves when making decisions is: "What's best for the kids? What's best for our family?" So why isn't the same thought process applied to the decision making of our elected political representatives across the country?
It is fascinating that so many of the major public policy debates in this country over the last two years, such as WorkChoices
, the Telstra sale and trade practices laws, have been seen as economic issues and debated as such when, in actual fact, they are family issues.Out of step
The mindset and language of the major parties, which have swallowed the free market mantra, are completely out of step with the attitudes and language of Australian families.
I strongly believe that economic policies should be reframed as family policies and seen in that light; so the focus is on what's best for the family and what's best for children.
When I delivered a speech in the Senate opposing the full sale of Telstra, on the grounds that telecommunications is an essential service for families and not one that should be totally controlled by the market, I received an e-mail from a Liberal backbencher, now a Minister, which referred to it as "a great fighting socialist speech".
This illustrates how ignorantly conducted the Telstra debate was. There was no understanding of the complexities of the issue; the clash of values between economic liberalism or the market on the one hand, and social conservatism or family on the other.
We have seen the struggle between the market and the family in the heated debate over industrial relations laws. Under the anti-family WorkChoices
legislation, workers on agreements or contracts are no longer guaranteed overtime and meal breaks, nor compensation for working on public holidays.
Traditionally, industrial relations has been seen as a subset of economic policy, along with wages, inflation, participation rates and so on. But IR actually represents the intersection of economic policy and social policy.
The eight-hour day has always been a social policy. Overtime and penalty rates were introduced to achieve the eight-hour day. They were not introduced to reward workers for working longer or anti-family hours. Rather, they were intended to discourage employers from employing workers for more than eight hours a day.
From a family point of view, discouraging anti-family hours is surely a positive, which is why my party called for an inquiry to examine the effectiveness of penalty rates and how such instruments might be adjusted to suit the needs of families and small businesses today.
I myself voted against WorkChoices
and, from day one, warned the Government that it was going too far; yet the Government arrogantly dismissed the concerns of the Australian community and betrayed its so-called battlers.
Sadly, it appears that Labor's approach is little different. Indeed, a Rudd Labor government would also allow any worker to give up conditions - such as overtime, penalty rates for working public holidays, weekends and anti-family hours, along with meal breaks and rest breaks - for more money.
Public holidays and penalty rates are about family time, not about money. And they were never intended to be traded away for dollars.
Sadly, neither of the major parties seems to understand this, as they both equate time with money. All the political parties talk about "family-friendly" policies, but they are really only market-friendly.
And so, too often, is big business.
Consider the workplace relations manager of the Victorian Employers' Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who has stated, "It's important individuals have their life in a reasonable balance so they are focused on the job."Shareholders
Take Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon, who says his workers should be grateful to have jobs and declares profits more important than staff. He says: "I sometimes get criticised for this, but I have always seen shareholders as our most important stakeholders. I know some CEOs say, 'Look after your customers, look after your employees, and the returns for shareholders will follow.' I do the exact opposite."
And what about a Telstra executive who was quoted as saying:
"We run an absolute dictatorship, and that's what's going to drive this transformation and deliver results … If you can't get the people to go there and you try once and you try twice … then you just shoot 'em and get them out of the way."
Trade practices law has been an important means of ensuring decent protection for small business, most of which are family businesses.
Here, the interests of big business and small business are not always the same. In fact, they are often totally at odds with each other.
In September last year, both the major parties supported the repeal of petrol-marketing legislation, which meant even greater market dominance by the major players. Both the Coalition and Labor did over small business to keep sweet with the top end of town.
The fact that both the major parties sided with the top end of town is a warning to small business that it cannot rely on either the Coalition or Labor to look after their interests.
The future of independent service-stations is now under a cloud. They play a vital role in keeping petrol prices as low as possible for families.Deregulated trading hours
Take the issue of deregulating shop trading hours. The mantra is that if people want to shop at 3am, you ought to let them.
It is interesting, however, that on the one occasion there was a vote, when people actually had to choose between being able to shop when they wanted and the impact on family businesses, they chose the latter. In February 2005, 60 per cent of voters in Western Australia said no to late-night trading during the week, and no to Sunday trading.
The majority of people in the West knew that deregulating trading hours would not only punish small, family businesses, but damage family life by intruding into precious family time.
It is no surprise that large retailers like Harvey Norman were among the retail giants lobbying for change, which would have seen independents squeezed out of the market in their quest for greater market dominance.
And it is no coincidence that, while Coles and Woolworths control a thumping 80 per cent of the grocery market Australia-wide, that figure drops to 62 per cent in Western Australia. Western Australia's peak business group has recently re-launched its battle to free up trading hours, yet farmers have warned it would only intensify the dominance of Coles and Woolworths and restrict the market power of primary producers.
A recent report by Relationships Forum Australia examined the connection between longer work-hours and family breakdown. It makes disturbing reading.
It concludes that Australia's economic prosperity has come at a price. In fact, it says that Australia is now the only high-income country in the world that combines long average working hours, a strong tendency for weeknight and weekend work and a relatively large proportion of the population in casual jobs.
The harsh reality, it says, is relationship breakdown and dysfunction. This leads to health problems, strained family relationships, parenting marked by anger and ineffectiveness and reduced child well-being.
I suppose it should not come as a surprise then that, in one study, only one quarter of respondents said that life in Australia was getting better.
Another important public policy issue is childcare. Here again, the pro-market policies of both the major parties are out of sync with the values of everyday families.
Earlier this year both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader spoke at a conference at the National Press Club. It is interesting that, when the Prime Minister spoke about subsidies for employers to provide childcare at their workplaces, he got no reaction.
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd spoke about Labor's policy to mandate 15 hours of preschool for every four-year-old - and Mr Rudd got no reaction.
But when Prime Minister John Howard spoke about his support for full-time parenting, there were cheers and loud applause.
It is disappointing that both the major parties have adopted pro-market policies focussed on commercial childcare centres.
How often our Treasurer trumpets the fact that the focus of the Government's childcare policy is to get mothers back into the paid workforce.
The key question is not "How can we get more mothers back into the paid workforce?", but "What is best for our kids?" Currently, parents who pay for ABC Learning Centres and the like, can receive up to $4000 every year in tax rebates. Yet families who want grandma to look after their child get nothing.
Instead of mandating pro-market childcare options, why not allow parents to choose alternative childcare arrangements and receive the same subsidy?
Both sides of politics assume that they can be both economic liberals and social conservatives.
By contrast, the American historian and social critic, the late Christopher Lasch, understood the importance of "the family business, the family farm, the family wage".
He believed the heart of conservatism lay in: "Lower middle-class culture, (which) now as in the past, is organised around the family, church and neighbourhood. It values the community's continuity more highly than individual advancement, solidarity more highly than social mobility.
"Conventional ideals of success play a less important part in lower middle-class life than the maintenance of existing ways. Parents want their children to get ahead, but they also want them to be good: to respect their elders, resist the temptation to lie and cheat, willingly shoulder the responsibilities that fall to their lot and bear adversity with fortitude. The desire to preserve their way of life …takes precedence over the desire to climb the social ladder."
I suspect many of us would readily identify with these values. Yet I wonder how many of us have ever thought that the economic orthodoxy which dominates this country undermines these very values?- This article is from a speech Family First leader, Senator Steve Fielding, delivered to The Sydney Institute on October 10, 2007.