FAMILY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Well-being of families and nation intertwined
, September 22, 2001
At the Australian Family Association's Queensland Conference last month, Peter Westmore identified a number of economic and demographic developments that are poised to shape - often detrimentally - Australian family life over the next decades.
Three years ago, the Federal MP, Kevin Andrews, co-authored a book called Changing Australia
, which documented the changes which have taken place in Australia in the past 50 years. Its Introduction, called, "From Baby Boomers to Generation X", summarised the changes in Australia in the following terms:
"In 1947, 86 per cent of females aged 30-34 had married; and only 4 in 100 children were born out of wedlock, although many more children were conceived prior to marriage. Less than one in five couples had no children. Only 5 marriages in 1000 ended in divorce, a figure that actually dropped to 2.8 per 1000 by 1961. Less than 10 percent of married women were in the paid workforce.
"Throughout the fifties, the nation boomed. Wave after wave of immigrants settled in a new home; agriculture prospered, mining developed; manufacturing expanded under protective regulations; unemployment was almost non-existent; and national savings grew. Australia was the 'lucky country' ...
"The election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 is portrayed often as a turning point in Australia ... Two decades after it passed through the Federal Parliament, the Family Law Act 1975 is perceived as the event which marked the turning point in family composition and interpersonal relations in Australia.
"The Family Law Act both reflected and reinforced a major cultural change in Australian society. As Elizabeth Evatt, the former Chief Justice of the Family Court, said of the Act, 'It can represent the way in which the law either engineers social change, or follows it, or runs parallel with it'."
Kevin Andrews added, "The advent of the contraceptive pill a decade earlier, of which Australian women were amongst the world's most enthusiastic users; the improving education opportunities for females; the freedom of the 'me-generation'; the rise of feminism as a political and social movement; and the introduction of the Supporting Parents Benefits in the early 1970s all reflected a cultural change.
"These changes had a considerable impact on relationships over the next two decades. The number of single parent families increased dramatically. The overwhelming majority of these families are headed by mothers. The divorce rate trebled. It is estimated that four in 10 marriages will fail over a lifetime. Half of all remarriages also end in separation and divorce.
"The proportion of all marriages that are preceded by a period of cohabitation increased from 16 percent in 1976 to 56 per cent in 1992. And today, one in four children is born out of wedlock."
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he pointed out, public policy has been dominated by issues of economic efficiency, which was seen a means of restoring economic growth after the dismal 1970s, re-establishing prosperity, and ultimately, building social and economic stability.
Sadly, this has not happened. After 15 years of economic "reform", National Competition Policy, privatisation of government businesses, deregulation of the financial system, and a range of other measures which, under the mantra of economic rationalism or globalism, were supposed to develop the country's national prosperity, at least 10 per cent of adult Australians cannot find full-time work; job security has collapsed; family breakdown is increasingly evident in drug abuse, family violence, homelessness and latch-key children; and a range of other social indicators point to the fact that increasingly, Australia is a society at war with itself.
As social researcher Jeanne Strachan commented, "Young couples today are the first generation since the war to face the reality that they often can't obtain, even with two full-time workers in the house, what their own parents saw as a fair and reasonable reward for their hard work."
And Mr Andrews concluded, "The era of hope and vision that produced the lucky country has dissolved into an age of anxiety."
So what are some of the more significant trends?1. Delayed marriage
Australians are delaying marriage, and an increasing number of people are not getting married at all.
In 1999, the median age at marriage for men exceeding 30 years for the first time, increasing from 28 years in 1989, and about 24 years in 1971. For women the median age at marriage in 1999 was 28 years, increasing from 26 years in 1989, and 21 years of age in 1971. (From ABS, Marriages and Divorces
, Cat. No. 3310.0) Part of this reflects the effect of second and subsequent marriages. But even for first marriages, the average age for men was over 28, and for women, over 26 in 1999.
An increasing number of people are also cohabiting before marriage, or not getting married at all. This reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in the institution of marriage, its permanence, and the necessity link between marriage and the family.
There is an accumulating volume of evidence showing that marriage is a very good indicator to health, employment, even life expectancy, and of course, is the best guarantor of the welfare of children.2. The "Cultural Revolution"
It is very difficult to identify a single factor which is responsible for the erosion of the institution of marriage over the past 30 years. Part of it is undoubtedly an aspect of the "cultural revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, a phenomenon documented by people such as the American historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb, George Santayana, and the founder of the Australian Family Association, B.A. Santamaria.
The mass culture - what people read in newspapers and magazines, see on TV and hear on radio - is largely controlled by a cynical collection of media moguls, PR men and advertisers, who exploit the youth market which in the United States is worth $150 billion a year. They are the "merchants of cool".
Dr Bob Birrell, of the Centre for Population and Urban Resources at Monash University, has documented two important developments. For women, it is mainly tertiary-educated women in their 20s and 30s who are not getting married - clearly because they are pursuing professional careers.
For men, on the other hand, exactly the opposite development has occurred. There is a high correlation between unemployment or earning low incomes, and being unmarried and in de facto relationships.
Dr Birrell's research, based on the 1996 Census, shows that for men aged between 25 and 44, the years of normal family formation, 20 per cent earn less than $15,600 a year, and 32 per cent earned less than $20,800 a year. For men aged between 40 and 44, earning less than $15,600 a year, a staggering 43 per cent were unmarried, compared to less than half this number earning above $52,000 a year.
Birrell showed a very strong correlation for men between high earnings and marital status, and a similar correlation between low earnings and divorce or separation.
Contrary to the widely held perception that the wealthy are the group that divorce, he showed that divorce is much higher for men with low incomes, and low educational qualifications.
His conclusion was that "Women still tend to look at men as ‘breadwinners', and are reluctant to take on a male partner who does not have the necessary income to fulfil the role."
At the same time, there has been a growth in the number of single parents, particularly women, who are lone parents.
Inevitably, children who have seen their parents' marriages fail are themselves less likely to marry, with long-term consequences for their own future, as well as that of society.3. The collapse in Australian fertility
The rapid decline of Australian fertility over the past 30 years is another issue which affects Australian families, and ultimately, the future of the country.
The ABS publication, Projections of the Populations of Australia: States and Territories 1995-2051
, reported that the number of children born per woman is 1.7, which is well below the replacement level of 2.1, required to maintain a stable population, down from 2.9 births per woman in 1971.
The consequence of this is that if present trends continue, Australia's population will rise to about 25-28 million in fifty years time, even allowing for current levels of immigration. If there was no net gain increase from migration, the population would peak at 20.7 million in 2033, and decline to 20.1 million in 2051. In any case, the figures show that during the 21st century, one of the major challenges facing Australia will be a rapidly ageing population.
The danger which this presents Australia are social, strategic and economic. A rising proportion of aged people in the population will inevitably mean a lower proportion in the principal reproductive years of 20-40, compounding the effect of population ageing in the future.
An increasing proportion of aged people will also place greater pressure on health care services, and possibly increase pressure for legalised euthanasia, if only to contain the health care budget, though also to handle the problems caused by an increase in the number of people suffering debilitating illnesses of old age, such as dementia and Alzheimer's.4. The assault on motherhood
One vital factor which is contributing to the decision not to have children is the high direct and indirect cost of having children, recently documented by Ann Crittenden, in The Price of Motherhood
, a book published early this year in the United States. She wrote that the choice to become a mother imposes high costs on most women, in both lower incomes and higher risks of poverty than men or childless women face.
She said that the failure of governments and employers to make systematic provision for bearing and raising children means that not only do women's incomes fall just when their family's cost increase; the interruptions to their careers also reduce their lifetime earnings and savings.
Additionally, she pointed out that unpaid work in the home does not count in the official economic statistics. The problem she describes are present around the world: the recent census in Australia also ignored unpaid work, most of which is done by women, in the home.
While Governments profess to be adopting family-friendly policies through government-funded child care centres and family taxation initiatives, these are clearly having little effect.
Another issue which confronts family policy today is the demand of the homosexual community for legislation to make homosexual relationships equivalent to marriage, and to secure the same rights of adoption and access to IVF as is afforded to married couples, in the name of homosexual rights and removal of discrimination on grounds of sexual preference.
Legislation has been introduced in a number of states to remove the preferential status afforded to married partners, in areas such as access to superannuation benefits, inheritance, compensation payments, disability benefits, and so on.
It is quite useless to argue the case on moral or religious grounds, as governments have abandoned any pretext of considering such issues long ago.
The point which should be made is that laws which protect families were designed to protect women who were often out of the workforce, working as homemakers, and their children.
This should remain the object of public policy. The assertion of rights by homosexuals will usually be at the expense of others: in this case, members of a family. The position which must be taken is that the law should underpin the natural family, and its members, ahead of any other relationship.
A pro-family policy must be built firmly on the basis of the right of children to grow up in intact families.
The secular humanist, libertarian social experiment of the Cultural Revolution forgot the irreducible needs of children - for the love, security and stability that only parents can provide, and which cannot be provided by institutions. Institutionalisation
At the very time we have been closing orphanages, in favour of placing children into families, we are institutionalising many children in child care facilities.
However, it is not sufficient to support the family unit. What is needed is a direct challenge to the culture which claims that marriage is obsolete, that children are an optional extra, or can be exploited for profit.
If we wish to address the crisis of fertility, the lack of respect for marriage and the family, we must proclaim from the rooftops that families are good, and large families are better, and that mothers who, as homemakers, hold together their families, are the true heroines of our civilisation.
To change public attitudes, we need to enlist public support, and the largest pro-family moral force within society is the church. Despite the inroads of secularism, around 70 per cent of Australians still describe themselves as Christian, and recent changes to the leadership of the two largest Christian churches, the Anglican and the Catholic, give me reason to believe that a new opportunity exists to build a new pro-family coalition in Australia.
Recent experience in Victoria suggests that the churches form a natural base from which to rebuild society. But they must give leadership, and we must help them to provide it.
Equally importantly, we must continue to exert pressure on Governments to support single income families, just as they support single parents through supporting parenting payment, and the two-income family, through their direct subsidies for child care centres, in each case, costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year.
As Mr Howard said in 1995, Australians must determine "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".
Some years ago, Bob Santamaria put forward the idea of the Homemaker's Allowance, to address the needs of single income families, to reduce the pressure on mothers to work, and in that way, to help employment among single men.
We recently asked a Melbourne economist to review the figures for the Homemaker's Allowance, to calculate the costs and the benefits. We asked him to calculate the cost of paying $322.80 per fortnight (about $8,400 per year), equal to the current Parenting Payment, to any family with dependents (youngest child under 15), where one parent chooses to be a full-time homemaker.
The allowance is designed to strengthen the family unit by allowing one parent to give their full attention to family and home, and allow more time for those parents to participate in a plethora of voluntary organisations whose services are indispensable to our society, organisations such as schools, Red Cross, welfare organisations, charitable groups, and so on.
He estimated that such an allowance would conservatively cost $6.3 billion, a large sum of money, but which could be raised by a five per cent primage on all imports, currently running at $120 billion a year.
Can it be done? It is technically possible, even if the forces arrayed against us are formidable. Frankly, I am not confident that it can be achieved. But unless we try, we will certainly fail; and with it, I fear, the Australia that we know and love will disappear.