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Do we really value families?



Politicians like to talk family. They talk about their own during campaigns, to establish their credential as human beings. They talk about ours, the 'working families' and 'family values' upon which socio-economies rest. There is even a party called Family First. But let's get real. We wreck families all the time.

A screen grab from Sunrise TV show on Channel 7. L-R Prue MacSween, Samantha Armytage, Ben Davis. Photograph: Channel 7/ SunriseEarlier this month, Border Force officials took without warning a Tamil asylum-seeking family from the small Queensland town of Biloela at 5am.

Nedasalingam and Priya were given ten minutes to pack, their Australian-born daughters (a toddler and a baby) hauled along with them to a Melbourne detention facility. Later flown to Perth, they would have been deported from there to Sri Lanka last Tuesday if it weren't for legal intervention. They were literally taken off the plane at the last minute.

This week, a paper tabloid and TV breakfast show (picking up from the tabloid) derailed the issue of Aboriginal child protection by proposing removals to white foster families. As South Sea/Darumbal journalist Amy McQuire sharply points out, this response is not only misplaced and alarming, but harmful. It stigmatises what ought to be restored, and strips agency.

If the usual defenders of family have said anything in defence of these families, I have not heard or seen it. Have they been defending only a certain kind of family all along?

That would be a pity. There is a lot to be said in terms of reorienting our society and economy around what makes all families flourish — including the ones that don't look like ours.

Most of our social problems are first located or sourced in the family: homelessness, substance abuse, gambling, youth detention, violence against women and children. These things are distinct and complex, but they also suggest failure in supporting families early on.


"It would be a pity if family were only some sort of morally prescriptive code, extolled only if it looks a certain way or is functional and privileged."


Our approach is still focused on the individual, 'problematising' them rather than understanding their context. It is not just that we take a silo approach but a reactive one, instead of being preventative or empowering. That might be why these issues are so intractable. We keep 'solving' the wrong end of the problem.

Teachers sense this in the limits of what they can do in the classroom, in how urgent it can be to support a struggling family. Students go home at the end of the day. Yet schools don't necessarily have the ambit or resources to catch that side of their life.

In a forthcoming episode of the ChatterSquare podcast, former Victorian children's commissioner Bernie Geary points this out as something we still miss, especially when it comes to looking out for young people at the margins:

'If we spent the amount of money that we spend on prisons and youth training centres ... on families in suburbs and country towns, to generate a healthy dynamic for these families, we wouldn't have them pouring into our system.' Even minor things like helping a single mother get her three kids to school every morning is worthwhile, he says.

Other things count, too: generating jobs to service the family (rather than the other way around), making houses affordable, enabling access to healthcare. It means accounting for the vulnerability of asylum-seeking and refugee families, and acting on input from Aboriginal families into decisions that affect their lives.

It would be a pity if family were only some sort of morally prescriptive code, extolled only if it looks a certain way or is functional and privileged. The reality is that we all are part of families, as diverse and needful as humans are. Family can make or break us.

And if politicians, as well as religious leaders, really value the family as the foundational unit of society, then they need to consider whether they are truly helping it flourish.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, family, asylum seekers, Aboriginal Australians



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Existing comments

Good article again, Fatima. However, again, what is needed is a broader discussion of political philosophies and sociological theories and their often deeply opposing views on the 'need' for families. Some (usually those who have not had good experiences of family) see the concept of family as 'destructive' and believe that the state should more and more take over the role of raising children and defining truths and values. Until we openly discuss this very real presence we are again not going to understand why the value of the family is being reduced. I seriously believe that most of us now don't really know why we should value family life.

Stephen de Weger | 16 March 2018  

Excellent article - thanks Fatima

Anne | 16 March 2018  

When a family is functioning reasonably well – and every family has its dysfunctions sometimes hidden, sometimes not – it provides a place where children can test their ideas and actions. Today’s world is a minefield when it comes to relationships and families today are really about establishing long term relationships and learning how to maintain them. The media and politicians accentuate the difficulties and these are real. The most important thing is sufficient income to establish a stable home and a support system that may be wider family or neighbours. The idea of helping a single parent – they are not all Mums – to get the kids off to school, or an offer to mind children while the parent keeps an appointment. If we all did these things occasionally a little of the burden on children might be lifted. Then Stephen’s idea of a ‘Talk Fest’ of experts would be a good one. We are becoming dependent on Government to do work we could do but this comes at a financial cost.

Margaret McDonald | 16 March 2018  

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