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Our government is not family-friendly



In election campaigns of an earlier time politicians competed to be the most family-friendly. Family values were seen as central in Western Civilisation. They were handsomely praised and scantily honoured in election promises.

Patchwork familyAustralians generally saw population growth as central to economic prosperity and to national security, and child bearing as the natural and privileged engine of growth. They also regarded the nuclear family as the natural and privileged place in which to bear and raise children. To be family-friendly combined generally accepted social and economic values.

Today's politicians still claim to be family-friendly, but the social and economic context has changed greatly. Once if you asked people to define the family, they would describe a husband, wife and their own children. Now they might refer to a range of relationships including single parents, children from previous couplings, same-sex parents and children born through artificial insemination.

Both the priority of the nuclear family and the social value of child bearing are also questioned. Many people see population growth as a problem rather than a benefit, and most would regard child bearing as a matter of individual choice, and not as a social responsibility.

The economic context has also changed. The major political parties share the assumption that economic growth is driven by competitive individuals, as far as possible unrestricted by government regulation. People's value is measured by their contribution to economic activity.

Because this conventional wisdom puts little value on social groups, altruism or unpaid work, it also devalues families. It sees workers as costs, and lowers costs by unsocial shift work, making full time jobs casual, and structuring conditions in ways that give little consideration to family and other social commitments.

Governments which subscribe to conventional economic wisdom collude in these arrangements by limiting the power of unions, privileging private profit over public benefit, and neutering regulatory bodies. In their family policies they befriend families with wealth and families in which both parents work in full time jobs and contribute to the economy.


"A more categorical statement of the standards of civilised tradition and a more measured condemnation of Australian practice can hardly be imagined."


Families without wealth, with a single parent, with non-working parents, unemployed parents, parents seeking asylum, mentally ill parents or a parent in prison struggle to feed and to find accommodation for their children. Government policies divide families into winners and losers: those who have are given more, and from those who do not have, even what they have is taken away.

These changes make political claims to be family-friendly purely rhetorical. Family values do not shape government policies. In many cases, indeed, governments act not to nurture families and to protect the traditions of western civilisation but to devastate families and to trample on inherited traditions.

One example will suffice: that of Thileepan and Karthika Gnaneswaran. Thileepan was recently deported to Sri Lanka, and promptly imprisoned, after his appeal for protection from persecution was rejected by Australia. Karthika and her young daughter are left in Australia. As she was found to be a refugee because she faced persecution in Sri Lanka, she cannot return there. As a result the family will most likely be permanently separated.

A United Nations representative described the action as violating 'the basic right of family unity, as well as the fundamental principle of the best interests of the child'. A more categorical statement of the standards of civilised tradition and a more measured condemnation of Australian practice can hardly be imagined.

Disregard for the interests of families has also been evident in the refusal to allow mothers and children on Nauru to come to Australia for medical care, out of fear courts may later refuse their removal. It has been evident, too, in penal policy where in adult and children's courts increasing numbers of parents and children are remanded in custody. In the case of adults the accused person can be separated from their family for more than a year before the case is heard.

As a result, already fragile family relationships are destroyed by separation, and partners and children lose the support of the breadwinner in the family. The welfare of the family is subordinated to anxiety about security. In the case of children, separation from family and friends has been shown to scar their future life.

Australia also has a strict policy of deporting non-citizens found guilty of crimes that could attract a prison sentence. New Zealand authorities have justifiably regarded this treatment of its citizens as abhorrent. Apart from the cruelty of sending people back to nations they left as children and whose language they no longer know, it can break stable family relationships and penalise innocent partners and children.

Some years ago an Australian prime minister apologised to the stolen generations for the policy of smashing families by taking away their children, and for its disastrous consequences for children and families. Why would we want to revisit this experiment, we might ask, and try it out on other people?



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, family, refugees, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Thanks Andrew! You say, "Some years ago an Australian prime minister apologised to the stolen generations for the policy of smashing families by taking away their children, and for its disastrous consequences for children and families. Why would we want to revisit this experiment, we might ask, and try it out on other people?" Rather than honestly answer this question, I think many of our politicians would side-step this one. Is the real answer that these politicians see more votes in playing the racist card? Perhaps the best thing voters can do is be very careful who they vote for at the next Federal election.

Grant Allen | 24 July 2018  

Well written Andrew. I’ve long said that under the neoliberal economic policies of this government, people are regarded as either an economic input or a cost. If you’re an economic input you are valued and encouraged, or more properly, your economic input is valued. If you’re a cost then you have no value and you are a cost that is to minimised. Under this government anything other than economic input is given no value at all despite any benefit that society may derive from things such as parenting, volunteering, supporting other members of society, actually all those that society actually values!

Peter Casey | 24 July 2018  

The obsession with economic and political security of the present, and recent, federal governments - an obsession grasped and held firmly by a tragically large proportion of Australian voters - has eroded the value of the Australian myths of a fair go, and mateship. While equity of opportunity and true friendship are world-wide values, in Australia, especially in political rhetoric, they are mythic values - honoured, and established as goals to be striven for and attained; but unfortunately like many traditional myths, more spruiked about than lived. Economic and political security are good for a nation, but not at the cost of cruel and harsh trampling on human values, most central of which are family values.

Ian Fraser | 25 July 2018  

Fr Andrew. You really took me by surprise with the sentence "Some years ago an Australian prime minister apologised to the stolen generations for the policy of smashing families by taking away their children and for its disastrous consequences for children and families." Surely no-one believes the policy was deliberately conceived to smash families by taking away their children. The Christian Churches, represented predominantly by the Catholic Church, didn't seem to think so at the time but genuinely acted in the belief that they were protecting children's well-being, providing them with good nutrition, an otherwise unavailable education and saving many infant and childhood lives that would otherwise have been lost through untreated infectious disease, neglect and failure of immunisation. Now that we have become 'enlightened' and steeped in guilt for a past which in fact served many Aboriginal children very well in tat time and place, it seems that justice can be served only by opposing any attempt to help the Aboriginal people despite the families and children smashed in their own communities like Tennant Creek. This country now removes white children from abusive families and jails some of the parents to the cheers of the masses. That too is for the good of children suffering in already smashed or non-existent families. Why do we not complain? I notice that a NT Aboriginal politician said yesterday that the problem in Tennant Ck is alcohol, as do many other Aboriginal spokespersons. Why do we oppose government attempts to stop alcohol abuse and provide good nutrition for children as we tried to do with the cashless card? I wonder if the opposition to government help by white people is born in the main out of the loss of their raison d'etre if a government program succeeds [not meaning you, Fr Andrew]. We have seen that before!

john frawley | 25 July 2018  

It was an abhorrent policy, John Frawley. Children were dragged away indiscriminately. The Aboriginal race would thus eventually die out - problem solved.

Meg Scally | 26 July 2018  

My Aboriginal friend is very grateful to be one of the "stolen generation". She is grateful to the government and the nuns for an education, career and happy family life which she otherwise would not have. Some years ago she visited her birth family in central Australia and said she never wanted to see them again, you can work out why and she has been told by Aboriginal community leaders not to speak of her experiences. Until we value the lives and welfare of all children above all other considerations, then there will continue to be disgraceful and criminal treatment of these helpless children. I realise that most children are well loved and cared for but not facing the problems of those who aren't, is not helping.

Jane | 26 July 2018  

Nothing more than an allusion here to an effect one way or the other of the recent change in Australian marriage law and the flow on to the significance of family in our society. In communication language we are in a muddle, in a general drift to the fragmentation of values. What has been considered to be a value at one time, the recent change in the marriage law, may well be seen down the track as a contributor to the political malaise dealt with here. As with the later assessment of a stolen generation policy those who assented to the change in the marriage law may well rue their contribution to the aforementioned muddle. I'm inclined to think that more and more society can only be 'saved' qualitatively from its present inertia, i.e., by those who seek a consistent ethic of family life; something like the leaven in the mass of dough.

Noel McMaster | 26 July 2018  

Thank you, Jane.

john frawley | 26 July 2018  

John Frawley, you question whether the 'stolen children' policy was "deliberately conceived to smash families by taking away their children." As Meg Scally notes, the clear intent was that the "Aboriginal race would thus eventually die out". Children were not however "dragged away indiscriminately." The fact is that this was a very discriminatory policy whereby only clearly 'black' children were removed - an historical fact. You may be right that many people including Churches "acted in the belief that they were protecting children's well-being", but that does not alter the fact that their belief was naive and the policy was not a colour blind child protection policy but was a policy "deliberately conceived to smash families by taking away their children" - to wipe out a race perceived to be inferior.

Peter Johnstone | 26 July 2018  

I was incorrect in my earlier post - done in haste. The historical fact is that this was a very discriminatory policy whereby clearly 'black' children were NOT removed. As stated, the policy was not a colour blind child protection policy but was a policy to 'protect' children of mixed blood only without regard to their families.

Peter Johnstone | 26 July 2018  

I must agree with John Frawley's comments on the 25th. For example, can recall as a schoolboy, my student nurse sister telling us about an aboriginal baby at the local hospital. Neglect by the baby's mother had resulted in the baby's admission, for the second time in six months. Our student nurse said she had bathed the baby, covered in fleas, and they would now restore her once again to health. She added that the mother would be given another chance. But if there was any further neglect the baby would be removed from her and placed into care. Exactly the same policy for white families. Yet the black baby, now a middle-aged woman, can claim to be a "stolen generation"? Moral to all this? Don't rewrite history for the sake of political correctness.

malcolm harris | 26 July 2018  

When I was a child, there were orphanages full of white children, they were there rightly or wrongly for their welfare and benefit, for some it worked well and for some it was a tragedy. Until our society looks only at the loving care for all children, regardless of their colour, ethnicity or religion, then we are basically denying their human rights. Having children should be a responsibility and not a plaything of adults. Would I wish to stay in an abusive situation, no of course not and neither would any loving caring adult. For example, it's why we have refuges for domestic violence. How can a child especially in a remote community, leave an abusive situation, it's almost impossible unless responsible adults step in. And were I one of these children, I wouldn't care where I was placed, their colour or ethnicity as long as I was cared for in a loving environment.

Jane | 26 July 2018  

Thank you Andrew. Well said!

Kerry Hitzke | 26 July 2018  

No mention of Thileepan and Karrthika in the comments. And not the first time by a long way that our government has sent a refugee back to be imprisoned — or tortured or killed — by a government that outshines even our own for its cruelty.

Gavan | 26 July 2018  

Peter Johnstone. We now live in an age where Aboriginal children are no longer 'stolen' from their families - something that resides in the past and can never be reversed. The question for us is, 'What should we do today about Aboriginal children who are physically or sexually abused, who are not nurtured by parental guidance through alcohol or drug addiction and who have higher mortalities and shorter life expectancies from preventable disease through the lack of essential nutrition, immunisation and parental neglect?' The answer is very simple. We do exactly what we try to do for every non-Aboriginal child in this country regardless of creed or skin colour. Remove them from the toxic environment and repair the damage done while rehabilitating any wayward parenting or community attitudes either through the health or penal systems. We can achieve nothing by harking back to a past that we can do nothing about. We can only move into the future with hope (a signature of Christianity) and in so doing repair those things that need repair in today's world. A prescription rather like the hopes of Catholics for Renewal perhaps!

john frawley | 26 July 2018  

It seems that the story of the stolen generation' has been set in stone - any attempt to explore the subtleties of the historical events, or their recording, is understood via a hermeneutics of racism. In spite of this - or perhaps because of it - the story is enormously powerful. Look how this discussion has been kidnapped by it! Even my contribution, which was originally to say Good on you, Andrew, once again you combine head and heart in a prophetic denunciation of the ruling philosophy. And if government's truly cared about families, they'd be pouring resources into nourishing and supporting them, not waiting until the child is wrecked - and maybe her children after her. More community, fewer prisons, refuges and psych facilities - but that's not an aim suited to the three year election cycle.

Joan Seymour | 26 July 2018  

John Frawley, I agree with you that we must "move into the future with hope (a signature of Christianity) and in so doing repair those things that need repair in today's world." It's a big repair job much helped by Andy's thoughts.

Peter Johnstone | 27 July 2018  

Thank you Andrew. Please keep writing. Please keep calling us to humanity.

Anne Benjamin | 28 July 2018  

Noel McMaster, I would have thought marriage equality laws were as pro-family as you could get! ..... allowing gay people to live in the same stable married state as with traditional marriage and perhaps also raise families.

AURELIUS | 28 July 2018  

In all consideration and discussion of the family readers and commenters on Eureka Street, who are mainly Catholic, should look at the archetype of a family held up to them, the one Jesus grew up in. His development as a person was entrusted to Mary and Joseph and their extended practicing Jewish family. They were warm and loving and in no way dysfunctional. It was emphatically not a broken family, which I imagine is the reason Andy draws specific attention to the Gnaneswarans, who were, tragically, broken up. Jesus said he had not come to replace the Law and the Prophets but to confirm them. These days a lot is said about families which actually has no basis whatever in Christianity, its parent Judaism, or its sibling Islam. There is much psychobabble and dubious social theory out there. Much of it, if taken on board by politicians, especially in the medical, educational and social welfare system would be, and I suspect is, meant to destroy the traditional family system and replace it with an ideal Brave New World. From what I have seen of this BNW, it would be the last thing I want.

Edward Fido | 02 August 2018  

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