Some opponents of marriage equality have resorted to spurious arguments about ‘family values’. The record of arch-conservatives on war, overseas aid, asylum seekers, Indigenous affairs, the social safety net, free market capitalism, the working poor and the monarchy suggests that the reference to family values is a hollow and hypocritical rhetorical device.
Let’s face it. The ABS survey of opinions about marriage equality is being run for the convenience of far right elements of the federal coalition parties. These elements have immobilised Turnbull Government policies in a range of areas. The survey is couched in their discourse, being described as about ‘same sex’ couples rather than marriage equality. The survey has given some media outlets the opportunity to canvass a range of irrelevant reactionary views such as freedom of religion and an appeal to the myth of family values. Apart from the obvious prejudiced implication that a family can be created only by a heterosexual couple, the appeal ignores the fact that many such social units are not havens for women and children but are places of terror and unhappiness.
It might be informative also to place the notion of family values into broader context. If the family were valued as the bedrock of a harmonious society, then governments would set their policies according to outcomes for women and children. Yet there is ample evidence to cast doubt on such a notion.
Despite the efforts of Australia’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ allies Bush and Blair to revise the history of the war on Iraq in 2003, thousands of Iraqi families were directly destroyed in the bombing of Baghdad and more have been debilitated by the loss of services since. Opponents of the war argued at the time that Iraqi children would die and that any theoretical gains for Iraqis mooted by both sides of politics could not justify such destruction.
Successive Coalition Governments from 1996 to 2007 and from 2013 have cut overseas aid. Not only was the volume of aid reduced but conditions were placed on access to funds. Generally speaking, the conditions ensured that public funding which would benefit primarily women and children was replaced by concessions to private enterprises.
Nor should it be forgotten that the cruel treatment of asylum seekers affects families disproportionately. Apart from the separation of fathers from families, numerous reports about the psychological trauma inflicted on children in detention since the days of the Tampa, excision of external territories and resort to offshore centres run by unaccountable firms show clearly that family values have had a very narrow definition under all Australian governments since 1990.
When the Northern Territory ‘intervention’ was introduced, the move was allegedly for the protection of families against the violence of Indigenous men influenced by drugs or alcohol. It certainly had the effect of stigmatising and alienating Indigenous men. Meanwhile the continuing tragedy of domestic violence deaths across Australia has barely been addressed by governments. There is an implication in these policies that when Australian governments think about families, they have in mind not foreigners, Muslims, or Indigenous people but white, middle class, economically aspiring, nuclear families.
Domestic policy suggests that the family focus is even narrower. Adherence to the Thatcherite view that society does not exist as an independent entity but merely as a means of servicing free market capitalism has thrown families into a competitive world in which the level playing field is a myth. The removal of the social safety net has placed education and health into the field of competition where welfare varies according to your financial resources. Another piece of rhetoric which was always insulting is the idea that privatised public assets – formerly owned by us all – might be owned by ‘mums and dads shareholders’.
Policies on wages, the casualisation of labour, real estate and tax breaks for the wealthy have led to the creation of a large category of households which can be described as the working poor. These families are locked into virtual slavery for decades while CEOs draw obscene salaries. Such families are tied into cheap consumerism and can rarely overcome the obstacles to efforts to address problems such as obesity and substance abuse. Rhetorical flourishes about ‘choice’ are meaningless to such oppressed people.
Family values suffer from the same confusion and political exploitation as ‘Australian values’. There was a time when backyard cricket was considered essential to families. Today, backyards are shrinking or non-existent as governments pander to the needs of developers. Families are increasingly thrown into the market place to meet all of their needs for recreation and sustenance. So too perhaps the backyard tomato patch dwindles while governments push consumers towards supermarket chains.
Commercial media organisations happily conform to the family values model. The family is a prime unit of consumption. Television for example, happily runs programs from the USA or Britain which are subliminal advertising for specific ways of life. The former celebrate the ephemeral takeaway economy and the latter the anachronistic royal family.
Should the survey return a ‘yes’ majority, the conservatives will no doubt have some other obstructive tactics ready. In the meantime, the reference to ‘family values’ a desperate ploy that should be – and probably is – dismissed by all thinking Australians as cynical and irrelevant to the issue of marriage equality.
Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics.