That there is no social problem which cannot be cured by a large injection of taxpayers' money is the prevailing viewpoint in government, bureaucracy and the churches. Therefore, the plight of homeless children can be quickly alleviated if only more public funds were spent. PROFESSOR L.J.M. COORAY, Editor of Public Affairs Media Probe, argues that while such an approach might soothe troubled consciences, it will do nothing to fix the problem.
The family has been an important part of Western Civilisation, indeed, of all civilisations and of primitive cultures too. Parental care and nurture is important even in the animal world (particularly among those closest to man - apes and monkeys). The family provides meaning, continuity and purpose in the lives of individuals. It provides a nurturing and protective environment in which children can progress to adulthood. It is the best environment for the care of the aged, the disabled and the young.
The breakdown of the family poses serious problems for society. Traditionally, the family has played an important part in the maintenance of law and order. It is not possible to have policemen on every street. Control which parents traditionally exercised over children (a control which is no longer effective in the same way) helped to maintain law and order. The breakdown of the family and the decay of discipline in the schools which the progressivists (so-called) have engineered has contributed in a very large measure to the growth of teenage vandalism, crime, drugs and alcoholism. The escalation of these problems from the 1960s onwards corresponds to the decline of the family and familial discipline and to the growth of permissiveness.
The decline of the importance of the family unit creates not only social consequences but also economic effects.
When these primary services are greatly reduced, or even totally disappear, they do not cease to be essential. Children have to be fed, cared for and educated. The sick must be treated, the old must be assisted.
All that happens is that the services of great economic value, once performed by the family without economic cost, are transferred to the government, which has to pay handsomely to ensure that the same services are provided by professionals, teachers, doctors, nurses, social and welfare workers, the proprietors and staff of hospitals and homes for the aged and other individuals and institutions. This is one of the basic reasons for the explosion of welfare expenditure which has far reaching economic and budgetary consequences.
The common law and the western tradition provided special benefits and protection to the intact family. This was a recognition of the moral and practical importance of the family unit. The claim that other units (de factos and homosexual partners) which lack the moral and practical advantages of the traditional family deserve equal recognition and state patronage cannot be supported. Toleration of alternate life styles is a part of a liberal order, but it does not follow that such life styles can be supported by the law and the state.
The social problems arising in many areas are discussed, but there is a lamentable and conspicuous failure to identify the root cause or one of the root causes of these problems - the decline of the traditional family.
Brian Burdekin is the Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission who has shown great concern for the problem of homeless children. He has, however, failed to identify the root causes for the existence of homeless children. Former Prime Minister Hawke and Archbishop Hollingworth had a well publicised debate, with the former Prime Minister abusing the Archbishop in an uncouth and uncivilised manner, which unfortunately is far too prevalent in Australian politics and public life.
However, Hawke, Hollingworth and Burdekin are on common ground with respect to the manner in which they perceive the problem should be confronted - provision of more government money.
Hollingworth's main criticism of Hawke was that he had not provided sufficient money for dealing with homeless children. The money is to be used on bureaucratic programs, research, investigations and reports. Money will fund the work of bureaucrats and welfare officers (many of hem imbued with anti-family views) and the establishment of homes, refuges and other supports for homeless children.
None of the key actors in the public debate identified the root cause. Brian Burdekin has, in his public pronouncements on the subject, demonstrated the utter irrelevance of the Human Rights Commission in its ability to relate to the real, current and pressing problems of our time, yet he receives much prominence in the media.
There are many factors which have contributed to the breakdown of the family unit, but three stand out. Firstly, parents are evading their own responsibilities. The institution of marriage is increasingly being treated as a temporary arrangement which can be terminated if one or other of he parties decide their life might be happier under different circumstances. This has weakened the trust and closeness which the family was traditionally held.
As parents evade their responsibilities to each other, they also do so to their children. Child and parent spend less time together, as Parents spend greater time at work or socialising. It is inevitable that children will come across what seems to them insurmountable problems in the course of growing up. If there has been a breakdown in family communication, the effects of those perceived problems in the child will be infinitely more dramatic. A child who receives little or no attention and time from its parents is far more likely to run away from home.
The second factor which is taking its toll on the cohesiveness of the family is that children are no longer receiving a moral education. Basic moral values, and in particular simple respect for parents and other people, are no longer being taught or emphasised in the schools. Instead the child is taught to be assertive and fiercely independent and is usually encouraged to believe in the ignorance or conservativeness ( the two being seen to be synonymous) of their parents, and the older generation. Some children develop an ambivalent and contemptuous attitude to parents. Parents tho attempt to maintain some sort of discipline and direction within such households are faced with resistance.
The child who has been educated to be disrespectful towards his/her parents quickly learns to question his/her parents at every turn. The result is friction within the family as the parent struggles to maintain standards within the home. From this friction flows frustration and disillusionment on the part of the parents and resentment on the part of the child. Unless the vicious cycle is stopped a breakdown in communications between child and parents follows. Finally, the child in his/her own resentment, discontentment and depression will turn to the streets, to what seems a much more refreshing and exciting life to the troubles of family life.
The severe financial burden which successive governments have placed on the family is a third contributory factor. Today, law seems deliberately drafted to discriminate against the family unit. Between 1976 and 1988, real disposable income (i.e. after tax income taking into account inflation) for the single person rose by approximately 7.5%. Alternatively, for couples, real disposable income actually fell, and for families with four children, it fell by a very disturbing 21%.
Government induced high interest rates have pushed mortgage repayments to incredible levels. Accordingly, the financial burdens which are being placed on the family unit are creating hardships and anxiety, and are helping to create more tension within the family and adding to the factors that have created the problem of homeless children.
The Family Law Act (FLA) and other legislation have contributed to the undermining of marriage. The law establishes standards. The community is influenced by the standards which the law enshrines. The pre FLA standard (derived from the common law) was one which made divorce difficult and supported the institutions of marriage and the family, in that the law required good cause for a dissolution of marriage.
The FLA by making divorce possible after separation for 12 months devalued the institution of marriage. The FLA is unconcerned about who was responsible for the break up of a marriage. The Act provides in effect that the marriage bond is less important than a contract. The standard that the law set was that marriage and family were unimportant.
Successful and enduring marriages are based on the overcoming of difficulties. When problems arise it is the commitment to marriage and the belief that marriage is for life that enables partners to work through the problems to attain a lasting relationship which is for their mutual benefit, as well as in the interests of the children. The FLA in effect provides that marriage is for as long as is convenient.
An analysis of the problem of homeless children will not be complete without mention of the useless and ridiculous definition of homeless children that the Burdekin Report used, which must be repudiated. The Report defined a "homeless youth" very broadly. Very few Australians would include in their definition of a "homeless youth",
a "child" up to 25 years of age who is under the threat or loss of shelter" or who has a "very high mobility between places of abode", or whose existent accommodation appears to them to be inadequate for reasons such as overcrowding, "lack of security of occupancy" or "lack of emotional support and stability in the place of residence", or who has "unreasonable restrictions in terms of access to alternative forms of accommodation".
But these are elements in the Burdekin definition which were the basis of its calculation of 10,000 homeless children. Clearly, a more reasonable and realistic definition of homeless youth is required.
These are the factors which the political parties and independents must address. If their only policy commitments in this area are to throw more money at the problem, the situation will go from bad to worse.
Legal changes to support the institution of the family are necessary. More importantly, a public campaign is necessary to educate the community (especially young people) about:
Will the government and opposition (and Archbishop Hollingworth) recognise the value and importance of the family and the problems which confront that institution? Will it make a commitment, through a process of public education and law, to strengthen the family and basic values?
The leaders of Christian Churches in Australia wrote a letter to The Australian June 5, 1987, focusing on the fact that one in five Australian children were now living in poverty. The definition of poverty in modern times is a relative concept. Poverty does not mean those who are destitute. The poverty figure is obtained on a relative Scale.
It was not perhaps a coincidence that not long afterwards Prime Minister Hawke unveiled extra government welfare measures deal with child poverty. The surprising factor that these leaders provide only one suggestion to deal with the problem — a substantial package of governmental spending means this was a foray into political ideology and support for the interventionist philosophy.
There are many studies which demonstrate that government measures involving bureaucratic action and expenditure do not alleviate the problems and sufferings of the underprivileged. Bureaucracies and government funding have a miserable track record.
The church leaders could, with advantage, have focussed on the reasons for child poverty and undermining of the family as a consequence of government actions and permissive lifestyles. Church leaders could have performed a useful function if they had focused on this issue (which is within their province) rather than have entered into the realm of political ideology and made suggestions about government action (on which they have no expertise).
The government's aggressive manner of response to Archbishop Hollingworth on the two occasions when the Archbishop entered the arena of public debate in the subject was disgraceful. The response however tends to divert attention from an equally serious question about Archbishop Hollinworth's pubic utterances, which appear to show no understanding of the root causes of the Problem.
The solution to the problem involving bureaucratic expenditure of taxpayers' money is advocated by those who support Permissive life styles and accept the disintegration of the family and family values.
The Archbishop comes across as a social activist with a thin veneer of Christianity. He seems unable to focus on the real causes of the problem he is protesting about; expenditure of taxpayers' money and bureaucratic regulations will not touch the fringes of the problem. Child Summits are irrelevant because the basic issues are ignored.