Unreason in Revolt. Postmodern Conservatism. 2006
Paper given by Julie Connolly
The title for my talk today is Howard’s Triumvirate: marriage, mortgage and maternity – chosen not simply for its convenient alliteration, nor because of the feminist queasiness these topics evoke in me whenever the Coalition announces policy initiatives about them. Although, it has to be said, there is good reason for my feminist antennae to quiver whenever I think of the longevity of the Coalition’s political pre-eminence in light of its antipathy to the Sex Discrimination Act (1984) and its receptivity to the more conservative father’s rights and Christian movements that dot Australia’s political landscape.
Instead this presentation will examine three of the Howard government’s policy initiatives: the baby bonus, the first home owners grant and changes to the Marriage Act. My purpose is to examine a significant aspect of the Coalition’s social policy, regarding the direction of state intervention into the ‘family’ or the private sphere. The battleground of the culture wars is most-often located in civil society: when histrionic right-wing journalists and shock jocks attack the arts and the humanities, the ABC, multiculturalism etcetera. Nonetheless, it seems to me that alongside the regular attack on civic institutions, those that mediate between the public and the private, between the debates in Parliament and those in the home, Australia’s cultural warriors have also set their sites on the ‘family’: the arena of sex, birth and consumption. Moreover, these issues are key ingredients in the vitality of contemporary social conservatism.
As will become evident in the brief discussion of the policies to follow, my analysis does not focus on distributive impact of the policies or the constitutionality of the associated laws. In other words this paper does not comprise a policy-analysis, as would be conducted by any self-respecting social scientist. Instead I will treat the afore-mentioned policy matrix, pertaining to marriage, mortgage and maternity as an ideological tool, or in a terminological-fashion more consistent with the title of this session, as an ideological weapon. My aim is to determine which analytical tools can be used to deconstruct and perhaps diffuse said weapon.
First, I will examine whether it is possible to understand Howard’s triumvirate as an example of the politics of recognition, cynically deployed as a Machiavellian electoral strategy. Second, whether Howard’s triumvirate could be better described as the development of a new hegemony, according to which political claims pertaining to a variety of issues are best advanced when discursively constructed with reference to the family. Finally, I reflect on how policies such as these signify the eclipse of civil society within the Australian political imaginary.
I admit that my last sentence contains an arguable assumption about the status of civil society in Australia. My suspicion, and my concern, is that Howard’s triumvirate reflects and contributes to a shrunken civil society and that this has important implications for Australian democracy and any prospect for radically renewing it. An additional but related point, is that within contemporary Australian politics there is little debate about the appropriate role of the state vis a vis the private sphere. Inasmuch as concepts like civil society and privacy function as a bulwark against state expansionism, their seeming eclipse as accomplished by Howard’s triumvirate strengthens social conservatism in Australia and gives succour to the culture wars.
In 2003, the then Attorney General, Daryl Williams commented that “The Howard Government proudly and unashamedly regards marriage and the family as the bedrock of Australian society.” In this speech he went on to outline a series of reforms that aimed to professionalise marriage celebrants and to ensure greater customer satisfaction with their services, on what is after all the one of the most important days of an individual’s life.
On reading the speech I felt a little insulted on behalf of marriage celebrants. But I was also struck by its underlying implication: the Howard government will brook little variation in marriage ceremonies and will consider even less flexibility in the formation of the marriage contract. This campaign seems to have found new legs with the appointment of Phillip Ruddick as AG. In November 2005, AG’s forwarded instructions to all marriage celebrants that the word ‘partner’ is no longer an acceptable substitute for husband and wife, a determination that reportedly caused some consternation among celebrants who would prefer to allow potential spouses more input into the wording of their vows.
The more politically significant amendment to the Commonwealth Marriage Act (1961) occurred in late 2003, when the Coalition inserted the following definition of marriage: marriage is ‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. A similar definition was already operative in Australian common law. Nonetheless, the Coalition thought it advisable to amend that Act itself in order to forestall the possibility that common law might change and same-sex marriage might become a reality. One recently reported affect of this change is that Australian Embassies have been instructed to refuse to supply Certificates of No Impediment to Marriage – a document which verifies that an individual is not already married – to Australian citizens who are likely to enter a same sex marriage in another country.
The Commonwealth has a long history of providing direct and indirect subsidies to home-owners. Until 1990 the ALP operated a First Home Owners Scheme that provided direct deposit assistance to some first time buyers. Ten years later, in the year 2000, the Coalition reinstated the scheme in the form of the First Home Owner’s Grant: a one off payment of $7000 to offset the likely impact of the GST on the cost of housing. Unlike the scheme that preceded it, the Coalition’s grant is not means-tested and there is no upper limit on the price of properties that can be acquired with its assistance.
The ALP abandoned the earlier Scheme partly because it was not targeted to accommodate regional differences in property prices. In addition, however, there was evidence that direct deposit assistance only accelerates would-be home owner’s decision to purchase a first property. In other words, it has marginal redistributive effects. Indeed, in a review of housing policy to 2003, Judith Yates reported the bevy of tax concessions and other forms of indirect assistance available to home-owners, disproportionately benefits higher income outright owners who do not ‘need’ assistance.
Since the Coalition introduced the grant there has been much debate about whether it has forced prices up and contributed to an unsustainable housing boom and unaffordable housing. In preparation for this talk I could find no good evidence that this is the case – low interest rates seem to have a greater impact on people’s propensity to invest in property and, according to the ABS, Australia’s rates of home-ownership have remained stable at around 70% since the 1960s.
No doubt we all remember a smugly smiling Peter Costello on budget night 2004, encouraging women to have three children – one for dad, one for mum and one for the country. This was the night that Costello announced that the baby bonus scheme, introduced in 2001, was set to increase from a maximum of $2500 to $3000 per annum. The Coalition’s so-called bonus is also known as a refundable tax offset. It is currently available to one or other parent over the first five years of a child’s life. Parents who earned less than $25,000 before the birth of a child are automatically eligible for $500. Otherwise the amount that the eligible parent can receive is based on a reasonably complex equation that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say in order to receive the full payment the eligible parent must have earned around $50,000 before the birth of the child and not earn a cent in over the next five years. Eligibility is not means-tested, neither assets, nor any money earned by a partner affect eligibility. Instead an individual must demonstrate that they have left the workforce and sacrificed considerable income in order to benefit from the bonus
This policy must be considered in light of other initiatives such as Family Tax Benefit Part B, which starts to decrease as soon as the secondary earner receives over $4088 in income per annum. If the child is under 5, it cuts out completely when the secondary earner makes over $21,000. If the child is between 6 and 18, it cuts out completely once the secondary earner takes home about $16,000. By way of contrast the availability of the Family Tax Benefit Part A and the Child Care Benefit is based on an income test. Now I could bamboozle you with further figures. But hopefully it is clear that family assistance, a rather complex field of Centrelink payments and tax offsets, is designed to benefit single income families, those most likely to have a stay at home mum. Rhetoric aside, the Coalition has developed a policy suite in which payments for stay at home parents are not means tested, while payments available for dual income families are means-tested and are worth significantly less in $ terms.
This is where I ask you to suspend disbelief, or at least suspend questions like:
These are all very important questions. Part of the reason I want to take my analysis in a different direction, however, is because the afore-mentioned policy initiatives have not stemmed divorce or gay love, made housing cheaper, or reduced the costs of having children. In other words, I do not believe that the significance of the triumvirate lies in the stated objectives of the policies under consideration; therefore evaluating each against criteria developed on this basis will not yield the source of their potency.
In combination, the constituents of the triumvirate signal the Coalition’s willingness to politicise and regulate happenings in the private sphere: by providing financial inducements and explicit approbation for behaviours which locate us behind the picket fence, and allow for controversy in the form of an occasional BBQ stopper. Together, they articulate a conception of Australian identity and citizenship which is centred on the family: the bedrock of Australian social conservatism. My question is: how do ‘family-friendly’ policies (non-sequitur not intended) function to strengthen contemporary conservatism? I will explore three possible answers to this question, that Howard’s triumvirate fosters either
Some of you might be already aware that I have done some work on the politics of recognition using Axel Honneth’s critical theory. Unfortunately, with the exception of his attempt to explain why social recognition is important to us, Honneth’s theory does not provide a lot of guidance for interpreting Howard’s triumvirate as a politics of recognition. Honneth explains to us how social recognition can bolster self-esteem, how this can foster social participation, and even lofty aims like freedom and justice. Perhaps what we are witnessing is a struggle for recognition, between those putatively maligned by the politically correct Keating regime and those now ignored by Howard. Perhaps, the self-image of straight, married, home-owning parents benefits from the Coalition’s good opinion of them. Perhaps they feel emboldened, or at least as Judith Brett, quoting Howard, would have it ‘relaxed and comfortable’.
My analysis is equivocal (perhaps, perhaps, perhaps) because I do not have the means to convincingly demonstrate any of these possibilities as fact. There is an intuitive plausibility to the suggestion that it is politically savvy to invest the desire for loving, stable, families in policy initiatives that ornament otherwise historic changes to taxation. Nonetheless, the groups of people concerned are too large and too internally divergent to support the hypothesis that Howard has successfully mobilised the electoral support of coupled, heterosexuals who are interested in home-ownership or procreation. Suffice to say, whatever the truth in the proposition that Howard has forged a politics of recognition to sustain his electoral popularity, I am not sure that it serves as a good interpretation of the policy initiatives under discussion
To my second hypothesis: Howard’s triumvirate signifies a new hegemony in Australian politics. Since the dissemination of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, the term, hegemony, has come to signify a force for domination. Gramsci was a communist activist, imprisoned by Mussolini, who argued that the stability of the status quo ante, for Gramsci the longevity of capitalism, was not explicable solely in terms of the power of capital. Instead the moral and political leadership of key individuals and institutions helped to explain the political prominence of certain ideas that lent ideological support to capitalism.
To the extent that Howard has forged a new hegemony, perhaps it is around the political significance of the family and state’s capacity to swaddle it in conservative garb.
My suspicion that this was a more plausible explanation of the ideological affect of the triumvirate was sparked during the ACTU’s television blitz last year. In the lead up to a couple of enormously successful rallies in opposition to the rather Orwellianly-named Workchoices, the ACTU sponsored a number of commercials. These included two that depicted Australian workers confronted with the prospect that the new system would undermine their capacity to care for their children. Despite the fact that the campaign slogan is ‘Your rights at work’, the idiom of the advertisements seemed to evoke ‘your place in the home’.
I don’t want to be too critical of the advertising campaign. When any type of political message meets the 30 second format, or the five second grab, nuance is bound to be sacrificed. Nonetheless, the ACTU made a decision that the strongest, perhaps most convincing part of their argument against the then proposed changes had to do with their impact on families. Whether or not there was research to suggest that average Australian workers worried about this most, it is also clear that the electorate is habituated to hearing political claims advanced by ‘family-friendly’ rhetoric.
Hegemony functions to narrow the ways that we can articulate injustice. It does so by proscribing the moral vocabulary through which we can pursue political claims, and thereby marginalising other tropes, voices and stories. And so, the question arises: If ‘family-friendly’ has become a metonym for the popularity, success or justice of taxation policy, welfare or workplace relations, what has been silenced?
It is clear that Howard’s triumvirate provides no good means the tackle homelessness or sexual violence or childcare. These, however, seem to be easy points to score. When the state reaches into the home to solve social problems, which may or may not be manufactured risks, is that civil society is elided. The implications are twofold, effecting both how social/political problems are constructed and the expansion of state influence into the private sphere:
These comments bring me to the third possible explanation of how the triumvirate buttresses social conservatism: the eclipse of civil society. Civil society is a term employed by political theorists, who, following Hegel, use it to distinguish an arena of human activity from both the state and the family. For Hegel civil society was largely the sphere of market exchange. More recently the term was popularised after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when the emergence of civic space and civil associations was thought to signify the beginning of the end for the former totalitarian regimes. Now the idea of civil society is central to debates about democratic practice and culture.
Australian civil society has been significantly altered since the election of the Coalition. The Coalition has championed:
My argument, however, is not just that the institutional landscape of Australian civil society has changed, but that civil associations have become increasingly marginal to politics. The triumvirate contributes by bypassing civil society altogether, policy speaks directly to the family. This works to bolster social conservatism by attempting to undermine both privacy and civic friendship. Privacy, however, our right to it and the states obligation to respect it, is a controversial topic. For some privacy is a depoliticising metonym that works to shield injustice from scrutiny, for others it lies at the heart of individual freedom. In other words, people’s propensity to promote a right to privacy depends in part on whether privacy is thought to encourage freedom, or whether equality requires intervention into the private to undo undue disadvantage. In my opinion privacy is a practice that fosters intimacy. Civic friendship is also a practice. Like solidarity or collegiality, it takes places in civil associations, in which people engage together across their differences often to pursue common goals and common goods.
Hopefully these musings will prompt discussion on the form of, the implications of, and the antidote to the current, rather virulent strain of social conservatism which finds expression in Howard’s triumvirate. I have offered three explanations of Howard’s triumvirate, as 1) fostering a new politics of recognition 2) contributing to the development of a new hegemony 3) hastening the eclipse of civil society. My talk has ranged from policy analysis to some rather heftier philosophical concepts. I concluded my talk with a discussion of the importance of civil friendship and privacy because I believe that both concepts are central to the way we make ethical choices, engage in politics and thereby practice freedom. And it is this practice, freedom, that the forces of social conservatism are arrayed against.
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Cohen, J. L. 2002. Regulating Intimacy: A New Legal Paradigm. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Honneth, A. 1995a. The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Translated by Joel Anderson. Cambridge, Massuchusetts: The MIT Press.
Honneth, A. 1995b. The Fragmented World of the Social: Essay in Social and Political Philosophy. Translated by Charles W. Wright. New York: State University of New York Press.
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Summers, A. 2003. The End of Equality: Work, Babies and Women’s Choices in 21st Century Australia. Milsons Point: Ransom House Australia.
Williams, D. 2003 Launch of Marriage Celebrants Reform Archive for Daryl Williams Attorney-General for Australia 1996-2003, [cited 12 February 2006].
Yates, J. 2003. “The More Things Change? An Overview of Australia’s Recent Home Ownership Policies.” European Journal of Housing Policy 3 (1): 1-33.