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Letter from Elsewhere: A Right Old Family Fight

Letter from Elsewhere with Anne Else

A Right Old Family Fight

The far right are so intent on attacking Labour in general, and prominent Labour women in particular (and the Governor General, and the Chief Justice, and any other woman who has somehow managed to weasel her way into a top public service job for the first time in 150 years as part of an evil feminist plot – well, it couldn’t possibly be on merit) that they haven’t noticed they’re crashing headlong into each other with completely contradictory messages.

Lately we’ve had ACT’s Muriel Newman bleating about the “anti-family agenda” of Labour’s “radical feminist and lesbian factions”, which “threatens to undermine the fundamental stability of our society”. It’s all clearly laid out, she says breathlessly, on the Ministry of Women’s Affairs website. Their key objectives include “improving access to quality child-care to help women enter or re-enter the paid workforce and retain workplace attachment”, and “providing and extending paid parental leave to parents seeking to retain workplace attachment while caring for new babies”.

Don’t get it? You must be one of the poor dupes who naively think the government just wants to help parents combine caring for children and paying for children. (Latest cost estimate: $100,000 and rising – and that’s not counting forgone earnings.)

Newman has them sussed. She knows what it really means: “While such state enticement of new mothers to go back to work and place their children in childcare – soon to be nationalised I suspect – sounds supportive, it is in fact yet another nail in the coffin of the family”.

Meanwhile, another female ACT candidate is pushing exactly the opposite message. Lindsay Mitchell, welcomed as “a tireless advocate for welfare reform”, is ninth on the party’s list.

Mitchell’s thing is attacking the DPB. I don’t know why she’s so obsessed with it. It’s certainly not just because it’s so low, that it completely fails to keep sole parent families out of poverty.

Lately she’s been saying it’s better for mothers to stay in the labour force, even if they’ve just had a baby. “Single mothers who go onto the DPB at the birth of a child (as opposed to after a separation) tend to stay on it for longer.” (Oops, bit of a false distinction there - as any glance at the celebrity gossip pages will show, separations can happen while you’re pregnant, so you’re literally left holding the baby.) Women certainly shouldn’t stay at home till their kids are at school: “Mothers who have most recently been in the workforce are often the most employable. Taking five or more years out, relying on a benefit, can provide a significant barrier to returning to work.”

Mitchell has missed just one small point here – you don’t have to be on a benefit to find that five years away from the workforce makes it harder to get back in. (Though it’s true that domestic purposes beneficiaries face extra hurdles when they’re job hunting – employers often don’t want them. They haven’t got a wife to take care of all that kid stuff, you see, so they might be a pain and want more time off.)

The strange thing is, parts of this sound just like that sneaky old Ministry of Women’s Affairs that Newman finds so appalling.

What’s more, Mitchell thinks it’s better for the children to be in childcare – as long as it’s good care: “US studies have shown pre-schoolers from welfare homes where dysfunction or depression are present, make better social and educational progress in good quality, structured and safe childcare environments.”

No argument there – except that kids who don’t come from “welfare homes”, or even depressed or dysfunctional ones (which may not even be on welfare!) benefit from good childcare too. (By the way, isn’t it strange the way “welfare home” kids and “other” kids so often turn out to need exactly the same things, starting with enough money to live on? Maybe it’s because most beneficiaries’ kids were other kids yesterday and will be other kids again later?)

Just one small problem: the only way that most mothers on their own, as well as many partnered ones, can get access to this kind of care is if the government sets the standards and subsidises the cost. So I’m not quite sure what Mitchell means when she goes on to say, "Ultimately, I believe that whether mums work or stay home with their children is entirely their decision except when that decision relies on somebody else funding it.”

Does she mean that if you end up on your own and you can’t manage both the caring and the earning all by yourself, you should hand your children over for adoption? Or just leave them on their father’s doorstep (assuming he’s still alive, of course)?

No, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that what she means is that helping mothers on their own to get good paid work and stay in it by enabling them to get quality childcare is a good investment. But it all depends on whether they can put together some combination that will let them and their children manage without being run ragged, or lurching from one insecure low-paid job to another. Parenting, especially of young children, is hard enough when there are two of you to share the load. For one, it can be crippling. On the other hand, I wouldn’t wish trying to exist on today’s DPB on anyone. There, but for the grace of already having a job and not having very young children, go I, and possibly you too, gentle reader.

But to get back to where we started: it seems we have some glaring contradictions here. Muriel knows government support for childcare and parental leave is anti-family, because it lets mothers stay in paid work. Lindsay knows paying the DPB is anti-family, because it lets mothers stay at home.

It’s just as well their party doesn’t look like getting into power any time soon. But I suspect that if you really pressed them, these two would certainly agree on one thing: we’d all be much better off if we just overturned everything those terrible feminists have done (like paid parental leave and better pay for kindergarten teachers), stopped the government doing anything else to help parents, and just left families to fend for themselves in the market.

Now that’s what I call a real anti-family agenda.

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- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service

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