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Muriel Newman: The Politics of the Family

The Politics of the Family
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman MP

Over the last few weeks, much has been said about the sad state of the New Zealand family. The Government's answer is a Commission for the Family. However, if this new bureaucracy is true to form, it will do little to improve the future lot of families in this country.

Families are the building block of society. The traditional married family is still the most successful child-rearing institution ever invented. Yet in spite of that well recognised fact, over the last 30 years the state has gradually eroded the standing and the strength of the family.

One of the first attacks on the family came about through the introduction in 1969 of the Family Proceedings Act. This piece of legislation, which replaced the Destitute Persons ACT of 1910, moved the primary responsibility for the care of relatives in need from the family to the state.

The Act also introduced the fore-runner of the Independent Youth Benefit, a living allowance provided to teenagers who claim their home is too dangerous or too violent for safety, to go out and flat with their mates. Costing more than $30 million a year, the present day Independent Youth Benefit has done more to tear families apart and alienate children from their parents than almost any other state intervention.

The introduction of the Domestic Purposes Benefit in 1973 marked a significant change in the eligibility of social security benefits. Until this time, benefits were only available in the event of circumstances over which the beneficiary had no control - death of a spouse, illness or loss of a job. Access to the Domestic Purposes Benefit was, however, based on a decision to end a relationship - taking the responsibility for providing financial support for the separating family from parents to the taxpayer.

By making separation and divorce easier, the DPB, along with the 1976 Matrimonial Property Act and the 1980 Amendments to the Family Proceedings Act, facilitated family breakdown. The Guardianship Act ensured mothers became preferential sole custodians of their children, effectively alienating fathers on a grand scale. However, because of the secrecy of the family court there was little widespread recognition of what was going on.

As a result of these changes, the state effectively stepped into the heart of the family, becoming provider for some 110,000 sole parents and their 300,000 children.

The problem is that the state is a poor provider. A majority of these families live in poverty. Many live in deprived areas. A large proportion of the children in these households lack all effective contact with their fathers. As a result of all of these factors, many of these children are growing up disadvantaged and at risk of poor outcomes in life.

Unbelievably, and in contrast to developments in most of the rest of the western world, this state of affairs and the damage it is doing to children, has not yet led to a widespread call for welfare reform. Nor has it led to an acceptance of the need for significant changes to family law, in spite of a groundswell of support for shared parenting and for opening up the Family Court.

Children have also been placed at risk by the demise of adoption in New Zealand. The DPB, in paying for women to have children out of wedlock, essentially ended adoption as a viable alternative to single parenthood. Today New Zealand women are encouraged by state agencies not to adopt out their unwanted babies or children they are failing to care for properly, in spite of hundreds of couples being ready, willing and able to adopt them. Even the inter-country adoptions channels which have enabled couples to adopt children from overseas are quietly being closed down by the government.

If we look at the financial welfare of families, we see that back in the Fifties and Sixties when New Zealand enjoyed the third highest standard of living in the OECD, even poor families could get ahead. The low level of tax taken by the government - around 25 percent of the nation's wealth - was largely responsible for the buoyant economy. Families with children effectively paid almost no tax.

Today however, with the Government taking more than 40 percent of the country's wealth, poor families - especially those with children - are struggling to get by. That's why lowering taxes has to be the way of the future, to raise the incomes of these families, as well as to improve our standard of living.

If the government was really serious about improving the situation for families in New Zealand, it would abandon its proposal to set up a Commission for the Family and adopt a proactive plan to improve the lot of the family: scrap the Independent Youth Benefit, transform the DPB into a stepping-stone to work, introduce Shared Parenting and open up the Family Court, encourage adoption, and lower taxes to lift the disposable incomes of families.

These five steps, along with a commitment to strong family values and a shared vision of a society that is prosperous and harmonious, would set New Zealand families on a path to a far better future than could ever be achieved by a Family Commission.

_____

Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.

View the archive of columns at http://www.act.org.nz/action/murielnewman.html

For lively and insightful weekly coverage of Parliament and politics subscribe at http://www.act.org.nz/subscribe

ENDS


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