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Thu, 10 Feb 2005

Muriel Newman On line


This week, Newman Online takes a closer look at Helen Clark and Don Brash’s views on motherhood, and explains why mothers and fathers should be encouraged and respected, not undermined.

Amid calls for greater productivity and less welfare by the leaders of the two ‘old’ parties, a lasting image from the first weeks of election year was captured in a newspaper cartoon by Tom Scott: Helen Clark and Don Brash tied at the stake with the sign on Helen saying “Stay at home mums put your children into childcare” and on Don, “Solo mums adopt out your children”.

Helen Clark’s call to get mothers out of the kitchen and back into the workplace failed to strike an empathetic note. As commentators were quick to point out, it had the ring of a communist clarion call. Socialists, of course, firmly believe that a woman’s place is at work and not in the home. They regard women as child-bearers, not child-rearers, and believe that the all-important role of raising children should be carried out by the state in government-controlled child-care centres.

Underpinning this socialist worldview is a realisation that once children are released from the protective embrace of nurturing parents into the arms of state institutions, there is nothing to save them from the brainwashing necessary to keep the socialist flame alive.

This strategy was highly successful in Communist Russia last century. By 1920, in some cities upwards of 90 percent of families were living in state hostels, eating in communal kitchens, and sleeping in segregated quarters. The role of parents was to bear the children, and the role of the state, to raise them.

As in other western democracies, New Zealand meanwhile had developed a strong convention that the place of mothers was in the home looking after their young children. Driven by the desire not to lose touch with the workforce, my generation of seventies mums rebelled against this stereotyping, and we combined raising our children and running the home, with part-time work.

While I remain a strong advocate for parents having the freedom to choose whether or not they both work, or whether one parent stays at home to care for the children, I object when new parents are forced back to work because of financial hardship.

For first-time mums and dads, coping with a new baby is not easy. In those early months, life is chaotic as well as exhilarating, and the struggle to establish good feeding patterns and sleep habits can be a nightmare. It is also a time of such roller-coaster emotions that I sometimes doubt whether those politicians who are pushing for mothers with brand new babies to get back to work, have experienced parenthood themselves.

Last week’s call by Helen Clark for women to give up their babies, expands on programmes already established by the Labour Party. Their paid parental leave scheme provides strong financial incentives for mothers to go back to work once their baby is three-months-old. In comparison, New Zealand’s employment laws enable new mums to keep their jobs open until their child is a year old.

How things have changed. When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, even though my family was very poor, Mum was able to stay at home to look after my brother and I. The reason was that Dad, on his basic wage, paid almost no tax at all. Without having to fund an out-of-control welfare system, governments were able to let low-income families with children keep most of what they earned, to use in the best interests of their family.

Over the years, that has changed dramatically. These days tax rates are so high and our standard of living so low, that more and more families now need two incomes just to get by. For those working families, not only are the choices enjoyed by my parents’ generation just a fond memory, but we’ve now reached the ludicrous position where a single income couples on a basic wage, would be significantly better off if they separated and went on welfare.

In my mind it is a core role of government to ensure that our standard of living is high enough that poor families who work – and are careful with their money – can survive on one income while their children are young. Choosing to have a family is one of the most important decisions that a couple ever makes – not only for themselves, but also for their country. The role of the state should therefore be to enable such families to do the best possible job. Giving them the economic freedom to have a parent stay at home during those early years is an important option that they should have.

At the present time, because they are taxing workers too heavily, the Labour Party is sitting on a massive tax surplus. That money should be used to lower the tax burden on struggling families, giving them more choice on how they run their lives, rather than spending their money on initiatives designed to win votes.

That is the reason why two key fundamental priorities for ACT are lower taxes for working families, and less reliance on welfare – except for those who are genuinely unable to support themselves.

Dr Brash’s attack on social welfare also struck a chord. Having been a sole parent on welfare myself, with two young children, I certainly know first-hand what a dead end life it is. That’s why during the time I have been a MP I have consistently campaigned for welfare reform.

In my mind, reforming our welfare system is the only way to ensure that the 250,000 children being raised in welfare families get a better deal. And while I have always actively supported the idea of encouraging adoption for those children who are unsafe or unwanted, by families who can provide them with love and stability every child needs, I have never even considered that adoption should be used as a way to get women off welfare.

The lasting impression from the calls by those two leaders of tired old parties for babies to be taken away from their mothers is that they don’t consider motherhood to be that important. I’m sure most other New Zealanders would not agree. There is no role that is more worthwhile than motherhood and fatherhood. It should be encouraged, respected, and promoted by our country’s leaders, not undermined.


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