IYF: plaything of politicians and media
By Melinda Jollie
As we draw toward the end of the International Year of the Family, it is difficult to retain any of the initial optimism generated by the "reform" rhetoric of politicians.
The Labor government made some minimal and tokenistic efforts towards assisting the modern family, such as increased child-care provisions for working women. But this area was been deemed as important as other issues, and the extent of policy formation has been disappointing.
When Alexander Downer finally scraped together some policies, he announced that the Coalition was "pro-family". What does this hollow statement mean? It appears that homosexuals, single parents and mothers with careers are excluded by a strong push for policy favouring the single-income nuclear unit.
The pro-nuclear family argument assumes that the breakdown of society is a result of the breakdown of this nuclear unit. This notion is popular within a lobbying group called the Lyons Forum, which comprises several right-wing Coalition MPs.
It is named after the pre-war Prime Minister Joseph Lyons; the group regards Lyons' family as a role model: patriarchal, undivorced, Christian and heterosexual.
The forum aims to ensure that government policies promote this family as the central unit of society. Yet only 14% of Australian families consist of this traditional model of working husband, dependent wife and children.
The forum has a core membership of a dozen, claims a loose membership of 31 and has half the Coalition on its mailing list.
In 1989, when the United Nations General Assembly designated 1994 as the International Year of the Family, it set the theme as "Family: resources and responsibilities in a changing world". The advisory body to the Australian government, the National Council for the International Year of the Family, adopted the theme: "Supporting the Many Faces of Families".
But in the reality, neither change nor diversity of families got much of a run, and the commercial Australian media can be blamed for hindering most efforts at this.
The media could have used this year to redefine and expand the definition of the family in accordance with current statistics which suggest that the nuclear unit is sharply on the decline. Instead they continued promoting the nuclear family as the functional, desired norm.
The more conservative warned against vocal minority groups "hijacking" the term "family" and claimed that deviations from the nuclear unit are detrimental to children and, ultimately, to society.
Amongst this we were flooded with sunny images of mum, dad, kiddies and family dog, to remind us that this is what we should aspire to.
This narrow focus deliberately excluded the many deviations from this 1950s myth, many of which would be more functional if only there existed a better financial and social support system for them.
It failed to reflect the cultural values and identity of the ethnic groups in our society when presenting examples of the Australian family.
The nuclear unit is predominantly an institution of the Western world. Many cultures still pertain to the extended family unit.
The media seem to have forgotten that, before the second world war, the extended family was the Australian norm.
They have also been highly negative overall in their coverage of the homosexual debate on the family.
Unfortunately, such media focus indirectly affects government policies, through public opinion. So it is partly due to the media that funding for child-care and the granting of rights of homosexuals to have children, for example, have been so slow and painful.
The conservative clinging to the nuclear family unit has rendered the International Year of the Family a big step backwards and a financial and social grievance for those families which do not fall under the category of "traditional", "average" or "normal".