Family Policy: Creative or Destructive?

Address to the 1994 St Andrews Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, What Future the Family?, November 3, 1994.

Keywords Social Policy

During the nineteenth century, three political economies – ways of organizing the economy and society – competed for New Zealand.(1) The Maori political economy, although initially successful as the indigenous people took up the challenge of the new opportunities from European contact, faded in the later part of the century as the Maori population and ownership of resources declined from war, disease, alienation of land, and loss of rangatiratanga. I shall have little more to say about the Maori, for theirs is a story which deserves more space and competence than I have here.

This left the scene for the two remaining European political economies. One was the quarry, the strategy of depleting natural resources – whales, seals, native timber, kauri gum, and gold and other minerals – even the soil, which at first had its vegetation burnt off, and was then cropped and washed into the sea. It is a world in which the trader comes, exploits, and goes, leaving behind debris and ruin. The exploitation of natural resources can be temporarily supplemented by land speculation, by borrowing, and by war. But such activities are not sustainable. Yet for much of the nineteenth century it was the quarry political economy which dominated European society, even though such a way of life must inevitably be temporary.

To be a permanent settlement it is necessary to have a product that can be produced sustainably, and which can be exported to the rest of the world to earn revenue to pay for the imports that settlement requires. In the beginning there was wool, canned meat, grain, and perhaps supplying fresh food to Australia. But these were not going to be on a sufficient scale to enable New Zealand to develop to a level of a slightly larger, and slightly more prosperous, Falkland Islands.

The saviour of the settlement was refrigeration. Selling meat and dairy products in Britain transformed the political economy into the possibility of a closer settlement based on the independent – if mortgage bound – family farm. It was a political economy which was to dominate New Zealand for almost 80 years. the quarry almost completely disappeared.

This fundamental change in the economic structure led to a dramatic political and social change. The quarry had been a frontier society, turbulent and barbarous, subject to hard living and hard drinking, however much polite society of the towns tried to disguise it. Drinking became the public symbol of the old social relations, and temperance movement the new one, for there was only a restricted role for liquor in the socially cohesive domesticated family. More recently we celebrated the shift to civilized society by recalling the beginning of women’s electoral franchise, itself related to the temperance campaign.

The quarry does not need to reproduce itself, so the family and children are not integral to its success. Sustainable society requires children, and mothers, strengthening the role of women in society. The cult of domesticity aimed to replace a boisterous society by a more civilized one. As a couple of historians wrote “the Liberal Government accepted the cult of domesticity and the new moral order. Seddon and other prominent Liberals … stressed the importance of home life, … and debated at length the problems of larrikinism.”(2)

And so evolved an idealized vision of the family as the foundation of civilized New Zealand: a couple happily living together with their children – he sober and hard working, perhaps the loving disciplinarian, earning the income the family needed for their sustenance; she at home, also hard working, loving almost to the point of indulgence, the keeper of the home and the carer of the young. This is the Christian family which Lloyd Geering in an earlier lecture in this series characterized as a recent invention.(3) It is really a twentieth century construction of a nineteenth century ideal.

Now of course not all families were like this. Those that were not, were seen generally to be subversive. There were a few exceptions. The widowed family was a case which the social security system addressed in 1911 with the Widow’s Benefit. Those that involved a deserting husband were another matter. Desertion had been a problem from the beginning: in 1852 the first superintendent of Canterbury, James Fitzgerald, announced that husbands who went to the Victorian gold fields “have no right to expect any assistance should given to wives during their absence, from charitable aid or any other source in case they should be in distress.” We see here notions of settlement struggling with the quarry. This was a justice with little mercy for the wife and children of the deserter.

Another interesting anomaly has been the extended family. There were probably very few cases, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, of three generations of settlers living together, or near one another, partly because the quarriers frequently did not have children, while the settlers were first generation arrivals. A consequence today is we still tend to have a nuclear family in mind when we define “the family”, the acknowledged exception being the Maori whanau. The assumption that developed is that as the children became adults, and left home, the remaining couple were still a family, with sort of surrogate children in the pictures on the mantlepiece.

With these exceptions the idealized family was a happy nuclear one, and those who did not conform that were either redefined in relation to families and their aspirations (the unfortunate maiden aunt whose beloved had been killed at the war), or were living a life style which was a threat to civilization.

Philosophically it was a world of black and white, of good and evil, of polar opposites. So everything was classified in these terms: one was a teetotaller or a boozer; pro-American or a communist; a supporter of Roger Douglas or a supporter of Rob Muldoon. In the case of women, Australian Ann Summers described the choice as between a “damned whore” or one of “god’s police”, the keepers of civilized society.(4) Individuals were straight-jacketed by such categorizations, but the fierce puritanism allowed no alternatives, no greys, no subtleties. It is a world of extremes rather than moderation and toleration.

This was not described as puritanism a century ago, but they did speak of “social purity”. Purity was a major concern of the anti-alcohol campaign and of the women’s movement. Yet there was an alternative vision to social purity as a priority, perhaps symbolized by Kate Sheppard, president of the National Council of Women. alternatively the generation younger Ada Wells, its secretary stood for social justice.(5) In fact their relationship was synergetic as it can be between purity and justice, but there is a tension between them.

It is observable in our social philosophy and social policy ever since. A nice illustration is the childhood of John A. Lee, for which we have more than one account. Lee’s mother, Isabella, presents a picture in her autobiography The Not So Poor(6) that “we were poor, but we were respectable”, claiming the self-control of the social purity movement. On the other hand her son, John’s, novel Children of the Poor,(7) a thinly disguised autobiography, describes how the poor are trapped in circumstances not of their own making, condemned to poverty and hardship. Its message was only by the application of social justice can we help these people escape the vicious circle.

Which story is true? Both, for two people looking at the same situation may have different but equally valid visions. And yet, ironically, one might say neither is true. The subtext of Isabella’s story is that she was trapped in her poverty, while John A. Lee’s own career shows at least some can escape by their own efforts.

The two visions do not stop in the 1930s. One might see Anne Hercus, Minister of Social Welfare in the 1980s, at the social justice end of the spectrum, whereas Jenny Shipley operates more at the social purity end. Another pair of political opposites might be Helen Clarke and Ruth Richardson. Now I am not saying that those on the left are uninterested in social purity, while those on the right dismiss social justice. The point is that social policy issues involve a natural tension between liberalism and puritanism.

Puritanism is where the idea of sovereignty and conscience is taken to require constant and scrupulous vigilance over one’s every sentiment and action. By itself that may no bad thing, but most puritans extend their high principled surveillance over everyone else as well. Religiously it exists to track down and extirpate all impure and irreligious thoughts and motions. In the case of the settlement this purpose was reinforced by the need to eradicate the unruliness of the quarry from society. That is why puritanism has been such a central force in our publicly pronounced morality. New Zealand was of course no different from other frontier societies with a protestant underpinning, but because it was later the puritanical domination has continued more recently.

Practically puritanism requires a rule based morality. An example is the pentateuch itself, where there is detailed instructions on what one may or not do, eat, wear, behave. Even the ten commandments are a set of rules. During the axial period, the millennium before the Christian era in which a number of great religious traditions plus Greek philosophy had their origin which lead to Christianity and Islam, civilized societies began to move from a rule based morality to one which was principle based.(8)

We can see this shift in Jesus’s golden rule. Recall there seems to have been an ongoing debate in the Jewish society as to which was the greatest commandment. Jesus answered, ingeniously by coupling two principles. “You shall love God with all your heart, and your soul, and with your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.”(9) From such principles one can develop a comprehensive approach to moral issues. But there are difficulties in a principle based morality.

First, one person may come to different conclusions from another, even from the same agreed principles, something which has been a continuing issue for protestants.

Second it is not always easy to deal with a particular issue. Going back to first principles can be very time consuming, and in any case one needs a constant process of maintenance and renewal.

Third, ethical applications often require a common agreement between those involved. You may get from first principles to the desirability of everyone driving on one side of the road, but there has to be common agreement – summarized in a rule – that it is the left hand side of the road we are to drive on in New Zealand.

Similarly, administrators need rules. We cannot give each official in the Department of Social Welfare a set of principles and tell them to apply them as each case comes up, the outcome would be chaos in our social security system. Ideally a principle based social policy would articulate the principles, and provide illustrative rules for most operational situations. Practically, we only have the rules – be they laws, regulations, or directives.

Consider the task of defining a family. Suppose a household consisted of couple with a dependent child. Would that be a family? Most people would say “yes”. What if one or both of the couple were not the child’s natural (or legal) parents. Most would again say yes, although there might some additional conditions. Suppose the child had grown up and left home, leaving the couple by themselves. Again, it would be yes, the couple were still a family. And I guess most people would allow a couple who could have had children but for whatever reason did not, also to be a family.

But suppose the couple were of the same gender, and supporting the child. Is it still yes they are a family? What if there was no child, but a same gender couple. Y-e-s?? Or what if it were three adults living together?

For some even more complicated questions ones – which are worrying statisticians – consider a child spending part time in one household, and the rest in the other, as a result of a relationship breakdown. What is the child’s family?

People usually try to answer these questions by starting off with some standard situation, and trying to generalize the rule. A principled approach might start off by asking what is the purpose of the exercise. Sometimes rules seem to be based upon some notion of a platonic ideal, and that the grouping of people into the categories is somehow necessary in its own right to preserve social purity. As we turn away from approach that we can often avoid having to use the category. If one wants to invite a household of ambiguous status around, there is no need to tell them to “bring the whole family”, but just say “would you all like to come round?”. If they start calling themselves a “family”, who are we to judge otherwise – unless we are puritans.

Unfortunately the state cannot be so flexible. Under some circumstances it needs to define the family.

One area where state intervention is clearly necessary is where dependent children are involved. When those of us who work in public policy areas refer to “family policy”, we almost invariably are referring to dependent children and the others in their life. We could abandon the expression “family policy”, a term probably used only for sentiment rather than necessity, and call it “children’s policy” or some such.

Having said there is no question that we need a public policy for dependent children, let me point out that surprisingly we do not have any encompassing principles or statute to deal with dependent children. There are specific statutes, such as the Social Security Act, which provides economic support for some, and the Children’s, Young Person’s, and their Families Act, which deals with children who are in some sorts of trouble. But there is no mention of children in the Human Rights Act, nor has the nation formally adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, let alone incorporated it into government practices. The Convention is a series of precepts, which each nation has to apply in terms of its own particular circumstances. That we are so hesitant to adopt it, is a nice illustration of our unwillingness to run a principle based social policy.

Other than for dependent children, is there anywhere else we need to have an explicit role for families in public policy? The other place I can think of is dealing with the property of couples who have lived together and are separating – the matrimonial property issue. The problem here is that the couple usually have tacit agreements about ownership of that property which have to be worked thorough when the relationship ends. One could leave this to the courts applying common law, but when this was done it often resulted in unfairness – especially to women. We needed explicit statute law to over-ride the common law.

Perhaps this is no more than the state reducing transaction costs in a voluntary relationship, and which the couple can over-rule by a legal agreement. For sentimental reasons the state might also act as the recorder of marriages and such like. But generally, unless there are dependent children, the logic is the state should have the most minimum involvement in family matters. Such voluntary relationships and agreements are for those involved, and their friends. Big brother should stay out. So should big sister.

Puritans will object to this, in their anxiety to maintain surveillance over others. There will be diversions to obscure this end. They might say “what about battered wives?”. The answer is surely that an intrusive family policy from the past has allowed men to legally batter their wives. Today we are withdrawing that protection of the aggressor, replacing it with the notion that husbands can be charged with common assault on their spouses.

Another worry might be in social security. What about the distinction in its treatment of married couples and singles? I suggest it is unnecessary, if there is a living alone allowance recognizing that it is more expensive to live by oneself. One of the fears of this strategy is that the costs of social security might increase if it ceased to recognize marital status. The system frequently operates in a way to disadvantage married couples. If that was not permitted, those disadvantages would be withdrawn, and it would be more costly.

It could be argued that these anomalies arose from past understandings, and they are steadily being eliminated in practice. You might say the social repressives and the fiscal repressives have found a common crusade. The outcome has been new anomalies.

To give a couple of examples. First, whatever the justification for asset stripping of the elderly in care, the system imposes more heavily upon the spouse, than it would on others in similar situations but without an official family commitment. This is not an argument for rounding on those couples (who may be of the same gender), and applying the same asset stripping rules to them – assuming the means testing was considered justified at all. The logic would seem to be to apply precisely the same test to a person irrespective of their matrimonial and living situation, so that each should be treated as if they were single.(10)

My second example of the increasing intrusiveness of the state into family matters involves young adults. Parents are increasingly finding themselves responsible for the adult children, past the age of 18 (defined by the UN convention as the upper age for the dependent children), even up to the age of 25. This treatment applies to entitlements for tertiary grant and for the unemployment benefit. The practical application of the procedure ran up against the problem of those young adults who had abandoned their parents, or their parents had abandoned them. The not ungenerous response was where this happened, and the parents would not make up the burden the state implicitly imposes on them, the state treated the young adult as if they had no parents and provides them with the full income entitlement.

This generates an extraordinary anomaly. The state requires a greater financial commitment from those parents who maintain their affection for their children and continue to accept some responsibility for them. Correspondingly the state provides such parents with less, reducing the cost to the public purse. In effect the state taxes affection and responsibility: show any towards your adult children, and you may be worse off.

How could the puritans allow this? Why are they not protesting? Perhaps they are unaware of the anomalies their policies produce, but there is a deeper issue.

The puritan view of the family is it involves duties and obligations, which are more important than affection and responsibilities. It sees it as proper that these duties and obligations should be enforced by the state. I have some sympathy with the view that guardians – indeed all adults – have duties – “responsibilities” is be a better word – to dependent children. The extent to which these should be, or can be, enforced is another matter. The government cannot make somebody a good father or mother, although it may well try to help them become a better one. The issue is the principle that dependent children are not always able to act in their own best interests, and they need support. Ideally that support should come primarily from their parents, but when it is not possible the issue is the best interests of the children, not the imposition of duties on the parents which they may be unable to execute.

It is not possible to legislate duty or affection. we are mislead to try to do so, even though in the short run the state may reduce the fiscal costs. Yet that puritan approach to our public policy has been with us for at least a hundred years.

It is probably diminishing. Recall how liquor policy was the great symbol of the ending of the drunken frontier society, to be superseded by the settlement, sustainable and sober. For years there was a constant warfare over liquor legislation through most of the twentieth century. Yet the 1989 reform, which not only rationalized the regulation of liquor licensing but made it easier to establish outlets and hence to obtain liquor, was passed with hardly any public observance. That is not to say we have resolved all the issues, or that alcohol abuse is still not costly to the community. But we are accepting that puritanical prohibition is not the solution to the complexity of the liquor issue. More generally we are becoming less socially repressive, more socially tolerant. Repression is not always the best answer.

I put this down to three reasons. First, women have been objecting to being offered only the options of whore or police. The slogan “girls can do anything” is not an attack on the second law of thermodynamics, but the recognition that there are many roles in society which women can do, and may choose to do.

Second, we are now a society more open to the rest of the world. We have many more migrants from all sorts of cultures – including from Asia and the Pacific; more New Zealanders travel; we export and import from more countries; nor should we underestimate the effect of a cosmopolitan media, especially television. Not only do we have to tolerate the diversity of the whole world, but increasingly we are celebrating that diversity in our midst -even if the puritans look glumly on.

And third, the unsustainable quarry is no longer the threat it was at the end of nineteenth century. We still have its remnants, but even the West Coast and the fisheries are now on a sustainable basis. Although Taranaki is now a quarry province, and we still quarry oil from the middle East and phosphate from Nauru, today the New Zealand economy is as sustainable as anywhere else in the world (and as unsustainable).

So we need not be as frightened of the boisterousness of quarry society as once we were. We might even recognize its good features. Looking at our nineteenth century poetry one would choose the Maori waiata. The Europeans had much less to offer but my preference would be Charles Thatcher’s spirited ballads, rather than the stilted verse of the Old Identity he chose to lampoon. There is a liveliness – a celebration of life – in Thatchers’s songs, not evident in the dour settlement.

New Zealand is a much more life enhancing place where we have abandoned our puritanical shackles, or those we insist on imposing on others. We still need to provide a governed context in which our society can function, but my contention is that it is regulation based on principles which generate rules, rather than based on rules derived from a narrow definitions of what is right and wrong. We need to shift to a the principle based public ethic presaged by Jesus.

The best way we can promote the family is by celebrating it, in all its diversity, rather than trying to coercing others with beliefs as to what is normal and abnormal – like Procrustes forcing all to fit the bed he chose for them. Because of the procrustean puritans family policy has been destructive in the past. What family policy should do is to concentrate on what it can and needs to do well – supporting dependent children, and leave as much of the rest of us in our private lives to our voluntary choices, decisions, and affections.

1. This paper applies the conceptual framework described in Brian Easton Towards a Political Economy of New Zealand: The Tectonics of History , the 1994 Hocken lecture, Hocken Library, Dunedin.
2. Erik Olssen & Andree Levesque, “The History of the European Family in New Zealand”, in P.G.Koopman (ed) Families in New Zealand Society (Methuen, 1978).
3. Lloyd Geering, Is There a Christian Model for the Family?, Spring 1994 lecture to the St Andrews Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, 6 October, 1994.
4. Ann Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia (Penguin, 1975).
5. Although Rachel McAlpine’s Farewell Speech (Penguin, 1990) is fiction rather than history, there are places in the novel where she captures this difference between the two women.
6. Mary Isabella Lee, The Not So Poor: An Autobiography , ed Annabel Cooper, (AUP, 1992).
7. John A. Lee, Children of the Poor , (T. Werner Laurie, 1934).
8. Lloyd Geering, Tomorrow’s God: How We Create Our Worlds (Bridget Williams Books, 1994).
9. Matthew 5:46, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27.
10. Susan St John, Financial Assistance for Families from the State (Department of Economics, University of Auckland, 1994).