Remember Malcolm Turnbull? He’s the high profile Sydney merchant banker who was one of the thrusting forces behind the push for the Republic.
It is no secret, of course, that he aspires to political office through the Liberal Party – for a start he’s after pre-selection for the blue ribbon seat of Wentworth, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Ironically, that same seat happens to have been a political graveyard for Liberal high flyers in recent years – including John Hewson.
Well, a couple of weeks ago Malcolm Turnbull graced us with his concerns about the declining birth rate and the plight of the family.
And what better way to launch a political career than to uncover a popular (and worthy) banner under which to run. Let us hope (for Turnbull’s sake) that he manages the politics of it more skillfully than he handled the Republican push.
On his performance to date, however, some will want to question whether he has thought through the issues of population and family sufficiently to make a real impact.
Turnbull, in his recent Age article – and it is reasonable to assume that his views have found their way into comment columns of more than one of our dailies – certainly has views; some of them are, however, a little off the beaten track.
Turnbull believes, that whatever we think of population growth as an issue, that’s not the only reason to be concerned about the low birth rate. There is also the question the decline of the family as a social institution in our society.
New policies are needed to encourage families, and, according to Turnbull, these should be funded from the public purse, as they were back in the 1950s. He has referred specifically to family tax concessions against earned income and child endowment. If he has more in mind he has not said so.
But he does speculate that maybe we have gone too far in promoting the idea of individual over community. That, in particular, is a refreshing thought, and Turnbull should be congratulated for raising it – especially as a political hopeful in a party which seems hardly to know where it is going when it comes to balancing community interests (including family) against those of individuals.
So is Turnbull on the right track? Yes. But, of course, the question remains, can he, from where he sits, bring his party into line behind his ideas?
And even assuming he could, would what Turnbull is suggesting be enough? Most certainly not!
That most notable of British scientists, Isaac Newton, revealed a startling scientific truth to the world when he explained that every time an apple dropped from a tree it shook the world. Everything in science, he was trying to illustrate, is connected with everything else.
And so it is, in exactly the same way, with societies’ economic structures.
We can’t pick and choose the bits we like, discard the rest, and expect the edifice to remain unchanged. Yet, that is precisely what we tried to do when we changed the economic structures some twenty-five years ago in the interests of so-called efficiency. The unstated assumption was that the gains and losses would fall equally upon all, and that gains would outstrip the losses. The balances within our society would continue undisturbed.
Malcolm Turnbull has never explained to us where he stands on economic issues, but almost certainly, as an investment banker – and in the absence of evidence to the contrary – we are entitled to assume that he stands behind the ideas of deregulation and total dependence on the free flow of market forces as the guiding hand of the economy.
And, perhaps, he too, along with the rest of that group believes that our society could absorb all of the instabilities for family life which followed in the wake of deregulation, without the need to make adjustments.
His concern for the family, laudable as it may be, is unlikely to point us in the right direction unless he first identifies what stands behind our society’s apparent rejection of marriage and family.
There is much more to it that is so far recognised by Malcolm Turnbull. Much more too, than was expressed by a recent Age correspondent, who – commenting on why there is a decline in the numbers marrying and having children – observed, “Have a look at the employment contracts”.
There is much more than that, too.
A fundamental consequence of Australia embracing the ideas of deregulation and market dominated economics has been the destruction of the lower middle class. And it was the promotion of this class in the period after World War Two (and the economics which lay behind it) that made possible, both prosperity and the kind of family life we all want to go back to.
Well the fact is we can’t have that unless we also accept all its other trappings. It is impossible to say, for example, that one wants on the one hand, deregulationist and market driven economics, and, on the other, a strong sense of family and community. The one prevents the other.
The Liberal Party itself, which, traditionally, has been the party standing behind family values, does not apparently acknowledge this contradiction, and, as a result, its own attitude to community and family is ambiguous and confused.
When Malcolm Turnbull tells that by providing the kinds of direct hand outs to families as were available in the 1950s, we can recapture those glory days, he is sadly and tragically mistaken.
While family and child allowances were important, they were only part of the story. They were merely part of a whole infrastructure of support, all of which has been dismantled.
While all of this was happening a prominent Australian journalist, Paul Kelly, wrote a polemic entitled The End of Certainty. At the time Kelly appeared to rejoice in the idea: although he too, like many more, may not have anticipated the more unsavoury consequences of the changes he identified.
It is frequently said (including by Turnbull) that the current decline in standards today can be traced to the decline in the attraction of marriage and family: and to the rising incidence of marriage break up. What we need, so the story goes, is for marriage to be brought back to the traditional levels of the 50s and 60s of the last century.
In fact, as the well known social commentator, Hugh Mackay, recently reminded us, the commitment to and durability of marriage in those times was not the norm at all. Marriage rates in those times were higher than the norm: what we have today accords closer to the longer term.
In other words, assuming Mackay is right, what we were able to achieve in that twenty or thirty year period grew not spontaneously, but out of carefully crafted and consciously developed policy prescriptions. If we want to get back to what we had – and we should – then we need to re-create all of the policies which made comfortable family life possible for the vast majority of Australians. We need, in short, to re-build a prosperous lower middle class.
Remember what we had then. Expressed simply it was stability and certainty. Well paid and permanent jobs were available for all – including a steady inflow of migrants. To achieve this, we needed the right kind of industry policies. The fact that there was political consensus on the need for both genuine full employment and industry policy made this possible.
Flowing from such policies was a healthy stream of taxation revenues which made possible the public expenditures needed to maintain the system. Because we were spared the need for huge outlays on unemployment benefits, all of this was made more easily possible. It makes social and economic sense to have the entire population working. And it is good public policy.
But stable family life depended upon more than the availability of permanent, full time jobs. Families needed back up services as a necessary part of the stability package. Schools, hospitals, roads, public transport, power generation, and water and sewerage supply as needs grew.
A combination of public and private enterprise was skilfully used to ensure that these services reached families at prices they could afford to pay.
This was the kind of society in which family life grew and prospered. Indeed it is the only kind of society in which family life, built around a prosperous lower middle class, can flourish.
Now that all of necessary conditions for that kind of society to flourish have been taken away, should any of us, therefore, be surprised that the family life built around it has gone too?
Only those well off enough to weather the economic uncertainties of Australia today are choosing to raise children; that is the kind of society we now have. And no amount of palliatives such as Malcolm Turnbull suggests can hope to reverse present trends.
If he, and the rest of us, really want a return to flourishing family life, then we will have to be prepared to reinstate the conditions that cultivated it back in the fifties.
No doubt it will be said, that the so-called economic reform program which was begun in the seventies and eighties of the last century was inevitable and we could not afford to maintain Australia as it was then. If so, then we should dispense with the posturing and accept that one of the social consequences of that economic ‘reality’ is the destruction of lower middle class family life.
In all probability, those behind the drive for economic rationalism won’t care about this, but the rest of us surely should.
- Colin Teese was Deputy Secretary of the Department of Trade