Public Policy Driven By Ideology: Couples Counseling

18 / 07 / 2014

Lowering the divorce rate in Australia has recently been nominated as an area of policy interest by the Abbott Government. Writer Amy Gray looks at the Government’s relationship counseling voucher system which has been in operation since July 1, questioning whether the Government’s motivation behind the policy has any real evidential basis.

By Amy Gray

One of the great things about a conservative government is that they always let you know who the enemy is. The Abbott Government has broken new ground in this area because, according to them, the enemy is everyone.

Recently added to the enemy list are those cavalier hedonists – divorced people. Look at them with their gift scams and rapidly changing relationship status on Facebook. Oh yes, it’s complicated. Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Social Services and Overly Diluted Cordial, has had enough of their guff and instituted a new scheme where people can receive $200 vouchers for relationship counseling.

Andrews has already hailed the program as a success with 400 people applying for vouchers in its first week of operation.

Let’s put aside for a moment the troubling implication that Kevin Andrews and his wife were listed as members of the Marriage Education Program Inc until December 2013. The Andrews have a long history of working on marriage education and, by hopeful extension, effective and respectful communication, like that time Margaret Andrews confronted Benjamin Law at a conference on family diversity.

This trial program has all the hallmarks of trouble for Australians and is based on flawed obsessions.

Like the trial’s obsession with marriage instead of relationships. Despite the trial being open to “committed” couples, marriage is mentioned seven times in its promotional material. Even a reference to couples not yet living together is more a reference to pre-wedding traditionalism than a nod to the growing number of de facto relationships.

The page notes the trial will “help couples cope with changes and challenges, such as moving in together, having a baby, getting married, or managing their money.” This is a fabulous notion until you consider that a vast chunk of Australia’s population don’t have access to either marriage or adoption assistive reproduction equality. This is not a program for all Australians, just the heterosexuals. Preferably the ones getting married.

Even Kevin Andrews, Minister for Social Services and tasteful ties that aren’t flashy, admits the focus of this trial is to lower the divorce rate, up 2% to 49,917 divorces in 2012. Such a small increase pales even further when you realise divorce rates are still well under their 2001 peak of approximately 56,000.

With plans to establish an expert panel to reduce the divorce rate even further, this obsession with marriage must be examined.

According to Kevin Andrews, Minister for Social Services and mild cups of tea that have gone a bit cold, “it was important to reduce divorce because research showed that, as a cohort, children of divorced parents did not perform as well in terms of their education, health and employment outcomes”.

Once again, it comes back to the Abbott government’s obsession with traditional kids being raised in traditional homes.  But the problem with this “think of the children” defense is that it’s not supported by research.

Research shows that children suffer more from the separation of parents than the death of a parent. What’s the difference? Conflict. Arguments or abuse in a family home will damage a child more than a dead parent. Giving $200 vouchers to teach separated or coupled parents conflict resolution skills would help children more than trying to keep the parents married. It’s not the fact that parents are divorced that damages children, it’s because the parents fight.

When Kevin Andrews says children of divorced parents don’t perform as well in education, health or employment, he misses the point spectacularly. These children fail to thrive because of poverty – because they have less access to secure housing, transport, safe neighborhoods, regular food and exercise – which then impacts their ability to physically, academically and professionally develop.

Let’s also not assume two couple families provide the best outcomes for children either. Plenty of abuse, violence, dysfunction and hardship can occur without the presence of a divorce certificate. Amazingly, these are just as damaging for children.

Seen in this light, it would appear that Kevin Andrews, Minister for Social Services and bracing walks to rid oneself of impure thoughts, has let his obsession with marriage trample over years of research.

But it also has another subtext, given most single families are maintained by women. The insistence on preserving marriage is yet another way of saying the presence of men will fix everything – that the presence of men will save kids from growing up into sick, dumb and unemployed delinquents and women from being poor. What Andrews fails to realise is that sometimes the best thing for women and her children is in fact getting away from the presence of a man.

And despite his concern for children’s well-being, Kevin Andrews presides over a ministry that has gutted the welfare system and places millions of Australia’s most vulnerable at risk of sinking even further into poverty. What does poverty cause? More stress, less outcomes. You know, the sorts of things a marriage license and a $200 counseling voucher can’t fix.

This initiative confirms how the Abbott Government approaches policy – it is largely ideologically driven solutions to problems that either don’t work or just don’t exist. The idea is not just wrong-headed, but poorly – excuse the pun – conceived.

The best way to protect people and let them thrive is to educate them and give them a safety net for when they fall – but spending an extra $20 million on single parent payments, equitable housing, education or childcare isn’t what Kevin Andrews wants to do.


Amy Gray is a guest speaker at our ‘Trust Friends’ Annual Get-Together (for supporters of the Victorian Women’s Trust, which publishes Sheilas) on 31 July, where she will join a terrific line-up of other speakers in debating the topic ‘That there is a crisis of trust in Australian politics’. Click here for the event details!