At the World Congress of Families’ (WCF) ‘regional event’ in Melbourne last August, speakers explored topics such as ‘The Link between Abortion and Breast Cancer’, ‘Sex Education Courses as Pornography’, and ‘The Pro-life and Pro-family Policies in the US and Russia’. After all the speakers were finished, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews was scheduled to take the stage, but, in the stuffy Catch the Fire Ministries worship hall, he was nowhere to be found. The ‘barbarians at the gate’ were to blame, several of the day’s speakers lamented, some more angrily than others, referring to the fact that Andrews had dropped off the roster at the last minute due to the negative media attention the conference was receiving.
Andrews’ relationship with the Congress, an international coalition of ‘natural family’ advocates drawn largely from the Catholic right, is complex. On the one hand, he serves as an International Ambassador for the organisation, and is a staple of the Congress lineup, having addressed WCF audiences in Prague, Geneva, and Amsterdam. On the other hand, when Andrews was faced with criticism in the lead-up to the Melbourne conference, his spokesperson continuously reiterated that he was only attending the event at all because it related to his portfolio, before the decision was made for him to avoid speaking at the event altogether – at which point he publicly released the speech he planned to give anyway. It seemed as though Andrews was split between his desire to retain the wholehearted support of the anti-LGBTQI and pro-life lobby, while at the same time attempting (unconvincingly) to re-position himself as a straightforward, level-headed marriage moderate. Like many ideologues, Andrews has long favoured this strategy of distancing himself from his own dogmatic ideology whenever it suits him.
I mulled all of this over while making my way through a report – written by Judith Ireland in the Sunday Age – indicating that Andrews’ relationship counselling voucher program is failing. Launched on the first of July 2014, the ‘Stronger Relationships Trial’ grants the first 100,000 couples that apply $200 to put toward relationship counselling.
As of August 2014, only 1400 couples had opted in. In the Age’s report, the explanation offered for the low take-up was the continued stigma surrounding relationship counselling. A better explanation, however, might be the odd media strategy employed by the Coalition, in which Andrews and his wife were being used as poster children for the voucher program. In May, a long-form piece about ‘Stronger Relationships’ in the Weekend Australian Magazine featured an image of Kevin Andrews and wife Margaret clasping hands on a well-worn brownish crimson sofa, with his marriage likened to ‘the modern motor car … serviced every two or three years’. For months, that article was the number one hit on Google for ‘Stronger Relationships Trial’, more prominent than any information about how to actually sign up to the program. Andrews’ ‘Will he, won’t he?’ World Congress of Families flip-flopping becomes more explicable when you consider that the success of the relationship counselling trial may be contingent on the popularity of Andrews himself. As modern heterosexual marriage personified, for Andrews to obviously associate with extremists would be to put his entire project in jeopardy.
In the lead article for the December 2013 issue of Quadrant, Geoffrey Luck declared we are in the middle of the ‘Marriage Wars’. Other issues of Quadrant neatly trace what is meant by this: in the June 2014 edition, John Prineas suggested – in his essay ‘Surrogacy and the Misbegotten Family’ – that ‘an orgy of surrogacy is melting down family diagrams into bowls of spaghetti and meatballs’, while in December 2011 Barry Marley argued that the ‘loosening up of marriage law’ and dismantling of ‘restrictive conventions surrounding marriage and procreation’ allow us to retreat, collectively, from personal responsibility. Flicking deeper into the stacks, the archives of Quadrant reveal a deep anxiety about declining fertility rates and dual-breadwinner family dynamics stretching back decades.
The battle for same-sex marriage remains front and centre for most of those on the left, but on the right there seems to be some consensus that the ‘Marriage Wars’ should be fought on multiple fronts. The desire to prevent the expansion of marriage rights to same-sex couples seems best understood as part of a much broader strategy designed to exert increased control over how heterosexual marriage is defined and understood.
So, where exactly does Kevin Andrews’ marriage counselling scheme fit in to all this? Can it be understood in relation to the ‘Marriage Wars’, as some kind of ideological salvo, or is it really just good, sensible public policy? In the profile piece that ran in the Weekend Australian Magazine prior to the rollout of ‘Stronger Relationships’, Andrews argued that marriage ‘becomes the government’s business when it doesn’t work out because we pick up all the costs’. Andrews has used this justification many times, perhaps because it affords him the ability to reframe what is to him a moral issue in economic terms, which can seem less subjective, even if the numbers don’t always quite add up. In 1998, for example, Andrews presented a 393-page report, ‘To Have and to Hold’, to Federal Parliament, detailing a series of ‘strategies to strengthen marriage and relationships’. In it, an estimate was floated that marriage breakdown costs the nation between $3–6 billion a year. Interestingly, in the 2014 Weekend Australian piece, Andrews almost tripled the high-end 1998 estimate to $15 billion, far outstripping inflation. ‘His calculations appear a bit back-of-the-envelope,’ journalist Greg Bearup noted in the piece, before repeating an assertion from Andrews that ‘up to 40 per cent of people who divorce [later] wish they hadn’t’. When I attempted to fact-check this extraordinary claim (which has been repeated as fact at least once by Andrew Bolt), the only prior reference I could find was Andrews’ own 2012 book, Maybe ‘I Do’: Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness, which in turn attributed it to a web page that no longer exists.
Andrews peppers Maybe ‘I Do’ with thousands of references to similar studies of varying degrees of legitimacy. For a work dealing with modern marriage, it can read more like a statistics textbook. This reliance on hard numbers, though, plays into Andrews’ utilitarian moral philosophy, which suggests that if we sublimate our individual desires in service of performing pre-assigned roles (‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘mother’, ‘father’), we will, collectively, be much better off. To this end, he cites studies that suggest married individuals are less at risk of dying from virtually every cause of death, that babies with married mothers are less likely to die of SIDS, and that marriage is linked generally to improved mental, physical, and emotional health.
With the exception of the appalling correlation-mistaken-for-causation when it comes to SIDS deaths, it’s hard to argue with most of Andrews’ assertions. After all, nobody would expect to see a study linking dysfunctional or deteriorating relationships to improved anything. And relationship counselling works! Andrews, obviously, has a lot of studies to point to, but even those not referenced by Andrews tend to suggest that couples counselling usually leads to improved wellbeing and relationship satisfaction, and group relationship education courses seem at least marginally effective in improving the relationship quality of participants.
There is something at least a little off, though. Critics of ‘Stronger Relationships’ have made the point that it seems strange to throw $200 at couples for something as relatively frivolous as relationship counselling when the most recent Federal Budget has wiped out funding for important pre-existing social welfare services. A whole lot of people want a functioning welfare safety net and affordable GP visits, but almost nobody has been clamouring for more affordable relationship counselling services. In fact, the two groups that have most strongly supported ‘Stronger Relationships’ appear to be relationship-counselling providers, like Relationships Australia, which stand to gain directly from the scheme, and far-right ‘Christian Ethics Action Groups’ like Melbourne’s Salt Shakers and the Australian Christian Values Institute.
Digging deeper, it becomes clearer as to how ‘Stronger Relationships’ might fit within the framework of the ‘Marriage Wars’. In an interview with the Herald Sun, Andrews explained how he would judge the success of the scheme: the program would need to prevent 200 marriage breakdowns in order to ‘pay for itself’. This seems like a fairly good way to measure the success of such a program, except that Andrews doesn’t appear to really care how divorces are prevented and whether or not the counselling improves the overall health of the relationships. In general, Andrews’ opinion seems to be that a bad marriage is almost always preferable to divorce, which would mean that, in broad strokes, a counselling program that encouraged an unhappy couple to remain together would constitute a success. After all, according to Andrews’ conservative utilitarian philosophy, the happiness of the two individuals in a marriage is less important than the social stability afforded by the continuation of the marriage itself, especially when children are involved. When viewed this way, the ‘Stronger Relationships’ program becomes much less about improving relationship health than about constructing the base level of a framework in which divorce can be more actively discouraged.
The Coalition would probably prefer to go much further than ‘Stronger Relationships’, but trying to pass an amendment that would make heterosexual marriage more restrictive would be foolish at a time when the primary legislative battle for conservatives is preventing the expansion of marriage rights to same-sex couples. While the ‘Marriage Wars’ are being fought on multiple fronts, there seems to be recognition amongst conservatives that not all of the battles should be ‘hot’, and many should be fought subtly through low-key propaganda.
The Liberal Party has never been comfortable with no-fault divorce. It’s not surprising that no-fault divorce was introduced under the Whitlam government, in 1975 – the same year Medibank, another persistent Coalition bugbear, began operation. To varying degrees, many members of the Liberal Party seem to feel as though no-fault divorce has essentially destroyed the very concept of marriage by providing the possibility of a relatively painless, relatively affordable escape from one’s vows. In his 2010 memoir Lazarus Rising, John Howard describes the 1975 Family Law Act introducing no-fault divorce as the most ‘important piece of social legislation debated in the time I was in federal parliament’. Howard, of course, maintains that the debate was lost, and Kevin Andrews agrees. In Maybe ‘I Do’, Andrews refers to a 1995 study from the Australian Institute of Family Studies suggesting that 70 per cent of Australians think it is ‘too easy to get a divorce’. What Andrews doesn’t mention is that the author of that 1995 study discovered that views about divorce are radically inconsistent. Findings suggest that what we really want is a system that makes it difficult for our partners to end a marriage (granting us security), but which grants us the freedom to throw in the towel if we find ourselves unhappy. We want divorce to be easy for us, in other words, but difficult for everyone else. Considering this kind of hyper-selfish system would be totally unworkable, no-fault divorce probably remains the best of all flawed alternatives. Howard and Andrews, of course, disagree. Changing divorce law, they believe, has left us with a shapeless and subjective idea of what marriage means.
The strategic importance of ‘Stronger Relationships’ will only reveal itself in retrospect. In practice, and outside the context of the ‘Marriage Wars’ as they’re currently playing out, ‘Stronger Relationships’ seems like a fantastic, even progressive initiative – almost like a logical expansion of preventative health care measures into the realm of relationship wellbeing. In many ways, too, the scheme has been tempered and made more politically correct in ways that must leave Andrews irritated: the vouchers are available to any two people above the age of 18 who identify as a couple, including the unmarried and those in same-sex relationships, and the program allows couples to choose from a wide variety of both religious and secular marriage education and relationships counselling providers.
Only when viewed as part of the more general Coalition platform, and as part of the ‘Marriage Wars’, does ‘Stronger Relationships’ seem like a strategic political tool. If one of the goals of ‘Stronger Relationships’ is to save the government money in the long run by preventing direct and external costs associated with marriage breakups, after all, why did the Coalition almost simultaneously introduce a bill abolishing the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, which would almost certainly lead to much greater long-term savings by preventing long-term health issues caused by obesity, tobacco use, and alcohol abuse? Why is marriage counselling one of the few winners in a budget that took a sledgehammer to social welfare and health?
While the content of the relationship courses and counselling programs supported by ‘Stronger Relationships’ is presently devised with little direct government intervention, the very existence of the voucher program – provided it is not abolished after the trial concludes – creates a relatively flexible channel for future conservative governments to promote and fund education courses that espouse ideas about what kinds of relationships are valid as well as how and when abusive or unhealthy relationships should be ended. In the public education system, both the Labor Party and the Coalition have tussled over how Australian history should be taught for years – even after creating systems to prevent the direct politicisation of curricula, it is simply too tempting for governments to use public education programs to push their own agendas.
In order to supplement their ‘Marriage Wars’ content, in 2012 Quadrant ran an edited extract from Kevin Andrews’ book, in which Andrews railed against how marriage is being undone by social constructivists like Michel Foucault, who promote the idea that marriage and family are not ‘fixed concepts’ and have ‘no meaning beyond the context in which they exist’. The relative shapelessness of modern marriage is clearly something that truly bothers Andrews, who longs for a return to a concept of marriage and family in which roles are rigidly defined. ‘Stronger Relationships’ does not get us there. Really, it does not even get us close. The most immediate outcome from the trial will probably be the funnelling of money back to agencies affiliated with the Catholic Church (Andrews’ own 1998 report suggests that almost three quarters of the couples who do end up using the $200 vouchers will probably be Catholic and heterosexual), but Andrews has been pushing for this scheme for almost two decades, so it is likely a very long play.
One of my favourite pieces of writing about marriage is in the form of an open letter posted on Tumblr by American writer Ken Baumann. ‘When you get married, you get doused with a lot of the ossified/cliché shit that is 100% gross,’ Baumann writes. ‘The only irrefutably non-bullshit thing about marriage is what it does to & for people in private.’ Marriage, the way Baumann describes it, fits perfectly within Foucault’s amorphous, post-modern model. This conception almost certainly makes marriage less stable, which is in some ways hugely problematic. Most people are not thoughtful enough to construct their own idea of marriage or family as they go along. Most people do not have the time or energy to compare and contrast different relationship structures and different childrearing strategies. In the aggregate, then, it’s probably true that we would all benefit from following a clear, idiot-proof template telling us how to make a life with somebody else and not fuck it all up. There is something compelling, and hugely comforting, about recognising you can slip back into a role somebody else has assigned for you, particularly if that same role has been performed by many before you and likely many after.
I’ve spent so much time trying to understand Kevin Andrews that now I think, maybe, I do: I can understand why it makes sense for him to want to promote a lifeless, restrictive, and utilitarian form of marriage that can cater to lowest-common denominator individuals. Were ‘Stronger Relationships’ to develop over many years and decades into a fully-fledged apparatus for our government to educate us on the mechanics of marriage, it would need to be Andrews’ version of marriage that would be promoted. Andrews’ concept of marriage removes the individual as the indivisible political unit, and returns us to a society in which nuclear families once again become primary. If you’re governing the country, this kind of model makes a good deal of logistical sense.
Unfortunately, though, I can’t help but keep in mind a line from Sartre’s The Age of Reason: ‘He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about with him for years to come.’ Entering into a marriage, nobody wants to end up filing divorce papers, but it seems much worse entering into a marriage and realising you’ve entirely lost your freedom to accept and freedom to refuse. It also seems kind of sad, in a strange and irrational way, to enter into a marriage and lose your freedom to behave like a fool.