Bringing back the family — this election's legacy

Bring back Jenny Shipley. Not to bounce Bill English; there is enough juice in that stew. To tell us about “the family”.

The most abiding picture I have from the 1999 campaign was of Shipley resting her head on husband Burton’s shoulder on a bus ride at the end of a day on the West Coast. It was not showy or tokenist or despairing. It was homely.

The Shipleys and their two offspring looked a genuinely close-knit unit, the 1950s family ideal incarnate.

I had thought — wrongly, as it turned out — that Shipley would use this to political advantage when Prime Minister after 1997, that she would represent solid, small-town virtues to a destabilised middle New Zealand.

These were values trashed by those who came to adulthood in the 1960s-70s. The heroes and fellow-travellers of that “values revolution” have — many of them — strewn marriages and children about as if they were obsolescent consumer goods.

They declared the 1950s family — and much else besides — too stifling. Norman Kirk, working class hero Prime Minister, could litter his 1972 campaign speeches with references to the “family unit”. But mum, dad and 2.4 kids were not for freedom-seekers.

That lot has been in charge of government and business since the mid-1980s, hacking up once-stable economic and social arrangements, to the discomfort of many.

But something stirred in this election. The “family” came back.

We are to have a Commission for the Family, at United Future’s prodding. Peter Dunne’s evangelical friends and Christian Heritage’s moral reactionaries made “the family” the centrepiece of their campaigns.

Their family sounds the 1950s sort: husband in authority and earning the money, wife at home and children disciplined. To help out that sort of family, both United Future and Christian Heritage advocated income splitting for tax purposes: a one-earner household of two adults would pay less tax that way.

In effect it would also transfer resources to that sort of family from other sorts, especially single-parent households. To “values revolutionaries” that sounds reactionary, perhaps immoral.

Turn to Shipley for the bridge. Her family was a 1950s family. But she recognised other sorts of families as valid.

She did make life harder for single-parent welfare-dependent families with her 1991 benefit cuts (still not reversed by Labour) and her abortive code of social responsibility would have been tough on such households. But she did not judge non-1950s families immoral or anti-social.

Now let me offer an abiding image from this campaign just past. Margaret Wilson, whom moral conservatives call a witch, extolled family values while warming up a Tauranga meeting for Helen Clark on July 18.

Cynical? Not a bit. Anyone who knows Wilson knows her close bonds with, and her care for, her parents, siblings and their children. She spoke from the heart and with truth.

Then flash to a picture on August 13 of new cabinet minister Chris Carter and his partner, Peter Kaiser. They have “lived in a marriage-like situation for 29 years”. They present a more loving couple than many husbands and wives.

So what are we to make of the re-emergence of “the family”? How can Helen Clark, a values revolutionary, agree to a commission proposed by two Christian parties with conservative agendas?

For part of the answer, note another phenomenon of this campaign: the plethora of dedicated children’s policy platforms, not just from the big old parties, which in the past largely subsumed children into education, health and other social policies, but even more pronouncedly from the Greens and the Alliance.

In a society of transitory household arrangements this may represent hope that the state can through public policy redress breakdowns the family was once expected to fix in the private sphere.

I suspect there is more.

The 1960s-70s values revolution fragmented social structures and beliefs. Few want the Christian Heritage solution, as Shipley knew. But many feel society lacks reliable rules and foundation blocks.

“The family” is in that context a shorthand for social unity and stability.

A Commission for the Family won’t deliver that. But a not-so-subliminal message to politicians on July 27 was that a faster economy won’t either.