28 January 2016
It is an honour to attend this gathering of leaders and representatives working with the United Nations to support the family.
I have always regarded myself as a “pro-family” member of parliament – but the reality of elected office means that MPs who are as supportive of the family, in real life, as they are in theory would have to quit their jobs!
Members of the Australian parliament spend a minimum of 80 nights a year in Canberra away from their homes and families. Party leaders and senior front benchers would probably spend at least as much time again on the road. Some of you may face similar problems.
So I’ve been good on the theory of family; but, like so many of my parliamentary colleagues, I’ve relied on a supportive spouse to put the heart into the home; taking the kids to school, supervising assignments, doing the sports runs and generally putting other people first.
Especially before this gathering that takes the family seriously, I owe my wife, Margie, an incalculable debt – not just for supporting me – but for doing the hard yards that have given us three gracious and accomplished adult daughters.
But as it happens, the job of policy makers is less to be role models, as spouses and parents, than to build the best possible conditions for families to flourish.
Sometimes, this requires policies: to promote prosperity and to deliver better services; and sometimes, it requires values: including an acknowledgment that, ideally, children would grow up with a mother and a father.
Policy makers shouldn’t be judgmental about people’s personal choices, but we can’t be indifferent to the erosion of the family given its consequences for the wider community. It was my distinguished predecessor, John Howard, who pointed out that the traditional family was the best social welfare system that mankind had ever devised.
With family, we don’t just return phone calls, try to remember birthdays and arrange to meet when we haven’t caught up for a while. Family are the people whose lawn we will mow, or whose dishes we will wash, or whose debts we will forgive, or whose death bed we will attend – not because we necessarily feel like it or because it might do us good – but because they have a claim on us: of blood or of deep, long-term connectedness.
Of course, the most important relationships are often the hardest. As humans – not angels – we are guaranteed to succeed only in falling short of the ideal. Those we love can make us; or break us. Children can be our proudest boast; or our greatest disappointment. The home can be our place of refuge; or of persecution.
Families are nearly always under pressure. There’s hardly ever enough money, because our instinct is to want more than we can afford for those we love. There’s the self-surrender – never easy – that family demands of us. Then there are the failures of love that, in some way, we’re all guilty of.
Still, family is what nearly all of us yearn for; the more we might have been let down, the more we strive for the real thing, whatever that might turn out to be.
These days, at least in Western countries, family structures are typically more complex than they were. Two of my sisters are divorced. One has a new partner. Another has a same sex partner.
To me, my sisters’ partners are first class members of our extended family. The way they live shows their commitment to each other, even though there’s been no ceremony.
I doubt that my sister’s female partner would be more part of the family if same sex marriage were permitted – because membership of a family rests on commitment – and commitment is what counts, as much as what it’s called.
Right now, in all countries and cultures, people are trying to come to terms with social change that would have been hard to grasp a generation back. In Australia, homosexuality has gone from being criminal, to being tolerated, to being accepted. Same sex couples in a domestic partnership now have the same rights as heterosexual ones.
The next change is working out how they can express their fidelity and permanence, if that’s what they want.
Marriage, actually, was never just about two people who love each other. Siblings love each other. Parents love their children and vice versa. Friends can love each other. You don’t need to be married to love someone.
It’s only in recent times, that marriage has been about romantic love. Marriage arose as a way of dealing with human imperfection. It was to keep men more committed and less likely to abandon their wives and children – and I doubt that we have become so flawless that this no longer matters.
In Australia, just a decade ago, almost unanimously, the parliament affirmed that marriage was between a man and a woman.
Now, there are many MPs who want men to be able to marry men and women to be able to marry women if that’s their choice. But there are also many on the other side who don’t assume that this generation is more enlightened than its forbears and who are reluctant to change what was taken for granted for thousands of years.
As prime minister, I made the decision that it would be easier for Australians who feel strongly about same sex marriage to accept a decision – either way – if it were made by the whole people and not just by the parliament.
So after the next election, if the government is returned, MPs who support same sex marriage will be asked to finalise a bill to make it legal, along with protections for people and for religions that disagree. That bill will then be put to the people at a plebiscite.
This is the best way to decide something that’s so important but so personal: it’s to let the people decide so that the decision, whichever way it goes, will have their authority.
There are daunting challenges in the world right now: boosting prosperity, building social cohesion, protecting the environment, reducing tension between nations, and dealing with a blood-soaked caliphate seeking to make its version of God compulsory throughout the world.
For individuals, there’s the age-old challenge of making a living; finding – and keeping – the right partner and achieving meaning and purpose in life.
For families, in Western countries at least, there’s the challenge of paying the rent or the mortgage; balancing family and career; and being true to each other in all life’s pressures.
Amidst all this, if we really think it best, we could change the definition of marriage in Australia, as it has already been changed in countries like Britain and New Zealand.
Indeed, around the world, some 17 countries now provide for same sex marriage. But 176 don’t – and few of them are likely to change any time soon.
Now, I know that numbers aren’t the only test – but it’s hardly self-evident that the 17 that have changed are right and that all the others are wrong.
Not long ago, most gay activists rejected marriage as an oppressive institution. Now, they demand as their right what they recently scorned; they demand what was unimaginable in all previous times and still is in most places.
They are seeking what has never been and expecting others to surrender what always has. It’s a massive ask; for me, an ask too far.
I support people’s right to make a case for the things they believe, and want them courteously heard; but policy makers should strive to hold the common ground.
In today’s world, we need less ideology and more common sense; we need less impatience and more respect; we need less shouting at people and more engagement with them.
We shouldn’t try to change something without understanding it, without grasping why it is that one man and one woman open to children until just a very few years ago has always and everywhere been considered the essence of marriage and the heart of family.
Of course, we can’t shirk our responsibilities to the future; but let’s also respect and appreciate values and institutions that have stood the test of time and pass them on, undamaged, when that’s best.
My plea, to everyone who wants a better world – as all of us in this room do, and as everyone debating family should – is to place ourselves in others’ shoes and to keep conversation civil so that we can better understand even if we can’t quite agree.
My own faith, which waxes and wanes, offers less the finality of truth than the urge to search for it.
Still, when human beings made in the image and likeness of God are our best selves then – we can be confident – that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.