Comment: Why are we paying for other people's marriage counselling?

Australian newslyweds will receive a $200 voucher for marriage counselling from July 1.

If you look at the data, the sanctity of marriage is hardly under threat. So why are Australians forking out for a $20 million trial to strengthen relationships?

To an atheist divorcee like me, marriage (particularly that conducted in a church) is a double anachronism. It’s an ancient patriarchal ritual imbued with an arcane spiritual significance that has little relevance in our modern world.

People don’t need to exchange bands of gold or poetic vows before an invisible omnipotent to commit to a loving relationship, open a joint bank account, buy a house or raise psychologically balanced children.

Yet this aged artifact remains a contemporary and hotly contested issue in modern Australian politics.

The proportion of Australians who get married each year has remained steady since around 2002 – 5.3 marriages for every 1000 people. Perhaps surprisingly in this world of supposedly disposable marriages, over the same period the divorce rate decreased from 2.7 to 2.3 divorces for every 1000 people.

So the sanctity of marriage is hardly under threat. Yet that’s the conclusion we’re left with when considering the actions of the Abbott federal government.

There’s no mistaking that we’re being governed by a bunch of traditionalists. Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s stated intention of reforming the education curriculum to include less ‘leftist propaganda’ and more information on traditional Australian content such as the Anzacs, is a striking case in point.

Perhaps less obvious is Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s highly contentious paid parental leave scheme. Plenty of attention has been given to the generosity it extends to high-income earners at a time of supposed fiscal restraint. Yet in practice Abbott’s PPL will have one outcome: it will send working women home to have babies and it will pay them to stay home for up to six months.

There are all sorts of agendas wrapped up in this objective – the need to keep the domestic birth rate up so there’ll be enough future taxpayers to fund the support system for our rapidly aging population; a secret hope that once professional women return home they’ll decide to stay until their children reach school age; and perhaps there’s even a bit of eugenics in the mix.

The PPL scheme as well as the opposition of many Coalition MPs to same sex marriage demonstrates the primacy of the traditional family unit to the government. Senator Cory Bernardi’s views, while extreme, align with that belief in promoting and protecting the nuclear family.

In that context it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews (a socially conservative Christian) announced that $200 vouchers for relationship counseling would be offered to newly-weds. That the $20 million, 12-month trial is being extended to heterosexual and same sex couples in long-term relationships is less expected. Nevertheless, according to Andrews this initiative is about improving relationship skills and strengthening relationships in a way that will ultimately benefit any children being raised within them.

Its heartening that the Minister is taking the well-being of Australian children to heart, but considering the many other factors that protect and foster children –such as the provision of decent health care and education – attempting to do so by throwing money at the protection of the family unit seems to be a skewed prioritisation.

That is, of course, unless the $200 counseling voucher is not so much about children but actually about bolstering the traditional family unit and its modern analogues – read, dissuading women from leaving unhappy, unhealthy and unproductive relationships.

That objective aligns more closely with the Abbott government’s apparent priorities and yearning for social constructs that no longer exist. Yet despite the government’s best efforts at this social engineering, it’s unlikely contemporary Australia will willingly regress to the days when a woman’s place was in the (marital) home.

Paula Matthewson is a freelance corporate writer and political opinionista. After being a Liberal adviser from 1989-93, she spent 20 years as an industry lobbyist. Paula tweets at @Drag0nista and blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog.

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