The Royal Commission on Human Relationships 1975-1977:
Some Initial Critical Observations About the Problematic “Value Free” Classification of Human Responsibilities
There are two points in this retrospective podcast that are particularly worthy of note for us in this context. Both refer to the way in which the commission, in its own classification of “family relationships” has accommodated the definition of “family”, found in the 30 page submission of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP – the inaugural homosexual civil rights association in Australia). Now it needs to be kept in mind that this definition was set forth at a time when male homosexuality was still illegal in most parts of the country. The CAMP definition is given at 27.10 in the podcast – we hear the secretary of CAMP say the following:
“We define family as any grouping of people, however constituted, that considers itself a family. And we use that term to try and convey the idea that a homosexual relationship is just a relationship, a relationship that people enter into for mutual support in the way that other people enter into families.”
The statement is quite straight forward, even if its content may be criticised for its ambiguity and lack of logical coherence. But there is no reason to believe that the speaker was trying to be “tricky” or “devious”. Neither is there any hint that envisages an ongoing campaign on the part of CAMP to turning homosexual relationships into marriages.
It is the interviewer, on that occasion, who uses the term “homosexual marriage”, (this was 1977) but the CAMP secretary, having been asked about the kind of place in which children will be raised, corrects the terminology in a most significant manner,
“Well if I can redefine homosexual marriage as homosexual family because we don’t accept the term marriage.”
He goes on to say that CAMP believes that such a homosexual family is a suitable atmosphere for the raising of children
“… to be strong independent people and that can’t be defined by structure.”
We note the use of the term “structure” at this point. It is counterposed to the “independent” and presumably is a suggestion that “structure” is opposed to human self-sufficiency, autonomy, freedom. In those days too this was part of the justification of homosexuality – namely it was a relationship with its own non-marital character.
And so there is not a “yet” or even a suggestion that this was merely the first step in a political campaign in which same-sex relationships will eventually be considered as marriage. The statement “we don’t accept the term marriage” is definitive. A critical point is that the term “marriage” is simply a label and unlike “family” it is a non-preferred label.
Further on in the podcast one can hear that the report’s authors have used the term “family” in a way that did not exclusively refer to “mother, father and children”. Instead (as a recorded critic of the commission’s bias quotes the Commission’s report):
“We have chosen to use the term very broadly to cover a varying range of people living together in a relationship of commitment … “
What is then quoted of the Commission’s report suggests that the authors were not only advising Government but saw themselves in a public educational role. They were not only responsible to the Parliament to make recommendations for legislative and policy purposes, but also to contribute to public education about “human relationships”. Hence, it seems they see it as necessary to write the report of their findings in a way that would be amenable to the “general public”:
“Our view is that we need to accommodate many different lifestyles and to learn from these experiences rather than reject them.”
And what was the response of the Commissioners to the critic and the “moral majority” applause that the critic received for her implicit view that the true definition of “family” is what the majority “pattern” says it is? Elizabeth Evatt continues:
“Certainly the great majority of families in Australian society are those where the parents are married and bringing up the children. But we shouldn’t exclude from our consideration of the family other situations, for example, a single parent and I don’t think we should exclude either people who are living together who are not married and yet are bringing up their children. They too have the same problems, the same joys and sorrows as others. I don’t think that in our study of the family and in our recommendations about the family we should exclude those units.”
Does not Commissioner Evatt’s justification for redefining “family” suggest that the Royal Commission would otherwise have had to exclude some kinds of relationships from their report? This is indeed a remarkable and strange statement by a prominent jurist and scholar; it seems to be a variant of what has been called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. It implies a confused understanding of the classifications that should be used in sociological research and as such requires further examination. The ABC radio programme’s account of the report certainly suggests a naive approach to sociological classifications or categories that are necessary when making public policy recommendations to Government. The approach seems to suggest a “value-free” avoidance of support for the normative (including public-legal) responsibilities that are attached to the term “marriage” (ref. the marriage vows that need to be made by those seeking to be wed) or “family” (ref. the parental responsibility before the law for the upkeep, protection and nurture of children).
These methodological ambiguities were not focused upon by the reports critics as given in the ABC’s 2013 programme. And neither does the programme’s retrospective view imply such criticism. Commissioner Evatt’s comment was no doubt taken as “a bias in the commission … against the normal family pattern” by those who then and since have argued their case (about complex public policy) in “moral majority” terms, defending the dominant “pattern”.
As we have said, for the critic and her applauding audience, the normative responsibilities implicit in the “family”, as affirmed by the majority “pattern”, are what those adhering to the majority pattern say they are. Here there is what we could call profound “normative slippage”. The “pattern” of the “moral majority” considers “norm” in statistical terms rather than in terms of human responsibility.
And so because the Commission does not ascribe to the nominalist viewpoint of the majoritarians, but rather sees “family” as the convenient term by which they can best capture all or most of the different ways in which Australians live together in “committed relationships” there is a profound “talking past each other” that we might suggest has continued ever since.
By way of contrast, for discussing “entitlements”, we might well discuss public justice in terms of equity for “households” to cover what the Commissioner is saying, to cover “conventional families” and other kinds of “living together in supportive relationships”. But even then, such astute use of language is going to have to concede that “household”, for all its benefits to enhance clarity in policy, might be misused with “urban” or “western” bias, to neglect families and extended families, let alone committed relationships, which were then and still are located in remote aboriginal communities without adequate “housing”.
The Secretary of CAMP had defined family in terms of whatever those living in committed relationships define as family. Likewise the Commissioner’s reply to the allegation of bias against the dominant pattern of family life, implies that whatever ethical standpoint one might take about parental and family responsibilities these are, for the purpose of making recommendations for legislation and public policy, what the persons holding those responsibilities say they are. This then is the deep problematic that we face, not just with respect to “marriage equality” and how LGTBI rights are to be accorded, but with our entire public life. Such deference and privileging to the way in which individuals socially contract and interpret their own societal responsibilities may simply confirm the dominant liberal view of the autonomy of the individual person.
If this liberal view of human autonomy is taken as the base line for public policy then the impact of the Christian “way of life” upon marriage and family reality is viewed as one means by which these autonomous and self-sufficient individuals can configure marriage and family reality for themselves. And so, since there are other “ways” which configure marriage and family reality, law and public policy, or at least the research that precedes such legal and public policy reform, must not operate with classifications that are biased toward one way of life. Hence the definition of family (and marital) responsibilities must be broadened to avoid dependency upon one view of these institutional relationships and include all. Here, in this confused methodological way, we detect the first glimpse of what we have in later years confronted as the need for “inclusion”. The implication is that a definition of “family” as mother and father and children would inject “values” into factual analysis and so the recommendations for civil society would be therefore dependent upon the acceptance of (at least part of) a Christian world-view. The fallacy here is not so much that religious faith should be privatised, but that the classification of human relationships needs to be broadened to include as many as possible with the one concept covering all, otherwise some will be excluded. As noted already, there is no reason why such alternative living arrangements should not be investigated and the results of the research included in the findings. Nor does a broadening of the concept “family” (to include all who say they are living as families), give any guarantee that such alternatives will be “included” in civil society, quite apart from those who prefer to remain “outside”. Neo-liberal efforts to construct a “tolerant” society run blind to those who choose to stay “outside” majoritarian culture.
Liberalism, as it is affirmed by its political adherents, has now moved on and it is no longer trying, as it did in the 19th and 20th centuries, to maintain its political leverage by accommodating a Christian view of marriage.
Indeed Mr Abbott, the former Prime Minister, in telling the country that he would abide by the decision of a plebiscite has, at that point, signalled the privatisation of his “Christian values”. He thereby appears to have taken on the statist assumption that Government’s task, after listening to the voice of the people (Vox Populi, Vox Dei), is to define reality and in that context it is the citizen’s task to submit. One has to ask therefore whether his current commitment to marriage as defined by the 2004 amended Marriage Act, already finds its source in his view that marriage itself is generated by a Government decree. At the very least his view is highly ambiguous. One can see with many politicians that marriage has become merely a political football.
A Christian political option, however, does not assume that the result of the plebiscite, or even the result of any election, requires acquiescence in a departure from the New Testament teaching of Jesus and the Apostles concerning marriage. In this matter also we must obey God rather than parliaments or ruling parties. This goes as much for our political view of marriage and marital responsibility as it does for family and familial responsibilities. It is also what we assume about all the other avenues of social life in which public justice is to be promoted.
Moreover, time and again, “marriage equality” is put forward with the pagan presumption that marriage is a creature of Civil Government. That cannot be right. The true purpose of the Marriage Act can not be to create or re-create marriage as an institution. So we will take another tack entirely because we will not adhere to such statist presumptions. We will also note how statism has, over the 20th century, spilled over into all kinds of gross disastrous authoritarian injustice. There is a long-term and difficult political task to resist all forms of statism, no matter how subtle and seemingly benign, and this is a logical part of our service coram Deo.(Romans 12:1-2).
27.5.16 (amended 30.5.16)