No Quick Fix For Society’s Rules

Published in the Courier Mail 12 February 08

WE ARE generally a sport-mad society. Apart from cheering on the mighty Maroons at State of Origin, I don’t follow much sport avidly.
However, even I know that every game has rules and, without these, chaos would reign.

Similarly, our society has rules about what its members can and cannot do.

While we like to think we’re all independent agents, free of any regulation of our behaviour, it’s a false notion that doesn’t take too much logical thought to dismiss. If we stop and think for a moment, “everyone doing what they want” is an unsustainable and tenuous position.

Simply driving to work reminds us that our behaviours and actions affect those around us, and without the “rules of the game” being in place and enforced, pain and chaos ensue.

Our life is affected by the decisions and actions of those around us. What we do influences others. Our behaviours affect social fabric. Therefore, social discussions about personal behaviour are a legitimate conversation and discussing our moral and ethical responsibilities to one another is essential for a healthy society.

In one of the simplest examples, people who choose to drink too much place a huge financial strain on our health system. As hospital emergency rooms are taxpayer-funded, we, as a society, have a corresponding right to define expectations and make laws about alcohol consumption.

It’s logical society should promote behaviour that benefits it. Sometimes though, we fail to do just that.

One case in point is marriage. We are so quick to assert that people are free to engage in any sort of sexual expression, or to raise children in any way they choose, we often miss an important element of the necessary social discussion.

Victoria and the ACT currently are discussing relationship registers and civil partnerships. While each piece of legislation carries different nuances, much commentary about this type of legislation purports that people in relationships other than marriage are unfairly discriminated against in a range of financial and property areas.

It’s a complex legal situation. The Family Law Act, which governs many of these issues for married couples, comes under federal law. Property law, which governs these areas for de facto relationships – opposite sex and same-sex in Queensland – is state-based.

Some suggest that every relationship should be treated the same and this is often part of the key thinking behind relationship registers and civil partnership legislation.

As we ask ourselves what society should do, faced with such a legal and emotionally complex scenario, there are no quick-fix solutions.

Those who are in unmarried relationships understandably wish to have the ability to legally make significant medical decisions for the other partner. A compassionate society would have to agree – which is why we have a mechanism already for this in an enduring power of attorney. (Coincidentally, lawyers also often recommend this for married couples.)

This being the case, the key driving issue often given is that unjust financial discrimination exists for unmarried couples.

However, before we rush to fixing what is apparently broken, I wonder if we need to take a step back and be willing to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions?

To start with, is it necessarily unjust discrimination if some relationships are treated differently with respect to various financial, taxation and property matters?

My husband and I do not have available to us the same taxation benefits available to couples with dependent children. However, this is not because we are being discriminated against. We are not being treated with less respect – we are simply being treated differently because we are in a different situation.

Before we determine that the new goalposts are the elimination of difference in the way different relationships are treated, should we consider why society has conferred certain financial benefits to married couples, particularly those with children?

In what is significant for such a conversation, a growing body of research is affirming the idea that marriage is in the interests of the social good. Numerous international studies have demonstrated that marriage, the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life, boosts mental health and emotional well-being. Substance abuse and domestic violence occurs less frequently if a couple is married than if they co-habit.

Further, children of married parents are less likely than children of other family structures to show signs of depression or mental illness, less likely to experiment with harmful substances and less likely to experience a range of negative outcomes such as crime, school failure, domestic violence and more (all of which, of course, cost society dearly).

If marriage is unique in providing so many social benefits, with the flow-on economic benefits to society, does it really seem so unreasonable that society would provide financial incentives to the institution of marriage?

Doesn’t it seem logical that a type of relationship, which provides unique benefits to society, should in turn be afforded unique status?

And if other forms of relationships bring less than equal positive outcomes, is it really fair that they demand that society confer equal benefits upon them?

We would never suggest we all determine our own rules on the sporting field or the highway. Why would we suggest it then in something so infinitely more important?

Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer.