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The Daddy Vote

Government policies and legislation have a huge impact on families, affecting almost every aspect of their lives:

How much you end up with in your pay packet, how much time you can spend on your children, how much support you get as a parent, and whether there is a safety net if things go wrong.

In a repeat of a 1999 Father & Child feature, Harald Breiding-Buss set out to find out what the parties are all about, and submitted a list of ten questions. Here’s what came back.

Do politicians and the parties they represent really care about dads? For the second time, Father and Child magazine set out to find some answers to this question.

Back in 1999 we contacted the relevant spokespeople for all the parties who were then represented in parliament (Labour, National, NZ First, the Alliance and ACT) and presented them with a list of 10 questions relevant to fathers and their children today.

They covered financial family assistance and workplace policies, divorce legislation and child support, solo dads and unwed fathers, and also asked if any policy initiatives would be accessible to both mums and dads.

Revisiting those questions 6 years later, in another election year, we found we didn’t have to change much. The same questions remain just as relevant today.

Now and then, all parties paid lip service to the importance of fathers, although the focus has shifted somewhat. In 1999 the talk was about encouraging dads to be more involved with their children.

Now, in 2005, more politicians had grasped the fact that fathers are quite involved as it is. Six years ago there was ferocious debate about custody matters and the Family Court. Now, parties seem to agree at least in principle that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

Compare the responses from 1999 with 2005, and some interesting patterns emerge. NZ First, then and now, did not provide any detail and avoided answering the specific questions in favour of a generalised flowery statement, while ‘business efficiency’ party ACT, then and now, submitted their answers so late that they could be included only as a footnote (in fact, for this feature we are still waiting for them).
Here’s what they all said:

Joint parenting in- and outside of a relationship:

The first of the ten questions was designed to allow parties to give their spiel about how parenting is a joint effort between men and women – surprisingly, most didn’t. National, the Greens and United either did not comment on shared parenting inside a relationship at all, or made some general statement about fatherhood (“Functioning fatherhood is incredibly important for the wellbeing of children”-Judith Collins from Nat).

NZ First’s Anne Moore says her party believes that a two parent family is the ‘ideal climate’ to raise a child in.

However, all parties had something to say about separated families however. There wasn’t much difference between their answers: all believed that the law should facilitate ongoing contact with both parents, provided this is safe for the child.

Work and Family

Both United and the Greens supported legislation and other initiatives to help parents achieve a balance between work and family, and Labour is also on record in favour of such initiatives, although they seem to see it as a women’s issue.

Both United and the Greens mention flexible working hours (especially part-time hours when children are young). United mentions workplace childcare, but also says that ‘Government policies should ensure that parents have a choice whether to work or to spend time caring for their children’, and: ‘We are committed to furthering policies that enable parents to have a choice to spend time raising children in their early years’.

Judy Turner (for the Greens) says that her party brought in a Private Members bill requiring employers to allow part-time work for otherwise fulltime employees when children are young.

National is more cagey about such initiatives. “For a person that believes that work is honourable and that children are to be valued and encouraged, it makes sense to assist employers to take some family-friendly actions in the work place”.

That sounds like a conditional ‘yes’, provided workers have the right work ethics. However, Collins goes on to say that she ‘would be extremely loath to place impositions on small employers that they often cannot afford.’, and that ‘a workplace is just that: a place of work’.

Legislating ‘family-friendliness’ at the workplace is one thing, but parents still need to feed their family. Wage levels, holiday and sick leave, industrial relations legislation etc. have a large impact on what is and isn’t possible for parents: it’s all very nice to get time off work to look after a sick child, but if your wage is so low that you can’t afford the doctor such policies don’t matter much.

National all but avoids this issue except for generally saying that they believe their policies are ‘extremely positive towards families’. Collins says that the key to higher wages is unburdening businesses from government bureaucracy.

She also advocates her party’s proposal to introduce a 90 day trial period for new employment contracts, which she believes would result in more people finding work that are otherwise hard to employ. “That will help these people with their self-esteem, will help them to create an independence and work ethic in their families,” she says.

The Greens point to their support for four weeks annual leave, which is obviously one of the most direct methods of giving working parents more time for their families. They would also like to see the minimum wage raised to $12 per hour ‘to reduce the hours that some parents are forced to work to provide sufficient income for the family to live on’.

Labour has tried to strengthen employee’s bargaining positions as well as raising the minimum wage during their tenure so far.

Community and Health Services

Community and health services are strongly geared towards helping mothers to the point that they often ignore or even actively sideline the father, regardless of his status in the family.

A growing body of international research implicates this trend in the high rate of relationship breakups and poorer outcomes for children. The Greens say that support services should be accessible to both parents, and United would like to establish Family Support Centres around the country.

National’s Collins is not in favour of equal spending of taxpayer money for both mothers and fathers, citing maternity health services as the example where this would not be appropriate (which, in fact, seems to be the only example). She says that funding must be based on need, not gender or race – which is hard to disagree with.

Collins does, however, say she is interested in ‘what can be done to support teenage fathers to do the right thing […]’ and expects to address this area in an upcoming policy.

Labour’s track record on improving access of men to family support services is not too good: in their six years in government nothing has happened to that effect. Mothers still have a much wider range of support services available to them than fathers, and many single fathers especially remain extremely isolated.

United made the strongest statement when asked whether the current social/community support system serves fathers well. “The idea that fathers should be breadwinners or that fathers who do not live with their children should have a lesser role in their children’s upbringing is one that needs to be challenged at all levels.” At the question’s prompt United spokeswoman Judy Turner also says that their proposed Family Centres should ‘particularly’ encourage teenage and solo fathers to engage with available services.

Imprisonment

Both the Greens and United are in favour of facilitating contact between children and their imprisoned fathers, and in helping fathers to get their lives back on track. National, on the other hand, takes the hard line: “If a father takes his responsibilities as a father seriously, then what is he doing in prison?”

In 1999 all parties were in support of assisting contact between children and fathers in prison, and Labour even went as far as advocating some sort of family centres within prisons.

However, this has not happened, and a Father & Child report on father’s experiences of family visits in prison showed that the environment is often grossly inappropriate:

‘One prison staff member reported that all manner of activities can take place during such visits, including open sexual acts and exchange of illicit substances’.

Father & Child Trust client files show that at least some imprisoned fathers were their children’s best bet of growing up in a reasonably stable and loving environment, and some men have been imprisoned because they attempted to remove their children from very damaging living environments with the custodial parent.

New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the Western world, meaning it has one of the highest number of children separated from their fathers through the justice system (only the US have a higher rate within the OECD).

Men in Teaching

The issue of male teachers, which for a while was in the social and political limelight, has recently received little attention, especially in regard to primary schools and early childhood teaching programmes.

All political parties continue to pay lip service to increasing the proportion of men in these professions, although no-one gives any specifics. Previous education minister Nick Smith once proposed direct financial incentives (scholarships etc.), which is the approach taken to encourage Maori or Pacific Island people into teaching, but no-one advocated this idea now.

Child Support

Child Support, as in the payments of a non-custodial parent towards the costs of the custodial parent, collected through IRD, is another area where 1999 answers have repeated themselves.

No-one, including Labour, seemed to be happy with the system at that time, which has essentially remained unchanged after six years of Labour government.

United believes non-custodial parents are not paying enough, while the Greens are saying that cracking down on Child Support avoidance must not create new injustices.

National merely says that the present system is unfair, without detailing why.

Unwed Fathers

Fathers who do not live together with the mother at the time of the birth of their baby, still do not have automatic guardianship rights, or even the rights to see or make any form of contact with their child.

This has been slightly changed in the Care of Children bill, but a father still needs to have been in some sort of ‘committed’ relationship with the mother of the child at some stage. Every such father is, of course, liable to pay Child Support.

In our 1999 questionnaire, all parties including Labour, claimed that they wanted to change this and make a child’s right to meaningful contact with the father independent from the father’s relationship with the mother. United and National still say they want to make this change, while the Greens claim they have already done it by helping to pass the Care of Children bill.

Solo Fathers

Another anomaly in the law is the fact that solo fathers are not automatically entitled to parental leave, either paid or unpaid. This is a rare situation as fathers usually take custody only later in a child’s life.

However where a mother dies during or shortly after childbirth, or is unfit to parent, fathers sometimes have to do the job by themselves right from day one. Unlike any employed mother, these men are not covered by existing parental leave legislation.

The Greens cautiously suggest that this isn’t right, but clearly hadn’t thought about it. Everyone else avoids this particular question.

Parental Leave

At present, paid parental leave is available only to mothers, although she can transfer her entitlement to her partner (which doesn’t have to be the father).

Many other countries, including the UK, have introduced non-transferable paternity leave in addition to maternity leave in recognition of the fact that children need to bond with both parents, and that fathers will not take parental leave if it compromises the mother’s entitlement.

None of the parties propose to introduce such a scheme here, even though it is excessively popular with both fathers and mothers in countries where it has been implemented. The Greens explain that the present 14 weeks paid maternity leave is in recognition of the stress of childbirth for the mother and to provide an opportunity to bond.

National would rather not have paid parental leave at all. “Of course most people would appreciate keeping more of their own wages rather than paying so much in taxes”. Collins also criticises that present paid parental leave is not available to self-employed people. “If [parental leave] is available to one group of parents, then it seems inherently unfair that another group of parents is unable to access them”. True enough.

So what does it all mean?

When it comes to fathers, the two heavyweights National and Labour are remarkably close: both are cementing the father’s role as a breadwinner, although by different means, and are weak on encouraging a parenting partnership where the parents themselves negotiate those roles. Fathers in caregiving roles will not get much support from either one of these.

United and the Greens also came out remarkably close. United’s commitment to supporting families at the grassroots level – including supporting parents to stay together – was evident in all answers.

The Greens come from a different angle but arrive at a similar result, although they are not fussy about the particular family type. But both think it is a government’s responsibility to directly provide an adequate financial environment for children, and both acknowledge that most of all parents need time to raise children.

NZ First doesn’t seem to think much about families – they’re simply not high on their policy agenda, while for ACT everything comes down to economics.

The ball is in the voters’ court now.

Next: Outlook for Monday

Father & Child News