Thursday, October 25, 2007

Murder, Mr Rudd & Gay Marriage - confusions about values in an over-regulated society

Several things happened this week that in some ways capture the concerns and confusions built into current Australian society.

The first was a murder, the tragic death of a young child. I do not want to discuss the details, nor in this case am I giving a link. In the midst of huge publicity, I think that the family and friends deserve their privacy. But for the benefit of those outside this area I need to provide a few facts to set a context for my point.

The boy's body was found in a suitcase floating in a pond. No one knew who he was. This, of itself, was sufficient to attract interest. A little while later his mother was arrested for his murder.

Issues here are a matter for the police and the courts. However, it appeared that a number of calls had been made to a child protection help-line maintained by the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS). One issue became why was no official action taken.

Under NSW law, it is now mandatory for a whole range of people - the range is enormous - to report suspicions of child abuse. This is done by the help line.

The widened reporting requirements have led to an explosion in complaints. I was staggered to hear from an answer by the Minister to a question in the NSW Parliament that one child in fifteeen is reported, that one NSW child in five is now "known to DoCS." Later other commentary fleshed this out a little. For example, the volume of calls is now over 600 per day.

This is an absolutely impossible situation. How can any call centre possibly screen this volume of calls to decide what is important? How can any Government agency possibly follow up on the ground.?

In our desire to protect children, we have created a system that not only fails the kids themselves and parents, but also the dedicated professionals who do try to help. Is it any wonder DoCS struggles to get staff?

The second example involves Richard Glover, a popular Sydney drive time host on ABC 702. Richard is far more conservative than me, far more conservative than appears from his commentary because he espouses what have become the conventional Sydney "liberal" cultural attitudes.

Driving home from work I listened, as I nearly always do, to his program. There were two topical issues.

The first were proposed new laws in NSW allowing police to issue on-the spot fines for minor offences such as shop lifting. As anybody who knows about NSW might expect, the State opposition was up in arms - a standard "law 'n'order" response. But Richard was concerned, too.

Richard would say, with a degree of fairness, that he was playing devil's advocate. But his real views were clear, as they have been in a number of previous cases.

Now, I would suggest, we have got ourselves in NSW to the position that there are so many minor offences that the NSW justice system is clogged. We cannot do much to protect children from murder because of other over-loads, but we continue to arrest kids for an increasing volume of minor offences. I do not think that this is balanced. The Government's response is at least a practical recognition of the problem.

Yet when we look at the media response, you can see why it is so hard to have a sensible discussion on the problem. Richard's response was at least somewhat tempered. The same cannot be said for the Daily Telegraph. This frothed at the mouth, with two major front page stories.

The second issue was Mr Rudd's views opposing gay marriage. Richard was outraged. The program also carried a series of interviews of people along Oxford Street (the main Sydney gay drag) expressing outrage.

I have not read Mr Rudd's views so have to be careful what I say.

As a general comment, Mr Rudd strikes me as a deeply Christian and conservative man. This does not prevent him having radical views on certain issues, but it does indicate what his views might be on gay marriage.

Let me amplify before I get attacked.

I grew up in a period when homosexuality was both a moral sin and a crime. I am very glad that we have a more tolerant attitude now. I support civil unions that will give same sex couples the same legal rights. I do not support gay marriage.

Civil unions give gays rights without hurting anyone else. With the exception of a few bigots, I think that most people would accept a properly argued case for civil unions.

Marriage is a different issue. Marriage is a religious sacrament with strong traditional meanings in a number of faiths. Those who try to take the word marriage and apply it in a way that is anathema to many cause hurt and resistance. So using the word "marriage" detracts from the immediate real issue, the resolution of existing legal inequities.

These few cases are all linked, saying something about the confusions within Australia's biggest city.

They show how symbolism interferes with real discussion. The Telegraph's arguments are really about symbolism, in this case arguing that the Government's actions show that it is soft on crime. This really is a symbolic argument because it does not link directly to the problem being addressed. The gay marriage case is a second example.

They show people's desires for simple solutions. Child protection is a problem, address it via mandatory reporting. Shop lifting is a problem, bring the kids to court. There is an inherent confusion, a tension, between our concern for individuals and for the protection of individuals and our responses that inevitably go to control, coercion and regulation.


Anonymous said...

I've risen to the bait, Jim.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, M. I will respond properly. Those who are interested in M's response can get to it by clicking on his name in the comment.