With all eyes watching, the Australian Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan delivered his second budget on 12 May. This is always a major event on the national calendar but even more so during a time of economic meltdown. Mr. Swan said that the government may not be popular with this budget. But apparently, there is at least one area where they will be. It is called paid maternity leave. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who glided into power on the slogan ‘Kevin 07,’ will soon be known as ‘Kevin 11,’ because that is when the government funded paid maternity leave kicks in.
Should the government be offering such an unprecedented provision, especially during a time of economic downturn? What should our attitude to government be in general? Before addressing this specific issue, let us look at some basic principles.
Government is a God-given institution. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 13: 1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God (NKJV). This statement becomes all the more remarkable when you consider that he could have written it when Nero, the mad-monster of Rome, served as Emperor. Nero is the one who set Rome on fire in AD 64, blamed the Christians, and possibly presided over the beheading of the apostle himself. Yet Paul insists by saying that to resist temporal authority is to resist the authority of God and risk His judgment.
We are commanded to pray for our leaders and all in authority, so that we can live quiet and peaceable lives (I Timothy 2:1-4).
Elected public officials are usually hard-working. I have never met a lazy one yet. They usually have reasonable intelligence and can communicate decently, if not well. It is amazing how much their lives parallel those in full-time Christian ministry, a fact that neither side is quick to admit.
We need to look at the role of government in general and their role with the family in particular. I do not claim to have all answers on this vast topic, but I can ask a few good questions.
What is government’s role? Probably its greatest and most universally agreed role is to provide for the common defense externally through the military and maintain stability domestically through the police force. They create laws, build and maintain public infrastructure like roads and bridges, and try to make the nation a better place than when they started their term in office.
There is much debate on how involved the government should be in the lives of their citizenry. Some taught, like former US President Ronald Reagan, that the less government, the better. Others see government involved in every area, including the arts, education, the economy, and even the family. In some countries, they even meddle in church affairs (and vice-versa).
In Australia, there is a high tolerance, apathy, or both, to government intervention. Social entitlement programs are popular and there appears to be the general perception that the government may be able to provide jobs, or unemployment benefits if no job is available, public housing, and pensions for a variety of circumstances.
Of course there is a practical challenge to this: where will all the money come from? And will the mere investment of money actually solve the situation it is addressing or at least alleviate pain and distress?
On a theoretical level, we need to ask: are people looking to the government with the same focus as a person of faith looks to God? If so…and there is evidence to suggest this is the case…we are on very shaky ground. The reason is that there are many things government cannot do, no matter how hard they try.
For example, after the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, a bereaved uncle stood on the beaches of Phuket, Thailand, where his nephew had been washed to sea. With television cameras rolling, this man proceeded to lambast … the Australian government and especially the Prime Minister.
What, a thinking person might ask, does the Australian government have to do with the Boxing Day tsunami?
Well, apparently to this man, the government should been physically there on the Thai beaches, helping him find his nephew. Even granting some allowance for grief, one needs to ask if it was the least bit fair and realistic to expect that the Australian government could bring his nephew back? Even if governments had the superhuman powers that some ascribe to them, how could a foreign government intervene when there was a government in Bangkok who would be just as anxious to bring relief to its citizens and guests?
I was in a town hall meeting in 2007 when a woman told the distressing situation in the Mallee region in Victoria, where the lack of rainfall threatened crop failure for this woman’s daughter and son-in-law. After pouring out her heart, the woman looked straight into the eyes of then-Prime Minister John Howard and asked, ‘Is there anything you can do?’
Was this woman thinking the Prime Minister could wave a magic wand? Or offer money to the drought stricken region? One thing is for sure: governments don’t make rain. Mr. Howard gave a very wise answer: ‘I have told the Australian people to pray for rain!’
Romans 13:7 (NKJV)
Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
Back to the issue of government-funded paid maternity leave. This really is a mixed bag. First of all, wise governments will do everything in their power to preserve, protect, and promote family. It is universally agreed that the family is the building block of society. A famous anthropologist once said that no matter how many alternatives are put on the table, the traditional family always manages to creep back in. When the family prospers, everyone wins. When it falters, society eventually picks up the tab. The family provides for the education and nurture of children, who represent the future of a nation.
Couple this with the issue of the serious decline of fertility rates in the western world. Europe’s birthrate is below replacement level, which means that the population is declining. There are several serious implications of this, not the least of which is that as the generations shrink, there is less tax revenue to fund government projects and Europe’s generous entitlement programs. You don’t want to be standing in the bank the day the pension cheques bounce!
Government-funded maternity leave, and the baby bonuses it is replacing, could very well help lift the fertility rate in Australia. There is a pragmatic side to this: apart from the attraction it may hold for some of the electorate, those little bundles of joy that are the centre of the maternity leave have a tendency to grow up and become tax payers one day.
But there are some disturbing issues, too. Some of the biggest proponents of this bonus are the same people who support abortion on demand, without a hint of contradiction (‘a woman’s choice will be the mantra). So why do they push for this scheme, since children do not appear to be their top priority? How much should the government intervene in the life of its citizenry, even when it is giving money away? Remember the adage, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Most sobering of all, how are we suppose to pay for all this? We are in a meltdown. The situation is so grave and dire that it is unrealistic to expect any Prime Minister or President to have all the answers. Just because a government makes a lot of noise and takes all kind of action does not necessarily mean they know what they are doing! In some cases, the governments don’t know what to do but they must be seen to be doing something. Australia has followed in lock-step some actions of the US: the US offers cash payments of $600 to its citizens, Australia follows with $900. The Obama Administration is passing a stimulus package in Congress and Mr. Rudd wants the same here. Remember, the American economy, already in massive deficit, is borrowing more money in order to ‘kick start’ the economy. This is a dreadful burden to put on future generations.
The Australian government does not have money sitting in the bank to give away…it too, is borrowing it. Is spending our way out of a recession the way to go?
With the paid maternity leave, are we borrowing too heavily and leaving a massive interest bill for the babies born today to pay when they are of age? One of the best protections for the family is teaching fiscal responsibility; if you don’t have the money, don’t buy it. Make a budget and live within your means. Few things are worse on family morale than the pressure of immense financial problems. It is a good lesson for governments, too. When the governments are fiscally responsible, every body and every family wins.