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Family Values

So far the Howard Government and the Roman Catholic Church have played sweethearts with one another. But, with the Senate majority edging closer, that's about to change.

The love affair between the Howard Government and Australia's Catholic bishops could be on the rocks. In recent years, the Coalition has played its cards carefully, in its attempt to extinguish old links between right-wing ALP factions and the Church. Prime Minister Howard successfully courted the Church in the months before last year's Federal Election, with a $362 million handout for Catholic education, and a family-friendly Budget. And since October, we've had his toleration of Tony Abbott's wayward strategy to delight the bishops by bringing abortion back on to the political agenda.

But this particular brave new world is about to give way to another. With the mid-year advent of the Coalition's Senate majority edging closer, we're looking at an obstruction-free path for the Government's industrial relations legislation, which is calculated to bring unprecedented prosperity to the nation's business community.

But as John Howard will tell you, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Someone's got to pay. And in this case it will be the family.

Make no mistake, this legislation is thoroughly anti-family. Its guiding principle of deregulation will dismantle the security upon which workers rely to have children, pay mortgages, and to plan and enjoy a life outside work. Work hours will further increase, the casualisation of the workforce will proceed apace, and there will be little or no access to maternity or family leave.

It is fueled by a cold-hearted economic rationalist resolve similar to that which had Maggie Thatcher famously declare that "there's no such thing as society". Workers Online editor Peter Lewis commented in New Matilda last month that it's about "a play to remake Australian society". As articulated by the Business Council of Australia, the agenda includes "re-defining 'fairness', to remove the concept from the workplace".

What are the bishops going to do about it? Do they care? Do they realise that deregulating the workplace can do at least as much damage to the family as regularising cohabitation or legislating for same-sex unions?

In the past, they have indeed shown that they are aware of the link between the protection of workers' rights and the health of the family unit. At various times, Archbishops Hart and Hickey have spoken out in support of State Government prohibition of Sunday and holiday retailing that would disrupt the family lives of workers. Others have warmly commended the Australian Catholic University for its groundbreaking maternity leave provisions.

But who knows whether they will have the united resolve, and immense strategic lobbying skills, necessary to stop Howard in his tracks, or at least do something to ensure that the concept of fairness remains enshrined in legislation?

When Foreign Minister Alexander Downer denounced members of the clergy for straying beyond pastoral matters into political comment on the Australia's involvement in the war in Iraq, there were murmurs of discontent on the part of at least some of the Catholic bishops. But it was left up to Cardinal Pell to call the shots and declare that Downer had given "an excellent talk worth studying".

We can only hope that the Bishops' resolve to protect the family is such, that this inadequate response is not repeated when the time comes to comment on the industrial relations legislation.

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