Playing Happy Families: The Nuclear Family and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships.

“How about a bit of honest thought and study on the issues, instead of this automatic Victorian reaction against anything to do with sex?” (Sandra Blackburn, letter to Australian, 10-11 December, 1977)

By the 1970s, the ‘nuclear’ family-structure was considered the backbone of Australian society, and a key part of our national identity. However, a radical new project, The Royal Commission on Human Relationships, dramatically challenged the sacrosanct and sovereign position of the nuclear family in Australian law and society. A ‘Royal Commission’ is a formal public inquiry into a current issue, with a goal to gather evidence and provide suggestions to government on how to best resolve the perceived problem. However, Commissions are usually based in expert testimonies, and complex legal issues – for the government to commission a formal government inquiry into ‘Human Relationships’, which entailed everything from sex, to love, to abortions, to marriage to homosexuality, demonstrates the turbulence of the 1970s, and very dramatically shifting ideas of what the government should be getting involved in!

Primarily defined as a heterosexual couple with children, the nuclear family was gendered, with husband and wife conforming to their respective roles of ‘breadwinner’ and ‘homemaker’:

“The only family unit given full recognition by society at the moment is the nuclear family… society is obsessed with maintaining the nuclear family as its basic unit.” (CAMP’s submission to the Royal Commission on Human Relationships).

Society and the law enforced the nuclear family, demonstrated by the fact that until 1975, a woman’s failure to carry out her ‘duty to care for her husband, child and home’ enabled her husband to file for divorce. The nuclear family was a fundamental part of Australian identity during the 1970s, however, via the Royal Commission on Human Relationships it’s validity quickly became torn-apart.

As encouraged in an article from The Canberra Times titled ‘People Can Tell us Their Problems’ the Commissioners were intent on asking “what do you think?” Unlike earlier commissions, which solely relied upon expert testimonies, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships used written submissions, oral testimonies, talk-back radio sessions, phone interviews and open-house meetings to encourage a diverse range of everyday individuals to submit evidence. To value everyday peoples suggests as equal to experts was virtually unheard of in government inquiries. The Commission created an environment in which many Australians felt comfortable and compelled to talk about deeply personal and ‘private’ issues. At the time of the Commission, the family was not considered an area for government intervention. Crimes such as domestic violence simply did not exist – a man’s home was truly his castle, and undesired issues within the family were both unacknowledged and ignored by lawmakers. The Commission’s determination to delve into the private and unregulated realm of the Australian family uncovered many issues that ‘painted a complex and often disturbing picture of Australian private lives in the 1970s that were riven with dysfunction, pain, and unhappiness’ (Michelle Arrow, 2014). The Royal Commission on Human Relationships was remarkable in its ability, and determination, to bring taboo family issues into the public and government sphere, which all suggested the nuclear family was not as ‘perfect’ as it appeared.

The Commission’s discussion on gender-roles, family violence, and homosexuals within the family were some of the most controversial issues uncovered, and dramatically contradicted the presumption of a stable, secure, loving Australian family environment. The evidence received by the Commission demonstrated that “not all families can provide a good home environment” and argued it was normal for some women to be ‘bad mothers’ (Anne Deveson, 1978). In their submissions, many women told the Commission they were deeply dissatisfied with ‘homemaking’, with some women stating it often resulted in ‘baby battering’ or child abuse – a very ‘hushed’ topic in the 1970s. The frustration women expressed to the Commission was a radically different view to the support and security the nuclear family promised to offer. The hidden nature of domestic violence was similarly challenged by the Commission. Until the 1980s, it was generally not possible for a man to be charged with raping, or sexually abusing his wife. The Commission’s ability to facilitate conversation around family violence, and provide evidence to suggest it was a widespread issue propelled domestic violence into the public forum, and presented it as a government concern. The frustration of ‘homemakers’, and violence within the family demonstrated the private nuclear family created a very dangerous place for vulnerable members. The nuclear family was also presented as a place of psychological pain for homosexuals, where predetermined sex roles in the nuclear family forced homosexuals to lead a hidden life. Even just the Commission’s choice to include homosexuality in its investigation challenged the validity of the nuclear, heterosexual, patriarchal family structure, particularly as homosexuality was still illegal in all Australian states except South Australia. The exposure given to disillusionment with gender-roles, domestic violence, and homosexuals presented the nuclear family as a place of great disillusionment, and potential trauma.

As stated by historian Geoffrey Bolton, the Commission demonstrated for many Australians, ‘the family was failing its purpose of supplying support and emotional nourishment’. Ultimately, it allowed many Australians to re-consider the prevalence of the nuclear family in Australian society, and pushed private family issues into the public sphere, which dramatically questioned the nuclear family’s sacred position and enforcement in society and the law.


4 comments on “Playing Happy Families: The Nuclear Family and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships.

  1. This sounds like such an interesting topic to be researching! I really enjoyed reading this.
    I especially agree with the Commission’s role in challenging the hidden nature of domestic violence, making it visible. It wasn’t until 1992 that all states had officially made marital rape illegal, which doesn’t actually seem all that long ago.
    Regarding the individuals who were interviewed, did they ever re-interview them later on to see if their individual social issues had improved or run any sort of comparison?

    Either way, in these cases it seems the Commission really achieved a lot of what it aimed to by facilitating initial conversations regarding family violence and social issues, through individual testimonies that in turn allowed these social issues to enter the public forum, and presented to the government.
    It’s sad that there still remains a wide range of social issues within Australia, even in today’s society that need to be addressed. But it sounds like the Royal Commission on Human Relations really kick-started this initiation, probing into what was formerly ignored within the public sphere, only ever deemed ‘private’ concerns.

    • Greta Gale says:

      Thanks for your comment Bethany!

      It definitely is strange to think back on how it’s only very recently that many ‘private’ issues such as domestic violence and rape within marriage have changed, 1992 is definitely a little too close for comfort! Unfortunately they never re-interviewed individuals who submitted to the Commission, largely because it was rejected by government when the final copy was released. As you said though, it ended up serving the main purposes of kick-starting conversation, which is always the first step to any successful challenging of social issues – however, it would definitely be interesting if they sought out some of the individuals involved with the Commission to have them comment on how things have changed! I’m sure many of them would be impressed with our progress, but aware that there was still much more headway to be made.

      Thanks again,

  2. kartiazappavigna says:

    Hey Greta,
    This is a very interesting topic you’ve investigated. The 1970’s with Whitlam and the Family Law Act was such a tumultuous time for the relationship between law and society and it’s important to examine these small historical revolutions. Its also fascinating to think that so many were willing to actually speak out against such an ingrained culture and say to a government body that they were not satisfied in their role, particularly in regards to the topic of baby battery or child abuse. It must have been a little confronting looking at so many testimonies and personal insights.

    You said that previously royal commissions had relied upon expert evidence rather than just asking everyone for their opinion. Do you know what the current process is for Royal Commissions? Did they stay with the format of asking everyone and anyone? or go back to just expert opinions?

    I think the government should hold one of these inquiries every 25 years or so, that way we can work out what is really important to our society and what is merely a veil to avoid dealing with some difficult questions.

  3. A really good read Gretta. Alarming to find out just how much things have changed since the 1970’s. The part I found most confronting was about the failure to prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault within the home. It would have been really interesting going through some of the first hand testimonials from the commission and I imagine you would have spent a considerable amount of time doing this. Definitely a good thing that the private sphere is getting the recognition it deserves from modern day historians. Well done 🙂

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