“Necessary for the human good”: Marriage and Divorce in the Royal Commission on Human Relationships

The 1970’s were turbulent and challenging times in Australia. Talk of everything from social activism around Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation and the anti-war movement to debates on abortion and family life was circulating through Australian media and society. In 1974 the Whitlam Government established the Royal Commission on Human Relationships in order to give a voice to the people on how they thought the government should best tackle these new social issues. The Commission uncovered and explored a host of controversial and emotional issues in their public hearings and written submissions. One issue that the Commission covered that was firmly divided in opinion between the conservative and the radical was the state of marriage and divorce in Australia.

Given the strength and dominance of the nuclear family in post-war Australia, we might assume that the quote in the title, taken from a transcript of the Commission’s public hearing, is suggesting that marriage is “necessary for the human good.” However, the truth is in fact the opposite. The above statement comes from a member of the Australian National University demography department, Lincoln Day, who put forward in his submission that higher divorce rates would probably mean good things for Australian society. Day was one of the more radical people who gave submissions regarding marriage and divorce in Australia. His conceptualisation of marriage was that rather than being a fundamental aspect of society, it was a means through which people were able to satisfy their basic needs. Some of the needs that he mentions include emotional, economic and sexual needs. Day argues that the reason a higher divorce rate is “necessary for the human good,” is because of the social changes it reflects. Day suggests that a higher divorce rate reveals that the social and economic position of women in 1970’s Australia is changing for the better, meaning that women are able to meet their economic needs outside of marriage and “to think of themselves as something in addition to wives and mothers.” Because of this, women were no longer required to stay in unhappy marriages or argue in court that the requirements for divorce have been satisfied.

No fault divorce

No-fault divorce petitions being signed in Canberra, in 1974 (National Archives of Australia A6180, 13/11/74/11) – (http://whitlam.org/gough_whitlam/achievements/womenandsocialreforms)

As many scholars have shown in their work, marriage is a key way that many people achieve full citizenship and gain access to the benefits that being a citizen provides. The group CAMP NSW (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) brought attention to this in both their formal written submission and in their oral submissions at the public hearings, arguing that such benefits should be available to all citizens, not just married couples. At the public hearing one CAMP member questioned some of the reasons why people wanted to marry, asking “whether those are really benefits of marriage or more general benefits being sought.” They proposed a reformulation of the definition of “family” to move away from the legislative definition that was largely limited to straight, married couples. CAMP was lobbying to have the legal definition of a family be “a group of people, however constituted, which considers itself a family,” whether this be de facto couples, same-sex couples, single parents and children or adult siblings, meaning that all of these families would have access to the same benefits as married couples. In CAMP’s proposal, marriage and the nuclear family are no longer the cornerstone of society.

In opposition to these more radical views, there were those who spoke at the Commission who were far less progressive when it came to marriage and divorce. One witness from the Lutheran Church of Australia, Daniel Overduin, spoke to the Commission about his concerns regarding Australia’s rising divorce rate. He and a number of other witnesses from various religious denominations were involved in “marriage preparation courses,” where young, soon to be wed couples were disciplined on the responsibilities of married life. Many of the more conservative witnesses, including Overduin, thought that the responsibilities of marriage were being ignored or put in jeopardy by changing lifestyles. In Overduin’s opinion, as women make the choice to get married and have children, they take on responsibilities towards “her marriage and partner and her child,” which is threatened by the threefold responsibility of a career. Throughout the conservative leaning submissions the typical nuclear family is reinforced as the ideal.

Throughout 1975 when the Commission’s public hearings were taking place, the Whitlam government was debating the Family Law Bill in parliament which would see the introduction of no-fault divorce in Australia. The decision to implement this law meant that our understanding of marriage in Australia had fundamentally changed. As the Commission shows, many Australians were no longer viewing marriage as a contract for life or as an institution at the heart of Australian society.

References:

Campaign Against Moral Persecution, Submission to the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, 1975, State Library of NSW, Sydney.

Daniel Overduin, Royal Commission on Human Relationships Transcripts, 08/07/1975, State Library of NSW, Sydney.

Lee, Royal Commission on Human Relationships Transcripts, 28/07/1975, State Library of NSW, Sydney.

Lincoln Day, Royal Commission on Human Relationships Transcripts, 25/06/1975, State Library of NSW, Sydney.

Further Reading:

Mary Bernstein and Nancy Naples, “Sexual Citizenship and the Pursuit of Relationship-Recognition Policies in Australia and the United States” Women’s Studies Quarterly 38 (2010): pp, 132 – 156.

Henry Finlay, To Have But Not to Hold: A History of Attitudes to Marriage and Divorce in Australia 1858 – 1975, Sydney: The Federation Press, 2005.

Shurlee Swain and Danielle Thornton, “Fault, Gender Politics and Family Law Reform,” Australian Journal of Politics and History (2011): pp, 207 – 220.

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5 comments on ““Necessary for the human good”: Marriage and Divorce in the Royal Commission on Human Relationships

  1. curiousshoes says:

    Hi Lilly!

    Congratulations on a well well written blog!! I enjoyed reading it

    I read a piece by Altman during my studies. He argued that one of the major reasons for the failure of same-sex marriage in Australia was because of the success of de-facto couples already having the same legal status as married couples. That gay rights campaigners had latched on the de-facto status as a way of getting legal recognition for their partnerships.
    I was wondering if the Royal Commission had any influence on increasing legal status of de-facto couples?

    Thanks Matt 🙂

    • lillybender says:

      Hey Matt! Thanks so much!

      I definitely agree with that line of argument. One of the most interesting things for me when I was doing my research was that CAMP made no mention of same-sex marriage being an important goal for them, especially considering how strong the push for marriage equality is now.
      I think it might be a stretch to say that the Commission had a material or legislative impact on their status. The controversy around the Commission made pushing any of its recommendations through parliament extremely difficult. I think what the Commission did do was bring a huge variety of opinions on marriage and divorce to the forefront of social discussion. From the transcripts that I’ve looked at, a number of witnesses shared the opinion that marriage was becoming less important to society and that people were seeking other means and different kinds of relationships, like de-facto relationships, to satisfy their needs 🙂

      • curiousshoes says:

        Yeah i think CAMP saw it as a bridge too far. Although I think some of the individual members might have brought it up at the hearings. The CAMP submission seemed to be more about gaining acceptance of homosexuality within society and changing public perceptions. I think recognition of de-facto relationships was a great way to legitimize unmarried couples.
        I do find it interesting that there was a trend away from the traditional view of marriage back then. I think that was the best thing about the Royal Commission; by being open to the public, it was able to sense changes in the public mood much sooner then the government. I think the commissioners did a fantastic job at picking up the changing sentiments. Its just a shame that politics got in the way.

  2. jessicamunro2014 says:

    Interesting blog! To think that there was a time when couple had to prove who is wrong and who caused the breakdown of their marriages. Its interesting even reading this that i am so quick to object to the conservative religious responses to marriage, even though traditionally marriage was a religious binding. However in reading this article alone it shows how much the notion of marriage is constantly changing – but society constantly objects this. It seems so far beyond a religious commitment in modern day society.
    Would be interested to read your whole work
    🙂

  3. mferguson53 says:

    I was really interested to read this after hearing all about the commission during the semester! It’s a bit sad that after so much time, research and funding went into this Commission there is still so much debate surrounding marriage and relationships today in 2014. And there is still that divide between the conservative and the radical. It will be interesting to see in coming years whether there is reflection back on this Commission or even whether a similar one takes place.

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