“Why is it always Sweden?” Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s eminence grise, used to remark whenever someone produced a counter-argument to proposals to privatise blood transfusion or some-such. Joseph seemed to think it a prank, because he simply couldn’t accept that a social democratic state could be prosperous, energetic and beat back inequality.

But if you’re going to cite Sweden, best get its complexities right. Thus Emma Alberici in The Drum looks to Nordic parental leave plans, concluding they are so generous because “the family is the bedrock of Nordic culture”. Errr, no it ain’t*, and thereby hangs a tale about parental leave.

The Nordic countries, and Sweden in particular, have one of the least family-centred societies of all. Single motherhood approaches 50%, a high proportion of people live alone, kids don’t linger long in the family home after leaving school. Indeed, one of the major cultural problems that Swedes identify is a sense of intimate disconnection, as captured in the classic ’70s novel Autisterna (The Autistics) and a recent state of the nation study Ar Svenskar Manniskor? (Are The Swedish Even Human?). Both these and other studies reflect on what was a feature of Swedish life for decades — full-time, external childcare from a very early age, explicitly intended to promote work-participation equality and decentre the patriarchal family, and something that more than a few now believe was a social-psychological disaster of major proportions.

Parental leave was a more recent innovation and brought in against the resistance of many statist feminists, who believed it would re-entrench gender divisions. They were right. By the mid-2000s, the 400-plus days of parental leave could be divided up evenly between parents — but mothers were taking it by around 90%/10%. Free preference? Patriarchal pressure, explicit or implicit? The debate continues.

The policy had been championed in the ’90s by the centre-right Moderate Party. By 2005, the dying Social Democratic government was debating whether to introduce a compulsory 67-33% split in parental. That was the centrist position — a hard-core wanted a 50/50 split. The Moderates were re-elected in 2006, and are still in power. They’ve left parental leave alone, but they haven’t brought in mandatory male use of it.

The parental leave move was smart work by the moderates — it cut with the grain of the country’s political culture, pushed the Social Democrats into internal conflict, while keeping to their “smaller state” rhetoric.

Your correspondent argued years ago here that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott et al might make the same move, drawing on familialism as a conservative virtue to portray Labor as ungenerous, elitist and anti-home, puppies, etc. So it has proved, with one twist: polls suggest the parental leave plan remains a net negative for the Coalition, which amazes me.

Does it suggest a preference for subsidised childcare? Strong opposition to extra costs by voters whose kids are grown up, or who have none? A lack of awareness of the expansiveness of the policy (do people believe it’s six weeks, not six months?) Or has the culture so internalised a horror of public spending that they will reject even the policies that bring immediate, visible benefit? Who knows.

I suspect in time it will become a net positive for the Coalition. Should it not we suggest people remain suspicious of a familialist agenda — or by contrast, that they are, economically, to the Right of Tony Abbott?

*Except in the sense that the family is the root form of all non-kinship societies

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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