Five reasons why the government's $200 marriage vouchers haven't worked

Since Kevin Andrews' Stronger Relationships Trial first rolled out on July 1, only around 1,830 of its 100,000 ...

Since Kevin Andrews' Stronger Relationships Trial first rolled out on July 1, only around 1,830 of its 100,000 counselling vouchers have been taken up by Australian couples so far.

Earlier this year, the Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews announced a homely $20 million scheme that would tackle our “costly” divorces and potentially save the government money by dangling in front of Australian couples a carrot to the value of $200.

And how have Australian couples repaid the love since the 1 July roll-out of the Stronger Relationships Trial? Well, by not exactly setting the world on fire, according to the Department of Social Services’ own figures, which show that only around 1,830 of its 100,000 counselling vouchers have been taken up by Australian couples so far.

These vouchers are to be used by couples to resolve anything from conflict resolution and money management, to parenting (most parents I know would do almost anything for a moment’s peace, yet here we are blithely turning our backs on a whole ‘free’ hour).

So what’s going on here? As one half of a couple who fits the brief (over-18, married with children), I’ve got a few ideas why the trial may have stalled. 

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Hanging out with ultra-conservative groups isn’t the best PR move

Kevin Andrews, the self-ordained driver of the scheme, has hardly made a secret of his socially conservative brand of Christianity. In fact, he’s pretty content to trumpet it from any pulpit - be that a profile piece in The Australian magazine or as the 'international ambassador' of the World Congress of Families.

And it’s the latter that should ring alarm bells - the WCF is a US-based group that takes a dim view of abortion and homosexuality. So what are we to make of a government minister who will open and close the group’s controversial conference in Melbourne later this month, and who recently urged “de facto couples to get married if they want to boost their chances of a long-term relationship and protect their children”? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.)

More Seventh Heaven than Modern Family?

It’s true that the Stronger Relationships Trial extends to de facto and same-sex couples, but let’s not forget that this is a relatively new amendment. When the trial was first mooted, it was directed solely at newlyweds.  

This conventional hangover is evident in the list of ‘approved’ service providers. While it was good to see that well-known counselling group Relationships Australia made the list, I noticed a definite nod towards Christian groups. Not a problem in itself perhaps, but a tad disingenuous, if not insensitive, in our multi-faith society.  

Leaving us high and dry

Yes, it’s a nice idea to encourage couples to critically look at their relationships, but offering what is essentially a one-off session (couples counselling can cost upwards of $150) is hardly the solution it promises to be. In fact, it barely airs the problem.

How about offering a series of free or even subsidised sessions? That way there’s room to thrash out the issues, gain some insight and work towards some solutions, minus the sting in the wallet. (And before you point to the national mental health care initiative, which allows couples to receive a rebate for up to 10 sessions if they qualify, let me remind you that it requires several loopholes to jump through.)

After all, commitment works both ways, don’t you agree, Mr Andrews?

Tougher love we don’t need

The breakdown of relationships always increases when times are hard, and as the latest Treasury figures show, these times are about to get tougher, especially among those with the most to lose - low-income families will be more than $840 worse off in coming years compared to $517 for those on higher incomes.

If the government was really serious about making a dent in Australia’s divorce rates, especially among couples with young children, then perhaps some of that $20 million could be re-funnelled into helping with the cost of child-minding and childcare.

It’s not me; it’s you

Couples go to counselling for a myriad of reasons. Some seek it not to stay together, but to find a better way to communicate as they part, especially when there are children involved and issues still to resolve (which kind of shoots the “this scheme will save the government money by saving marriages” idea clear out of the water).

Lastly, may I suggest that when you go to some effort at making the online registration user-friendly that you ensure it actually works? The site crashed more times than I care to mention. Considering the scheme’s slow uptake, this couldn’t have been due to a sudden rush of interest now, could it?