Border protection

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‘What does a woman want from life?’, asked a Liberal Party advertisement some months prior to the 1949 election. Was it socialism, which entailed ‘government supervision and direction of every phase of family life’, or liberalism, which offered the ‘freedom to manage your own family life’ as well as ‘independence’ and ‘prosperity’? 1 The integrity of family life was at stake, as it was again a few years later during the Menzies government’s campaign to boost defence preparedness in response to the communist menace. ‘When Australia is in danger our children are in danger’, readers of the Australian Women’s Weekly were warned, ‘in striving to make Australia strong we also make secure the future of the children we love’. 2 Communism was not merely a threat to Australia’s political system, it was threat to Australia’s way of life, to the family itself.

And yet, while the family seemed besieged by the evils of a dark and sinister world, it was also being celebrated as a renewed source of strength and achievement. After the uncertainties of depression and war, the Australian family appeared to be stabilising, taking on a more modern form. Despite growing concern about divorce, WD Borrie declared in 1953 that the family was statistically safe. The ‘majority of Australian couples who marry still remain together’, he claimed, while the trend to smaller families was not a sign of degeneration, but of ‘the laudable desire of modern parents to maintain the standards which society now demands of them’. 3 Australians were ‘highly family oriented’, Margaret Middleton observed, ‘their chief ambitions appear to be to buy a house, a car, a television set, and the various other devices of our age’. 4 The modern family was smaller, wealthier, isolated and secure amidst sprawling suburban splendour. It offered a sense of safety, a retreat from outside dangers. ‘Men and women who live within the shelter of a stable happy union’, argued the Australian Women’s Weekly, ‘are better able than others to face the slings and arrows shot at them from outside’. 5 Increasingly self-absorbed, physically and emotionally detached from its neighbours and kin, this new form of the family was defined by its boundaries. It even had a new name.

The term ‘nuclear family’ was first used in 1945. It was coined shortly before the bomb was dropped, but the co-opting of physics was quite deliberate. The ‘nuclear family’ was an ‘independent atom’, the ‘basic social unit in the development of human society’. 6 The term was introduced by George Peter Murdock, whose anthropological research led him to believe that ‘a married man and woman and their offspring’ was ‘the first and most basic’ form of the family. 7 Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this natural, most basic form was found to predominate in Western countries such as America and Australia. Moreover, the nuclear family contributed to the health and stability of such societies by performing a number of functions ‘fundamental to human social life’. 8 Just as the free world’s nuclear might underpinned global security, so the dominance of the nuclear family demonstrated the essential virtues of western culture. As Murdock remarked in an ill-disguised swipe at early Soviet policy: ‘no society…has succeeded in finding an adequate substitute for the nuclear family’ and it was ‘highly doubtful whether any society ever will succeed in such an attempt, utopian proposals for the abolition of the family to the contrary notwithstanding’. 9 Ultimately, there was no alternative.

The presumed inevitability of the nuclear family meshed with the Cold War policy of containment. The Soviet system was fundamentally flawed and would eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Democracy, capitalism and the nuclear family would triumphantly take their place. But with the celebration of the nuclear family came a reassertion of gender roles, an emphasis on consumption, and an increased tendency to conservatism and isolation. Just who was being contained, and by what?

Through the prism of the modern family were defined virtue, trust and responsibility. ‘A man who is unselfish enough to serve his country should be a good life’s partner’, declared an advertisement for the Citizen Military Forces. 10 ‘You can be proud of the man who is willing to defend you’, reassured another. 11 The good family man, surrounded by his loving family and the trappings of a consumer lifestyle, was contrasted with the communist, who served only destruction and chaos. As one NSW parliamentarian commented, ‘no communists will be found building their homes but decent Australians are getting a stake in the country’. 12 Progress and security were to be found within the boundaries of the nuclear family, confirmed in their necessity by the contrast between inside and outside, us and them—those who belonged, and those who did not.

In October 2001, government sources reported that refugees seeking entry to Australia by sea had thrown their children overboard in an attempt to force a navy vessel to take them on board. ‘I can’t imagine how a genuine refugee would ever do that’, Prime Minister Howard responded, ‘I certainly don’t want people of that type in Australia’. 13 With the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and a dramatic influx of refugees, ‘border protection’ became a key issue once more in Australian political life. ‘We are…in a new and dangerous part of the world’s history’, Howard argued in launching his election campaign, Australian security could only be assured by ‘having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders’. 14 The ‘type’ of people who could risk their children’s lives were added to terrorists, extremists, and queue-jumpers on a list of those who did not belong. ‘We’ll decide who comes to this country’, the Prime Minister defiantly asserted.

The 2001 election was run and won on the twin themes of border protection and economic prosperity. Progress and security remain tightly bound in the articulation of political priorities. Progress is not just an onward advance, it is an escape from chaos and uncertainty. The possibility of greatness that beckons us on is contrasted against the lurking dangers of degeneration, dissolution and failure. Just like at the crossroads, there is no choice, progress comes equipped with a demonstration of its own inevitability. If not progress, then what? Threat and solution, punishment and reward, the future is neatly packaged and labelled for safe handling and consumption.

In the latest crusade for ‘border protection’, science has been called to the front lines once more. Seeking to focus the nation’s research effort, the Howard government announced four national research priorities in late 2002. These included ‘Safeguarding Australia from terrorism, crime, invasive diseases and pests’. 15 As this chapter is being written, the push continues to give ASIO new powers of arrest and detention. A disturbing feeling of familiarity is difficult to avoid. Historian Henry Reynolds has suggested that Australia is ‘more fearful now than at any time since the Cold War in the 1950s’. 16 Fear, it seems, breeds conservatism and division, a desire for scapegoats and strong leaders. But perhaps it is not fear itself that limits our horizons, but the framework within which it is expressed. Fear emerges from the contrast of us and them, right and wrong, inside and outside, progress and destruction. Might we imagine a future that is no longer constructed out of either/or choices? From the crossroads might we yet strike out cross country, heading overland through places unmapped, enjoying the possibilities, exploring a world without borders?


  1. Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 October 1949, p. 38. See also Alomes, ‘The social context of postwar conservatism’, pp. 25-7.
  2. Australian Women’s Weekly, 18 November 1950,p. 67.
  3. WD Borrie, ‘The family’, in George Caiger (ed.), The Australian way of life, Heinemann, London, 1953, pp. 39-40.
  4. Margaret Middleton, ‘The Australian family’, in RJ Maguire (ed.), Hemisphere: Asian-Australian viewpoints and ideas, Cheshire, London, 1964, p. 268.
  5. Australian Women’s Weekly, 11 June 1949, p. 18.
  6. George Peter Murdock, Social structure, Free Press, New York, 1949, p. 23; Meyer F Nimkoff, ‘Trends in family research’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 53, 1947-8, p. 480.
  7. It was first used in George Peter Murdock, ‘The common denominator of cultures’, in Ralph Linton (ed.), The science of man in the world crisis, Columbia University Press, New York, 1945, pp. 123-142; but developed more fully in Murdock, Social structure, ch. 1.
  8. Murdock, Social Structure, p. 10.
  9. ibid., p. 11.
  10. Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 May 1951, p.18.
  11. Australian Women’s Weekly, 18 November 1950, p. 67. See also John Murphy, Imagining the fifties: private sentiment and political culture in Menzies’ Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000, pp. 37-40.
  12. Quoted in Alomes, ‘The social context of postwar conservatism’, p. 11. See also Murphy, Imagining the fifties, p. 137.
  13. Radio interview with Jon Faine, 3LO Melbourne, 9 October 2001, transcript at <>.
  14. ‘Transcript of the Prime Minister, the Hon, John Howard MP, address at the Federal Liberal Party campaign launch, Sydney’, 28 October 2001, <>.
  15. Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, ‘Safeguarding Australia’, <>.
  16. Weekend Australian, 7-8 June 2003, p. 20.

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