Australia: The odd couple leading yet another inquiry into family law - PressFrom - Australia

Australia The odd couple leading yet another inquiry into family law

22:10  21 september  2019
22:10  21 september  2019 Source:

Federal Government announces inquiry into family law and child support systems

Federal Government announces inquiry into family law and child support systems After pressure from Pauline Hanson and backbenchers, the Federal Government launches an inquiry into the family law system, to be helmed by former minister Kevin Andrews.

a person sitting on a bench: Pauline Hanson in the Senate earlier this year.© Alex Ellinghausen Pauline Hanson in the Senate earlier this year.

Last Tuesday Hayley Foster, the chief executive of Women’s Safety NSW, was in her office in Sydney holding a workshop for survivors of domestic violence when one of the women in the group with an eye on the news said that the government had announced that it was going to hold another review into family law in Australia.

At first she simply did not believe the reports. She had spent the previous day at Parliament House meeting with staff of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, as well as with representatives of the Attorney-General, Christian Porter.

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The meetings had seemed to go well. She felt that the staff she met were open to her message that the government should at once begin to implement some of the 60 recommendations of an Australian Law Reform Commission review into family law made just months ago, or the House of Representatives inquiry which made 33 recommendations last year.

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Family law inquiry 'not about picking sides' Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dismissed criticism over the government's decision to launch a fresh inquiry into the family law system. The parliamentary review will be headed by Liberal backbencher Kevin Andrews and co-chaired by One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, who has long lobbied for the inquiry. The committee will investigate areas including court time frames and costs, custody arrangements and child support. © Today Scott Morrison says the inquiry is not about Men's rights groups have applauded the decision but it's been met with fierce criticism from anti-domestic and family violence campaigners.

Some staff seemed to accept Foster’s concerns about a private member's bill put forward by One Nation proposing reforms to better protect men and their property in family court matters.

But the news that the government was embarking on yet another inquiry into family law turned out to be true, as did the reports trickling in that it would be chaired by Kevin Andrews and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson herself.

“My heart sank, my fingers hurt,” says Foster, recalling how her phone rang hot that day as colleagues from groups around the country rang to check in.

“I couldn’t believe they would do it. It seems so unnecessary and so cruel. I thought of the women who have to front that inquiry and appear before a man who believed that they had harmed their children by getting divorced and a woman who believed that they were lying.”

Among those baffled and hurt by the decision is Rosie Batty, the anti-domestic violence campaigner whose son was beaten to death by her former partner. “It seems like a deliberate insult,” she told TheSun-Herald and The Sunday Age.

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Family law inquiry criticised by Rosie Batty as Pauline Hanson expects to be announced co-chair Anti-family violence campaigner Rosie Batty criticises the Federal Government's decision to set up an inquiry into the family law system, saying One Nation leader Pauline Hanson would use it to advance a narrow agenda. Ms Batty called out Senator Hanson for comments she made, . Ms Batty said the One Nation leader's comments were "incredibly damaging", and proof the senator "already has an agenda". "Obviously there are some women who do abuse the system, but overwhelmingly we know that one woman a week is being murdered at the hands of a violent man," she said.

The fight over family law

The one thing that most people affected by Australia’s family law system agree upon is that it needs dramatic reform.

Lawyers, women’s advocates and even a former judge told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age that the system is slow and costly, that rather than responding with urgency and agility to crises that are often afflicting young and desperately vulnerable lives, matters before the court can often take months or even years to be settled.

But ever since the Family Law Act was drafted in 1975 there has been a constant tension between those who believed that it should more vigorously protect women and children from domestic violence, and those who believe that it should better consider the rights of men to maintain access to their children after relationships collapse.

a person wearing a suit and tie: David Oldfield and Pauline Hanson in 1998.© Richard Briggs David Oldfield and Pauline Hanson in 1998.

The emphasis has shifted back and forth through a series of changes. Those made in 2006 under John Howard tended to favour men seeking access to children, with judges instructed to balance the need to protect adults and children from violence with a desire to encourage separated parents to maintain a meaningful relationship with their children. There was to be a presumption of shared parental responsibility unless violence or abuse was an issue.

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The 2006 overhaul also contained what is known as the “friendly parent” provision, which directed judges in making a parenting order to consider “the willingness and ability of each of a child’s parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent”. In effect this meant that, in some circumstances, women who raised their partner’s violence with the court could be found to be antagonistic when it came to deciding upon custody.

“These cases reflect a bizarre paradigm that was emerging in the Family Court,” observed the author Jess Hill in a piece for The Monthly magazine in 2015. “A parent perceived to be alienating their child against the other parent was in some cases being treated as a greater threat than a parent with a record of abusive behaviour and child sex offences.”

the face of Kevin Andrews: Kevin Andrews has long had changes to family law in his sights.© Alex Ellinghausen Kevin Andrews has long had changes to family law in his sights.

Despite further changes to the act under the last Labor government, two women have told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age that this culture remains in place and that their lawyers underplayed the threat of violence in recent hearings.

Given this context, advocates view the appointment of Andrews and Hanson to be a determined statement of ideological intent by Morrison, a man they note is known for his own deeply Christian worldview.

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A most unlikely marriage

At a glance it would be hard to conceive of two more different parliamentarians than Andrews and Hanson. Andrews is a staunch Catholic conservative who has spent much of his political life defending the sanctity of his church’s view of marriage and family as the most critical building block of society. He has written a 500-page book, Maybe ‘I Do’, on the issue.

Hanson is a twice-divorced atheist known for her support for abortion and her generally scant attention to policy detail.

But many observers feel that the two of them begin the process with a jaundiced view of the position of women in the family law system.

“It is pure political gold for Pauline,” said David Oldfield when he first heard the news that Hanson had been given the role of deputy chair.

“Actually,” said Oldfield, correcting himself, “it is platinum, political platinum.”

Oldfield is the man who defected from a staff job with Tony Abbott over 20 years ago to join Hanson, then a maverick independent, and help her create One Nation, the party that has evolved to become Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

According to Oldfield, now thoroughly distanced from Hanson and the party, he recognised angry men, particularly those embittered by their experiences with the family court, as a crucial constituency for One Nation from the outset.

“Anger is the most effective political motivator,” Oldfield told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age during an interview this week, “and no one is more angry than a divorced man who feels wronged by a family court.”

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He says that in the late 1990s he even sought to recruit men's rights activists as One Nation candidates.

Hanson has also been clear about her own personal experiences of the court.

This week she said that her private member's bill to overhaul the stem would protect men from “those gold-diggers who only come into a relationship for what they can get out of it".

According to Oldfield, in appointing her to a senior role on the inquiry, Morrison has given Hanson a platform of incalculable political value.

Oldfield believes Hanson will act as a surrogate for those who appointed her, saying the sorts of things that the far right of the Coalition might like to say but cannot for political reasons, harvesting votes that can eventually be directed back to the government via preferences.

“I don’t think she will make any real contribution at all - I don’t think she has the attention span to,” says Oldfield. “But she will win votes.”

By contrast, it appears Andrews’ contribution to the inquiry will be far more considered.

In a speech to a group called the Marriage Foundation in Britain in 2012, Andrews outlined his concerns about reforms to family law in Australia.

“When divorce laws were reformed in Australia in the mid-1970s, the Parliament constructed them upon two pillars: first, the right to terminate a marriage that had irretrievably broken down; and, secondly, the desire to provide an opportunity for couples to reconcile their differences, if at all possible,” he said.

“Regrettably, the second pillar of reconciliation crumbled within a few years, due largely to the inattention given to it by the Family Court.”

In the speech Andrews argued that marriage was not only “an affectionate relationship between individuals” but a “ protective institution, especially for children”.

He explained that in his book he gathered evidence that “overwhelmingly illustrates that a happy, stable marriage is the optimal state for children and adults. It also reveals that when the protective role of marriage is lost or discarded, many people, especially children and women, are left worse off.”

Between Hanson’s view that women use family law as a weapon with which to attack innocent men, and Andrews’ view that the collapse of marriage can be a greater threat to women than the behaviour of men in the marriage, Foster fears that this new inquiry will not simply delay crucial reforms already outlined, but lead to new dangers for Australian women and children.

Neither Hanson nor Andrews responded to a call for comment.

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