The Guardian July 2, 2003


Whose "family values?

by Bob Briton

The Australian family appears to be the latest arena to be identified for 
the Federal Government's cynical "reforming" touch. Last week Howard asked 
the Parliament's family and community affairs committee to look at the 
assumptions underpinning decisions of the Family Court. The happiness of 
millions of Australians is at stake in the issues to be considered: an 
estimated 55,000 children will be caught up in marriage break-ups this year 
alone and the self-described advocates of non-interfering government feel 
obliged to step in.

The Family Court has long been the target of derision and bile from 
conservative, right-wing forces since it was formed during the years of the 
Whitlam Labor Government. The right accuse its non-adversarial methods for 
settling problems of being anti-family. For example, the Court provides 
contact details for free legal services and advises families on 
mediation/counselling services. It does not rule on the sanctity or 
otherwise of marriage vows. Nor does it make orders forcing people to 
remain in relationships, based on value judgements.

That is the ideological stamping ground of the Howard Government, driven as 
it is by fundamentalist Christian dogma. "Blind faith in doctrine for all" 
is their reactionary catchcry. These "family values", of course, do not 
apply to asylum seekers, who are locked away  men, women (even if 
pregnant) and children  and families forcibly split up. The hypocrisy 
would be staggering if it were not so inhuman.

Few would doubt our Prime Minister's ability to profit and survive by 
exploiting and promoting reactionary political trends in the Australian 
electorate. His Government rode into a third successive term on the back of 
post-September 11 security concerns and the vigorously promoted perception 
that tough action was needed to stop masses of queue-jumping undesirables 
from landing on our shores.

Of course, the role of the Australian Government and its allies in 
producing these various human tragedies is not an acceptable topic in 
mainstream political discourse. As could be predicted, the chosen 
"responses" and "solutions" to these crises do nothing but throw up new 
victims and casualties.

Liberal MP Chris Pyne first raised ideas like shared custody  where the 
50/50 sharing of custody of children will be presumed unless a strong case 
can be made in "rebuttal"  in a Coalition party room meeting last year.

NSW National Party MP Kay Hull will now be given the job of chairing the 
committee to examine the proposals. The Prime Minister would even like the 
issue of access to children by grandparents to be examined. It is hoped 
that the committee will be able to recommend legislation when it reports at 
the end of December.

The Prime Minister says that his main concern in all this is that boys 
should have male role models in their lives. "If they do not have older 
brothers or uncles they closely relate to  and with an overwhelming 
number of teachers being female in primary schools in particular  many 
young Australian boys are at the age of 15 or 16 before they have a male 
role model with whom they can identify."

Not all the PM's usual supporters and advisors are backing his latest 
choice of populist vehicle. Attorney-General Daryl Williams does not 
support it. The Howard-appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru 
Goward, believes that it is too late to start talking about a 50/50 split 
of responsibility when a couple has decided on divorce. In distancing 
herself from beliefs underpinning the inquiry, she did quip that discussion 
about enforcing such a division of labour in the family prior to divorce 
might spark a "feminist revolution". Nobody is expecting this type of 
radicalism from the inquiry.

Family Court Chief Justice Alistair Nicholson says that the removal of 
discretionary powers from the courts and the insistence on "shared 
parenting" could be harmful to children:

"Shared parenting can work perfectly well if parents live close to one 
another, if there is little or no hostility between them, if they both have 
excellent parenting skills, and if there is no history of abuse by either 
parent. If all or most of these prerequisites are not present, shared 
parenting can be both disruptive and detrimental to the children involved."

Child protection advocate and former Family Court judge John Fogarty 
agrees: "The concept of a child covers everyone from babies to teenagers, 
and what this would mean is that they've got to pack up all their things 
every fortnight or few months to go from Werribee to Hampton or Ballarat, 
and change their school, styles of living and leave friends behind."

Thankfully, while Labor has said that they will co-operate with the 
inquiry, it is not attracted to it or the ideas it is investigating.

The "shared parenting" push from the Government is not a serious attempt to 
help Australian families. It is a grandstanding exercise that shows just 
how influenced our Federal Government is by US think-tanks, US "research" 
and US daytime television. They are wagering a bit of their credibility 
that the Australian people are similarly affected by those institutions.

Experience suggests that we don't need the Coalition's moralising 
intervention. Only half of the couples deciding to split in Australia take 
the matter to the Family Court. Most of those eventually sort out their own 
contact and residency arrangements.

Only five per cent end up before a judge or judicial registrar and only a 
portion of those end up with a court-imposed settlement. The defenders of 
family values couldn't care less that their "reforms" could push thousands 
of these people back into the courts to establish that the other party is 
unworthy of 50/50 custody.

The linking of maintenance to the "shared parenting" project opens up a new 
minefield of acrimonious complication that, similarly, need not be created.

Meanwhile  getting back to matters that the Federal Government might 
realistically have some chance of improving  the ING-Melbourne 
Institute's latest report was released last week.

It showed that only 40 per cent of Australian households managed to save 
anything last year. One in 20 is running into debt to survive. Credit cards 
were the most common form of debt. Latest Reserve Bank figures put credit 
card debt at a record $23.3 billion. One in 50 Australian households is 
using more than 75 per cent of their income to service debt.

Maybe, just maybe, if a parliamentary inquiry would genuinely look at ways 
to fix the cash flow problems of Australian families, fewer of them would 
succumb to pressures that lead to marriage break-up.

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