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.