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Thursday, 4 October 1984
Page: 1201


Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN(1.06) —I want to take this opportunity this afternoon to speak briefly on a subject that I feel is of great importance to the Australian public, and that is the matter of marriage and divorce. There is a ludicrous situation in this country at present whereby benefits to divorcing parents are now costing the taxpayer more than $900m a year while only $3.8m is being spent on marriage counselling. I do not think that I would be overstating the situation to suggest that a large number of Australians are certainly confused, to say the least, by the present system of priorities that have been established in this regard. On the one hand we know that the Government says, particularly at election time, how important the family is-I think we would all agree with that-and how the Budget measures that are brought forward are going to assist the family. Yet on the other hand, I would say that the actions of the Government suggest a complete ignorance of what is really happening to Australian families and of their real needs and problems and of the way in which the policies affect family life in this country. It is all very well, and I suppose this is the job of the Government really, to determine how taxpayers' money is to be spent to benefit the community. But I seriously question whether spending great wads of money on providing free counselling through the Family Court of Australia for divorces while a couple who wants counselling to try to resolve their marriage difficulties are having to pay more is really fair.

I have had representations only in the last couple of weeks from the Queensland Marriage Guidance Council, which is in desperate need of financial assistance because its counselling offices are bursting at the seams due to reduced funding . From what the Executive Director of that organisation, Mr Ian MacDonald has told me, it seems that the present Government is doing more to promote divorce than to help marriages that can be saved. To me it is an indictment of the Government's priorities that we have the situation developing whereby a couple who wish to divorce can receive free counselling through the Family Court whereas a couple who want counselling to resolve their marriage difficulties are having to pay more.

In Brisbane, if couples want some marriage counselling they go to the marriage guidance counselling people. It costs $15 a visit. They have to pay for that. In fact I was told also that people living in Sydney have to pay up to $45 a visit but, of course, that is means tested. So if couples want some marriage guidance counselling it is certainly going to cost them money. I feel that the status of marriage is being put in a very poor light in this way. In fact I would go as far as to say that it is putting the cart before the horse. It was drawn to my attention that while the Government is prepared to allocate $30m for the retention of the America's Cup, it was hardly prepared to do anything for families in this country who are in trouble as far as their marriages are concerned.

I was also given to understand by Mr MacDonald that the Queensland Marriage Guidance Council is awaiting a reply from the Federal Government to a request that the Council made in March this year for funds to replace its 110-year-old building in St Paul's Terrace in Brisbane, which is very inadequate for the job that it has. During the past three years the Council's workload has increased by nearly 60 per cent and yet funds from the Attorney-General's Department have diminished from 85 per cent to 72 per cent of the Council's expenditure. Most certainly I would agree that in the unhappy event of a couple having to divorce the separation should be made as humanely as possible, but I do object to the fact that couples who are making an attempt to save their marriage are not afforded the same respect or assistance. It is a sad reflection, I would say, on the Government, that the bulk of services in Australia are designed to enter at the time when a family is at breaking point or when neglect of children has resulted in court action which all too clearly indicates that there really is a problem there. It does seem to me to be a paradox that we still continue to put all our energy and money into coping with family breakdowns rather than trying to prevent it from happening in the first place.

I feel that the Government should be channelling more funds into family support systems which would greatly help to reduce economic and psychological stress- support systems such as marriage guidance and counselling. But as I said earlier , only $3.8m has been allocated for marriage counselling and a mere $80,000 for marriage education. I have often thought that if more time were taken to talk to couples about marriage before they got married, if there were more money made available for this type of work, we might perhaps not have quite so many breakdowns of marriage in the community. The Government does not seem to me to understand that if it were to employ a more systematic approach to funding for the welfare of families, perhaps this would help to prevent some of the conflict , hardship and incompetence that leads to marriage breakdown. We, as legislators , should be implementing positive action for the well-being of families rather than just merely implementing patch-up solutions to problems as they arise.

I would like to quote from the first paper published by the Institute of Family Studies. In that paper the Executive Director of that Institute, Mr Don Edgar, said:

The family has always been the first line of support (both emotional and financial) for the individual facing the social structure. Other mediating structures (the Church, community groups, clubs, the Boy Scouts, etc.) may have declined in influence, but the family still nurtures, protects, feeds, teaches, bullies, restricts and opens up basic life possibilities for the individual. The family 'interprets the world' to every child, gives it a language and basic skills that make interaction with the world possible. The family either provides a sense of competence, of self worth, a sense of power and of social respect; or it provides the reverse sense of incompetence, powerlessness, lack of respect and self-denigration that says your place in the world is of low status and your chances of influencing anything are limited.

I conclude my remarks by making the point that I sometimes feel that the Government is pre-occupied to the point of ridiculousness with the equality of adult relationships rather than looking at the family as the interaction of parents with children. I do believe that we as a country will ultimately pay dearly for this folly.