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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18467

Mr TICEHURST (7:49 PM) —I rise tonight to congratulate the Prime Minister, John Howard, on announcing the inquiry into joint custody and the fairness of our child support system following family separation. The issue has gained momentum in the last few weeks. I have received hundreds of letters, phone calls and submissions from constituents in my electorate of Dobell and beyond expressing their support for the inquiry and highlighting the need for changes to the system.

I held a public forum last Thursday evening to allow residents and a range of field experts to work together to define, based on the terms of reference for the inquiry, the key areas in which family law reform is required and the common difficulties people are experiencing with the current system. The forum brought together around 150 residents wanting to reshape family law and a panel of specialists constituting representatives from the Family Court, the Child Support Agency and the local council, a family law specialist and representatives from community service organisations, including Dads in Distress and the Child Abuse Prevention Service. I accepted many individual submissions on the night from people wanting to make a difference to this inquiry. I also compiled a comprehensive submission to the inquiry based on feedback from the forum.

Emotions flared during the forum but acceptable conduct was defined and enforced by local radio host and moderator for the night, Mr Steve Allan, from radio station 2GO, and no outbursts were directed at the panel of eight. The forum was a great way to measure the extent to which family law in Australia is not working. Amid the frustration and tears, several common themes emerged, including a lack of family law enforcement, a need for more support to encourage self-representing litigants, a need for life education in primary and high schools, bias in the Family Court and a lack of emphasis on mediation. However, the most important issue raised was that the inquiry should focus on the rights of children to see their parents, not the other way around.

When you consider that around 2,000 married Central Coast couples called it quits last year, it is vital that current laws enforce a child's right to know and be cared for by both their parents, regardless of their marital status, for their mental and emotional wellbeing. Many affected grandparents were also present. A great-grandmother approached me after the forum to discuss the difficulties she was experiencing in gaining access to her great-grandchild. Grandparents are often the forgotten ones in child access arrangements. Children have a right to regular contact with their grandparents, who can provide much needed stability during a family break-up.

While there are always exceptions, a lot of parents want better access arrangements. They want to meet their responsibilities and do the right thing by their kids. Let us facilitate that. Where parents do not want to do the right thing and be fully involved, we need to encourage them to do the right thing, not just by the kids but also for the future of our society. After all, Australia's greatest resource lies in the families of our nation.

In the United States a maternal preference in child custody has given way to the best interests of the child. This standard has resulted in a system that favours joint custody. In some parts of the United States the system also provides opportunities and incentives for parents to reach agreements between themselves and assists in minimising the damage of separation and conflict to children. This approach has helped to greatly reduce the incidence of divorce in these areas, which may contribute to a fall in the incidence of child abuse and a decrease in the financial costs of divorce to the community. There are no simple solutions or quick fixes. Each family is different, each child is different, and the issue must be approached on an individual basis.

In an article in the Age last month, opposition leader Simon Crean said he doubted that the issue would go anywhere, dubbing it one of the government's `schemes that remain dreams'. I say to Mr Crean, I have received over 60 submissions from local residents in the past week. The Howard government and I are listening and responding to the concerns of people affected by the current family law system. Mr Crean threatens that there will be hard decisions arising from the inquiry—we do not doubt there will be. The Howard government has never been afraid to tackle the tough issues—the issues that matter to the lives of Australians and, more importantly in this case, the issues that matter to the children and their future.

The Howard government's announcement of an inquiry into the system is one step forward in lessening the impact of marriage break-ups on families. It is good news for many people on the Central Coast who have expressed to me their frustration with the family law and the child support acts and their administration. Most importantly, all children have the right to be cared for by both their parents and that is what the federal government inquiry must address above anything else. (Time expired)