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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3533

Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (17:04): I rise to speak on the Family Law Amendment (Validation of Certain Orders and Other Measures) Bill 2012. In doing so, I would just like to pick up on a point made by the member for Blair. There was one bill which was not proclaimed by the Howard government in 2006, but nothing turned on it. It did not matter; it did not affect anyone. The difference between that bill and this bill is that the lives, futures and status of orders for thousands and thousands of people are determined by this bill.

This bill provides statutory rights to anyone covered by two proclamations, related to de facto financial causes, that have not been made under section 40(2) of the Family Law Act 1975. This bill has been necessitated by the failure of the government to provide for the proclamation of the provisions of the Family Law Amendment (De Facto Financial Matters and Other Measures) Act 2008. This bill seeks to provide those affected by the failure to make these proclamations with certainty in their situation and to make sure that they are not disadvantaged as a result of these proclamations not being made at the intended time.

The Family Law Amendment (De Facto Financial Matters and Other Measures Act) 2008, which passed with coalition support, relied on referrals of power by the states, with the exception of Western Australia, to the Commonwealth as agreed through the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General in 2002. I do agree with the member for Blair—I do not understand what the Western Australians do. In the words of Nino Culotta, 'They're a weird mob.' The intention of the legislation was to (1) provide for national uniformity for all relationship breakdown matters and (2) confer jurisdiction on the courts with the best resources for resolving the breakdown of relationships—that is, the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court.

The failure to proclaim the relevant amendments resulted in property and maintenance orders made by federal family courts in de facto matters after 1 March 2009 being, in fact, invalid. So the whole reason for this legislation is to cover up this government's poor management and to validate those orders retrospectively. How this happened, no-one knows or is willing to admit. Maybe we could pass it on to Fair Work Australia and they could take four years to find out.

The Family Law Act states that the Federal Magistrates Court of Australia cannot exercise jurisdiction until the Family Court of Australia is able to do so. Consequently, this bill provides a similar coverage of decisions relating to de facto financial causes for the Federal Magistrates Court. This bill will apply to court orders made between 1 July 2010 and 10 February 2012 in South Australia and to court orders made between 1 March 2009 and 10 February 2012 in all other states. By creating statutory rights and liabilities identical to those intended under the original proclamations, this bill gives the clarity and verification needed for the court orders given during this time. We have moved a second reading amendment on this bill but will support its passage, as we have previously done.

In discussing this bill and the impact that it has on the Family Court of Australia, I would also like to raise an issue of significance for the legal community in Townsville and the families in North Queensland that require their services. Since 1983 Townsville, as the member for Blair indicated, has had its own locally based Family Court judge. For close to 30 years the judge in that position has served the needs of not just the Townsville community but the whole of North Queensland. Until November, that position was filled by the Hon. Justice Robert Monteith. Since his retirement, however, Townsville has had to go without, with the position still remaining vacant.

Just last month in a Senate estimates hearing Senator Ludwig announced that expressions of interest in the position would be sought. He suggested that the government would want to keep the position based in Townsville after all. But another month has gone by and, with no action being taken, the legal community in Townsville is still wondering whether this government will do the right thing and appoint a locally based Family Court judge. Townsville is experiencing rapid levels of population growth at the moment. The government recognised that there was a need for a Family Court judge to be based in Townsville in 1983, when the twin cities of Townsville and Thuringowa had a population approaching 75,000. With the region's growth the demand for these services has only increased and there should be no doubt that we still need a Family Court judge today, with the population of the twin cities approaching 200,000.

The government's position on this matter has been anything but firm. When I first raised it with the then Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, he said no decision on the replacement for Justice Monteith had been made. We subsequently heard rumours that the government was content to circuit a Family Court judge from Tasmania. The coalition's shadow Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, came to Townsville for Justice Monteith's farewell sitting—a feat not matched by any member of the government—and he spoke with local practitioners in family law who expressed real concern about the way this court was being treated by the government. At estimates, the Attorney-General's representative in the Senate, Senator Ludwig, told Senator Brandis that the need for a Townsville based Family Court judge had been heard and that that was now their preferred option. In interviews and in statements North Queensland based Senator Ian Macdonald and I both cautioned the people of North Queensland that this was not a delivery of the service but merely an acknowledgment of the need.

North Queensland lawyers were recently told that the position of a Townsville based, or preferably Townsville based, Family Court judge would be advertised at the end of February or in the first week of March. To date, no such advertisement has appeared. In the Senate last week, answering a question from Senator Macdonald, Senator Ludwig refused to give any commitment on the issue of a Townsville based Family Court judge. This is simply treating the people of North Queensland with utter contempt. There is enough work for a Family Court judge in North Queensland, based in Townsville and circuiting to Mackay, Cairns, Mt Isa and even to Darwin now that Air North have commenced direct flights between Townsville and Darwin.

The Family Court does the toughest of cases. It does the difficult custody matters. It deals with complex matters. Townsville needs to be home to a Family Court judge and this government needs to come clean with its plans. All of us in this House spend a lot of time dealing with family law matters. It has been the toughest part of my job so far as the member for Herbert—dealing with people who are going through the pain of family law and divorce and separation. There are property matters and custody matters and support matters. To have these problems exacerbated by government incompetence is just wrong at every level.

At its core, this bill is about allowing the Federal Magistrates Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia to do their job and to not disadvantage the people they are there to help. That is also what we are asking for in Townsville. We have had a locally based Family Court judge for close to 30 years in recognition of the region's need for family law services and the need for these services to be provided by someone who understands local nuances. Senator Brandis has promised the North Queensland legal fraternity that, should this government remain inactive, once we are in power after the next election we will appoint a Townsville based Family Court judge.

I support this bill for its intent to provide clarity and fairness through the justice system, even if it would not have been necessary had the government just done the right thing four years ago. All I want for the north of Queensland is fairness of representation. I ask the government to take the same view and finally take action to support the Family Court in Townsville.