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Thursday, 28 February 1985
Page: 306

Senator HAINES(11.12) —The Bill now before the Senate is strangely entitled Marriage Amendment Bill 1985. Fortunately, on the first page of the Bill the Government makes it clear that it seeks to amend the Marriage Act 1961 and not in some way to amend marriage. I assure those people who saw the Bill on the Notice Paper today that, notwithstanding the number of amendments through which marriage has gone in the last few years-some for the better and some not so good-the Government is not planning on unilaterally amending the institution of marriage, although in some of its divorce law reform areas perhaps it is not encouraging the stability of marriage as much as it could. Notwithstanding its title the main purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect in Australia to the Hague Convention on Celebration and Recognition of the Validity of Marriage 1976 which, as Senator Durack pointed out, was signed by Australia by the then Liberal Government in 1980. To that extent, it has multipartisan support. The Bill proposes amendment to the Act dealing with the legitimation of children; the period within which a notice of intended marriage can be received; the extension of the operation of the legitimation provisions to certain other countries; and the extension of the concept of pre-marital education to encompass the concept of marriage education. I shall have more to say on that aspect in a moment.

The primary objectives of the Bill are worthy of support in that they give statutory recognition to a situation which has existed in practice for some years in relation to the celebration of marriage in Australia. In the case of recognition of the validity of marriages, the Bill follows the obligations imposed by the Hague Convention by recognising marriages that are validly celebrated under the law of the place of celebration. There are four exceptions to these rules of recognition, and they reflect existing laws in Australia.

Other aspects of the Bill give rise to concern, however. They tend to relate to omissions rather than to what is contained in the Bill. The Marriage Act 1961 makes provision for pre-marital education, a matter to which no one should object. Grants can be made to approved organisations; voluntary organisations can apply to the Attorney-General for approval; marriage counselling organisations approved under section 12 of the Family Law Act are deemed to be approved under the Marriage Act; and organisations receiving grants are required to furnish reports and financial statements. All that is fine as far as it goes. In essence, the amendments contained in the present Bill broaden the concept of 'pre-marital education' by altering the words of the relevant sections.

The Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) in his second reading speech described this change as part of the Government's further support for education for marriage and family life, as recommended by the Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act. I was therefore rather puzzled to read in the explanatory memorandum, and to see reflected in the Minister's own remarks, that the Bill has no financial implications. Looking at the total picture of pre-marital and marital education in Australia, it is clear that inadequate funding is a major problem. I cannot understand how one can extend support for funding without its having any financial implications. Indeed, one aspect of this Bill should have been to extend that funding in such a way and to such an extent that there were financial implications to the Bill, so that there were sufficient financial provisions for the extension of pre-marital education to be of any value in the community. Looking at the total picture of pre-marital and marital education in this country is a pretty dreary occupation. There is not adequate funding, adequate counselling or an adequate education campaign. Australia does not really have an adequate commitment from governments to the institution of marriage and its continuation. If the amendments are to have no financial implications, as the Minister suggests, it would seem that funding inadequacies of previous governments will not be rectified by this Government.

The Joint Select Committee, whose recommendation the Government claims to be following, urged greater commitment to education for marriage and family life as a means of stabilising marriage and fostering the family. I would have thought that was a matter to which most honourable senators would have been devoted. It seems strange that the Government by this Bill and in other actions is doing nothing to pursue this objective. I grant that the availability of human relationship courses in schools has improved somewhat in recent years-that is true in most States of Australia, with one notable exception-but one still hears constant and unwarranted attacks on these courses from people who have not gone beyond a token investigation of what the courses contain. Sometimes, to my sorrow, such attacks have come from members of Federal Parliament. The courses are inaccurately characterised as dealing solely with sex or promoting values which are unacceptable, or leaving children vulnerable to the sexual predilections and idiosyncrasies of whoever is conducting the course. With an appropriate course, that should no more be true of human relations courses than it is true of maths, physics, chemistry or English courses.

Human relationship courses do not necessarily promote deviant attitudes. They may promote things which perhaps some parents do not want promoted or feel uneasy about promoting themselves, such as the need for mutual respect between parents and a respect between parents and children, as well as the need for knowledge of human and sexual relationships on the part of people entering marriage. I repeat that the courses are not set up to promote deviant values or simply to talk about sex. It seems a shame that the development of human relationship courses in schools has not been promoted more by this Government and by some State governments than it has, if for no other reason than that the profound social changes which have been a feature of Western society in the past 20 years have left young people inadequately prepared for the challenges of modern life and marriage. I would suggest that the media, the advertising agencies and so on have some responsibility to bear in this regard since they certainly promote a rather strange attitude of what modern life, marriage and human relationships, and the rights and responsibilities inherent in all those, entail.

Educational programs must be appropriate to the contemporary situation. Well constructed human relationships courses are designed to be so, notwithstanding, as I said a moment ago, hysterical attacks to the contrary. However, they would be neither well constructed nor appropriate if they concentrated solely on the issues of sex, as these attackers suggest they do. Those courses go well beyond that. Nor should they be seen as derogating from the role of parents as primary educators of their children in the area of personal growth, but they can play a significant preventative and remedial role in developing personal and economic skills for autonomy and survival. I think we have to remember, and I speak as a parent, that we are not all capable of explaining these intricacies to our children. There are plenty of dreadful parents out there. How can we expect them to pass on to the children they are bringing into this world skills which they do not have. The Government should do more to support the continuation and expansion of these courses and to reject the complaints and claims of those who attack them if it really is committed to the objectives it says it is committed to in this legislation.

The second area where the Government's commitment is less than it claims is in that of pre-marital and marriage counselling. The importance of the function of counselling, as indeed with the function of education, cannot be overestimated. Preparing couples for marriage is vital, as is the availability of counselling services in the period immediately after marriage. It is objectionable to me, as it is objectionable to a large number of other people, that the main funding for marriage counselling goes into the last resort counselling area, where marriages have reached the point of no return or are so close to it that no amount of counselling is going to resurrect the marriages. Counselling has had substantial success, where intervention in a troubled marriage occurs early enough, but little enough is heard about the availability of these courses and little enough funding is put into them to make them viable concerns available to all those people who need them when they need them.

Even in the unfortunate circumstances where a marriage has broken down completely, supportive services during divorce and counselling afterwards can be beneficial both to the couple and any children who may be involved if such services are sufficiently available. Despite the obvious value of such services, funding is still inadequate. The Family Court counselling section is seriously understaffed, and grants to other organisations need to be increased markedly. Notwithstanding this, the Minister says that the Bill has no financial implications, and I find that horrendous. The incompatibility between this statement and the need for more funding is clear. It seems that the conclusions drawn by the Institute of Family Studies in its 1983-84 annual report are correct. At page 36 of that report it states:

The low priority given to families in the policy development area has become increasingly clear to the Institute . . . it appears to be the case that everyone espouses the rhetoric of support for families but there is little concern with examining the family impact of policy changes.

I recall getting into some considerable trouble in the middle of last year when I tried to draw attention to the difference between actions and rhetoric in attitudes to marriage.

A second aspect of this Bill which raises concern is the amendment dealing with State and Territory laws governing the status of children born as a result of AID or IVF procedures. This matter has already been raised by Senator Durack, and I echo some of the concerns that he raised. The amendment makes clear that this Parliament does not intend to affect the validity or effect of State and Territory laws dealing with the parentage of these children. However, it is worth noting that the recent rapid advances in the area, in particular of in vitro fertilisation, give rise to serious ethical, medical and social issues. They are issues which this Parliament cannot afford to ignore. So far none of these has been addressed adequately; yet substantial funds have been injected for further research in this area.

I am certainly not objecting to the sections of this Bill which move to protect the status of children born in these circumstances. Neither, I am sure, was Senator Durack. It is important to reiterate that the broader issues have to be addressed as a matter of urgency and, a slowing down of developments in the meantime, I would suggest is desirable. We cannot allow technology and scientific developments to run away from us, to get to a point where legislative intervention is almost impossible to be effective.

Senator Peter Baume —It may not be possible to slow it down, but that may make your plea even more urgent.

Senator HAINES —I would agree. I thank the honourable senator for his support in this area. Let me repeat what I said at the beginning. The Democrats have no real objections to the contents of this Bill. However, what we do question is the strength of this Government's commitment and the previous Government's commitment to stable marriages and to helping couples, both before and after marriage, come to terms with the rights and responsibilities inherent in the marital, and indeed in the parental, relationship. So far what is happening, and has been increasingly happening in recent years, is that young people entering marriage and parenthood are being battered by a series of social myths which have absolutely no relevance to the life that they are embarking on. Marriage is still seen as some romantically clouded institution. Attitudes to women within marriage still need to be questioned. Women are still told that their ultimate aim in life is to bring up beautiful babies and if they do not manage that then there is something wrong with them. As a consequence, the guilt and stress that are placed on these women is leading to an increasing number of abused children and an increasing strain on marriages.

I think it is fair to say that, like a lot of people 20 years ago, when I went into a marital relationship I knew precious little about what was in front of me. My husband and I went into our marriage with the same attitude as we had to employment. It was something which you worked at, which should develop with you, which allowed your partner to develop with you and which was an equal relationship and one which was growing and developing all the time. The injection of a couple of children into that marriage only made it something that was more worth while to work at and to continue with. While I acknowledge that not everybody is in our fortunate position, that not everybody is able to make their way through what is a rather rocky institution, I believe that governments have the responsibility to offer to the young people of today, and indeed to their parents where necessary, every possible opportunity to remain within an institution which I believe is one of the most productive there is.