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Thursday, 12 November 1959

Mr FAIRHALL (Paterson) .- With some reservations I consider the bill to be a praiseworthy effort to achieve uniformity in a field where lack of uniformity can easily create selective hardship.

The Attorney-General (Sir Garfield Barwick) is to be complimented on his recognition of the great need for the provision - which has been made in the bill - to support marriage guidance and to encourage the salvaging of marriages that are not irretrievably broken. Beyond that, however, the way is not so clear.

I think that the community can be divided, in general terms, into two groups in relation to this matter. There will be those firmly grounded in the Christian belief that marriage is ordained of God for the spiritual welfare of humanity; that marriage admits of no dissolution; that the words of the marriage vows must be taken literally; that marriages will endure for better or worse, through sickness or health, until death shall intervene. The provisions of the bill, even should they become law, will not change the beliefs of those people. As they do now, they will continue to accept divorce as a means of regularizing a separation; but they will not accept divorce as clearing the road to remarriage. Of course, the people in this group will maintain that when marriage breaks up the injured parties must find their consolation in their spiritual faith.

On the other hand, there is increasing acceptance throughout the community of the idea of divorce. There is, unhappily, a decreasing consciousness of the spiritual nature of marriage. The church wedding has become something of the " done " thing. The marriage contract becomes increasingly merely a civil contract. That expresses the outlook of those in the second group. Of course, between those two groups there are infinite shades of opinion. As far as members of the House are concerned, divorce exists. It is in being, and we find ourselves obliged to legislate on divorce mainly as a civil matter, but one with inescapable spiritual overtures. The emphasis placed on the bill's provisions in regard to marriage guidance and reconciliation in the speeches made by the Attorney-General and other honorable members, and indeed in general public discussion of the bill, shows a public appreciation of the fact, so well stated by the Attorney-General, that the prevalence of broken marriages does threaten our strength and imperil our future. It also underlines, I believe, our obligation to strengthen the permanence of the marriage tie. We have a very great responsibility in dealing with this angle, particularly when there is a proposal to widen the grounds for divorce and so make it easier. Uniformity within the context of this bill is a very good thing but I do not believe it should necessarily be achieved by widening the grounds for divorce. But these comments are best delayed until the committee stage.

Some general comment has been made that the churches - I use the term in its broadest meaning as applying to the section of Christian thought which believes in the indissolubility of marriage - reject divorce for the purpose of re-marriage and therefore they could not express any valid views on the grounds for divorce or on this bill generally. But I think that we have to recognize that the church retains a great responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the great multitude of people, many of whom may be on the outskirts of religious practice. Therefore the church is obliged - indeed it must put forward an effort - to see that widening divorce possibilities do not become stumbling blocks before the adherents to their particular faith.

As the honorable member for Mitchell (Mr. Wheeler) has pointed out, this is the first venture of the Commonwealth Government into the field of divorce, and when the matter has been dealt with it is unlikely that there will be any review of the provisions of this legislation. Therefore, there is no room for an experimental approach to this measure. We want to be certain, before we enshrine in perhaps unchangeable legislation any provision which may make divorce easy.

I conclude by expressing the hope that the secular aspects of this matter will not obscure the higher values of marriage, deeprooted in the spiritual conscience of the people. I hope also that the voice of the Church, maintaining divine law, will not be drowned out by the noise of lawyers extolling the virtues of their own legal creation.

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