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Wednesday, 22 March 1961

Sir GARFIELD BARWICK (Parramatta) (Attorney-General) .- Mr. Chairman,I think it is just as well to recall what we are trying to do. We are trying to set a statutory minimum age which will fairly work through the whole gamut of personality in the community, and we are trying to do it in Australia. We are not worrying about the historical phases to which the honorable member for Parkes (Mr. Haylen) referred so amusingly. In referring to the document prepared for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, those honorable members who think that the ages should be reduced called attention very pointedly to one of the defects of some of these agencies of the United Nations. They imagine that you can make a common rule for all the peoples of the earth on all matters. That is a proposition which I do not think the majority of members of this committee would accept.

The ladies who went to the meeting of the commission in Buenos Aires last year which the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Whitlam) mentioned were not actually deciding anything. They went to prepare working papers which were to be submitted to the commission this year in Geneva, and those working papers are at present being examined. There were in truth eighteen nations represented at Buenos Aires. The representatives of six of them thought that fifteen should be the minimum age for the marriage of a female, but there was no majority for fifteen. Seeing that they had to submit a figure in the working papers, they kept it low in order, I suppose, to afford greater opportunity to raise the figure when it came to be discussed formally by the commission itself. Even if the commission, which has not yet dealt with the matter, decided to accept fifteen as the minimum age, the issue would have to go before the United Nations General Assembly, and its submission to that body would result only in some sort of recommendation if any motion were carried by the Assembly by the requisite majority. So that the sub-stratum on which was based much of what has been said by some honorable members concerning the proposition contained in clause 1 1 was merely a working paper produced by these ladies at Buenos Aires with no majority for any age and certainly no unanimity. Six out of eighteen representatives in substance said, " We shall put in ' fifteen ' because we must have a figure ".

The honorable member for Bradfield (Mr. Turner) pointed out that economic and climatic conditions, as well as a great number of other considerations, would influence one if one were in New Delhi trying to fix a minimum age for the marriage of Indians, and that the age which one would choose there would probably be very different from that which one would choose in some other places. But this is Australia. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition was bold enough to say that we would not find any recent instance of an age set as high as that which I have suggested. But I remind the committee that in 1956, Western Australia chose the ages of eighteen for males and sixteen for females, and in 1957, South Australia chose eighteen and sixteen. Those are the nearest recent examples that we have in Australia. We must bear in mind that we are not saying what is the desirable age for marriage; indeed, I suppose that none of us who has children would welcome seeing a daughter go off at sixteen. None of us would be very anxious to see our sons take on at eighteen the heavy responsibilities which we want them to discharge honorably.

We have to take a fair figure which will apply right through the community - a figure which will not cause hardship and will not unduly excite young people to think that they can marry at ages at which they are quite immature. These ages of eighteen and sixteen have been set after a good deal of consideration and a good deal of advice and assistance from social workers throughout Australia. I may say, Mr. Chairman, that this bill has had a very wide circulation. The committee will remember that I introduced a bill last May and said that it could rest until the Budget session of last year. Then, after a lot of negotiation with the States and with various people and organizations, I brought in a large sheaf of adjustments designed to meet the criticisms which I thought were valid as they were made to me. This bill has been introduced almost a year after the introduction of that prototype; I have not had one letter or one request from any women's organization in the whole of Australia to alter these minimum ages. Indeed, I think I can fairly say that I have had universal commendation from the women of Australia and their organizations. I think, therefore, that we can fairly put on one side this tentative document prepared by the Commission on the Status of Women to which the Deputy Leader of the Opposition referred.

The committee will remember that this bill contains very liberal provisions as to legitimation. These provisions are probably as wide as they could be made within the power of the Commonwealth. With the existence of these provisions and the adoptive procedures in all the States, which we hope soon to get on a uniform basis, there is no fear of injury to an innocent child who is born out of wedlock. I have forgotten what choice of parents a child offering for adoption has in New South Wales, but I think that there are more than ten applicants for every child. The number is, I think, at least ten, at any rate. So there is no disadvantage in the fact that the parents of a child are unable to marry. If they wish to wait and then marry, they can legitimate the child by their subsequent marriage. In some States, this will be a new provision which will come in by means of this bill.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition said, " You have the consent of the parents there to see that no harm is done ". But, in truth, one of the purposes of setting these minimum ages for marriage is to protect the young against parents, because children under the minimum ages prescribed in this bill often are led into marriage, not because any one thinks marriage will be good for them and not because two young people really want to marry one another, but because prospective grandparents do not want to have a stigma on the family or the family name. The social workers say that these marriages probably cause much more harm than we realize. They say, also, in response to my inquiries, that if a young unmarried girl who finds herself pregnant is asked in the early weeks of the pregnancy whether she would marry, she will say " Yes ", but the experience of the social workers is that, generally speaking, after a few months, she does not want to marry, because she has adjusted herself to face life and what she has done. The child is fully cared for by the legitimation and adoption provisions.

One person can say that the minimum age for marriage ought to be seventeen, and another can say that it ought to be eighteen. In one sense, within a narrow range, one age is as good as another. But I want honorable members to bear in mind that this is a law being made for Australia. In three of the States at present, the minimum ages for marriage are eighteen for males and sixteen for females. I suggest that when you are trying to fix on uniform figures for the whole of Australia and there is some difference of opinion founded on not very much more than an individual's particular idea or fancy, those who want to fix ages below eighteen and sixteen should remember this: We are fixing those figures for three States of the Commonwealth that have expressed their desire to have the minimum ages of eighteen and sixteen. The other three States, on the other hand, have rested on the common law minimum ages of twelve and fourteen. I suppose that nobody in this chamber would wish to support those minimum ages.

I suggest, as the honorable member for Moreton (Mr. Killen) said, that we do not easily convince one another about this, partly because we have preconceptions and partly because some have not gone into the matter as deeply as others have done. But my suggestion to the committee, with great respect, is that the bill as drafted sets minimum ages that are fairly workable in the Australian community. They will cause no hardship and, indeed, they will do a lot of good in deterring early unions of young people.

Amendments negatived.

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