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Wednesday, 19 October 1983
Page: 1958

Mr NEWMAN(6.17) —I support the amendment moved by the honourable member for Mitchell (Mr Cadman). The reasons the honourable member for Mitchell has moved this amendment have been put very forcibly by him in his address to the Committee. I just add a few further points to the central point that he has been making-that he wants to see that families that have broken up or separated have a chance to come together to save the marriage and, in particular, to save the position of children. That will be done by having a breathing space of 12 months between their decision to separate and their decision on whether to proceed to a permanent dissolution. The honourable member has put the case-he has put the case very well as far as I am concerned-that in that breathing space they will be able to take advantage of expert counselling before taking the final step to divorce. There would be 12 months or whatever between the time that they take the counselling and the time they decide whether to take that final step to divorce.

I turn to the additional points I would like to make. As was said in the other place when this legislation was being debated-I agree with this and other members have said it in the debate on this Bill that took place before this Committee stage-the bulk of the amendments to the Family Law Act that we are looking at are designed, as far as I can see, to do two things: First of all, they concentrate on the post-divorce stage to tidy up the problems that exist at that point; secondly, they strengthen the position and the administration of the Family Court of Australia. But they do not concentrate on the very point that the honourable member for Mitchell has been making; that is, strengthening the possibility of reconciliation of families. This is what this amendment is all about-doing something about strengthening the family position.

I now turn to the remarks of the honourable member for Lowe (Mr Maher). I have never before heard such a specious argument. How can he on the one hand use the example of Part III of the Family Law Act 1975-he mentioned section 14 (6) concerning young marriages-and quote the compulsory need for counselling and on the other hand reject this amendment? There is no logic in his argument. But to go further, I could not follow the argument he put. He began by saying that he knows of many parties who were quite happy to separate and live apart but not go to the final stage of dissolution and that they would not like to be dragged in, as he said, to counselling.

That is not suggested by this amendment. It applies only to people who decide that they will proceed to a permanent dissolution. They then have to go through the procedure that the amendment prescribes; that is, they have to decide to notify officially that they are to separate and wait 12 months before they can get to the dissolution stage. At that point the counselling takes place. The honourable member for Mitchell did not suggest compulsorily dragging into the courts people who do not want to go to a dissolution. It is only after they decide to go to a dissolution that the honourable member's amendment would start to operate. I ask the honourable member to read the amendment and not make silly arguments when he obviously does not know what the amendment is about.

The other accusation made by the honourable member for Lowe was that somehow this amendment was hastily drawn together and produced for our consideration. He well knows that that is not the truth of the matter. The honourable member for Mitchell made it quite clear that he was closely following the amendments put by Senator Harradine in the other place. I think the debate over there went for approximately six or eight weeks. Senator Harradine's amendment was considered and debated on many occasions. As I understand it, Senator Harradine's amendment was a central part of the final debate on 7 October. So it is not something that has been brought in here hastily. It is something that 17 or 18 senators saw fit to vote on. I hope honourable members will have read the arguments put in support of the Harradine amendment in the Senate and will have seen that the arguments put up by the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) simply do not hold water.

What were the arguments put up by the Attorney-General in the Senate when this Harradine amendment, or the Cabinet amendment in this place, was being looked at ? There were two. First, he rejected it on the basis of cost and, secondly, he said that compulsory counselling simply was not on. Let us deal with those two points. First of all, this amendment is different from the Harradine amendment in that the honourable member for Mitchell qualified the counselling and other procedures by talking only about marriages in which children are involved. It is quite different from the argument put by Senator Harradine. I think Senator Walters asked whether it could be qualified by talking only about marriages in which children were involved. The Attorney-General said that of the 40,000-odd projected divorces only 60 per cent would involve children.

The first point I make is that it is clear from the Attorney-General's own argument that there would be a reduction of 40 per cent in the number of divorces. I do not know whether that follows in respect of costs, the $26m that he talked about. That is one point. There would be a reduction in the number of divorces to be considered and to operate under this amendment. The second point I raise concerns the comments made by many honourable members about the present cost of divorce to the community. I give the figures again: In 1982 over $717m was paid out in widows pensions, well over half of whom are divorcees, representing a 174 per cent increase since 1975. Another important statistic is this: Almost 70 per cent of recipients of the supporting parents benefits allocation for 1982 were separated wives or de factos, representing a 300 per cent increase since 1975.

In talking about the cost of counselling-whatever it may be from the reduction of $26m-those figures have to be set against the additional allocation of government funds to go into counselling. That is the second point. The third point is this: Senator Teague challenged the Attorney-General's figures. According to the Hansard he said:

I am very surprised at this costing of $26m. I would find it more reasonable if the figure was about one sixth of that. I think that a professional marriage counsellor who charged $100 for even lengthy discussions with a couple who were separated or who were seeking marriage counselling would be of some real assistance.

There are three points about the argument in relation to costing. First, the honourable member's amendment reduces the original costs assessed by the Attorney-General in the Senate when Senator Harradine's amendment was put. Secondly, we should judge it against those costs to the community of widows pensions and supporting parents benefits. Interestingly enough, in the Senate the Attorney-General did not answer the queries raised by Senator Teague. Thirdly, what is the basis of the assessment of $26m for counselling?

I now turn to the second objection put by the Attorney-General, and that concerned compulsory counselling. I have already made one important point. The Attorney-General supports-lauds-the fact that under section 14 (6) of the Act there is compulsory counselling for those persons seeking dissolution after less than two years of marriage. If we can do it in that case, why not do it in this case? The Attorney-General answered that point by putting the case that this great cost, which I have already dealt with, will be some sort of trial. Of course the Attorney-General did not meet the argument when he put that case. For young marriages counselling occurs at the point of dissolution. Of course, this amendment is at the other end of the divorce procedure where people are only considering dissolution and have 12 months to go. That brings me to the next point; that is, that it would appear that when the marriage counselling groups gave their opinions to the Attorney-General this point really was not considered and that they were still looking at the dissolution point. I can only quote Senator Harradine who quoted from page 3 of a report prepared by the Attorney- General's officers. I will come back to that matter and speak again, I hope.