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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18741

Mr BILLSON (5:04 PM) —I commend the member for Cowan for his contribution about Vietnam veterans and indicate my shared interest in the points that he raised. It is long overdue that that matter be resolved. If there is something that I am able to do to assist I undertake to provide that support, member for Cowan. I agree with your remarks entirely.

But that is not why I rise today. I rise today to talk about shared parenting. It has been a topic that has attracted quite a deal of discussion within opinion pages in metropolitan media and I am sure in some of the rural press. I rise today to raise it as a subject because it has been a hot topic of debate and a cause of some aspiration for families in my electorate since the day I was elected in 1996. I would like to put on the record some thoughts about the inquiry that the Prime Minister has instigated and also some encouragement for all people with an experience or an insight or a view to contribute that to that inquiry on this important issue.

Children from separated families deserve in my view not just the financial support of both parents but also the nurturing and mentoring benefits that both parents are willing and able to provide. Government policies and family law should seek to encourage both the cash and the care contribution of non-custodial parents where this is a positive input and where it can support and advance the child's wellbeing, personal happiness and development.

This is my view and a message I presented in a recent address to a conference of the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children. I also strongly welcomed the parliamentary inquiry and encourage that organisation and others with some first-hand experience to have their voices heard and to make sure that their input and their contributions are put before the parliamentary committee. That will make sure that its recommendations are as well informed and as robust as they can be.

There is nothing straightforward about this topic and that is why I urge all interested organisations and individuals with views to make sure that their voices are heard. That will be important in this examination of how we might facilitate the best parental contact with and contribution to the upbringing of children after parents separate.

We value the contribution of parents—all parents—to raising children. Beyond examining how we might work to get the very best contribution from both parents to the raising of children after separation, the parliamentary inquiry will also look at how to maintain the important role of grandparents after family separation. The crucial role of grandparents in the wellbeing of their grandchildren after family breakdown is one I have raised before in this House, and I have referred to many grandparents being the Rock of Gibraltar in many households as the parents find their way and deal with complicated issues that impact on their own parenting ability.

With 14,037 children in the Greater Frankston-Mornington Peninsula region being raised in households with only one of their natural parents and subject to child support arrangements, it is understandable that there is a great deal of interest in this child custody inquiry. This area of policy directly impacts on the parenting, care and access arrangements of 9,481 resident and 8,726 non-resident parents in our region. Through my work I have met countless ex-couples, people from separated relationships, exasperated by the barriers that impede their opportunity to contribute to the upbringing of their children. I have also met partners in subsequent relationships trying to support their partners in their parenting role of children from previous relationships. This is an issue that permeates its way through almost every quarter of our society in every corner of this continent.

I think it is disingenuous to dismiss the depth of concern about the current legal and Family Court arrangements by citing bald statistics about the percentage of cases that end up before the court in defended hearings. It is disingenuous to do that. Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alistair Nicholson, asserts that, with only six per cent of cases ending up before the court, there is little evidence of a problem and certainly no evidence to move away from the current system. I disagree strongly. In his 2 July 2002 opinion piece published in the Adelaide Advertiser Chief Justice Nicholson asserted:

... that many couples sort out differences over their children between themselves and never come near the court system. Most of the remainder—about half—achieve resolution with the assistance of court mediators or external counsellors and solicitors.

It is true that these consensual arrangements tend to favour the mother as the residence parent.

He went on to say:

This has nothing to do with bias, as such, but reflects the fact that before relationship breakdown mothers, more often than fathers, have been the primary carer for the children and many fathers are content that this situation should continue.

He concluded:

Courts have no bias as such.

Really? That is the rhetorical question. It may simply be that the current laws, case precedents, Family Court conventional wisdom and the weighting given to parental role specialisation—as I call it—before separation simply conspire to deny the opportunity to optimise the parenting contribution of both parents. It may be true that only six per cent of cases come before the court as contested hearings, but it is wrong to assume that the 94 per cent that do not represent satisfaction with the arrangement. They may in fact amount to a peace settlement thought to be the best possible outcome in the face of the law as it currently stands.

While the law provides for joint child custody—and I recognise the point that, arguably, the tools to deliver joint child custody are already in place—it is also equally true to say that in less than three per cent of post-separation arrangements this is a way of characterising the care settlement arrangements. Court sanctioned care arrangements tend to simply carry forward the role specialisation in place before a relationship dissolved, with the primary carer continuing in that role and the breadwinner still providing financial support but with a greatly diminished parenting contribution and contact with their kids.

Bettina Arndt, in her 29 July 2003 piece in the Melbourne Age, highlighted the results of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey—known as the HILDA survey—by Yi-Ping Tseng of the Melbourne Institute, which showed a high level of satisfaction amongst women in families where the man is the sole earner or working significantly longer hours than the woman. These arrangements are satisfactory to both parties prior to the marriage dissolving or the relationship ending—and that is not disputed by anybody. What I am putting on the table is: should that be the template by which arrangements are settled beyond the separation? Should it necessarily be the role of the courts and the legal system to perpetuate arrangements arrived at with the consent of both parties in supporting their families? Should that be the basis for moving forward?

In her article, Arndt goes on to explore research that suggests that these arrangements are found to be attractive to women and part of their contentment with the relationship. They were also found to be consistent with the man's aspirations, when compared to the option of reduced hours and a reduction in income. It is a pretty tough choice. Income is a key factor in family wellbeing, and parents understand that. Mothers understand that and fathers understand that. And fathers understand that even though, as Arndt points out, University of New South Wales research suggests that two-thirds of fathers are unhappy about not spending enough time with their families. But these arrangements are entered into consensually by both parents in the interest of the wellbeing of the family and the children.

The dissolving of a relationship that has brought children into the world is a life-changing experience. In my view, the family law system should not simply bully people into accepting past role specialisation arrangements without canvassing more positive cooperative parenting arrangements that are in the children's best interests. Arndt in her article recognises that for many men when a marriage fails it is crunch time. She says:

For it is then the crunch comes and breadwinning fathers lose out badly.

That's the irony. The married men who once were rated most highly by their wives—as partners and fathers—then have their willingness to support their families count against them. When it comes to a battle over custody, men who worked those long hours are least likely to be allowed shared care and usually end up with fortnightly contact. In fact, the divorced father wanting to see more of his children may be required by the Family Court to keep working those long hours to maintain his former family in the manner to which they are accustomed.

My point in raising this is that this inquiry is a great opportunity for positive and constructive input from people with ideas about how to get the best parenting and nurturing contribution from each parent, to the benefit of the children.

Naturally we have to properly protect the minority of children at risk of abuse, neglect and violence. That is unquestioned and no-one is suggesting anything to the contrary. What I would like the parliament to consider when the inquiry's report comes back to this place is: surely optimising the full contribution of both parents is what we should all aspire to? Joint parenting is an aspirational idea that needs to be reality checked against both parties' capacity to deliver, and I encourage everybody to bring forward a positive and constructive contribution. (Time expired)