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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 846

Mr NEUMANN (8:55 PM) —The Howard government got it wrong on the issue of shared parenting and the protection of children. In 2006, without any social research and in a knee-jerk reaction to the urging of vocal minority groups such as men’s rights groups, the Howard government made sweeping changes to the Family Law Act in parenting matters. By elevating the rights of parents above the need to protect children, the Howard government fettered judicial discretion and created legislative pathways fixated on shared parenting. These changes have been much criticised in three reports: the Family courts violence review by Professor Richard Chisholm AM, Evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms by the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Improving responses to family violence in the family law system by the Family Law Council.

A culture of expectation developed and it was considered worth while for children to continue to have regular contact with a parent, even if it meant exposing that child to abuse, neglect and family violence. Time and again parents felt compelled to agree to contact arrangements for fear of running foul of the friendly parent provisions created by the 2006 changes. The ramifications of terminating all contact between a parent and child can be long term and many, and the task is daunting for any court. But the balance needs to be restored in favour of the protection of children and it will be restored by amendments to the Family Law Act contained in the proposed Family Law Amendment (Family Violence) Bill 2010. The bill was released by the Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland, on 11 November 2010 and public consultation closed on 14 January 2011.

I am pleased to say that 73 per cent of all submissions supported the bill. Seventeen per cent did not support the bill and 10 per cent made no specific comment on the bill but offered information about personal experiences. So the level of interest in this area is significant in the Australian community. The bill incorporates for the first time the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, compelling the court to consider the convention in deciding matters concerning children. It elevates the primary consideration of protecting a child from abuse, neglect and family violence over the benefit of having a meaningful relationship with a parent where there is an inconsistency between those aspirations. It broadens the definition of family violence in tune with community perceptions and understanding to include not just actual or threatened physical or sexual assault but also harassment; emotional manipulation; financial abuse; cultural, familial and friendship isolation; and a range of dominating and controlling behaviours. It expands the protection of children by expanding the definition of abuse and improving obligations on court personnel. ‘Abuse’ now includes for the first time serious psychological harm. The bill imposes obligations on those in family law disputes to give advice to parents in relation to the best interests of the child being the paramount consideration. The friendly parent provisions are revoked, which is a good thing. It means that children will be less exposed to abuse, neglect and family violence. Mandatory cost orders, which in certain circumstances have been a disincentive to the reporting of family violence and child abuse, are removed and immunity from cost orders is afforded to those state and territory child protection authorities which intervene in parenting proceedings.

The reforms will make a difference. Family violence and child abuse are unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. Protection of children should be front and centre in all proceedings in the family law jurisdiction. The balance will be back with this bill. Once again, the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration. That will be the focus of the law. A future free from abuse, neglect and family violence is a real prospect for all Australian children.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is interrupted.