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Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System
08/07/2020
Improvements in family law proceedings

BEDLOE, Mr Jonathan Robert, Executive Officer, Men's Resources Tasmania

Evidence was taken via teleconference

Committee met at 12:03

CHAIR ( Mr Andrews ): I declare open the eighth public hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System. This is a public hearing, and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made. The audio of the hearing is being streamed live via the web, which can be found at www.aph.gov.au. I now welcome Mr Jonathan Bedloe from Men's Resources Tasmania via teleconference. You've lodged submission No. 586 with the committee. Are there any amendments or additions to that submission?

Mr Bedloe : No, I'm happy for it to stand as is. I've had a couple more submissions to the survey we carried out, but they just confirm what we've already submitted.

CHAIR: Thank you. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and giving evidence to parliamentary committees has been provided to you as part of your invitation to appear. Mr Bedloe, I therefore invite you to make some opening comments.

Mr Bedloe : Men's Resources Tasmania is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the family law inquiry and to be able to share a few brief insights into the experiences of some men. In my personal experience, I regularly meet men who share experiences of losing access to children for extended periods of time and complain of having to fight for their children, the right to see their children and the right of the children to have meaningful contact with their father. When this inquiry was announced, I thought it was something our organisation could in some small way try and provide a way for some of those stories to be heard. We heard from a total of 22 men, all bar one of whom have had direct experience as separating fathers. The other works with such men. Men's Resources Tasmania is a small not-for-profit organisation working to grow support for improving the health and lives of men and boys. We are unfunded and almost completely run by volunteers. This work happens off the side of mostly my desk. While our survey was not a rigorous academic piece of research, it briefly captured some of the experiences shared by the men, one of whom I personally know. Children too often are the worst affected by the breakdown of relationships. While many such breakdowns are resolved relatively amicably, there are times when the courts are required to make such determinations. In our experience and understanding, it is not uncommon for men to experience a system that's biased against them and the relationship their children want with them. Thanks for the opportunity.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Bedloe. I will lead off the questions and then go to my colleagues. One of your recommendations is for improved information support for men and another for more information about family violence with male victims. Could you expand on how you think that information should be provided and when it should be provided. Is it something that should be provided generally, not necessarily specifically in the context of the family law system, or both? I'm just looking for ideas.

Mr Bedloe : Generally speaking, I think there is a lack of resources and support for men when they're travelling difficult paths, not just in the family law system. There is a fairly substantial conversation, I suppose, going on at the moment around suicide prevention and male suicide prevention. Through that discussion and other forums there's a fairly broad recognition in the health sector, at least in the men's health sector, that there is a lack of support and resources for men and places for them to go where they can take up the offers of support. That's not to say that there isn't support out there, but a lot of the time it's not very male friendly and not conducive to the way they might want to engage. Part of our work is very much trying to challenge services and organisations to think differently about how they work with men, rather than challenging men to change how they choose to seek support—getting them to talk more, and all that sort of thing.

CHAIR: Does your organisation provide resources itself?

Mr Bedloe : We do. We have one main resource called The Blokes' Book . It is a fairly informal booklet, which contains contacts and organisations to talk to but also a few little anecdotal stories. It's presented in a very male-friendly way. It's been taken up by a lot of blue-collar-sector organisations. It tries to be something that appeals to men and something that they are willing to pick up and explore.

CHAIR: I take it from what you've said there that it is your experience that the style of material and maybe even the sort of language used in the material can be more attractive to men if it's presented in a certain way versus other ways.

Mr Bedloe : Yes, I think so. It's not necessarily that more generic materials aren't trying to appeal to men; it's just that often they don't. Particularly in the health sector it can be female dominated, in terms of the workers. It's with all the best of intentions—it's nothing against female workers, and of course they can be quite competent—but it can tend to lead to certain mindsets and ways of viewing help-seeking and that sort of thing. In our experience, when there's a stronger male perspective shared in those sorts of organisations or workplaces, even with marketing materials and those sorts of thing, it can change the flavour and help to make it more male friendly.

CHAIR: I will go to Senator Hanson.

Senator HANSON: Thanks for your submission, Mr Bedloe, and it's good to hear from Men's Resources Tasmania. You said that you're unfunded. Have you applied for any government grants for funding to help your association?

Mr Bedloe : We've put in a few applications, and we did get some funding from a Tasmanian non-government funding organisation called the Tasmanian Community Fund. They helped fund our original version of The Blokes' Book . We've recently received other grants for a reprint of that book and also for another book, which will be focused on dads. But those have been through non-government sources.

Senator HANSON: So most of what you're doing is through volunteers. Men have gone through a stressful time to do with the family law courts and because they don't get to see their children. What sort of counselling do they get? What assistance do they get?

Mr Bedloe : We don't provide a service as such ourselves. We have a phone number that people can call us on, but we haven't really promoted that. We haven't tried to be a service provider as such. We provide a few resources, a website and The Blokes' Book . We work more in the space of working with other organisations to try and change their practice and contribute submissions to inquiries and things like that. We are looking to become more service-facing and to work more directly with men and boys, but we are still in that process.

Senator HANSON: Do you believe there are enough services provided in Tasmania for the support of men?

Mr Bedloe : There are lots of services. There are some which do support men well and then there are others that don't. In my experience, there have been a number of people who've sought assistance from Relationships Australia, being one of the major ones down here, and have felt that they've had unfair treatment through that organisation. Even things like in the waiting room at one of their offices there's a painting which is very much telling a story of male violence against women—an Aboriginal dreaming story. They felt intimidated or put off by that or felt sided against, I guess, and they felt that that continued on in the counselling room. I've heard a couple of stories like that. I don't know enough about the overall services that Relationships Australia provide—

Senator HANSON: Why I asked this question is that in your submission it says:

In Australia, our services and support systems are generally good at supporting women, and this is a good thing. The same cannot be said about our support for men. We believe that the same support should also be extended to men.

Do you stand by your statement?

Mr Bedloe : Yes. The main thing would be what I was talking about before in terms of male-friendly services. I think there is more that we can do. An example of a good service, which is more oriented towards rural areas in Tasmania, is Rural Alive and Well. It has a lot of counsellors who meet men where they are, out in the paddocks or in rural communities. There's an appeal to that. I don't think quite the same thing happens in metropolitan and city areas. There are other more generic services.

Senator HANSON: In your submission, you've put out a graph. You asked questions of men. Basically, you've got a little above 15 per cent—probably 16 or 17 per cent—saying that they spend little or no time with their kids. Why is that?

Mr Bedloe : What they said through their survey completion is that the courts have stopped that. It's been through—

Senator HANSON: Did they expand on it? Was it because of their abusive behaviour? What was the reason? In your survey, did they disclose why, more precisely?

Mr Bedloe : The reasons they gave were that their ex-partner fought them and that the court processes and systems have, in their experience, been biased against them.

Senator HANSON: In the survey, the question was: 'I am happy with the amount of time I get to spend with my kids.' Just over 70 per cent said, 'No.' Do the men feel they're being unfairly treated in spending a reasonable amount of time with their children?

Mr Bedloe : That would seem to be the case from what they have said, certainly in the other comments they contributed to the submission. Yes. For Men's Resources Tasmania and from the work that we do, our sense is that the system and society, generally speaking, tend to see men as more of the problem in these things rather than part of the solution and sometimes make assumptions that men aren't actually interested in being fathers and are more interested in being the breadwinners. I'm sure that's the case some of the time, but in our experience most men, whilst they may value their role as a breadwinner and see that it has benefits, overwhelmingly want to be fathers; they want to play their role to the best of their ability and be good dads. I'm sure most of them would acknowledge that sometimes they make mistakes but they are doing the best they can.

Senator HANSON: Would you say that, because they don't get to see their children, spend some quality time with them and watch them grow up, it's actually affects men's health and stress, even to the point where we have a higher rate of suicide by men?

Mr Bedloe : I think the higher rate of suicide is a mix of complex issues. It's much more than just about how much they see their children. But, certainly if they have gone through family law situations, we know from other organisations and studies that family breakdown is a risk factor for men in terms of suicide, particularly in the early stages after family breakdown. I'm not sure that parents beyond break-up have put in a submission—they probably have—but their anecdotal evidence shows quite strongly that, when people engage with that organisation, they are at a high risk of suicide. They contemplate seriously and, within a few weeks of getting a bit of support through that organisation, they find a sense of relief in the situation, feel a bit more supported and know that they are not alone. The suicide risk does reduce.

Senator HANSON: You mentioned Relationships Australia. Have you had much to do with them or have you heard things through your men's groups and people that you talk to? What is the general feeling about Relationships Australia and the service they provide to men?

Mr Bedloe : It's mixed. Tassie is a small place. I know many people who have done work or still work for Relationships Australia. I think they do lots of really good work. But there are stories. I've spoken to individuals who've said they've not been happy with the service they have received and they have felt like the councillor or mediator they had been working with had very much taken sides against them.

Senator HANSON: One last question. You made the comment in your opening statement that children are worst affected. Would you like to expand on that? Why are they?

Mr Bedloe : Fathers have a big role to play, as I'm sure most of us would agree and understand. I'm sure there are cases where men have acted inappropriately and have been violent towards children and/or towards their partner. Having contact between children and their fathers may not be the best outcome. Overwhelmingly, a father's involvement in the lives of their children is a very positive thing. It leads to good outcomes for the children, it leads to increased confidence, it leads to reduced drug and alcohol abuse later in life and leads to better schooling outcomes. There is evidence around these things. When we put the brakes on a relationship between a father and their children for whatever reason, there are potentially significant consequences for the children.

Senator HANSON: Mr Bedloe, I hear what you're seeing. The fact is that, if there's abuse towards the children and domestic violence, they should not see the children, but in the cases of some of your clients, the men, they have faced domestic violence and some mothers have been violent towards their children, yet they don't tend to lose their children as much as men do. Is that correct?

Mr Bedloe : That's what's come through in our survey and certainly in some of the stories that we've heard. I have actually witnessed myself not physical abuse but certainly verbally abusive behaviour about the other person, in talking about the person and how he was behaving. It was pretty unstable behaviour demonstrated by the mother and it was not replicated by the father. He would not speak badly about her, whereas she was full of vitriol about him. Whilst he was going through a pretty bad time—he is known as 'Malcolm' in the submission—he's a well-respected person who's worked hard for his situation, his life and his children of course. So, yes, there are situations where women are perpetrators of family violence at various levels. Our system around family violence isn't really catering very well where male victims occur. We've got a system which, from my understanding, tends to take a feminist theory view. Feminist theories are useful and have lots to offer us, but that is only one theory. Part of our gendered view in society actually lacks male voices and alternative perspectives. It would do us well in a number of ways if we actually expanded our views.

Senator HANSON: In your opinion from listening to people, you think we have a biased system?

Mr Bedloe : I can't say that it's always biased, but there are clearly examples of where it does happen.

Senator HANSON: Thank you very much, Mr Bedloe. Thank you, Chair.

Ms STEGGALL: Approximately how many men go through your service per year?

Mr Bedloe : We don't run a service. We're not a service organisation. This survey was put out publicly for people to fill out and we just promoted it, mostly through our networks. We did a very tiny amount of advertising through Facebook. It was open for only a very short period of time. Overall, we got 22 submissions. Ten of those were from Tasmania, six were from Victoria and the rest were from around the country.

Ms STEGGALL: I would like to get an idea of the proportion of men who are accessing your information on a yearly basis? Do you get 500 a year? I appreciate that you are not a service, but how many men get information from you? I would like to understand the percentage of the dissatisfied parties versus how many may have accessed your services but had not felt compelled to respond to the survey?

Mr Bedloe : I can tell you that our newsletter goes out to about 250 people. We have about 350 followers on Facebook. Our survey would have gone out through those networks. Obviously they may have been passed on from there. A lot of the people, particularly those on our newsletter, are actually people working with men, rather than men in the general public. So we get them to pass on information and surveys. My sense is that we're not talking large numbers in any way. I know that only a small proportion of people who go through separation end up in Family Courts anyway. Then, within that number, I couldn't tell you a percentage, but I am sure it is pretty low. But, in a sense, it doesn't matter how low it is. The issue is around improving support from men and boys generally.

Ms STEGGALL: Do you have any feeling for how many have applied for and/or been successful in accessing legal aid as they went through the separation process?

Mr Bedloe : No, I don't have any of those sorts of figures. But what I can say is that's been pleasing to see, in the last year or so, a new service established—Anglicare down here have the contract—which is around supporting men who are in the Family Court system. I think it's where they might have allegations of family violence against them. I'm not sure if that's the parameters, but it is a male-oriented service, or they are appealing to men and trying to meet men where they're at. So it's been good to see that come out in the last few months.

Ms STEGGALL: It is always incredibly difficult during separation with children having to spend time and reside in two places. Is there much evidence, through your service, of changing attitudes or increasing numbers of men willing to take parental leave from their employment while they are still in relationships?

Mr Bedloe : Again, I don't have evidence around that sort of information. That's certainly an area that we're interested in. When we do presentations and things for workplaces, we share information about the low level of parental leave taken by dads and encourage people to explore those options.

Ms STEGGALL: Do you think that maybe plays a part in the perception of the role of the carer? You talked about the value of the role of the breadwinner versus the value of the role of the carer. Does the difficulty start at the point of separation or does it actually start before that in how the system values the role?

Mr Bedloe : I think it starts before that. We haven't really encouraged dads to take up parental leave in a systemic way. It is probably something which is becoming a bit more acceptable in the public service, but many industries probably wouldn't even have a paternity leave policy, let alone have it running successfully. Even those that do have a paternity leave policy, it tends to be fairly minimal and very close to the birth of the child, and doesn't extend further into the new life of the child. We know that other places overseas—for example, Finland—have very generous paternity leave activities. It is not so much forced but there are substantial amounts of leave given—10 weeks or more. I think it is something like 20 weeks given to both parents and, if only one takes their 10 and the other doesn't take their 10, it's given up. So you can't have one partner take all of it; it has to be shared. We don't have anything like that sort of regime. So the system doesn't really encourage that father involvement to the level that we think it could. We think that a system that did encourage father involvement would lead to really good benefits for fathers and children.

Ms STEGGALL: Did any of the men in your survey discuss support from their workplace in terms of needing flexibility as they went through, for example, the Family Court system? One of the factors through the Family Law Act is, of course, a person's capacity to care for the children, depending on employment and flexibility. Does the issue of availability to care and how workforces are flexible or not for men versus women?

Mr Bedloe : No, it hasn't really come up. We haven't asked questions directed at that sort of information, and it hasn't really come up incidentally.

Ms STEGGALL: That is the perceived bias. It's interesting what you described in terms of images around a waiting room and maybe the gender of people working in the sector. So maybe more encouragement for men to take that up as a profession would be of assistance, in the same way as women can be less intimidating for women. So that's quite interesting. In terms of the bias you described, I guess my difficulty with it is that people dissatisfied with their outcome tend to say it's bias, but actually trying to pin it down to what factually happened that can point to a bias is the harder part. Do you have any specific examples?

Mr Bedloe : Several of them have talked about stories of feeling like the judge has made decisions against them and didn't admit or consider evidence that they may have had to support their case. There was one or two stories of people actually having video evidence of the abusive behaviour by a partner and it not being viewed and observed and taken into consideration. So, yes, there are a couple of stories like that included.

Ms STEGGALL: But, for it to be bias, it would be that if certain evidence was available and was accepted from a woman but that same evidence from a man wasn't. Was it the case that it was evidence that wasn't accepted, but there was no similar evidence on the other side available? There are a lot of rules around admission of video evidence, for example. Or was there a sense that men had to reach a higher standard of proof than women had to? I am just trying to understand it a little bit more.

Mr Bedloe : There was a sense that men had to reach a higher standard of proof. There was one story of a man who had tried to share his story through the court, and some parts of it weren't being heard or accepted for some reason. There were other cases in the court that day where women had asked for the same sort of thing and had been granted those things, where he hadn't been.

Ms STEGGALL: So, it's anecdotal, really?

Mr Bedloe : It is just going on his word and what he's told us, yes.

Ms STEGGALL: As an organisation, have you tried to reach out to the court in Tasmania to understand a little bit more their statistics and how they're operating?

Mr Bedloe : No. We're pretty small. I'm paid one day a week to work with the organisation. It's not really our central focus. We're more interested in a broader look at the health and lives of men and boys. We don't go to that level.

Ms STEGGALL: Okay. Thank you very much.

Dr ALY: Mr Bedloe, thank you so much for your submission. I think you raised some really interesting points with regard to support for men and boys. I have to say at outset that I wholeheartedly agree with you that there should be more support for men and boys, and I'm very interested in your argument for a gendered, inclusive approach that speaks to men and boys in ways that are appropriate for them. How do we do that? You've made some broad recommendations in your submission and you have some experience in this. In your mind, what are the biggest challenges with that, and what do we need more of in terms of communicating and getting men and boys, particularly men, to talk about these issues and to support them through these issues?

Mr Bedloe : I think one of the main things is to create forums where men can share their stories and not be judged. I think a lot of the time men who have shared their stories or are willing to share their stories find themselves being judged. There have been some studies recently to show that a lot of men who have told their stories in counselling sessions or other forums have regretted doing that because of the reception they've received. The Men's Referral Service in Victoria is a service which is supposed to be a go-to point for men who are worried about their own use of violence but also a reference point for men who want to talk about their own experiences as a victim of violence. There's quite a bit of commentary in the men's sector that men who call as victims at the start end up being categorised as perpetrators. Whilst, again, it's a very, very complex area, I think there's a real problem when, after somebody rings up expressing concern about their experience as a victim, the conversation leads to exploring their perpetration of violence. Even though they may have, if they're not validating their experience then we risk alienating them and potentially becoming part of the ongoing forms of violence against them. That's one area where I think we need to value and validate the stories we hear from men.

Dr ALY: In your submission, you mentioned several times the feminist perspective and feminist approaches. I have to say that my concern with that is that the conversation then only comes up at the ideological level of feminism and anti-feminism. We've seen a lot of that through the course of this inquiry where men's issues and talking about men's issues tend to be couched as anti-feminist. Is that your experience as well? Would you agree with me that we need to get past that in order to have more practical solutions?

Mr Bedloe : Yes, I do agree with you that we need to get past that. I agree that it often does get turned into a feminist versus anti-feminist discussion, and it's not helpful. I think that there is a lot of validity in the feminist area. There have been lots of good things to come out of feminism. There are lots of benefits for everyone in feminism. However, the challenge we have is that, if we stay too focused on one explanation for how things work, we risk missing some of the point. A lot of men do feel very alienated by feminist theory and feminist approaches, for good or bad reasons. Where I'm coming from is to say that we don't have to discount feminist theory to explore the idea that there may be other areas and other ways of looking at things. Most things are far more complex than putting them down to one theory.

Dr ALY: You talked about moving into service provision. Could you give us an idea of what that might look like. If your organisation were to move into that space, what would it look like?

Mr Bedloe : Initially, we're just about trying to connect more with men, getting into spaces where men are, supporting them to connect with their mates and creating that healthy culture amongst men where they're supporting each other, because we think that's a powerful way for support beyond professional services. If we were running men's groups, some of which happen through professional services but probably most of which tend to happen in informal setting and through other voluntary organisations—we certainly believe that there's a lot of power in those groups. Lots of good things come out of them. If we can find ways to get men into them, which is not always easy, our experience is that generally men who attend them get heaps out of them and find them very beneficial. But there is a lot of stigma about attending men's groups. It's not necessarily an easy thing. It's often better if it is done at the right time. Timing is an important thing. We would be looking to grow support for men's groups. We'd love to be able to offer a more direct men's support service, but we don't want staff competing with all of the other major services out there. We'd rather be part of training and support for those organisations to change their practice and adapt their practice—for example, things like counselling sessions. Let's get away from talking across the coffee table. Let's get out and have a walk and get out into nature. We know that men work side by side really well. The Men's Shed movement is built on that premise. Just adapting our models of counselling would be one thing that would be very beneficial.

Dr ALY: That's a really, really practical suggestion and one that could be quite effective in engaging men.

Mr Bedloe : Yes.

Dr ALY: Thank you so much for your contribution.

CHAIR: Mr Bedloe, thank you very much for your submission and thank you for discussing it with us today. We appreciated that.

Mr Bedloe : Thanks for the opportunity.

CHAIR: Thank you.