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Thursday, 12 November 1959

Mr WHEELER (Mitchell) .- It is not my intention to discuss the provisions of this bill in detail. I feel that this may be left more appropriately to those who pride themselves on being knowledgeable in the law. I have entered this discussion only because I believe that recent public discussion has taken a turn which, if it does not concern the Government, certainly concerns me as a member of this Parliament. There is no doubt that the legislation provides some welcome social reforms, but it has other aspects which do not meet with general approval. The controversial clause 27 relating to separation is a case in point. My attitude to divorce is that as it affects the individual, it is a close personal matter. It evokes in me a feeling of sorrow and regret that a marriage has not worked out and that the unfortunate couple have not found happiness. Fortunately, the number of people who are involved is not high and, as a consequence, the bill before the House, in its widest application, will have a limited field of operation.

The personal effect of the bill will fall on a relatively small number of people. There has been no public demand for it to. meet an urgent situation. There is no! great public feeling about it as there is, say, about the extension of the means test, an increase in social service benefits and other social reforms of this nature. There has been no great outcry against the proposals as a whole comparable to the feelings that were generated when the recent increases in postal and telephone charges were announced. Those were matters of general concern, but divorce is isolated in effect. Because the people are not vehement in their views, it does not follow, however, that the electorate is indifferent to the measure. On the contrary, there is a concern amongst the people who hope that the Parliament is acting wisely and is doing the right thing. It must not be thought that the electorate is unaware of what is going on. Although divorce is an action that is related to civil proceedings it has, to the average individual including myself, a religious content, and the electorate generally is reluctant to moralize on this subject. Accordingly, they are content to leave expressions of opinion to their religious leaders. It is here that I believe the Government has fallen into error in the manner in which it recently treated the expressed views of two of the largest religious bodies in Australia-the Anglican Church and the Catholic. Church. The views of the leaders of those were spoken on behalf of their followers, and as such they were entitled to more respect. The attitude of the Government may easily generate resentment.

In. my electorate the people say they welcome the improvements submitted in the bill, but their general observation is, " I do. not want to see divorce made easier ". That I believe, expresses the. opinion of most people, and implies a deep, belief in the sanctity qf marriage. That is precisely theclaims that they thought their church leaders were making.

The bill,. Mr. Speaker, was. introduced in the House, on 14th. May last. Often this House is something of a legal cockpit, the principal contenders being the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) and the. Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt).. They are always poised and readied, and do not hesitate to join in the battle royal. But on 14th May last the atmosphere changed, and both sides warmed to the bill. It was a great day for the lawyers. A unison of hosannas from the legal profession proclaimed that the perfect bill had been introduced. Each extolled the virtue of the bill, subtly flattering his own knowledge of the subject, until one wondered to whom the Prime Minister, like Zeus of old, would award the golden apple. I pass lightly over the fact that since then 56 amendments have been made to the bill.

I digress here to ask: What was the origin of the bill? The answer is well known - that the bill grew from the earnest desire of my friend and colleague the honorable member for Balaclava (Mr. Joske) to improve conditions in a sphere of law in which he had specialized. The honorable member for Balaclava is to be commended for his efforts. As a private member he suggested welcome reforms. A private member is quite within his rights in espousing a cause, but I believe that such a cause should be capable of standing on its own feet and being judged on its own merits. Therefore, it seems either a brave or a hazardous action for the Government to take over a private member's bill and give it Government patronage and support, when the bill deals with a subject which in some of its applications is likely to tread heavily on the susceptibilities of a large section of the community. Because of this, members on both sides of the House welcome theannouncement by the Government that the vote on the bill will be on a non-party basis, in that members will be entitled to vote according to, their consciences. I hope that the Government has not changed its mind in that matter, because recent press reports could be interpreted, as indicating that the Government is treating this as a party measure and is prepared to stake its reputation, on it. Accordingly, it might be wise for the Government to re-affirm the non-party character of the bill and to say whether it is to be the subject of a true free vote or of a pressurized " free " vote.

I mentioned earlier that I entered this debate only because public discussion of the bill has taken a turn which,I fear, does not improve the atmosphere. I. am, indeed, concerned that because leaders of the Anglican and Catholic faiths have voiced their doubts about certain sections of the bill it has been said that those religious leaders have not given proper consideration to the matter, and that their capacity to understand human nature is in doubt. As a final dictum it was stated that the bill was in the best interests of the public. In other words, the Commonwealth Parliament is to set itself up as the supreme authority, the complete moralist, in this matter. I wish to make it quite clear that I do not subscribe to those views? Willingly or unwillingly the Parliament has to accept responsibility in this matter. So too, have the Anglican and Catholic faiths and, indeed, church people generally. In my view they are quite capable of assessing and understanding not only the bill, but also have a true knowledge of humanity and human values.

All members of this Parliament from time to time deal with problems of their constituents which are beyond the scope of representations to departments. Where help may rest on spiritual understanding and an appreciation of human relations I have never hesitated, with the constituent's approval, to consult his minister of religion. Within my electorate I have a happy understanding with the clergy - I do not preach and they do not make political speeches. That establishes a mutual respect between me and the clergy for our separate fields of endeavour which, nevertheless, meet on matters of this kind that have a spiritual as well as a political implication.

I do not regard the opinions offered by the church leaders on this bill as political interference. I accept what they have said as prompted by a deep sense or responsibility for the spiritual welfare of their people. This matter is one of far-reaching social reform, and the churches are not only entitled but, in my opinion, obliged, to put forward their views, either in support or in criticism of the bill. There are representatives of this Parliament who are rather jealous of their legal reputations. If the position were reversed, and the church leaders told them, first, that they did not know what they were talking about and,, secondly, that they did not know their law, I imagine that the wigs would be quickly on the green.

A Sydney newspaper recently contested claims that clause 27 would encourage illicit unions. It stated that only experience would demonstrate if this would be so. In other words, the newspaper suggests that the bill should be tried out and, if found wanting, could be altered. That, I suggest, hardly faces up to political reality.

It is significant that this is the first time in 59 years that a Commonwealth Government has interested itself in divorce legislation. The Commonwealth has always regarded such legislation as more properly the domestic responsibility of the States. It is, therefore, a safe prophecy that once this body is buried it is highly improbable that a future government will dig it up. If this measure is approved it will remain untouched for many years to come. That is one of the risks involved, and I expect is the inspiration of the amendment to refer the bill to a select committee. As I have said previously, when the bill was introduced it was hailed as the perfect bill. Since then 56 amendments to it have been made. Does this represent the ultimate in amendment of the bill? I doubt it. But who will be rash enough, once the bill is passed, to suggest further amendments to it in the future? If the bill has imperfections remaining in it when it is passed, it is hardly likely that they will be remedied in our time.

Paragraph (m) of clause 27 of the bill provides for the granting of a divorce by mutual consent after five years. This has been freely discussed and I do not propose to go into further details. Whether honorable members agree or disagree with my colleague the honorable member for Fawkner (Mr. Howson), I think the House as a whole was impressed with the sincerity of his approach to his matter as shown by his address earlier this evening. It is argued that clause 27 (m) is the corner-stone of the bill and that if it is altered the bill will fail in its main purpose. I do not agree with that argument. Briefly, I say, corner-stone or no corner-stone, I do not propose to vote for that clause.

I am surprised that there has not been greater opposition to that portion of the bill which restricts publication of proceedings in divorce courts. In my opinion, one of the greatest bars to divorce is fear of the publicity involved. Public opinion is still the greatest guardian of public behaviour, and if the divorce courts are to work behind a curtain of secrecy, inevitably the effect will be to make divorce more attractive and a more popular solution to marital problems. It will tend also to increase the number of collusive divorces. While the facts may be publicized, collusion brings the fear that some one who reads any false statement may reveal the truth. However, as publicity is reduced so is the fear of discovery, and to many people the risk becomes worth taking. Of course, there is an argument for the suppression of evidence. Many people are disturbed by the way in which unsavoury details are presented for public consumption. However, while there is a public appetite for salacity, some one will find means of satisfying it. If it is not divorce evidence, it will be something else. Unless we are prepared to place a rigid censorship on all published matter - and I hope that this community will never agree to that proposal - the moral tone of the community benefits nothing by closing one particular source of material.

Experience in other fields shows that suppression of information about court proceedings always has undesirable consequences. In all States, children's court cases, for example, are held in camera. There are unanswerable arguments for this policy, yet it is a fact that it is amongst juveniles that crime is increasing - so much so, that child delinquency is among the greatest problems ever of our time. There is little doubt that the absence of publicity for the individuals concerned has been one contributing factor to it. In divorce cases, I feel that the arguments for suppression of the evidence, strong though they be, are outweighed by the arguments against it.

Finally, as one who is concerned with the practical application of politics and government, I still ask myself what compulsion made the Government feel it had to take up this matter of divorce? If we are not striving for uniformity, for uniformity's sake, I wonder if the time and energy devoted to these divorce matters by the House might not have been more fruitfully expended on such social problems as the means test, health, the whole question of thrift and the thriftless and the general welfare of the people, leaving divorce to take its place in the priority of need. Surely consideration of these other important matters would improve the lot of a vastly greater number of people with greater benefit to the Australian community as a whole.

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