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Wednesday, 18 November 1959

Sir WILFRID KENT HUGHES (Chisholm) . - I support the amendment for several reasons. The first is that no good reason has been given, as far as I can understand, for an alteration to be made in the period at present provided in the legislation of most of the States. I have not heard of any demand - perhaps I am wrong, but it has not come to me - for an alteration of the period of three years. All the States except Tasmania have had the three years' period for a long time. As the honorable member for Lang (Mr. Stewart) has shown, a royal commission which sat for a long time in England investigating the matters we are now discussing, was against shortening the period of three years. Why, therefore, should we now say that the appropriate period is two years? Why not make it one year? I am not at all convinced by what the honorable member for Hume (Mr. Anderson) has said.

Mr Anderson - Why make it three; why not four?

Sir WILFRID KENT HUGHES - Because three years has been the accepted standard for a long time, not only in the six States of Australia, but apparently in England and other places as well. When a royal commission of the composition of that in England, which went into these matters far more fully than we can in discussions in this Parliament, investigates all the pros and cons, takes a lot of evidence and comes to the conclusion that the period of three years should not be altered, I fail to see why we should now reduce it to two years. I ask the Attorney-General to give this matter a little consideration during the suspension for dinner and see whether he can meet the wishes of some honorable members on this point.

This is one of the two, or at the outside, three main objections raised by the Church to the bill, because it seems to make divorce easier, lt has already been pointed out that the lists of divorces published in the daily newspapers, certainly in Melbourne, show that by far the majority are granted on the ground of desertion. If the period of three years has not proved a handicap in the past, I do not see why it should prove a handicap in the future. As T said previously, when many, if not the majority, of the leaders of all the Churches take exception to the alteration of what has been the standard practice, honorable members would be wise to consider something that is not entirely secular. Marriage has a very large religious content for practically everybody in this community. If that is not so, why are there all these Church marriages? Why go through a marriage ceremony and make vows before the altar? This is not entirely a secular matter.

Sitting suspended from 6 to 8 p.m.

Sir WILFRID KENT HUGHES - Mr. Chairman,when the sitting was suspended we were discussing the amendment proposed to clause 27 (b) by the honorable member for Moreton (Mr. Killen). As the bill is framed, clause 27 (b) reduces the period of desertion as a ground for dissolution of marriage from the status quo of three to two years and the honorable member for Moreton has moved an amendment seeking to restore the period of three years, which is now operative in all States except Tasmania. Even though the AttorneyGeneral may feel that he has the numbers to carry paragraph (b), I ask him to look with some leniency on the proposed amendment. So far the honorable gentleman has given no reasons why the time should be reduced from three years to two years.

Mr Bury - That was dealt with by the Attorney-General in his speech last night.

Sir WILFRID KENT HUGHES - Last night the honorable gentleman said that the Government had no desire to make divorce easier. Time and time again in this debate we have been told that divorce is a secular matter and not a religious matter. As I recall his words, the Attorney-General said that the problem for Parliament was a secular one and was a question of deciding what was best for the social and moral welfare of the community as a whole. That principle applied to paragraph (m) of clause 27 and applies equally to paragraph (b).

Dr Evatt - Is that principle disputed? Mr. Gladstone said that 102 years ago.

Sir WILFRID KENT HUGHES - That was the statement. I do not think that we as a Parliament are giving sufficient attention to the fact that all marriages, with the exception of a few that are entered into as civil contracts, have a very large religious content. If I have misinterpreted what the honorable gentleman said, so much the better. I think that the Attorney-General would be wise to take note of the opinions expressed by a majority of church leaders in relation to paragraphs (b) and (m) of clause 27. He should not approach this matter as a barrister pleading a case, where he must win every point. If we continue on that basis perhaps the victory will be a very Pyrrhic one and the casualties that may result are something for us to contemplate.

The amendment proposed by the honorable member for Moreton will not destroy the bill. This proposal to shorten the period of desertion was the subject of a letter that I and other honorable members received from the Anglican bishops. They felt that it was wrong. The amendment, if accepted, will merely continue the practice now in operation in five of the six States. I ask the Attorney-General to give this matter earnest consideration and to agree to the amendment. I am sure that many other honorable members would like to support it and I know that several of them will support it. I ask the honorable gentleman to carefully consider paragraphs (b) and (m) so that the bill may start off with much more goodwill than if it is treated as a secular matter with no religious content.

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