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Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Page: 773


Senator AYRES (New South Wales) (10:53): When Australian families break down, this place and the system that we deliver for them should be fair and should provide families, mums, dads and kids, with the love and support of a community that's going to provide them with the assistance to get the result that is in the best interests of them and, in particular, the best interests of Australian children. I think what we've seen over the course of the development of these bills, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019 and the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019, and their passage through the parliament and over the course of the last 12 months with this Attorney just establishes that you can go to the best schools in the country, you can have the best education and you can be given the best opportunities in life that any young person could expect, but it doesn't guarantee that you'll come to public life with any measure of empathy, any measure of a capacity for concern and any measure to discharge your responsibilities as the Attorney in the interests of families and, in particular, the interests of children.

The abolition of the Family Court really says two things. Firstly, it is a catastrophe for Australian families and in particular Australian children. Secondly, it will be an enduring symbol of everything that is wrong with this parliament and everything that is wrong with this government. Firstly, it shows us that we've got a government with no plan for the Australian people and no mobilising vision for itself—and nowhere is this more clear than in this area of family law. This party used to claim the dual mantle of progress and conservatism but now stands for nothing. The Prime Minister stands for nothing, but he's prepared to do anything in his narrow political interests or the government's narrow political interests. We're seeing that unfold with this legislation and we're seeing that unfold over many issues, including some of the issues that the parliament has had to confront this week. The government stands for nothing but is prepared to do anything. It is dedicated to only one thing—continuing to occupy the treasury bench. It is dedicated to only one interest—its own narrow, venal political interest.

The second thing that's wrong with this legislation, this place, this government and in particular this chamber is the role that the One Nation party is playing, with government support, to dismantle good protections for Australian families. The One Nation party are hanging out with the black-shirted men's movement grievance brigade. That's what they support. It is barely disguised misogyny and hostility to the interests of Australian children. It is no mystery that this backward nativist outfit supports the abolition of the Family Court. The real mystery is why on earth the government is supporting them. Why on earth would anybody with a shred of common sense or decency support this legislation?

I noticed that former Senator Boswell was in the chamber the other day. I can't imagine the sense of disappointment that he must feel after being a leader of the National Party in this place when it took the courage to stand up to One Nation—he tried to provide a different political voice for his constituents and the constituents of the National Party—and defeated the creeping backward nativist political voice, only to have this government bring them back. The responsibility for this resurgent right-wing nasty brigade is all on you. It's your preference strategies, your activity in this chamber and your legislative haggling that has brought it back, and the consequences for Australian families and in particular Australian children are very serious indeed. We have a weak, supine government that stands for nothing and is prepared to incorporate extremists in its electoral strategy.

I have to register my deep disappointment with the decision of Senator Patrick to support this legislation. He was elected by people who had lost faith in the major parties and wanted to vote in a way that registered a protest. But this is all about horsetrading. It's entirely about transactional politics. It's entirely about secret deals, with mealy-mouthed justifications. It is so transactional that some on the crossbench have lost their way entirely and lost perspective entirely. All taken together, there's a dysfunctional chamber and a government that has lost the capacity to govern in the interests of all Australians because it's so obsessed with itself. In this case, it's bad law—the abolition of the Family Court of Australia—and, in general, it has no plan for Australia. It's time for a new government that's actually prepared to be on the side of Australians, to be on the side of Australian families and Australian children.

The Family Law Act in 1975 instituted two major changes: (1) no-fault divorce and (2) the establishment of the Family Court of Australia, a specialist, multidisciplinary court for the resolution of family disputes that it was envisaged would support families through the process. The establishment of the Family Court and the Family Law Act did away with the brutal inquisitions, the dehumanising inquisitions, that characterised proceedings under the Matrimonial Causes Act. These two reforms were and are inseparable. They come together, and it is not possible to separate them.

It is clear that the agenda, supported by the One Nation Party, is also to do away with the other. I assume, from the government's connivance with them over this legislation and the committee that led to this bill, that there are people in the government who support it. In November 1974 my predecessor in this place Senator Lionel Murphy, the then Attorney-General, made the case for change which has endured until now. He said:

The existing law and administration of divorce, custody and other family matters is too humiliating, too complex and too costly. The laws should be changed so that they may be characterised by dignity, simplicity and inexpensiveness. …A broken down marriage should no longer be a prison which can be escaped from only by adultery, cruelty or the like.

Prior to the Family Law Act, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1959 set out 14 grounds for divorce, including adultery, desertion, habitual drunkenness, imprisonment and insanity. To get a divorce, one party had to prove that the other party was at fault. The provisions for divorce were costly, protracted and involved indignity and humiliation to the parties because an inquiry into fault was the foundation for the dissolution of a marriage.

It doesn't appear that the Morrison government is proposing to reinstitute fault based divorce yet. That, I'm sure, will be the subject of another dirty deal with One Nation some time in the future. But what it's proposing to do is to undo the second of the major changes introduced by the Family Law Act—the establishment of the court. It's a change being proposed in the absence of a shred of evidence to support it. I heard Senator Lambie's account of the experience of Australian families in the Family Court, and I agree with her that the answer to improving the experience of families in the Family Court is to provide them with more support to ensure that there are sufficient justices and sufficient staff to do their work.

I imagine that there are very few people who leave their experience in the Family Court of Australia happy. I'm sure that most people leave it with some sense of unhappiness and a sense of grievance. I'm sure that is true. That is no basis to abolish the court. That is not a reason for the kind of perverted reform that the government proposes here.

The government claims that the proposed abolition has been informed by independent reviews and inquiries over a decade. No such thing has occurred. The Attorney-General's Department's website lists five reports under the heading 'The evidence base for the reforms'. The only problem with that claim is that none of those inquiries or reports recommended these reforms. None of those reports even thought that this kind of reform was worthy of consideration. None of them. Appendix 3 to the interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System—what's called the 'Hanson family law inquiry'—lists almost 70 reviews of the family law system that have been undertaken since 1974. Not one of those 70 reports or inquiries listed the abolition of the Family Court as a sensible reform.

The Attorney-General and the Morrison government, of course, aren't interested in sensible reform. They're not interested in improving the lives of families and, in particular, supporting children and getting the best answers for children. The only possible explanation is a continued engagement and dalliance with the One Nation party. That is a grave political mistake. That is a long-term error of judgement from a group that have lost the capacity for good political judgement in the interests of Australian people.

It's the One Nation party that resents the existence of the Family Court. It's this government that selected Senator Hanson to co-chair the joint select committee along with the soon-to-be-former member for Menzies. That was a disgrace and it has led us into this place. True to form, Senator Hanson hasn't provided a shred of evidence to support her statements. In a Facebook discussion with self-appointed men's rights activist Leith Erikson, along with Las Vegas stripper aficionado Mr Dickson, Senator Roberts accused the Family Court of being responsible for men's violence towards women. He said:

I know you agree with me Leith on that and you've counselled people against that. But when you're a father, and you can't get access to your kids, and you can't get access to the legal system properly, what else is there to do other than check out or hurt the other person?

It's that kind of misogyny, the kind of thinking that would have been out-of-date at any point in the 20th century, that mobilises the government's thinking and its position of abolishing the Family Court. It's that kind of approach from this government that has mobilised one of the worst pieces of legislation that I've seen come before this Senate. It's one of the most retrograde, regressive pieces of legislation that is taking this country backwards and is damaging the interests of Australian families and, most of all, Australian children. This should be sent back to where it belongs.