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Thursday, 18 August 1960

Mr TURNER (Bradfield) .- lt was not my intention to speak on this bill and I would not do so but for the fact that the honorable member for Darebin (Mr. Courtnay) is, it seems to me, under seme misapprehension which I think it is necessary for me to correct. I do this in no spirit of hostility towards him at all. This is a non-party bill and I feel that any member who can contribute something of value to the House should do so.

In the first place, he castigated the Attorney-General (Sir Garfield Barwick) for saying that he had gleaned certain information from social workers, and he asked that the Attorney-General should tell the House what this information was. 1 think it is quite fitting that any member wishing for information from those who are in contract with these problems should seek that information for himself. There is nothing to prevent the honorable member for Darebin, or any other member, from going to social workers and finding out their views.

Mr Courtnay - I did that.

Mr TURNER - Then there is no reason why the Attorney-General should do other than what the honorable member for Darebin or any of the rest of us could do. Quite obviously, Sir, this is not a matter that may be within the knowledge of honorable members themselves. In circumstances of that kind, it is usual for any member to go to those who have a special knowledge or who are expert in a matter with which the member is not familiar. So it is quite proper and sensible that the opinion of social workers should be taken in a matter of this kind.

The honorable gentleman has questioned whether the age fixed for marriage, that is, eighteen for boys and sixteen for, is not too high. As he said, if parties purport to marry under that age the marriage is invalid or, rather, there is no marriage at all. The question is whether it is wise to fix the age so high. Let us be quite frank about the fact that the circumstances in which very young people are apt to marry almost invariably are that the girl is pregnant and it is desired that the child of this illicit union should be legitimatized. These are what I think the AttorneyGeneral in his speech referred to as forced marriages. When we speak of marriages of very young people it is this kind of marriage that we have principally in mind. I think the honorable member will agree with me on that point.

Then he asks us to consider the case of a girl who is under sixteen years of age, unmarried and about to have a child. He says, " Should she not have the right to marry, without being forbidden by law to do so, in order that the child may be legitimatized? " That, I think, is the question posed by the honorable member. I, too, have sought the advice of social workers on this matter, and the information I have received - I have no doubt other honorable members have received similar information - is that in practically all such cases the parties are quite immature and never contemplated marriage at the time when theconception took place. For these reasons- marriages that may take place between such persons usually break up within a very short time, with great suffering to the girl and the boy, and, of course, to the child, who is then left in the care of an immature girl. Three persons endure great suffering as a result of this attempt to put matters right by a forced marriage. That is one thing that can happen in such cases.

Then there is another thing that can happen. In some cases the girl does not marry, but goes to one of the hospitals where almoners are accustomed to deal with such matters. It so happens that there are far more people eager to adopt babies than there are babies to be adopted, and the almoners in such cases, generally through the instrumentality of the Child Welfare Department - in New South Wales, at any rate - arrange for the adoption of the child at birth. Great pains are taken in these matters of adoption. There are so many prospective parents from whom to choose that it is possible to match a child with its parents very well, according to the probable innate qualities of the child and the known qualities of those who would adopt it. A great deal of trouble is taken in these matters, and when this course is followed and the child is adopted at birth, there is every prospect that the child at least, being much wanted by the adopting parents, will have a happy life. The girl and the young man concerned, being immature and not having been forced into marriage, are also likely, despite the fact that they will endure great mental suffering, to live happier lives and, one may hope, profit from their experience. Those are the two courses open in such cases - either the course of a forced immature marriage or the course of facilitating the adoption of the child at birth.

The honorable member says - and I go back to his original argument - that the mother ought to be able to decide whether the child is to be legitimate or not. Of course, in cases in which the child is adopted this question does not arise. Having been adopted at birth, the child enjoys in all respects the same conditions and status as the natural children of the adopting parents. The stigma of illegitimacy does not attach to the child in any way. For these reasons - and this, I think, would be the view of most social workers - the wise mother would follow the second of the two courses I have mentioned.

For the reasons I have given, I think the argument of the honorable member does not hold water. I do not say this by way of arguing against him simply because he happens to sit on the other side of the House, but because I think any misapprehensions in this matter ought to be removed. I am in close contact, fortunately, with social workers, through my own family, and I can assure the House that these are the circumstances in which this kind of situation arises; that there are the two courses open, and that it is the latter course which is regarded as being the better in the interests of all concerned. Such a course also does not have the disadvantages that I think the honorable member for Darebin envisaged - in all good faith, I am sure, and with a desire to ensure that the least possible unhappiness should result from these unfortunate unions.

It is for these reasons that I support the provisions fixing the minimum marriageable age at sixteen years for girls and eighteen years for boys. A marriage between persons of younger ages is likely to break up, with consequent great sorrow not only to the couple who marry but, more importantly, to the unfortunate child.

The honorable member for Perth (Mr. Chaney) suggests by way of interjection that it is possible for a judge to approve a marriage of persons under the ages of sixteen and eighteen years, but I do not think one should read into that provision all that I think the honorable member reads into it. It is provided that in very exceptional circumstances a judge may approve a marriage where one of the parties or both of them are under the specified ages. But it has been pointed out by the AttorneyGeneral that the mere fact that the girl is pregnant will not be regarded as an exceptional circumstance. The exceptional circumstances will have to be something other than the pregnant condition of the girl. I personally find it difficult or even impossible to imagine what exceptional circumstances other than the pregnancy of the girl could exist, but I have no doubt that such exceptional circumstances would be possible, and I think the Attorney-General has promised to give the House, before this matter is ultimately decided, some examples of what he has in mind. It would be wrong, I think, for the honorable member for Perth to suggest that there would be any substantial number of marriages of young people under the specified ages. They may be approved in exceptional circumstances, and the pregnancy of the girl is not an exceptional circumstance. In fact in these marriages of very young people the pregnancy of the girl would, I suggest, be almost a normal circumstance.

I rose merely to correct what I think was a misapprehension on the part of the honorable member for Darebin, and I have done so, I repeat, in no spirit of hostility, but merely so that he may 'be better informed on a matter about which I have made some inquiries and upon which my own mind is satisfied.

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