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Thursday, 18 August 1960

Mr BEAZLEY (Fremantle [9.11].) (The Attorney-GeneralSir Garfield Barwick) in the course of his statement, and the honorable member for Werriwa (Mr. Whitlam) when leading for the Opposition, made the comment that there was no definition of marriage in this measure. I do not think it is necessary to have such a definition, and the fact that it is not necessary is also an indication that the marriage customs of the people of this country are not going to be radically changed by transferring the authority which makes the legislation with regard to marriage from the State to the Commonwealth. The marriage customs of the community are, in fact, customs and they have not been framed around law. Perhaps to a considerable extent they have been framed around religion.

The really significant point about this legislation, apart from the fact that it introduces uniformity, is the change to be made, under clause 10, in the age at which marriage may be permitted. The honorable member for Werriwa pointed out that the minimum ages for marriage in the most populous States of the Commonwealth were considerably below the norm that is laid down in this bill, namely, that a male must have attained the age of eighteen years, and a female must have attained the age of sixteen years. There are some social differences in strata of society as to what constitutes a man. Recently I read a book on the midshipmen of the British Navy, and it commented that in middle-class and upper-class England, where there was a public schools system, it was acceptable to a boy of eighteen to submit to corporal punishment. The book stated that as recently as 1939 midshipmen on a British warship had to proceed in pyjamas to receive corporal punishment from their officers. The book disclosed also that the midshipmen experienced the humiliation of going past young marines of working-class origin to whom nobody would have dared suggest that they should submit to corporal punishment in the British Navy. The young marines looked with amazement at those who were their social superiors going to be punished. I think that, very often, we do have a concept of what constitutes an adult which belongs to one stratum of society and not to another.

A boy who has to earn his living at the age of fourteen is in many respects more mature than many boys who stay in schools to sit for the Leaving Certificate examination. Here I sound a note of warning. While in marriage reform societies, which are very largely middle-class in origin, the Minister will be applauded for raising the minimum ages of marriage, I do feel that in many other strata of society customs are different. The change in the law concerning the minimum age of marriage is important because it is happening at a time when two changes are taking place. The first is that young people, when they marry, have greater financial and economic burdens in getting a home and so on, and that tends to delay marriage. On the other hand, in this community where standards of nutrition have been rising, and in fact in most of the Western countries where that is so, the age of puberty is coming earlier and earlier. People mature earlier than they did 50 years ago. Obviously there are many qualifications to that statement. It does not apply to all individuals, but there has been a considerable amount of comment on the fact.

A few years ago I saw at a swimming carnival junior swimming champions under fourteen years of age whom honestly I would have taken to be men of 21. Their superiority as swimmers was due to the fact that some of them at thirteen had the physique of a fully adult man, yet others of thirteen were mere boys. It is a fact that some people at the age of thirteen have the physique of a nine-year-old and others at thirteen are fully past puberty and look like men. The difference can be even greater at the age of sixteen. The point I make is that the ages at which young people mature vary greatly. I am inclined to think that the Minister would have been wise to leave in the legislation the ages that are most commonly accepted in the most populous States of Australia because I do fear one thing. I fear that in circumstances where young people now marry because there may be a pregnancy, and their families feel that they should marry, this legislation will tend to make the position more difficult in future.

The question of marriageable age has not been given the mature consideration in this Parliament that it has been given over centuries and centuries in canon law. Over many centuries the canon laws and the Church, from immense experience in many countries, have settled on younger ages than are provided for in this legislation. I am afraid that there is a danger here. Under existing circumstances, a girl who has become pregnant may be pressed into marriage with the consent of both families, and be absorbed into the community. In a few years the mistakes of the couple, if they are mistakes, are forgotten. When this bill becomes law, a girl who becomes pregnant may tend, because of the difficulties in the way of marriage, to resort to abortion. I wonder whether there is the wisdom and mature consideration in this reform that some of its sponsors have applauded.

As I have said I believe that young people are maturing earlier. The star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare's " Romeo and Juliet " were sixteen and fourteen years of age respectively. Under this legislation they probably would be classed as delinquents, although in the play perhaps the real delinquents were in the princely houses of Montague and Capulet. In mediaeval days those were normal marriage ages. Our economic circumstances have caused marriage to take place later, but in a few instances - the actual figures were given by my colleague the honorable member for Werriwa - we do have what under this legislation will be called child marriages.

Mr Whitlam - Many of the Plantagenet queens would have had their marriages voided.

Mr BEAZLEY - We need not go into the mediaeval arrangements of mediaeval monarchs. We know that many of them were pledged in infancy. But I do feel that the ages at which young men below the age of eighteen years and young women below the age of sixteen years mature vary greatly. The Attorney-General has recognized that those difficulties could arise and he has provided this somewhat elaborate procedure of obtaining permission to marry from a judge of the Supreme Court. But I wonder whether it would not have been wiser to have left the ages as they are set out in State legislation. No social disasters have arisen in the States and to-day, with young people reaching maturity earlier than they did previously, there might be less need to reduce the age than there has been in the past.

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