Family politics

You can see where it bites. Out in small towns where industry has left and blue-collar workers are left behind. Out in towns of economic loss and social dislocation.

This is where One Nation and the Nationals fight over the same vote. The issues are common: unemployment and disadvantage.

Increasingly, custody is part of this mix. The breakdown in social cohesion is joined by a breakdown in families. Men out of work struggle with child support. Fathers complain of unfair visiting arrangements.

As ever, Pauline Hanson is attuned to this hurting fringe. She is a medium for victimhood. One Nation intends to dismantle the Family Law Court and replace it with a tribunal of “people from mainstream Australia”. It wants to see the Child Services Agency reviewed and its “punitive maintenance regime” overhauled. Mothers receiving sole-parent pensions would “require counselling and verification of a family breakdown” – although there is no indication of what these seemingly punitive measures might actually entail.

Unhappily, there are early signs the Nationals intend to join Hanson in this assault on the family courts. There are votes in it.

George Christensen has long been animated by the issue. The amendments to family law passed in 2011 infuriate him. He says Julia Gillard did nothing “more reckless, more damaging to Australian families” than make those changes. “That law redefined family violence to mean just about anything,” he says. “It encouraged vindictive parents to make fraudulent claims to remove other parents from families.”

Christensen talks about things known to be fiction, about the myth of “false claims” used to “shut husbands out of family life”. He refers to men as “victims” of family law. Central to this – and to One Nation’s policy – is an absolutist belief in the principle of shared custody.

It’s there in the key paragraph of One Nation’s policy document: “Joint custody is the option of choice for One Nation. It gives recognition to the vital role both parents have in relationships with their children. Joint custody can provide some stability in an environment that is otherwise turbulent for children.”

Without evidence, One Nation blames the current family court system for the “continual rise of domestic violence and suicide and murders associated with custody battles”.

What One Nation proposes was trialled by John Howard. It was his tinkering with family law, largely in service of shared custody, that required Gillard’s amendments. The focus on access had seen an increase in spousal murders and violence. Children were put at risk.

This is the serious and complex system that Hanson and some in the Nationals would see dismantled in favour of ideology that puts children and women at risk.

Only 5 per cent of separations reach the family courts. Of these, 84 per cent involve family violence. Anyone proposing reform should consider that figure.

Hanson speaks to pain. That is her support base. But as is frequently the case, her prescriptions are radical and divisive. In this instance, they will put life at risk.

The Nationals, it seems, are willing to gamble on that same 84 per cent. There is every chance they could take the Liberals there with them. It can only be hoped that sense arrests this, that the votes in the issue are not seen as more valuable than the lives it could cost.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Family politics".

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