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A coalition of men’s rights activists has captured the ear of the crossbench and is rewriting the Family Law Act by stealth. By Nijole Cork.

The men hijacking family law reforms

On the second-last sitting day before Christmas, Senator John Madigan introduced cabinet secretary and former adviser to John Howard, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, to representatives from a group called the Family Law Reform Coalition. They presented him with a policy proposal document called “Children in Crisis”. The following day, the last sitting day before Christmas, Madigan set up a meeting with crossbench senators and representatives of the FLRC, who presented them with the same document. All but Nick Xenophon attended. The remaining seven agreed to write and sign a motion, conceived in less than an hour, to perform a “root and branch” review of the family law system. 

The motion calls on the government to “recognise that thousands of Australian children continue to be harmed by a family law system that is not fit-for-purpose”. It calls for the Family Law Act to be simplified and shortened, and makes particular reference to “gender equality, and equal parental care and responsibility”. On Tuesday, that motion was passed.

The FLRC representatives who accompanied Madigan to the meeting with crossbenchers last year were David Curl, a wildlife documentary-maker, and Jasmin Newman, a men’s counsellor, life coach and relationship therapist who runs a business called Relating to Men. Newman has a large Facebook presence, through a page called “Destroy the Narrative” that is focused on perpetuating anti-feminist propaganda and highlighting instances of women committing violent acts. 

The “Children in Crisis” policy paper is unsigned. The FLRC’s web page says the group is “an Australia-wide and international coalition representing a wide range of groups and individuals and advocating for major family law reform”. It is unclear from where the international element comes. Further investigation reveals that long-time men’s rights activists, family law and child support campaigners Wayne Butler and Ed Dabrowski, of the Shared Parenting Council of Australia (SPCA), wrote the foundation policy paper.

The SPCA is a loose compilation of fathers’ lobby groups such as Fathers 4 Justice, the Family Law Action Group, Dads in Distress, Lone Fathers Association and the Fatherhood Foundation. They run the Family Law Web Guide, a web page and forum aimed at men going through separation and the courts. The SPCA was instrumental in advising the Howard government on the policy and law changes in 2006 – now often viewed as disastrous. The SPCA is also a member of the Child Support National Stakeholder Engagement Group, which advises the Department of Social Services on child support issues.

The FLRC is calling on the government to recognise the principles and recommendations in the 2003 “Every Picture Tells a Story” report, on which their “Children in Crisis” policy paper is based.

However, since 2003 we have moved on significantly and have learnt much. There have been two major family law overhauls and revisions, with accompanying inquiries and a plethora of reports and recommendations. “Every Picture Tells a Story” was pivotal to the success of the men’s rights lobby mobilising John Howard’s government in the 2006 reforms. These reforms established compulsory mediation but also resulted in men terrorising women about “their rights to 50–50” shared care. We saw judgements that resulted in an increase in murders and bashings, which in turn led to the reforms of the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2011, addressing the problems of safety in family law that the 2006 reforms caused.

Those reforms recognised that the 5 per cent or so of separating couples who use the family courts are also the most conflicted, with 84 per cent reporting domestic violence. Therefore, any decision about access to children needed to be made with child protection measures firmly in place. The remaining 95 per cent of couples manage to resolve their separation issues without accessing the courts. 

Despite the amendments in 2011, there is still a presumption of shared responsibility and an emphasis on shared care in the Family Law Act. Mandatory shared parenting can never work because children are not the property of parents and every family law case is unique. Current laws and judgements in some instances still favour a child maintaining a relationship with both parents over the safety of the child and the other parent. The Madigan motion makes no mention of children’s attachment, development and stability needs.

The FLRC suggests bypassing the Family Law Court and establishing a “National Family Commission” under the auspices of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. They propose domestic violence and child abuse matters be referred to local courts and the police to enforce order breaches. This proposition is perplexing, as it adds another layer to the already complex system. Local courts are not trained or equipped to address the complex matter of domestic violence and child abuse: the suggestion to do so trivialises the seriousness and extent of those issues, and would place children at risk.

The FLRC also proposes the overturning of key reforms made in the 2011 act, to reintroduce presumptions regarding shared care and costs for making “false allegations”.

Terese Edwards, of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, said: “We are deeply concerned about any challenge to the principle that the courts must ‘prioritise safety over contact’. Child safety should always be granted primacy. We do not want to see any resurrection of the ‘unfriendly parent provisions’. This stopped women from reporting violence.”

Edwards went on: “With the increased awareness of domestic violence and investigation of process, we are seeing that violence is under-reported, poorly investigated and inadequately managed. Claims by the men’s rights fraternity that women manufacture violence using ‘false allegations’ to get an upper hand in child custody have long been disproven.”

Madigan, who entered the parliament in 2011 after a career as a blacksmith, has been very focused on family law reform. He has published many lengthy articles on his blog, has made impassioned speeches in parliament, and has held many meetings and seminars with men’s rights groups and lobbyists around the country. The topics he focuses on, the language he uses and the audience he targets are aimed at separated fathers and men’s rights activists. 

“For almost two years now I have been actively looking at issues associated with the Family Court,” Madigan said. “I have attended Dads in Distress and Mums in Distress meetings around Australia and talked first-hand with several hundred Australians – mothers, fathers, grandparents and others – who have been impacted by Family Court proceedings. During this time I have also met with lawyers, social workers, members of the police force and numerous groups with an interest in this issue, including the Family Law Reform Coalition.”

Madigan has worked on this issue alongside George Christensen, also a long-time supporter of the men’s lobby. Christensen has said the Rudd–Gillard government did nothing “more reckless, more damaging to Australian families” than amend family law in 2011. “That law redefined family violence to mean just about anything,” he said. “It encouraged vindictive parents to make fraudulent claims to remove other parents from families.”

Christensen talks about the “victims” of family law. He speaks about male suicides, about the fiction of “false claims” to “shut husbands out of family life”. He has accompanied Madigan to some of his meetings and seminars with the men’s rights lobby on family law reform around the country and instigated the child support inquiry. Nothing has come of this laborious and expensive inquiry into child support: certainly no concrete moves to recover the $1.4 billion owed. However, his suggestions in the report following the inquiry included income-managing child support and enforcing family dispute resolution through the Child Support Agency.

Media reports over the past six months have been saturated with claims by the judiciary, academics and domestic violence policy experts that the family law system is in crisis. Their most immediate concern is resourcing and funding. Retiring judges, the failure to replace them and the rise in domestic violence cases is holding up proceedings, in some instances for up to three years. Chief Judge John Pascoe used his Australia Day honours to highlight the problem, saying: “The best outcome for children is for cases to be dealt with within hopefully six months of filing, so they can be in and out within a 12-month period ... Prolonged conflict is not in the best interests of children.” Di Mangan, the chief executive of DV Connect, said it was “potentially hazardous to leave families in conflict” and that women fleeing abusive partners should not have to wait so long to obtain orders to protect their children.

Despite this, Attorney-General George Brandis has delayed judicial appointments and instead proposed putting the Federal Court in charge of running the back offices of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court. He says this will achieve the “vital” outcome of “placing the courts on a sustainable funding footing over the longer term, leaving them far better placed to deliver services to litigants”. He says this is because savings – expected to reach $5.4 million a year after 2021 – will be reinvested back into the courts. 

But this cost-saving strategy doesn’t address the current crisis. Recently retired Federal Circuit Court judge Giles Coakes said: “It’s inexcusable in my view that the government has not met its responsibility to make timely appointments.” 

In this context, the Family Law Reform Coalition’s proposal to overhaul the family law system could be seen to some as a welcome solution. 

Media coverage of this motion and the intention to overhaul the system has been sparse. On December 8, 2015, the Herald Sun covered the Madigan motion, quoting another supporting senator, Glenn Lazarus, saying, “too many parents, in particular fathers, are taking their lives due to Family Court decisions”. Male suicide and faulty male suicide statistics have long been used as an emotive and unsubstantiated tactic by the men’s lobby and were used in the lead-up to the reforms of 2006. Recently, there has been an increase in the use of this tactic, using hashtags on social media whenever the subject of domestic violence against women is raised. Lazarus has also made comments on his Facebook page using the misinformed and ubiquitous #21Fathers and his allegiance to the men’s rights lobby group, #FathersForJustice. 

This was the same sort of vigorous lobbying seen in the early 2000s, which saw the successful law changes in 2006. 

It appears that the overall aims and language of this current motion, supporting papers and proposed changes are tactical and unsubstantiated. They rely on emotive men’s rights rhetoric – “parental alienation”, “false allegations” and “gender inequality” towards men. 

This is the language of a virulent lobby group, blindly focused on the rights of fathers. It takes serious concerns, then inflates and distorts them, putting at risk women and children. This is the language of the people who now have family law in their hands.

 

Postscript:

We’re puzzled by The Saturday Paper’s front page attack on “a coalition of men’s rights activists … rewriting the Family Law Act by stealth” – a description as bizarre as it was provocative.

The Family Law Reform Coalition, the apparent target of the story, is an apolitical association of dedicated women and men campaigning publicly for greater protection of children from all forms of harm, abuse and violence associated with family separation. Anyone can visit our website, download our policy paper “Children in Crisis”, or share opinions with our Facebook followers (35 per cent women, 64 per cent men). We think everyone should support what we stand for.

We’re writing this letter not because this particular story was highly misleading, inaccurate, unbalanced, and based on opinion rather than fact; nor because it purported to be investigative journalism, when its “further investigation” didn’t even stretch to contacting us; but because, by so comprehensively breaching the Australian Press Council’s Standards of Practice, such writing has the potential to do harm. To children. It will do so if it delays essential reforms by so much as a single day.

This is a difficult, sensitive subject. It’s not helped by misleading, inflammatory rhetoric about “virulent lobby groups”, “men terrorising women” or “hijacking … by stealth”. And it’s not helped by playing the man (sneering at people’s professions), creating straw men (our Coalition wants swifter, better protection of children, not less), or actually attacking men (we’re not a men’s rights advocacy group, but we find it distasteful that anyone should disparage those advocating for the rights of women, children, or men).

It’s time to move beyond ideological, gendered agenda; we must stop playing tennis, as Tim Minchin once put it, from opposite ends of different courts. Many men (including one of this letter’s authors) are passionate about protecting children from all harm, abuse and violence; many women (including the other author) know that shared parenting is best for most children. Surely it’s time for us all to work together, for the sake of our children?

 Jo Fothergill and David Curl

The Family Law Reform Coalition

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "The men hijacking family law reforms". Subscribe here.

Nijole Cork
is a sociologist who focuses on social justice, gender equality, family law, child support and domestic violence issues.

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