Family Law Act: the damage continuesby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, May 31, 2003
One of the smaller and least publicised items in Peter Costello's eighth budget was funding to help alleviate the consequences of divorce in Australia.
One program aims to help men learn skills to be better fathers, stepfathers, husbands and ex-husbands, another aims to help couples improve their relationships skills.
A third program aims to help 30,000 or so unemployed parents (read men) with their child support responsibilities over the next four years.
Nothing wrong with the programs in themselves, but it was another case of the Howard Government adopting a band-aid solution to one of the most serious social problems facing the nation, and a further example that there are still some places the Coalition is not prepared to venture.Reformers
Much has been said of the great reforming zeal of the Howard Government with accompanied withering comparisons made with the Fraser administration (1975-83).
It is said that Howard has been prepared to adopt policies which reflect the classic Liberal Party philosophies of individual initiative, self-reliance, free enterprise and support for the family.
At least on the economic front there is some truth in this. While small business is still chaffing under the burden of the GST, industrial relations and tax reform are two notable examples of Howard's commitment to the economic reform agenda.
John Howard has also shown that he had the desire and determination to dismantle many of the great Labor Party edifices, including the Industrial Relations system which served as the conciliator and arbitrator between labour and industry on wages and conditions as a uniquely Australian institution for almost a century.
And the old Commonwealth Employment Service, first introduced by Labor's John Curtin toward the end of World War II, has been abolished and replaced with a market-based group of providers who have a profit motive in trying to find work for the unemployed.
These are not insignificant changes to the fabric of Australian society, and it appears the universal health scheme introduced first by Gough Whitlam and reintroduced in altered form by Bob Hawke is the next to be dismantled.
But there is one Labor 'reform' even John Howard seems not prepared to touch - Lionel Murphy's Family Law Act of 1975. The modern day politicians - on both sides of the political divide - simply shudder at the thought of touching it because of the firestorm they fear it would create.
Without doubt this is the most pernicious, unpopular and unjust set of laws in the country, and arguably the cause of more misery and social unrest than any other.
No-one would suggest that Murphy's law is entirely to blame for the rapid increase in divorce, which can be attributed to the decline in Christianity, the permissive society and other factors.
However, any law that punishes the innocent (in the case of those who are bumped out of a marriage through no fault of their own) is dangerous and divisive.Worthless contracts
Since January 5, 1976, when the Act became law, the grounds for divorce in Australia became irretrievable breakdown of a marriage coupled with a year's separation. The marriage 'contract' is not worth the paper it is written on, permitting one spouse to walk out arbitrarily, but still forcing the other to pay for the upkeep of the other spouse and children.
The consequences of this law include Australia's rapidly declining birthrate, asset-splitting resulting in poverty, fatherless families, as well as being the principal cause of more than a third of all women never finding a husband. There is also the lifelong scarring effects on children, the social dislocation, childhood delinquency and social security costs borne by the rest of the taxpaying community.
As with any unjust law, people either ultimately revolt or simply find ways to 'get around it'.
For hundreds of thousands of men in particular, marriage is no longer worth the risk, so they avoid it at all costs, choosing instead to continue the irresponsible path of serial one-off relationships, sometimes producing offspring, sometimes not.
Other men shirk their alimony money or child support with many choosing to go on the dole rather than pay their wives living in another marriage.
If ever the Parliament's talented Independents wanted an issue to pursue to consolidate their place at the next election the Family Law Act is it. Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Peter Andren could look toward US-style covenant marriages as an alternative to the existing divorce laws as a way of shoring up marriages in Australia.
Such marriage contracts could not be made compulsory; the rot has set in to the point where the Christian marriage is declining and the forces against any major reform of the Family Law Act are simply too powerful.
However, the promotion of a proper contract entered into between man and wife establishing solid grounds for divorce, determined efforts to keep the marriage intact, and just procedures in the event of a separation, could be a way forward.
Put simply, the commitment is more serious at the outset, efforts are made to restore the marriage when it runs into trouble, and divorce becomes the last, rather than the first option.
Contract marriages are taking hold in the United States in places such as Louisiana, Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi and Utah. Australia's modern divorce laws are approaching their 30th anniversary - 30 years of misery and failure.
Maybe it's time for the Independents to shame the major parties and campaign for a better alternative to the laws we've been saddled with.