Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chaos at the Crossroads: Family Law Reform in Australia

Chaos at the Crossroads: Family Law Reform in Australia

By John Stapleton - posted Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The book Chaos at the Crossroads: Family Law Reform in Australia is launched today and fulfils a long held dream of Dads On The Air to include publishing alongside its weekly broadcasts. The book marks another step forward for the community radio program that began in Western Sydney in 2000 with a small group of disgruntled separated men who had no experience of radio and no resources.
The book tells the story of the last decade of struggle for family law reform in Australia, not just by separated fathers, their supporters and their lobby groups, but by grandparents and other family members cut out of children's lives by the discriminatory and destructive sole-custody model purveyed by the court.
Chaos also tells the story of how, from the humble beginnings of that disheveled little group, Dads On The Air became the world's longest running and most famous fathers radio program, regularly interviewing national and international activists, advocates, academics and authors. Dads On The Air, broadcast on Liverpool's community radio station 2GLF each Tuesday morning, went on to attract a talented team of people with legal, journalistic, managerial, entertainment, academic and counseling backgrounds. This was achieved with no more motivation than a sense of outrage over institutional corruption, social injustice and the fate of our children.
From today Chaos at the Crossroads will progressively become available throughout the month in most of the world's online eBook retail outlets, beginning with Amazon and ending with Apple's iBook store.
When Dads On The Air began in 2000 we had no idea we were part of a worldwide trend protesting the treatment of fathers in separated families. Internationally, Fathers 4 Justice in Britain had yet to climb Buckingham Palace or invade the House Of Commons. Bob Geldoff was yet to speak out. But we were fortunate to find ourselves broadcasting in an era when there was no shortage of stories. As that first small band of dads rapidly discovered, like no other subject, family law cut deep into hearts and lives, a seemingly infinite well of pain.
The history of Dads On The Air coincided closely with the evolution of Australian groups such as Dads In Distress, the Non-Custodial Parents (Equal Parenting) Party and the Shared Parenting Council of Australia. Dads On The Air was born not just out of a sense of outrage, but frustration with the mainstream media's failure to take men's issues seriously. We were proud to provide a conduit for groups otherwise little heard.
At first we felt very much alone. Our bolshie broadcasts put us out on a limb. We would say what we had to say nervously, thinking that at any time the Australian Federal Police would come to silence us. Our fears were not unfounded. The Court, which we referred to as The Palace Of Lies, had a long history of attempting to stifle its critics. One man who suggested in a letter that the court belonged on a garbage tip found himself being arrested by three Federal Police. Criticism of the court as "criminal" and "corrupt" now fly across the internet without consequence.
Dads On The Air was itself a prime example of the way the information revolution made it possible for a small group in western Sydney to cheaply create a 90 minute weekly program that could be downloaded by anyone with a computer in many different parts of the world. The immediate reach the internet provided outside the Liverpool radio footprint allowed us to attract some of the nation's and the world's leading political, academic and social commentators simply did not exist a decade before.
With the spread of communication technology, the court's arbitrary and cruel judgements were already the stuff of legends by the time we began broadcasting. One Indian immigrant was jailed for writing to his parents in English. The court ignored his protestations that his father had two masters' degrees in English. The court has also ordered litigants not to contact the United Nations with their concerns, not to publicise the injustices of their cases in any way and not to take their children to a doctor or raise welfare concerns. One father was ordered not to contact his children after he allegedly carried his daughter around on his shoulders, in a crowded park, in a suggestive manner. Another father who expressed a desire to see his adolescent son after the boy's suicide attempt was ridiculed from the bench. Yet another was jailed for sending his child a birthday card.
Similar stories of damaged lives circled the Child Support Agency. The Agency claimed to be treating fairly a young father who was losing 80 per cent of his income in tax and child support and died with one of their letters in his hand. Another man took more than two weeks to die when he swallowed poison after a call from a CSA officer. The CSA refused to attend the inquest despite a request from the Magistrate.
Chaos at the Crossroads unabashedly looks at the issue of family law from a father's perspective. Father's voices are often invisible in the public debate and we try to redress the imbalance in our humble way.
Dads On The Air was strategically placed to cover the push for family law reform in Australia. For a period many of the country's leading politicians, including the Attorney-General, queued to come on the show; most wanting to demonstrate their support for shared parenting and for fathers. This openness has not been matched by the present government.
Despite architect Lionel Murphy's vision of a "helping" court when he brought no-fault divorce to Australia in 1975. co-operative parenting after divorce was rarely encouraged.
Almost from the minute the Family Court opened its doors it became a law unto itself, imposing sole mother custody on separating families despite the harm it caused. Reforms meant to promote shared parenting in 1995 actually saw the small percentage of such orders drop. Historically, the Family Court denied fathers contact with their children on the flimsiest of excuses or most ludicrous of accusations. Overly legalistic, enormously bureaucratic, secretive, unaccountable and ideologically based, defying community norms of morality and propriety, it soon became one of the country's most hated institutions.
The book relies on many sources already available in the public domain to trace the antecedents of the Howard government's 2003 parliamentary inquiry and the story of what has happened since. Despite the deliberate blizzard of women's and domestic violence groups stacking the inquiry, the public hearings around the nation exposed for anyone who cared to look the massive dysfunction of Australia's family law and child support systems and the distress they created in the community.
It also exposed the divide between the taxpayer-funded mandarins and the general populace. The industry continued to blindly insist their only concern was the best interests of the child. It was little short of a lie.
The 2003 inquiry was given added piquancy by virtue of being held during the final days of that aging lion of the left Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson. He had dominated family law in Australia for more than half of the Court's life and took every opportunity he could to attack the Howard government for its investigation of shared parenting.
The original 2003 announcement from the Prime Minister that the government would examine the idea of a rebuttable presumption of joint custody provoked a wave of positive media coverage and community support. However the parliamentary inquiry's final report, the poorly written, intellectually sloppy and ridiculously named Every Picture Tells A Story, caused many problems. It was condemned by family law reformers as a betrayal of the nation's more than one million children of separated parents and of the sometimes tearful parents who had appeared before the inquiry. DOTA described the report as just like a Family Court judgement, it bore no relationship to the evidence and no relationship to reality.
The Howard government dithered for years over the issue of family law reform, destroying the public momentum for change. Embarrassed by accusations it was influenced by men's groups, it would not be until 2006, after yet more committees and calls for submissions, that the Howard government finally passed what DOTA condemned as sadly inadequate laws promoting shared parental responsibility.
Unconvinced the legislation would make any difference in practice, DOTA declared with characteristic chutzpah the fight lost: "The liars, the lawyers, the bureaucrats and the social engineers have won the day."
Not withstanding DOTA's stance, the lengthy public debate engendered a cultural shift. After 2006 many separating parents expected to share the care of the children. But the court itself was largely hostile towards shared parenting and impatient of parliamentary interference.
Just as with the name Dads On The Air, the title Chaos at the Crossroads popped into my mind one day and stayed. An early draft went up online in 2004. Come 2010 and the title could hardly be more appropriate. The narrowly returned Labor government had neither the guts nor the integrity to mention family law during the campaign leading up to the August election. Fearful of losing votes, they did not acknowledge they were winding back the popular shared parenting laws. The rollback came under the guise of protecting women and children from violence. The government ignored the findings of the Australian Institute of Families Studies that there was no evidence shared parenting resulted in higher levels of conflict and that the new laws were widely supported.
The government's expansion of the definition of domestic violence in the proposed Family Violence Bill was cheered on by shared parenting's greatest opponents former Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson and Justice Richard Chisholm.
After more than 20 years of ferment, community agitation, government inquiry, thousands of submissions and countless stories of suffering and distress, there now appears less hope than ever for separated dads. As the government fuels moral panic over domestic violence, family law is heading straight back from whence it came, to those dark days when too many fathers entering the court never or rarely ever saw their children again.
There has been almost no public input into the shared parenting rollback. The public submission period for the Family Violence Bill runs across Christmas and ends at the height of the holiday season. The Bill is the result of blatant manipulation of the public inquiry process. The plank of reports being used to justify the changes, commissioned by the Attorney-General's department after it became clear the AIFS intended to be neutral, almost all fall under the category of feminist advocacy research. One expensive two volume report took their sample from women's services, a naturally self selecting group of disaffected. The appointment of former Family Court judge Richard Chisholm, whose hostility to shared parenting was already well known, to produce one of the many reports was simply shameful.
Yet the Labor Government, led by Julia Gillard and ably assisted by Attorney-General Robert McClelland, appears determined to press on with its lunacy.
Show me a person who has not been guilty of emotional and financial manipulation and I'll show you Christ on earth, but this is just one of the new and greatly expanded definitions of domestic violence being placed into the Family Law Act.
There can be only one result from defining domestic or "family" violence so broadly as to include much normal human behaviour, in such a gendered way and couched in such a manner as to target only men as perpetrators - and that is a return to the days when many fathers entering the Family Court of Australia rarely or never saw their children again. The resultant personal pain created a large body of disaffected men as well as grandparents and other extended family members, did the community as a whole great harm, brought the judiciary into disrepute and impacted badly on the children involved.
Chaos At The Crossroads concludes: "Successive governments from both left and right have failed to listen to their constituents and respond to their concerns. Even when enacting legislative reforms, these same governments left their enforcement in the hands of institutions notoriously resistant to change. They allowed or encouraged fashionable ideology, institutional inertia and bureaucracy to triumph over common sense. Common decency was lost long ago.

"In terms of human suffering, the Australian public has already paid dearly for the failure to reform outdated, badly administered and inappropriate institutions dealing with family breakdown - and for the failure of governments to take seriously the voices of the men and women most directly affected by them. The country's failure to reform family law and child support is ultimately a failure of democracy itself."
Chaos at the Crossroads is now available directly from the internet publishers at:

About the Author

John Stapleton is an Australian writer and a founder of the world's longest running fathers' radio program Dads on The Air. He has just published Chaos at the Crossroads: Family Law Reform in Australia.

1 comment:

Jim Bailey - JimBWarrior - HandsOnEqualParent said...

Thanks Peter - Up on the Ration Shed Coalition - Onward - Together-4-FAMILY - - Jim