Nov 30, 2020

BILLS – Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019, Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019 – Second Reading – Monday, 30 November 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (17:24): The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019, and the accompanying bill, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019, is bad legislation. It’s bad legislation, which is why Labor will oppose it. It’s not thought through, it’s not based upon evidence, it’s not based upon any proper community consultation, it is, once again, an example of spin over substance from a government looking for a reason for its ongoing existence. The fact is that there are problems with the functioning of the family law system. This abolition of the Family Court of Australia, which is what it is, will do nothing to solve the problem—it will make it worse. It is regressive, it’s not thought out and it’s another example of a government that, in so many of its actions, has detrimental impacts on women in Australia in particular. This legislation will have a detrimental impact on women and children, particularly vulnerable women and children. It should be opposed.


The Family Court of Australia is a proud Labor legacy. It was one of the reforms of the Whitlam Government that was so important. It was a reform of a system that seems archaic today—that families that had breakdowns had to provide some form of evidence in a way that was often humiliating—that exposed families to the sort of difficulties that added to the pain of family breakdowns. In particular, it was a reform that was aimed at looking after women in our society. It was one that was subject to considerable debate. Indeed, nearly half of the then House of Representatives participated in that debate. A total of 59 members spoke on the Family Law Bill 1974. That’s because that was a time when both sides of parliament were engaged in reform. What we have today is a government that bowls up legislation without putting forward an argument for it and isn’t even prepared to defend it. The speaking list today is an example of that, whereby the government seeks to abolish a fundamental part of our legal system without even presenting an argument—just a couple of speakers from government members; a token effort. It is a government that isn’t even prepared to defend its legacy.


The Family Law Act was important for two major changes. It instituted no-fault divorce as well as establishing the Family Court of Australia. Why did it do this? Because when it comes to this form of law, it does require that level of expertise, that knowledge, that comes from a specialist multidisciplinary court for the resolution of family disputes. It was a process which created an institution—the Family Court of Australia—which has served Australia well.


By contrast, what we have here is the product—after eight years and into its eighth year of neglect—of issues, of cuts, of a failure to appoint appropriate judicial members, of a failure to properly examine reform across the board. It is a story of neglect, neglect and more neglect—neglect by the Liberal government led by Tony Abbott, then neglect by the Liberal government led by Malcolm Turnbull and then neglect by the current Liberal government led by Scott Morrison.


What’s the solution to the problem? ‘We’ll just abolish it. We’ll just abolish the court.’ It is quite extraordinary that they’ve come up with that. Of course, they will say that what they are doing is restructuring the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court.


This is a government which, as we’ve seen, is dominated by the need to have spin out there. When the Prime Minister had to choose who would be with him during his period in quarantine, it wasn’t the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It wasn’t his chief of staff or his key economic adviser. It was his photographer, for staged shots in the Lodge. It said it all about the nature of this government. Today we saw that the hollowman has become a hologram, literally, in the parliament in the way that he deals with these issues. This isn’t leadership. There’s been no proper debate out there.


I say to the members opposite: in your electorates, what process have you been through to consult your community on the Family Court being abolished—under the guise of an amalgamation, of course. What these bills will do is, effectively, abolish the Family Court as a specialist and standalone superior court. Over 110 individuals and organisations, including family lawyers, former and current judges and child protection advocates from across Australia, have asked the Morrison government to abandon this proposal. But the Morrison government of course refuses to listen. Instead the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister are arrogantly pursuing these harmful reforms.


We on this side do accept that there are serious problems of funding and other issues for the Family Court to deal with. The main cause of those problems isn’t a mystery. There has been examination of it. The Australian Law Reform Commission, in its landmark report on the family law system, found that it has:

… been deprived of resources to such an extent that it cannot deliver the quality of justice expected of a country like Australia, and to whose family law system other countries once looked and tried to emulate.


There was a time when we were ahead of the world, and now, increasingly, we are falling behind. And this will just push us further behind.


Just as it has ignored the family law system, the Morrison government has ignored the commission’s report. Despite handing down the biggest spending budget in Australian history and a record deficit the likes of which we have never seen—$1 trillion of debt—it refuses to provide the family law system with adequate resources. Because of the pressure that this creates in families, by definition, if they are going before a court undergoing some difficulties, these issues can be very difficult to deal with. What these short-sighted cuts do and what this miserly approach does is push the need for increased funding somewhere else—into, if things can’t be resolved, health issues and into issues such as, particularly, the need for security and safety of women and children. It is a very short-sighted approach.


We on this side of the House don’t say that the family law system doesn’t need to change, but our priority is to put in place the right changes that will genuinely assist families in need. Men, women, children and families need that assistance. That’s why we’re opposing this legislation—because it is an example of a government that, by the time they get to the next election, will be struggling to find a reason for existence. There they’ve been for three terms, with no big economic reforms. They have managed to produce $1 trillion of debt, $100 billion in new spending and no reform as part of any of that—no economic reform whatsoever in the budget that we saw just one month ago, but no social policy reform of any substance either.


We on this side of the House are proud of our record, when in government, of making reforms that make a difference to people’s lives and social policy we can look towards, like paid parental leave that we did during our last time in office. Good social policy reform also has economic benefits, a bit like our childcare benefit that we announced as the centrepiece of our budget reply. This government, looking for a reason for existence, just comes up with cuts and short-sighted proposals that will drag Australia back, not move it forward.


That’s why this legislation is deserving of defeat in this chamber and that’s why the government needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with a policy that truly is in the interests of families. I support the amendment moved by my colleague the shadow Attorney-General and urge parliament to support that amendment and then oppose the legislation.