A woman's place is in the struggle: Howard's misogynist attacks on the Family Court
by Pip Hinman

From Green Left Weekly, July 9, 2003.
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“Far too many young boys are growing up without proper role models”, a concerned John Howard told parliament on June 24. “They are not infrequently in the overwhelming care and custody of their mothers”, the prime minister added, motivating a parliamentary inquiry into the way the Family Court decides on custody battles.

At first glance, Howard's concern that children have equal access to their father and mother after a break-up seems fair. But on closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that his attempts to get the court to enforce joint custody rules are reactionary and dangerous.

The House of Representatives family and community affairs committee's inquiry into child custody is the latest in a number of attacks by the Coalition government on the Family Court.

In 1999, changes to the Family Law Act increased the emphasis on shared parental responsibility for children and penalised — including with jail terms — parents (mainly mothers) who break court orders by refusing to allow non-custodial parents (mainly fathers) contact with their children. Since then, the government has encouraged the questioning of no-fault divorce (which made it easier for women to leave disastrous marriages).

The Coalition government's move to introduce joint custody as the default setting in custody battles has attracted the support of a small, but vocal, “men's rights” lobby.

Melbourne Age staff writer Bettina Arndt, for instance, seems to believe that the Family Court operates in a sort of conspiracy with mothers to deny fathers access rights. Her June 20 Age article (also published in that day's Sydney Morning Herald) was littered with such general and unsubstantiated claims as this: “Very few Australian children experience the type of care they would prefer after divorce — namely equal care by both parents.”

This is wrong. According to Catharine Lumby (writing in the July 8 Bulletin magazine): “Peer-reviewed literature … shows that the Family Court makes custody orders (in contested cases) in favour of fathers at twice the rate of those made by consent.”

Only a tiny minority of families have settlements imposed on them. In an article in the June 26 Age, Michelle Grattan cites statistics which show that only half the couples who split up go to the Family Court to settle child custody or property issues or both. Of those, only 5% end up before a judge because mediation didn't work.

The vast majority of couples (including most which start down the court road) work out their own residency and contact arrangements. The ones who end up in court are often those whose cases involve domestic violence or child abuse.

But Arndt, like Howard, believes that divorcing parents must share equal care of children, unless there's a strong reason not to. This is known as the “rebuttable presumption of joint custody”. This system operates in 18 US states and is apparently a factor in the lowering of divorce rates. According to Arndt, this is because `women denied the freedom [sic] traditionally associated with sole custody are more inclined to stay in marriage and try to work out their problems”.

Family Court Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson is a vocal critic of the shared care system. He says that “while [it] may be great in theory, in practice it can be difficult to organise and may be detrimental to the child”. Joint custody rules would make it much harder for a mother to move if she found an new partner.

Nicholson believes that joint custody is a blunt and possibly dangerous instrument for getting boys male role models: “The shared parenting concept is a one-size-fits-all — it doesn't take into account the interests of the child and the need to protect the child from the people who are not good role models — of either sex.”

Howard's drive to boost fathers' rights has the backing of the Shared Parenting Council of Australia (SPCA), which was set up in October 2002 and claims to represent children's, fathers' and church groups.

Just one month after being founded, SPCA boasted it had “established a clear pathway through the [Coalition] party room and the cabinet to have our representations heard and acted on”.

Indeed, the number of Coalition MPs listed by the SPCA as supporters is considerable, and includes Christopher Pyne, Bronwyn Bishop, Ross Cameron, Bill Heffernan, Tony Abbott, De-Anne Kelly and Nick Minchin.

Even more interesting, however, is the glowing praise SPCA gets from the far-right wing outfit, the Festival of Light. In one message, its president derides the Family Law Act for not upholding the “need to preserve and protect the institution of marriage” and for not recognising the family as “the fundamental group unit of society”.

This is the main reason why an arch-conservative like Howard finds the joint custody idea so appealing — it accords with his view that the heterosexual nuclear family is the optimum mechanism to privatise the social costs of raising the next generation.

Howard feigns concern for the children, but his push for joint custody is misogynist and could end up harming children. He is definitely not concerned about greater parenting equality — something women would welcome given that they are saddled with the bulk of childcare and domestic work.

While Howard sheds crocodile tears for single fathers, his government has brought hardship to single parents — male and female — by cutting funding to legal aid, lowering the cut-off point for the sole parent pension, eroding after-school and vacation child-care services and forcing sole parents on welfare to fulfill “mutual obligation” requirements.

-- Pip Hinman

From Green Left Weekly, July 9, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.