I don’t often agree with Senator Hanson, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with Senator Hanson about anything. We see the world through different prisms. But on two occasions in recent weeks we have been on a unity ticket.
In Senate Estimates a few weeks ago Senator Hanson made critical and somewhat insightful comments about a policy that I also have very serious concerns about. Unfortunately the policy was also once put forward by her.
Senator Hanson asked questions about the Government’s proposed family law reform that will see unrepresented families submit their parenting disputes to an experimental panel that will make important and binding decisions about actual children and their parents.
Senator Hanson asked the Turnbull Government, ‘so you’re putting this in the hands of social scientists and other people who are not judges to make these decisions… so basically what you’re saying is that they’re not people who have the qualifications of a judge to make these decisions’.
On this occasion Senator Hanson is spot on.
Of all the decisions that judges make, the heaviest burden must be to determine how, when, where, and with whom a child will spend their childhood. Why would we even consider outsourcing such decisions to anyone other than our most respected and experienced decision-makers: our judges?
This Turnbull Government reform would be a radical departure from the current family law system. A non-judicial panel to determine children’s matters has never been tried before. It is an experiment that will use some of our most vulnerable families as guinea pigs. Five hundred families are expected to have their matters determined in the pilot. More than one thousand children would have binding decisions made about their childhood, decisions that will have an enormous impact on their lives. The LNP’s experiment is their actual life.
Senator Hanson’s questions were surprising because the LNP Government’s policy mirrors a policy previously found on her One Nation Political Party website. That policy advocated that the ‘Family Law Court would be abolished and replaced with a Family Tribunal’ that ‘will consist of people from mainstream Australia. Respected members from local community groups encompassing health, social and community interests groups will be invited to participate’.
Maybe now Senator Hanson has burst her own thought-bubble. Maybe Senator Hanson has actually listened to the people who would be most affected by this policy. In any event I welcome her change of heart and the removal of her policy from her party’s website.
Further evidencing Senator Hanson’s more thoughtful understanding of family law, this week the Senator co-sponsored a motion with Xenophon Senator Griff, Labor Senator Pratt and Senator Hinch ordering the Government to release a 2014 KPMG report into the funding of the Federal Courts. That motion was upheld on a vote in the Senate by 39 votes to 27.
Sometimes you can’t undo damage done in childhood. Heartbreaking stories came out of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse; where whole lives were ruined by events that took place during victims’ childhoods.
We must protect children. When families are broken, children suffer.
We know that our family courts are under pressure. We know there are enormous delays in some registries. However, any changes to our court system need to be done with care. Any radical changes need to be evidence based, not experimental.
Taking decisions about children’s lives away from our best decision-makers should be the last thing we contemplate when considering reform.
Even the Chief Justice of the Family Court has strongly criticised this proposed Turnbull Government reform. Chief Justice Pascoe said it was his ‘duty’ to raise ‘matters of concern that may become problematic at a later stage’. He said that ‘Panel members will not have the knowledge or the expertise to determine these matters in the way that is consistent with established jurisprudence’.
As political representatives who get to vote on what becomes law in Canberra, it is imperative that both Senator Hanson and I take very seriously any changes to laws that will affect the lives of Australians, but particularly children. In this case the initial Turnbull Government pilot is likely to affect more than one thousand children and their families.
I know that I take that responsibility very seriously. I believe the experiment should be scrapped.
This opinion piece was first published as ‘Hanson spot on in stand against new family law’ in the Courier Mail on Thursday 22 March 2018