23 August 2018

Speech: Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures)

Ms HENDERSON (Corangamite) (12:55): It’s my great pleasure to rise to speak on the Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2018. There’s absolutely no doubt that, as we’ve heard in this debate, family violence is one of the most insidious and horrific issues in our community. It is a scourge across Australia. I want to commend the government, the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General for the very strong support and leadership they have shown in bringing forward these measures. Let’s not forget that the very first thing Prime Minister Turnbull did when he became Prime Minister was to announce a $100 million women’s safety package to combat family violence on the front line. So this has been an absolute mission for our government from the get-go.

I also draw on the work of the Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee and the inquiry into family violence law reform we conducted last year when I was the chair of that committee. I certainly want to make the point that many of the measures that have been introduced in this bill have been supported by the recommendations of that committee. I’m really proud of the work that committee did.

One of the biggest complexities in this horrific situation when people get caught up in family violence is dealing with a multitude of different jurisdictions, the complexity of the laws and the sense: ‘Where do I go next? How can I afford it? How do I get urgent help? How do I feel safe? How do I ensure my children are safe?’ One of the big issues that we identified in our inquiry was the complexity of the legal system, which in many respects puts the safety of men, women—principally women—and children second in so many cases. There’s no one reason for that other than the fact that this is a very complex jurisdiction coupled with the fact that many of the remedies through intervention orders or apprehended violence orders are obviously available through state and territory courts. Of course, the children’s court also plays a very strong role. So we certainly identified the need to make this system less complex and made some recommendations in relation to single courts which could deal with all issues relating to parenting, family violence and even property matters, meaning all particular issues that might come before various courts in the family law sphere.

This bill enhances the capacity of the family law system to provide effective outcomes for people who are experiencing family violence. In particular, it aims to reduce the need for families to interact with multiple courts across the federal, family law and state or territory family violence and child protection systems. As I said, the Attorney-General and the government are to be commended for this very important response.

I reflect on the member for Lingiari. I’ve never been more horrified than when our committee visited Alice Springs and took evidence in Alice Springs. We visited the Alice Springs Women’s Shelter, which is in reality a homicide prevention centre. It is unbelievable that in our nation women go into this centre. There are two lots of fences. There’s an inner wall and then there’s a very high outer wall. It’s like a prison, but women—principally women, Aboriginal women—go there to seek refuge to literally stop themselves from being seriously injured or killed.

When this centre is overflowing, there are women who can’t get in and at night-time you can hear them in the bushes outside being raped or attacked—and this is happening in our own country.

The Alice Springs Women’s Shelter are seeking a lot more funding. They certainly need a lot more funding. They need a major upgrade of their facility to better protect women and children. I heard the shocking story of a woman who was inside the shelter with her baby. Such was the pressure, the coercion and the threats that she was subjected to from her husband, or her partner, who was standing outside the facility—on the other side of the very high wall—that she threw her baby over the wall at the insistence of her partner. The baby was okay, but you can only imagine what women are subjected to if they do those sorts of things to try to alleviate the threats that they face in those horrific circumstances.

This is a real crisis, and that crisis is playing out every single day, in every street in every community across this nation, but it is on full display in communities like Alice Springs and other parts of the Territory. I take exception to the derogatory comments that the member for Lingiari made in relation to the Prime Minister’s visit. The Prime Minister’s visit was very significant and very important. The Prime Minister is on the ground, out in our communities, understanding these issues and taking the appropriate action—and this bill is part of that.

The bill has a range of very important protections, including that Children’s Courts will be able to make appropriate orders under the Family Law Act to resolve matters in the best interests of the child. So the Court of Summary Jurisdiction will be able to hear contested family law property matters up to a higher value without requiring both parties’ consent to the court exercising the jurisdiction. A lot of those jurisdictional barriers have been lifted. I want to applaud the government for this action. As I say, this is a very complex area of the law, and much more reform is required.

When allegations of family violence are made in a family law court or in a family law situation, one of the very strong recommendations of our committee is that those allegations must be heard at the earliest possible opportunity. We can’t have a situation where allegations of family violence and family law proceedings are dragged on for one, two and perhaps three years. This often means that the inappropriate orders are made, because these allegations haven’t been tested, which puts the safety of parents and children at risk. Of course, when there are false allegations made, it also leads to terrible injustice against whom those false allegations are made. I want to note more broadly that the Attorney-General has commissioned the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into the family law system, and many of the matters that we’ve raised in our inquiry recommendations are being examined in that broader context. So, again, I commend the government and I commend the bill to the House.

23 August 2018