Right-wing attacks on Australian Family Court are part of a broader agenda

Family Court of Western Australia
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Shortly after this piece was published online, Rowan Baxter murdered his estranged partner, Hannah Clarke, and their three children — Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3 — in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill. Despite his history of family violence, the court granted Baxter full access to the toddlers, which it later revoked when he breached a Domestic Violence Order. On 19 February, as Hannah drove her children to school, Baxter torched the car and prevented bystanders from rescuing them. Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey were killed instantly. Hannah died in hospital that night. She was the eighth woman to die violently this year.

On 17 September, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a surprise announcement. The family law system, which handles questions of child custody and domestic abuse, would undergo an enquiry, or review, into how the court should function.

There had already been two such enquiries since 2017 — one by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), which had just submitted its 60 recommendations. These suggestions would increase the rights of women and children. So why a new enquiry?

Morrison’s choice of co-chairs provides a clue. Leading it is far-right Christian and Liberal Member of Parliament, Kevin Andrews. This anti-queer marriage fanatic was named the “natural family man of the year” by the World Congress of Families. He warns against the “continuing breakdown of the essential structure of civil society” — marriage and the family.

Andrews’ deputy is One Nation Senator and men’s rights champion, Pauline Hanson. The experience of raising four children alone and surviving domestic violence hasn’t stopped Hanson from being an enthusiastic parliamentary voice for embittered men. Her party claims that family law enforces a bias toward the mother that is making fathers kill themselves.

Furthermore, according to Hanson, women make “frivolous complaints” of domestic violence to “get control of the children.” These “gold diggers,” she goes on, also “get themselves pregnant” to claim welfare entitlements.

For women who have endured family violence and feminists working to provide these services, this new enquiry is especially ominous.

Competing rights. In Australia the family home is not safe for many women and children. In 2015, the government declared violence against women a national crisis. Each week, a woman is murdered by a current or former partner. In 2016, state authorities issued nearly 356,000 notifications of child abuse and neglect — up 11 percent from the previous year.

The 1975 Family Law Act should protect these victims and survivors. It’s the product of feminist struggle and the legacy of the short-lived reforming government of Gough Whitlam. This legislation freed women from a gruelling divorce regime: irretrievable breakdown became the non-judgemental ground for ending a marriage. It also put children first in custody decisions.

Initially, children’s safety was paramount in custody decisions. Judges took great caution in ordering supervised contact with an abusive father and refused access if it undermined the mother’s ability to parent.

This changed after heavy lobbying by fathers’ rights groups. In 2006, the conservative Howard government amended the Act to require both parents to support their children’s relationship with the other parent — giving abusive fathers easier access and custody. Despite more than half of custody cases involving allegations of family violence, only three percent of fathers are denied access to their children. Although this dangerous provision was removed in 2012, the system still prioritises parental contact rights over child safety.

There is no dispute that the family court system needs reform. It is costly and slow: urgent cases take months, even years, to be settled.

The question is over whose rights should prevail. The ALRC recommended consolidating the dysfunctional maze of family law, domestic violence and child protection systems into a single court, and the child’s interests put first.

Furthermore, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) family matters come under the Family Law Act, which instructs the court to consider cultural obligations and practices when deciding parental responsibility. Despite this, fostering ATSI children outside of their families is common. The ALRC insisted that connection to family, community, culture and country be preserved.

Currently, ATSI women are hospitalised for family violence 34 times more than other women, and 10 times more likely to die from an assault. Yet soon after announcing the new enquiry, the Morrison government defunded the main organisation that deals with ATSI survivors of family violence and sexual assault.

The Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum’s Deputy Chair, Phynea Clarke, condemned the action as “not only baseless and unjustified, it is an attack on our self-determination.”

The newly-constituted Andrews-Hanson enquiry is a massive step backwards and will undoubtedly entrench existing problems.

Restoring profit’s cornerstone. As with the rest of the world, the far right in Australia has become aggressive. Prime Minister Morrison, a devout Pentecostal Christian, comes from the hard-right section of the conservative Liberal Party. He governs with a big stick. Presiding over an economy headed for recession, he’s leading the war on the working class.

Women and the LGBTIQ community are prime targets of repression. Why? Big businesses need to bring the nuclear family back to its mythical former “glory.”

The traditional family unit births, feeds, clothes and nurtures the workforce throughout its productive life. This includes doing the work corporations should pay for, but won’t, like free childcare and wages to stay-at-home mothers. The family is expected to look after itself — capital’s antidote to class solidarity. And all this is run by women’s free labour.

This atomised, regimented existence is designed to keep social order, especially when the economy goes haywire. There’s no room for independent women, gender and sexual diversity or kids who think for themselves.

Unite in mutiny! That this enquiry coincides with the “religious freedom” bill that legalises discrimination against the LBBTIQ community is no accident. Nor is the timing of the Ensuring Integrity bill, aimed at busting the unions. Defeating the family law enquiry requires fighting this suite of measures, bringing together all who are victimised. Organisations of women and mothers, LGBTIQ folks and everyone else targeted — especially unions — must get behind the fightback.

The profit economy is collapsing. Capitalists will claw back everything that militant working-class struggle has forced from them over the past 50 years — if we allow it. The exploited and oppressed have the collective power to not only defend what we’ve won, but take this system down and create one that is ours. 

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