29 July 2004

Well thank you very much for those kind words of welcome. To the Chairman Mr Kiernan, your Honour, ladies and gentlemen. Iíd like to thank Anglicare here in Perth for giving me the opportunity of this as a venue to make a very important announcement of some major changes to the family law system which the Government has decided upon and in relation to which we hope to have a dialogue with the Australian community and many people who are touched by the operation of the family law system, over the weeks and months ahead.

Anglicare of course is no stranger, along with the other great welfare organisations of this country, with human disputes, with family breakdowns, with family tragedy, with family suffering and the struggles of individuals as they try to come terms with the difficult circumstances in which their lives often find them. And families' separation is something that either directly or indirectly touches just about every Australian. Even those who may not have been directly affected by it, they are very indirectly and very strongly affected by it in relation to the breakdown of marriages and relationships amongst their other family members and their friends.

I've said on many occasions, and I'm certainly not the only public figure to say or believe this, but it's certainly something I've believed in all my life, and that is that ideally speaking, a child should be raised to adulthood by both a mother and a father and as a united, loving family, which is still the best emotional base for moulding citizenship and character. It is also, I believe, the best social welfare system and the most efficient social welfare system that mankind has ever devised. And not only does family unity and marriages remaining intact contribute enormously to human happiness and to the welfare of children brought into this world, but it also takes an extraordinarily heavy financial burden off the State. And over the last few months we have been examining the House of Representatives report which was commissioned into the child custody system by me last year, and that report, that we have now examined in detail, and the announcements I make today and I release with my statement coming out of this press conference, both here and in Canberra, a framework statement which outlines in more detail the changes that we have in mind, and in I hope the not too distant future we will release for detailed discussion and response a discussion paper that will canvass the implementation of the changes to the system.

The Government has come to the conclusion I guess that is shared by so many other people that the present family law system is too adversarial in character, it is very costly, crippling so, to many people. But we've also formed the view that in the end you cannot develop a family law system which is fair and just that doesn't at the end of the day, if no other course of action is possible, provide for a clear determination and adjudication of people's legal rights. And we have endeavoured with the proposals that I'm outlining today to strike a balance between a recognition of those two factors. At the heart of the changes that I'm announcing today is an emphasis on early intervention and preventing the relationships of separated parents from severely deteriorating where conflict becomes permanently entrenched.

The centrepiece of our reforms will be the establishment throughout Australia of 65 new family relationship centres. And these centres will help separating parents resolve child custody disputes in a less adversarial manner outside of the formal court system by providing them with access to information, advice and free dispute resolution services. The new centres, rather like the Government's Job Network, will be run by a community... by a network of community agencies. They will provide practical assistance to help parents reach agreement in their custody arrangements, including help to develop parenting plans. They will help couples establish positive post-separation relationships as early as possible, putting up front the principle of the best interests of their children. The establishment of this network will of course be funded by the Government, and what we have in contemplation is that many existing organisations that already provide services of this kind will seek to tender, as it were, their services to be part of the family relationship centre.

The underlying operation of the new system will require people to have access to family relationship centres and endeavour to resolve their disputes before they commence court proceedings. We see these family relationship centres as being the initial shock absorber, if I can put it that way, of the disputation and the disagreement following a separation. If a couple have decided to separate and they are in complete and total agreement regarding custody and related matters, then all that will be required is a brief attendance at a family relationship centre and the preparation of a parenting plan and then the proceedings can go on. I do not imagine that the establishment of this new system will eliminate all acrimonious court procedures. There will always be a certain number where the level of antagonism and the level of bitterness is such that no amount of dispute resolution and no amount of shock absorption through the establishment of the new system is going to prevent people ending up in court. But I do believe, and we are encouraged on the basis of discussions we've had with many people to believe, that the establishment of this new system, once it is up and running, will significantly reduce the number of disputes that end up going to court. I think that will have beneficial flow on effects, not only for the children but also for separating parents.

The new family relationship centres will not just be for separating parents. They will provide information and referral to pre-marriage education services to give couples a sound start to marriage, and for families who have not separated but are experiencing relationship difficulties, the centres will provide information and referral services that can help to prevent family breakdown. A key responsibility of the family relationship centres will be to help separated fathers to maintain a substantial role in their children's lives, and we do intend to further amend the Family Law Act to entrench, except in the most exceptional of circumstances, the legal right of both parents to have access to and enjoy the company of their children, irrespective of the formal custodial arrangements.

The Government also intends to change the Family Law Act to make family law court cases involving children less adversarial, and as a result of these changes parents, as I mentioned earlier, will be required to attempt to resolve disputes through primary dispute resolution before being able to file any proceedings with a court. An aim of dispute resolution will be completion of parenting plans. Parenting plans will emphasise shared parental responsibility, the need for both parents to be involved in their children's lives, and the right of children to spend time with both parents regularly. Weíve also recognised a growing belief that the present arrangements do not adequately respect and acknowledge the rights and roles of grandparents in many situations. And many grandparents have responsibility for caring for their grandchildren when, for whatever reason, the parents of those children are not able to do so, and we intend to give greater recognition of the role of grandparents both in the law and in access to services.

As a further element of reforms, and this has less relevance in Western Australia because of the particular and very effective arrangements that operate in this state, the Government is proposing to establish a combined registry for family law matters for the Family Court and the Magistrate's Court, and the new registry will help people navigate the court system without the need for a lawyer, it will provide information about the Family Law Courts and channel cases to the appropriate court. Can I make an observation about the role of lawyers. It's very easy for people to generically condemn the role of lawyers in family law disputes. I have no doubt that the intervention at a very early point of legal advisers can sometimes entrench differences of view and can add to and multiply the points of difference and the points antagonism. On the other hand, people in a society such as ours have a right, a fundamental right to good legal advice and itís not out of deference to a profession that I was once proud to be a practising member, but also I think a fair statement of the situation that a great bulk of lawyers in Australia bring to their responsibilities a sense of commitment and duty and itís too easy to blame every imagined ill of the family law system of the lawyers without recognising the human frailty across a whole range of people involved in the process is involved. But to the extent that the new system that we contemplate will provide this mandatory shock absorber in the first instance, I believe it will dramatically reduce the number of cases that end up acrimoniously before the courts and for that reason I am personally very strongly committed to it, it has involved very, very lengthy discussion and debate with my colleagues. Most of the recommendations of the House of Representatives committee have been adopted, we did not adopt the families tribunal proposal, we found that there were flaws in that proposal, we think what we have put forward strikes a right balance between recognising that if you have a system that adjudicates and makes decisions on legal rights, in the end that is best done by a court and you either have a court or you donít have a court and you do ultimately need to have a court, and Iím sorry I wasnít able to (inaudible), I have been a total failure today, I would not be a good relationships counsellor, that is obvious.

But my friends, exactly, can I just say that we think weíve struck the right balance, we provide a non-adversarial initial shock absorber and if that does not work effectively well ultimately people do have the right and the opportunity to go to court, but we believe that the number who will choose that as a final resort will be significantly reduced. In the course of their work the committee, the House of Representatives committee of course encountered many criticism of the child support agency. And that doesnít surprise me, as a local Member of Parliament, probably the most vitriolic criticisms of government agencies that Iíve encountered from constituents, largely but not exclusively from men, is directed towards the child support agency. The child support agency of course represents a principle that we in Australia adopted for the first time back in the mid-1980s, it was adopted by the former government, I must say with our support from opposition because I thought it was a sound principle and I was certainly an advocate at the time for the principle that people should be required to meet their financial obligation as parents. There is no easy solution to the dilemma of the child support agency, except of course the total assumption by the general body of taxpayers of the responsibility of paying for the care of children and I donít think thatís either a sound principle or something that a majority of the Australian people would support. We have merely adopted the recommendation of the House of Representatives report to establish a taskforce to undertake a re-evaluation of the child support system to and report by March of 2005.

Can I say that the Government appreciates very much the important work of existing services that provide counselling and advice and help to both prepare people for marriage, to keep marriages together and to offer comfort and support and counselling after marriages break down. And I guess the strongest illustration of our respect for that role is in fact the announcement Iíve made today. I mean this represents probably the most dramatic illustration yet of this governmentís belief in of what I have called over the years the social coalition to tackle societyís problems. I think the best bodies, the body best equip to provide the family relationships centres around Australia with appropriate government financial help, let me add, let me emphasise, are in fact the bodies that have already, through their own individual missions based on whatever set of principles they regard as important, already committed themselves to provide these sorts of services. And that is why we have decided to base the family relationship centres network on the accumulation within the community of bodies that are already in a far more modest way providing these services and providing this help. I know there have been some expressions of concern about government funding for the existing services, let me stress the existing services being provided, and as a recognition of that Iím also announcing today an immediate injection of a further $15 million into these agencies for help in providing, let me stress, the existing services and I wouldnít want anybody to imagine that I saw that $15 million as some kind of downpayment on the further services and responsibilities that individual organisations might undertake as a result of these reforms.

Ladies and gentlemen, these reforms that Iíve outlined today, and they contained in more detail in the documents that Iím releasing to be followed up with a very detailed discussion paper about implementation, they do represent in my view, and I imagine in the view of everybody, very major changes to the family law system. They are a recognition that although there are very serious flaws in the present system, it is not a situation where we can simply pretend that be totally changing the system you will abolish all family disputes, there will still be very acrimonious breakdowns in marriages and relationships, there will be some entrenched conflicts that can be only be resolved in court and you have to have a proper system for that to be resolved. But if we can interpose between the point of breakdown and the ultimate horror of a heavily contested custody issue and all the expense and trauma and bitterness thatís involved in that, if we can interpose what I have chosen to call this initial shock absorber I believe we can over time reduce the number of those more acrimonious cases and in the course of that I believe produce far better outcomes for children, far better outcomes for separating parents and I think far better outcomes for the community. But I do stress that the family relationship centres will not only be available for people who have separated, they will also be available and the funding will support the provision of services for people who separation can be avoided if they get the right advice and the right encouragement and the right help and I think that is tremendously important.

We have a very strong commitment as a government, and I do personally, to the role of the family unit in our society. Itís not an old fashioned view to say that the family is the central and the most important unit in our society, itís as modern and contemporary view now as itís ever been because raising children in a stable, happy family environment is about the best thing we can do for our future and to the extent that the changes that Iíve announced today when theyíre implemented makes a contribution to more people, more children having the benefit of that, well I will regard that as a very significant achievement of the Government.

I again thank Anglicare for giving me this forum, this venue, I congratulate Anglicare on its wonderful work, I am very familiar with it and the Government in different ways has supported Anglicare and will continue to do so because it does along with the other great organisations such as the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul and the Wesley Institute and they do great and wonderful work for the less fortunate in our community, not least in the area of family support and I hope that those organisations and their family counselling arms will see the establishment of the family relationship centres as an opportunity to expand the reach of their services with appropriate government help and to make an even greater contribution to a happier Australian society. Thank you.