John Howard nominates divorce laws as most important social legislation

Drew Warne-Smith

October 23, 2010

The no-fault divorce laws are, for Mr Howard, the single most important piece of social legislation debated during his tenure in parliament.

While the former Liberal prime minister maintains that he supported overhauling the Family Law Act, in his forthcoming memoirs Mr Howard argues that the bill that was ultimately passed under the Whitlam government weakened the "bedrock institution" of marriage.

Up until 1974, family law in Australia had only permitted divorce on specific grounds such as adultery, desertion or cruelty.

And as a young Sydney solicitor, Mr Howard witnessed first-hand the more "distasteful" consequences of these laws, with cuckolded wives and husbands often forced to hire private investigators to take photos proving their partner's infidelities.

With strong community support for reform, then attorney-general Lionel Murphy and Gough Whitlam championed a bill that enabled a marriage to be dissolved where there had been an irreconcilable breakdown in the relationship.

Mr Howard, like many of his colleagues -- as well as the more conservative Irish Catholics among Labor's ranks -- were concerned that the bill provided that couples only needed to be separated for 12 months as grounds for divorce.

"There was concern, which I shared, that the bill might tip the balance too far in the direction of diminishing the value of marriage through making it too easy to obtain a divorce," he writes in Lazarus Rising.

All parties had allowed MPs a free vote, and Mr Howard recalls that the subsequent parliamentary debate exposed "real fissures" in the Labor Party, torn as it was between its more conservative members and those who were more progressive.

The then Liberal MP for Wentworth, Bob Ellicott, moved a committee amendment that would have doubled the necessary separation period to two years.

Mr Howard voted for the amendment, as did Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser. But it was defeated by a single vote, 60-59.

"Thus came to pass a huge change to our divorce laws, untrammelled even by quite moderate concerns not to change too much too quickly," Mr Howard writes.

"More than 30 years later, it is hard to dispute the fact that marriage has been weakened as the bedrock institution of our society. It is at least arguable that that Family Law Act played a part in this process."