The One Nation leader is
a populist decoupled from an ignition point. Scott Morrison shouldn’t
give her one
I have nothing but admiration for the people who work in the family court
system. It’s a place of despair, and I don’t invoke that word lightly.
Humans, many of them vulnerable, mired in the stages of grief, litigate the
remnants of their most intimate relationships in that system. The
environment can be not only taxing but toxic.
It’s a statement of the obvious to say opening a conversation about the
family court is deeply fraught territory, and every parliamentarian knows
it. Yet this week, Scott Morrison has green-lit yet another inquiry into the
system and, in the process, handed a significant public platform to Pauline
Hanson, who has been stoking
this red-hot issue as a means of rallying her core supporters for years.
Morrison insists the looming inquiry will not “take sides”. The prime
minister says this process will be about helping parents and their children,
not about courting Pauline (whose vote, self-evidently, is needed in a
Senate that, let’s be candid, operates with an every-child-gets-a-prize
While it’s obviously fine in-principle for parliamentarians to set up inquiries
to seek new facts and perspectives, it is hard to fathom what of substance might
emerge from this new process, given the Australian Law Reform Commission presented
a bunch of detailed recommendations to overhaul the family court system in
August. Those insights, from a body well credentialed to consider all the
complexities of the issue, are sitting politely on a shelf, waiting for someone
to notice them.
A recently retired former family court judge, Peter Rose, summed up the
situation well when he told
the Nine newspapers this week Australia’s family law system had “been the
subject of more inquiries than any other aspect of the law”.
“It doesn’t need an inquiry at huge cost to tell you what the problems are –
unacceptable delays due to lack of quality resources,” Rose said.
The former Australian of the year Rosie
Batty, who lost her 11-year-old son, Luke, when he was murdered by his
father, made a similar observation. “We know the failings,” she said this week.
“We need to start investing in this court system that is broken, overwhelmed and
failing. It is continuing to put families, particularly children, in danger”.
It is abundantly clear what’s required right now is careful, considered, and
preferably bipartisan, action to improve the system, not another emotionally
charged stunt inquiry sowing division and rancour, spearheaded by a fringe
political figure with fixed feelpinions on the issue. Even if Hanson doesn’t end
up as deputy chair of the inquiry, this is her baby and the world knows it.
Hanson has kicked off with inflammation, ventilating the old chestnut that women
are making up domestic violence claims in custody battles. “There are people out
there who are nothing but liars and who will use that in the court system,” the One
Nation leader declared. “I am hearing too many cases where parents are using
domestic violence to stop the other parent from seeing their children; perjury
is in our system but they are not charged with perjury.”
When asked to furnish evidence to support this favoured trope of the men’s
rights movement, Hanson cited personal experience, and stories from people. But
as my colleague Sarah Martin noted during the week, the journalist Jess Hill,
who has authored a
book on domestic abuse called See What You Made Me Do – has pointed out that
one of the most thorough studies on false abuse allegations from Canada found
that non-custodial parents, usually fathers, made false complaints most
frequently, accounting for 43% of the total, followed by neighbours and
relatives at 19% and mothers at 14%.
Since winning the May election, Morrison, commendably, has worked to turn down
the volume on politics and to keep the corrosive Canberra circus acts (apart
from his borderline obsessive wedging of Labor) to a minimum. But this decision
– to give Hanson an inquiry that Australia objectively does not need –
represents a departure from that objective.
It’s also a political misjudgement that I suspect the prime minister will come
to regret. Why on earth would you hand Hanson (who exists to peel off elements
of the disaffected Liberal and National party base) a genuine barbecue stopper
when her visibility has been low in recent times?
Hanson for some time has looked like a populist decoupled from an ignition
point, and rather than let her drift into querulous obscurity you, the prime
minister, choose to refresh her purpose? Like, really?
By endorsing Hanson for a prominent role in this inquiry – by facilitating her
desire to be the self-styled and government sanctioned spiritual leader of this
particular endeavour – Morrison is raising expectations among men’s rights
activists. These folks believe as an article of faith that the family court is
biased in favour of women, and they are looking for a champion to restore the
natural order of things.
Now why would you raise those expectations? Why open Pandora’s box? Fiddling
with the family court system is not a clear vote winner for the Coalition.
For every angry and despairing dad, there’s an angry, and, in some cases,
frightened and despairing mum. They all vote, at least last time I looked.
Why, if you were Morrison, would you put yourself in a position where you either
have to give Hanson what she wants as a consequence of this taxpayer-funded
indulgence to assist One Nation’s two-decades-long courtship of the aggrieved,
or decline to give her what she wants, and in the process hand her a stick to
beat you with?
Given the Liberals and Nationals tear themselves apart on social questions with
only a minimum of encouragement – cue
the abortion shitshow in New South Wales – has Morrison somehow missed the
risk that this particular line of inquiry could also be a lightning rod inside
his own partyroom? Does he think that doesn’t matter because he can keep a lid
I really don’t get it. Honestly, I don’t.
It looks boneheaded and, whatever you think of Morrison and his politics, dumb
as a bag of hammers isn’t the first phrase I’d normally reach for.