July 9, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
Bad facts make bad law, at least Australian Labor MP Graham Perrett hopes they do.
Perrett has seized on a single horrible incident that took place in February of this year to attempt to (a) change Australian family law to marginalize fathers in the lives of their children even more than they already are and (b) short circuit the inquiry into family law now in progress.
On February 19th, Rowan Baxter poured gasoline on his three children and their mother, Hannah Clarke, and set it alight, killing all four. He then stabbed himself to death. Baxter and Clarke had been embroiled in a child custody case prior to their deaths.
A family tragedy doesn’t get much more shocking and appalling than that and Perrett was johnny on the spot, ready to make whatever legislative hay he could from the deaths. Strangely, he’s put forward a bill that would do away with the presumption of parental responsibility that’s the last vestige of fathers’ rights in Australian family law. “Parental responsibility” is what we in the U.S. call “legal custody,” i.e. the right to have a say in children’s schooling, medical care, etc. How removing that presumption would have changed the Baxter/Clarke tragedy, I can’t understand and Perrett hasn’t explained. It seems that, in the Land Down Under, it’s always open season on dads and their access to their kids.
Now, regular readers of this page know that there’s yet another inquiry into Australian family law underway. The Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Family Law System 2020, charged with conducting same, has finished collecting comments and will produce its report sometime in October. That of course places Perrett’s effort in an unflattering context. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the Committee to do its job the way he wants and is trying to make statutory changes ahead of its report, the better to neuter its recommendations. Whatever the case, his timing is suspicious to say the least. After all, family violence is not unusual, so why didn’t he seize on a previous case to make his bid?
That question may be answered by the fact that, in Australia as elsewhere, mothers commit more child abuse and neglect than do fathers and some of that is lethal to the kids. So yes, Perrett could have raised the issue earlier, but doing so might have required him to choose an incident involving Mom as the perpetrator to use as his stalking horse. But that wouldn’t have suited Perrett’s narrative that is the same as that of the Australian domestic violence establishment and divers feminist organizations. For many years now they’ve been intent on marginalizing fathers in children’s lives and what could better fit their purpose than something dreadful like the slaying of Clarke and her children?
Indeed, back in 2006, the Australian Parliament reformed family law to provide a presumption of shared parenting. The ink was barely dry on the new law when radical feminist organizations and their comrades in arms, the DV industry, went to work. In short order, they had the presumption of shared parenting provision scuttled along with the “friendly parent” part of the law that requires each parent to promote the child’s relationship with the other parent. Those were replaced with a requirement that judges “consider” shared parenting that, much to the delight of those organizations, resulted in a drop in shared parenting orders of a whopping 42%. Plus, the new law elevated in importance child safety above the child’s relationship with both parents.
Unsurprisingly, following those changes, Australia saw claims of domestic violence increase sharply. According to barristers practicing family law, it is now accepted practice for mothers to assert claims that fathers have committed DV. It is also now accepted that the overwhelming majority of those claims are false and made solely to gain an advantage in the custody litigation. At least one judge has said so in so many words in open court.
And why not? Doing so works like a charm. As the redoubtable Sue Price of Australia’s Men’s Rights Agency has recounted to the Committee, mothers can make an endless string of DV allegations, all of which can be proven to be false and have no fear of any form of punishment. One judge, Price recalled, when confronted by a father with the fact that his ex had levelled 11 false claims of abuse against him, announced that she didn’t care if Mom brought in 90 such complaints; each would be considered as if the others never existed. Meanwhile of course, temporary orders keep the children from seeing their father until whatever current allegation is litigated. Needless to say, this can take months or years and cost astonishing sums of money for Dad to defend, which is the point of the exercise. Mom doesn’t have to be right or even honest to effortlessly turn Dad out of his children’s lives. In vain do fathers’ lawyers point out that years of delay damage, sometimes irreparably, the father-child bond.
And, again as we’ve heard from Australian lawyers before, the term domestic violence can mean just about anything. What we know it means, because it’s written in the statute in black and white, is that denying the “financial autonomy” of a family member constitutes DV as does preventing a family member from associating with their friends. So does committing any act that causes a family member to be afraid.
Needless to say, that law casts an astonishingly wide net. If Dad tries to trim Mom’s spending on shoes, he’s committed domestic violence. Does he urge her to stop seeing her heroin-addicted friends? He’s a violent abuser. For that matter, if he dives into a lake to save a drowning child and his wife fears for his safety, he’s caused her to be afraid, so he’s committed DV.
Nowhere does the statute require Mom’s fear to be a reasonable response to the circumstances. If she says she was afraid, Dad’s an abuser, and - whoosh! – there go the kids.
Australian family law is deeply in need of reform. It needs to include a presumption of equal parenting for fit parents. It needs to take seriously actual domestic violence and child abuse, while punishing false swearing. Until parents learn that family court is not a free-for-all in which anything goes, including perjury for the sake of marginalizing a parent in the lives of his children, the best interests of those kids cannot and will not be served. They are not being served now.
The current family law inquiry came so soon after the last one that I dare to believe that the result may improve on the status quo. The last inquiry recommended against shared parenting and used some very dodgy tactics to do so. Most importantly, those included utterly misrepresenting the science on shared parenting. That there came yet another inquiry so hard on the heels of that one, to me, bodes well. It’s as if the powers that be realized their mistake and are trying to improve matters.
Such, at any rate, is my hope. In October, we’ll know. Until then, Graham Perrett will do his best to ignore both facts and common sense to push his bill into the statute books. I doubt he’ll succeed, but in this climate of fear and loathing of fathers, who can be sure?
A million thanks to Sue Price and the Men’s Rights Agency for the excellent work they do every day.