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Muriel Newman MP: Missed Opportunities

Muriel Newman MP: Missed Opportunities

Australia is our closest ally. While we may be fiercely competitive in sport, we share many similar goals. In areas of governance we view our neighbour as a large, successful nation that has achieved much that we can emulate.

It is, therefore, of deep concern to find that New Zealand and Australia are now heading in completely opposite directions in the important area of family law policy.

The new Care of Children Bill recently released by our government and debated in Parliament this week, identifies the diversity of families as one of its cornerstones and sole maternal custody in the event of parental separation, as another. Australia on the other hand places central value on the traditional nuclear family and is now considering abolishing sole maternal custody as the predominant family law outcome in favour of shared parenting. Shared parenting ensures that when parents separate, children are not deprived of their fathers, but retain frequent and ongoing contact with both parents.

The new Care of Children Bill, recently released by our Government and debated in Parliament this week, identifies the diversity of families as one of its cornerstones. Sole maternal custody, in the event of parental separation, is identified as the other. Australia, on the other hand, places central value on the traditional nuclear family – it is now in the process of abolishing sole maternal custody as the predominant family law outcome, and replacing it with shared parenting. Shared parenting ensures that, when parents separate, children are not deprived of their fathers, and retain frequent and ongoing contact with both parents.

In response to calls for more openness in Family Court proceedings, the Government’s new Children’s Bill tries to appease the critics with token changes, such as enabling the publication of censored court reporting and the attendance of wider family groupings at court hearings.

In comparison, Australia has long understood the need for openness, transparency and accountability in the justice system. Their Family Court is open to the public and the media, and uses name suppression to protect individuals’ identity. Further, the court has recognised that litigation costs can be a barrier to the right of alienated parents to fight for their children.

To combat this, it has introduced website instructions to coach non-custodial parents on how to best represent themselves in court. However, it is precisely the openness in the Australian Family Court that has led to a growing awareness that family court decisions are often not in the best long-term interest of the child. In particular, damage is being caused by the climate of hostility that surrounds the adversarial battle for sole custody, the bias against fathers, and the eventual alienation of children from one of their parents.

In response to these concerns, Australian Prime Minister John Howard last week signalled that he intended to investigate the introduction of sweeping changes to family law, namely replacing maternal sole custody with shared parenting as the predominant outcome of family separation.

That means that, unless there are exceptional circumstances, both parents will be required to share in the responsibility for raising their children. This would ensure that children whose parents have separated have frequent and ongoing contact with both their mother and their father, their grandparents and other family members.

In countries such as the US, Sweden and Holland – where shared parenting is the law – children whose parents separate do better, as shared parenting creates a climate where parents put their children first and work together in their best interest. Without the fear of losing their child, cooperation between separating parents replaces hostility, leading to an eventual decline in the rate of separation and divorce. Child support compliance is also seen to improve dramatically when liable parents are more closely able to share in the lives of their children. So, while Australia moves to make landmark changes to family law in order to ensure improved outcomes for separating families, our Government is heading in the opposite direction. Yet New Zealand had a chance to beat Australia in this regard.

In the last Parliament, the Labour Government had an ideal opportunity to investigate the benefits of shared parenting by supporting my private member’s Shared Parenting Bill to a Select Committee. The Bill was drawn from the ballot in 2001and, after a heated debate in Parliament, was voted down by Labour. The Government soothed concerns over whether sole custody arrangements protected the fundamental right of children, in separating families, to maintain an equal relationship with both their mother and their father, by saying these issues would be addressed in their new Care of Children Bill. They are not.

Around the same time, Labour had the chance to bring open justice into New Zealand’s Family Court by modelling it on the Australian Family Court. Unfortunately, however, they decided to vote down my second private member’s Bill to open up the Family Court, saying they were going to address the issues of concern in their own legislation. Again, that legislation – the Care of Children Bill – does not address those concerns. Every year, an estimated 10,000 families separate in New Zealand. Under our present family law – in our secret Family Court – around 20,000 children are deprived of one of their parents, usually their father. In a civilised society, any government that sanctions a law that rips families apart in such a manner should be called barbaric.

Family law reform is urgently needed in New Zealand. Today’s children have more challenges than any other generation. Trying to grow up in a climate of hostility – if not warfare – without the support of one of their parents, because the Government has decided that it will not allow two parents to be actively engaged in their life, is simply unacceptable.

I would encourage anyone who shares the desire to see New Zealand catch up with Australia, by opening up the Family Court and bringing in shared parenting as our predominant family law outcome, to make a submission to Parliament on the Care of Children Bill … and to demand to be heard!

The Care of Children Bill can be viewed on www.act.org.nz/careofchildren

- This message has been brought to you from the office of Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand

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