From the Heart (Peter Lewis - 14/01/2003)

There are about 1,000,000 children whose parents are divorced and about 50,000 children every year are affected by the decisions of adults to no longer be together.  Today about 1 marriage in 2 ends in divorce as opposed to 1 in 10 at the beginning of the century. I am concerned about what is happening to these children. I believe that our divorce laws are not keeping pace with changes in the Australian family structure to the detriment of children and their parents.

Romantic assumptions and sexual stereotypes are no longer viable in today’s society where more and more mothers are working outside the home. No longer do we see families reflecting the traditional idea of marriage of one full time homemaker and one full time breadwinner. Though our 19-century assumptions about parenting and custody have been undercut by changes in family structure and the economy, family law still fails to reflect these realities.   

These dated assumptions and legal stereotypes are also being challenges by a growing body of hard evidence that two parents actively involved in raising their children can be better not only for the child but also for the parents even though they are no longer married. Joint residence also protects a child from the traumatic situation of having to choose between parents. Controlled studies of divorced families have found that children do best who have open and continuing relationships with both parents.

With a rebuttable presumptive joint residence Bill Australia will acknowledge the research that documents the damaging effects of sole residence on the psychological and emotional development of children and make joint residence a viable alternative for families. And of equal importance we will protect those children for whom sole residence will remain the better option. The divorced family is still a family, joint residence recognises that both parents should be in their child’s life and gives both a parental role. Without joint residence, one parent acts as a parent, the other is nothing more than a ‘visitor’ who has limited contact.

I am angered by the false accusation that the Len Harris measure is a political stunt. The accusation is malicious and is designed to create confusion among supporters of the proposed legislation. A further mischievous attempt to destabilise support for the measure has resulted in the rumour that the Bill has been withdrawn. Nothing could be further from the truth. Senator Harris has reaffirmed his steadfast commitment to the principle that children have the human right to be loved and to be cared for by both their mother and father.

The Len Harris Bill addresses the post divorce family structure. It encourages parental responsibility and cooperation and provides necessary guidelines for the awarding of residence. My endorsement of the Act came after careful study and discussion. Under the amendment no preference would be given to either parent, joint residence would be the first order of preference, and the child’s parents could work out their joint parenting plan.    

As the decision on how best to care for children after divorce can potentially affect the lives of millions, social policy should be determined by a conscience vote of parliamentarians and not along party political lines. It is time for Australia to recognise and to deal effectively with the post divorce family. Far too many children are being denied a relationship with BOTH parents and too many parents are denied the parental role, due to the unwritten assumption for sole residence that is ingrained in our social and legal system.  

Peter Lewis, Speaker SA Parliament   

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