This new inquiry is not just cynical horse-trading. It is, I believe, a deliberate move by the government to bury the findings of the two inquiries it commissioned.
Both inquiries recommended sweeping changes that would put children’s safety – instead of parents’ rights – back at the centre of our family law system.
One reform, recommended by both inquiries, is so incendiary it’s provoked warnings of reigniting “the gender wars”. It is that the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility – and the mandate for judges to consider the option of shared care – should be abolished, because the evidence shows it is putting children at risk.
Shared parenting is the jewel in the fathers’ rights movement’s crown. After decades of aggressive lobbying on it, they got much of what they wanted from the Howard government in 2006.
The Shared Parental Responsibility Act introduced changes designed to make it easier for fathers to be granted access to or custody of their children. These included the new “friendly parent” provision, which required parents to support their child’s relationship with the other parent. “Unfriendly” parents – especially victims of domestic abuse – were routinely warned by their lawyers that presenting allegations of abuse would damage their case or risk them losing access to their children altogether.
This emphasis on pro-contact became, according to Rhoades, “the new orthodoxy” in family law. Culturally, across the family law system, father absence was being constructed “as a greater social problem than domestic violence”. Statistics bear this out: despite allegations of family violence featuring in more than half of cases, only 3% of fathers are denied access to their children. Three per cent.
As soon as a mother (or child) alleged abuse, they could counter-allege “parental alienation syndrome”, a now discredited term that denotes children’s abuse allegations and fears are commonly coached into them by vexatious or delusional mothers. The cure, according to the child psychiatrist who invented the concept, was to switch custody to the father, and suspend contact entirely with the mother for a period of weeks or months.