Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2011


I also want to say a few words in support of the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2011. The coalition, as has been indicated by Senator Brandis, supports the strengthening of the provisions relating to family violence and child abuse because the coalition believes that nothing is more important than the welfare of children in the event of marital breakdown. The fact that the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee heard submissions from some 200 interest groups on this issue is testament to the broad community concern the matter has generated.

In 2006 the Howard government recognised some of the shortcomings of the Family Law Act following the handing down of the House of Representatives committee report entitled Every picture tells a story. Our government enacted appropriate amendments. The bill before the Senate takes those improvements a step further. I commend the bill because it provides greater protection for the most vulnerable members of our societyour childrenduring and after a relationship breakdown. We should all be disturbed at the statistics showing an alarming prevalence of abuse experienced by separated mothers and fathers. A detailed study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealed that two-thirds of separated mothers and over half of separated fathers reported experiencing physical or emotional abuse from the other parent. One in five parents expressed safety concerns associated with contact with the other parent.

Having said that, I want to raise a potentially disturbing matter relating to the valuable work of the Family Court based in Townsville. As senators will know, my office is based in Townsville and I live in that region, and I am interested in how the Family Court does its work in that area. There has been a Family Court judge based in Townsville since 1982, servicing not just Townsville but the whole of the vast North Queensland region. The incumbent Family Court judge, the Hon. Justice Monteith, is due to retire at the end of November, but there is no certainty that he will be replaced. This is despite assurances given prior to the 2007 federal election by the then shadow Attorney-General Senator Joe Ludwig that the position would be retained.

In addition to Senator Ludwig's 2007 commitment the Chief Justice of the Family Court, the Hon. Diana Bryant, publicly assured the Townsville legal profession in early 2008 that the Townsville based position of a Family Court judge would be maintained. Despite Senator Ludwig's promise and Justice Bryant's assurance the Gillard government has so far declined to name a successor, prompting very great and very real concern in legal circles in the north and raising serious questions about the truthfulness of the assurances given by this government. Could this be another lie in the making We all know that Prime Minister Gillard went to the last election promising not to introduce a carbon tax, but what did she do as soon as she was elected She broke her solemn word to the Australian people and introduced her toxic carbon tax, under duress from Senator Brown and the Greens, in a desperate bid to cling to power.

There can be no question about the need to continue the work of the Family Court in North Queensland. Indeed, there is a case, I submit, for providing even more resources than the court currently has at its disposal. As most senators would know, Townsville and the North Queensland region have grown exponentially since 1982 when the first Family Court judge was appointed. This growth has been fuelled by major developments in the defence, mining, minerals processing and primary industry sectors. Over the next few months 750 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and their families will complete their relocation to Townsville, boosting the regional economy by an estimated $60 million a year. New mines are being opened up and many existing mines are being expanded to keep pace with the international demand for our mineral resources. This is despite the minerals resource tax imposed by the Labor governmentwhich will only last as long as the Labor government does, and hopefully that will be a very short time. International mining companies, understanding that this government is on a very limited tenure, are still looking at the north of Australia for further investment in minerals.

Over 40 per cent of Australia's export earnings, I am always proud to say, are now generated in Northern Australia, despite the fact that only five per cent of Australia's population lives in what we class as Northern Australia. But this incredible growth brings with it an increase in social problems and marital breakdown, and this is exacerbated in the north by issues such as defence related psychological factors, fly-in fly-out working arrangements and deprived living conditions in Indigenous communities which exist mainly in northern and remote Australia. These factors have combined to significantly increase the case load for the Townsville based Family Court, which covers the vast area from as far south as Rockhampton and Mackay, north to Cairns and west to Mount Isa and encompasses Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands. Even the Labor Party, which has shown little interest in rural areas such as North Queensland, should be able to recognise the importance of supporting the work of the Family Court in this region by announcing a replacement for the retiring Judge Monteith as a matter of urgent priority. I fear that with a Canberra based government consisting of the Labor Party, who have little interest in Northern Australia and little interest in regional Australia, this is another one of their out of sight, out of mind approaches.

The President of the Townsville District Law Association, Diane Ruhl, wrote to the Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland, on 8 November this year formally requesting that he honour Senator Ludwig's election promise to continue the practice of basing a Family Court judge in Townsville by naming Justice Monteith's successor. I understand that to date there has been no response to the law association's request. The Labor government and the Labor Party showed no hesitation when Senator Ludwig shut down the northern live cattle export industry to appease the Greens earlier this year, with disastrous consequences for Northern Australia. I now call upon Senator Ludwig to urge the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, to honour the election promise that Senator Ludwig made in 2007 and thereby put to rest any suggestion that Justice Monteith will not be replaced and that the valuable work of the Family Court in North Queensland can continue.

Unfortunately Senator Ludwig, who represents the Attorney-General in this chamber, is not here tonight to hear this debate. I call on Senator Conroy, who is the minister at the table, to seriously listen to the issues of the Family Court in Townsville. Senator Conroy, could you please pass this on to your colleague Senator Ludwig, who was the Attorney-General when he came to Townsville prior to the 2010 election and promised the Townsville people that there would be a new appointment of a Family Court judge in Townsville. Many of us in Australia have got to the stage where we assume promises by Prime Ministers from the Labor Party and ministers from the Labor Party will never be honoured. Who can blame Australians for being cautious of promises made by Labor Party ministers when their own leader, Ms Gillard, promised prior to the last election there would be no carbon tax. We are now in the throes of implementing a carbon tax for Australia in spite of the Prime Minister's assurance and solemn promise that it would not happen. I leave that to one side.

It is important that the north of Queensland have a resident Family Court judge. Justice Monteith, I repeat, is retiring at the end of this month. Why the government has not announced a successor to Justice Monteith is of great concern not just to the legal profession but to all people in North Queensland. I repeat again that it is a fast-growing area of Australia. It has more than sufficient work in the Family Court to be assured of a Family Court judge permanently based in Townsville. I ask the minister at the table, who I assume is dealing with this legislation in the Senate chamber: why has the Gillard government not yet announced a successor to Justice Monteith just a few days before his retirement I would ask you, Senator Conroy, to speak to Senator Ludwig, who as Attorney-General made this solemn commitment to the Townsville legal community and indeed to the wider Townsville and North Queensland community that there would be a northern based Family Court judge. I simply repeat: if there is to be another northern based Townsville judge, why has it not been announced just 10 days before the retirement of the incumbent northern Family Court judge

I fear that my pleas are falling on deaf ears. For those who might be interested in this debate and are listening to the broadcast, there are two Labor Party people in the chamber tonight for this very important debate. The minister is reading his laptop and seems to be taking no interest. Perhaps I malign him. I would ask you, Senator Conroy, to take this message to your colleague in this chamber Senator Ludwig, and to Mr McClelland, and to give us some assurance in the next few days of who the successor to retiring Judge Monteith might be. Whilst I never expect much from the Labor government at the present time, I would hope that your advisers, Minister, will take these pleas on notice and perhaps come back to me within 24 hours and indicate just who the successor to the northern Family Court judge might be. With that plea, which I fear has fallen on deaf ears in this chamber, I indicate my support for the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2011 and my support for the submissions made by Senator Brandis on behalf of the coalition.

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