Mark Dreyfus MP

Member for Isaacs
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Family Court Doorstop With Anthony Albanese 19 February 2021

19 February 2021

SUBJECTS: Government’s decision to abolish the Family Court of Australia; domestic violence; Facebook news ban decision; media bargaining code; alleged assault at Parliament House; workplace culture at Parliament House.


SUBJECTS: Government’s decision to abolish the Family Court of Australia; domestic violence; Facebook news ban decision; media bargaining code; alleged assault at Parliament House; workplace culture at Parliament House.

Good morning and thank you all for being here. This week, we began the week with horrifying revelations from a young woman who felt alone, unsupported and fearful of her employment after she made a disclosure about sexual assault. We end the week reflecting on the anniversary of the horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children. It's a week when, quite properly, the nation's attention has been focused on the scourge of violence against women and their children. It is astonishing that in this week, of all weeks, the Government has chosen to abolish a specialist family court, a critical Australian institution. And they've done so against the advice of every expert. This was not a reform supported by women's groups. This was not a reform supported by specialist providers of services to women who have experienced violence. This was not a reform supported by legal experts. But it's a reform that this stubborn Government recklessly pushed ahead with in any case. And it's that decision that we're here to speak about today. And I'd like to introduce my colleague, the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus.

MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much, Jenny. And good morning. We're here today in front of the Family Court of Australia here in Canberra on a very sad day because it's the day after the Government has passed legislation to effectively abolish the independent, specialist Family Court of Australia, which has served Australia for more than four decades since it was established by the Whitlam Government. It is a sad day because this is not a change that is going to produce any beneficial outcomes for the thousands of Australian families who use the services of the specialist court every year. As the president of the Law Council, Pauline Wright, has said, this is a terrible gamble with the lives of children and families. Labor stands with all of the people who work in the family court system. Labor stands with all of the specialist women's legal services, community legal centres, family violence workers, with everybody who works in the system who have unanimously condemned this action by the Morrison Government. This change, the effective abolition of the Family Court of Australia, is something that was not recommended by the Government's own inquiry. The Government set up the largest every inquiry into the family law system by the Australian Law Reform Commission. It reported to Government it did not recommend that there be this merger of courts. It did not recommend the effective abolition of the Family Court of Australia. But the Government has ploughed ahead anyway.

Yesterday, I heard Anthony speaking passionately on this subject, condemning the action of the Government in passing this bill. Anthony, as my Leader, as the Leader of the Australian Labor Party, spoke for all of Labor. And Labor has made it very clear. We are on the side of all those thousands of families, all of those children who used the services of the specialist Family Court of Australia. We are on the side of all those who work in the system, who have uniformly condemned this move by the Morrison Government. I will hand over to Anthony. Thank you.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, thanks very much, Mark. The Family Court was established in 1974. It was a part of the modernisation of Australia, one that recognised that there are power imbalances in society, that family relationships, when they break down, require specialist treatment, specialist services. And that's why a court dedicated to families was important. It was important then and it's important today. The fact is that there is no justification for this. This is a part of deals about getting other things through the Senate. And it is time that in 2021 we treated issues particularly involving women and children with more respect. It's time that Australia recognised the scourge of family and domestic violence and took action on it. We as public policymakers are in a very strong position to make a difference. Unfortunately, this week, our national Parliament did make a difference. It took us backwards. The abolition of the Family Court has not been justified on any public policy basis. And the fact that some senators voted for a deal on the basis of increased resources for one state, while every other state will get less specialist judges in this area, in the so-called division one area of the new combined court process, just shows what a farce it is. We already know that one of the issues here is time delays. We don't say the Family Court was operating perfectly. Far from it. It needed additional resources, additional commitment. What we've seen with the abolition is a major step back for our country. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible). What is it about?

ALBANESE: Well, quite clearly, it's about a rationalisation and cost-cutting. There'll be less specialisation as a result of these decisions. But it's also just about deal making. The truth is that anyone in public life knows that Family Court disputes have created issues which some people have disagreed with outcomes and processes. So in order to appeal, you'll hear, for example, the comment made sometimes that family violence affects men and women. And that's certainly true that can occur. But overwhelmingly, it's about violence that impacts women and their children. Overwhelmingly. And today, one year on from the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three beautiful children, we witnessed last year a graphic depiction of that, which should have been a real shake-up for the country. And there's no doubt that all Australians were shocked by that event. But a lot of domestic and family violence occurs behind closed doors. It occurs out of sight. Jenny McAllister has called for, on behalf of the Labor Party, a national recognition of the issue of coercive control. We're seeing the Queensland Government show leadership on that issue. Violence against women and children could take many forms. And that's one of them. And it needs a response.

JOURNALIST: How do you react to Facebook pulling down a number of domestic violence help pages?

ALBANESE: Look, Facebook's actions are completely reprehensible. And Facebook has been quite rightly condemned, not just here in Australia, but around the world for showing the amount of corporate power that it has and abusing that power. And that's why we need to recognise this as an issue. My second or third vision statement was about on democracy, something we can't take for granted. And the power and the way that algorithms are used can create a real issue of distorting public debate also.

JOURNALIST: Are you unified with the Government?

ALBANESE: Well, the fact is that I think I'm unified with the whole of Australia in saying that Facebook, in taking down sites such as hospital sites, the 1800RESPECT site, sites that people rely upon for emergency services, deserve to be condemned unequivocally. 

JOURNALIST: Is it wise for Australians to be taking them on by leading the charge globally?

ALBANESE: It is wise for Australia to be having a public debate about the power of monopolies. It's also wise for Australia to have a public debate about how some corporations can use their monopoly power to have excessive profits whilst at the same time we have seen a decline in public interest journalism in this country. I want to see more journalism, better journalism, and independent journalism as well that is genuine. 

JOURNALIST: On the issue of domestic violence, today is one year since the death of Hannah Clarke. Queensland has made a move to outlaw coercive control. Should other states follow the lead? 

ALBANESE: The Federal Government needs to show leadership when it comes to coercive control. Very clearly, that's what Labor has called for. And we need to do it so that we don't have different definitions in different states. I congratulate Queensland on their leadership. It is indicative of the leadership that Premier Palaszczuk continues to show for Queenslanders. But we need nationally, as well, to show leadership. What we saw this week was the opposite of leadership in the abolition of this court.

JOURNALIST: Does the PM have questions to answer about when his staff found out about the Brittany Higgins matter given the new text messages that have come out today?

ALBANESE: Well, what we've seen today is text messages that clearly indicate that the Prime Minister's office was told about the reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins in the office just 50 metres from the Prime Minister's office. We were also told that the prime ministerial staff, a senior staff member, was shocked by the detail which is there and that he or she would go on to tell the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff. It's not credible that the Prime Minister continues to say that his office only found out about it this week. And the dissembling nature of his answers before the Parliament are not good enough. The idea that he himself says that his staff member who was the Chief of Staff at the time of the reported sexual assault of Ms Higgins two years ago was his staff member before she went to Linda Reynold's office, and then afterwards has been in his office again for a period of time. And somehow there's a distinction between the person who's a senior staff member for him in his office knowing and his office knowing, quite frankly, it just doesn't stack up. It doesn't pass the pub test. And the idea as well that if the Prime Minister's saying that all of these people knew, his Chief of Staff, according to the text messages, other senior members, this is two weeks after the reported sexual assault. This is in April 2019. There are text messages saying that a senior staff member was going to discuss this with the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff. And this is one month before a Federal election is held in May 2019. And there's no discussion in that office as a result about a vicious sexual assault against a female staff member in the personal office of someone who had responsibility, a minister with responsibility for Defence issues, and there's no discussion in the Prime Minister's office at senior levels? It just defies belief. And I'll say this about Ms Higgins, she has shown great bravery this week. It must have been incredibly difficult for her to make the decision that she had no choice but to come forward in order to get some sense of justice about what occurred to her. And for her to not get the respect of getting straight and clear answers about what the response was at the time, about who was told and what they were told at the time, is disrespectful of Ms Higgins. I believe Brittany Higgins. Brittany Higgins deserves better than the way that she has been treated with the lack of Government transparency this week. Thanks very much.