Nigel Scullion, Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash
Nigel Scullion, Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash address the National Party Meeting

The Nationals — emboldened by their relative election success compared to the Liberals — are pushing hard for more leverage in the Coalition under a wounded Malcolm Turnbull, and the secrecy of their dealings, and agreement, with the Liberals is already coming under fire. But one particular issue should be deeply troubling: the possibility that the Nationals will secretly move to make the Family Court system even more hostile to victims of domestic violence than it currently is.

In today’s Australian Financial Review, Phil Coorey reports that the Nationals, led by Barnaby Joyce, are considering trying to embrace elements of the One Nation agenda in order to head off the threat posed by Pauline Hanson to their far-right flank in the bush. One of the key differences this time around in relation to Hanson is that, instead of having Nationals leaders prepared to stand up to her as Tim Fischer and John Anderson were prepared to do in the late ’90s, the current generation of Nationals and LNP MPs are more likely to endorse her agenda of xenophobia, opposition to foreign investment and Islamophobia.

One issue where there is further scope for the Nationals to co-opt the extremist agenda is family law. As news.com.au’s Malcolm Farr recently discussed, much of Pauline Hanson’s support is drawn from embittered middle-aged men who want to overturn the Family Court and the existing child support system. These are men deeply angry that their privileged social status as white males has been undermined by social and economic change in recent decades, and more equal treatment for women and children in family law is a particular source of unhappiness. Hanson’s party wants to abolish the Family Court and replace it with a body of “mainstream” community members, dump current child support arrangements, change legal aid to require losing parties to pay costs, and make joint custody the “option of choice” for the family law system.

Coorey quotes one Nationals MP as flagging family law as an area the Nationals needed to “treat seriously”.

This has potentially horrific implications for victims of domestic violence. The Howard government’s 2006 changes to family law — intended to appease “fathers’ rights” groups –already went in this direction: the Family Court was to ensure children have a “meaningful relationship with both parents”. That has already resulted in a de facto overriding of children’s right to safety, despite changes to the law in 2012 by Labor to give greater priority to children’s safety and addressing family violence.

In June, former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty spoke at the National Press Club on a campaign by Women’s Legal Services Australia for amendments to the Family Law Act to address current problems with the treatment of domestic violence victims by the Family Court. She spoke of terrifying cases in which children have been ordered to live with abusive parents, including a case where a victim of sexual abuse was repeatedly returned to his abusive father by police until the boy produced evidence of his abuse.

The campaign includes providing greater resourcing for the Family Court to help victims of domestic violence with more, and more evenly distributed, trained professionals available through the system to deal with family violence issues, and a specialised pathway for family law cases involving domestic violence. It also urges legal changes such as an end to domestic violence perpetrators being able to cross-examine their victims in court, and a greater legal emphasis on child safety rather than parental access.

A few days after her Press Club speech, on what would have been Luke Batty’s 14th birthday, Batty presented a petition for the campaign to politicians from the Coalition, Labor and the Greens.

The policies put forward by One Nation, which look likely to inform the Nationals’ deal with the Liberals, would do exactly the opposite. Under the legal aid changes, domestic violence victims who complain of their former partners’ abuse would be liable for the latter’s legal costs if a court is unable to determine whether abuse has occurred, providing a massive deterrent to women raising abuse in family law proceedings (which is presumably the intention). They would force children to live with abusive parents under One Nation’s “option of choice” of joint custody, and slash child support payments for women. Trained professionals and experts would also be removed from the system and replaced with “mainstream” community members picked, presumably, by governments.

The secrecy with which the Liberals and the Nationals are cloaking their agreement is all the more alarming in this context. There’s a very real chance, so that the Nationals can co-opt One Nation supporters, that Barnaby Joyce will demand family law changes that elevate the rights of abusive parents and undermine the rights of domestic violence victims in a system already tilted against the latter. How will a weakened Turnbull, under pressure from reactionaries in his own party, respond?

Peter Fray

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