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The story of the Lone Fathers Association (LFA) began in 1972 when Mr Barry Williams, founder and longstanding National President of the Lone Fathers Association, found himself left him with four children to support, one being a three-months-old baby.
Officers from the (then) Welfare Department of the ACT attempted to take the children into care, but when it was explained that the children were being properly cared for and going to school the Police directed the Departmental officers to leave the arrangement undisturbed.
Barry subsequently became the first father in Australia to win custody of four children under the Family Law Act 1975.
Barry was injured at work in 1973, but was not able to receive any support comparable to the supporting single mother’s benefit. He went to Parliament and lobbied Mr Whitlam and Dr Cairns in the then Labor Government to introduce a supporting parent’s pension which would be the same for men and women raising their children alone. Mssrs Whitlam and Cairns were not interested.
As a result of his injuries at work, Barry was compelled to give up his job, but received workers compensation for only six weeks. For the next few years he had no income, and was forced to depend on a small bank loan and on shooting kangaroos and wild ducks and trapping rabbits to help feed his children.
Having become aware of the range of obstacles in the way of lone fathers wishing to raise their own children, Barry in 1973 got together with a group of men with similar concerns and issues and established the Lone Fathers Association to help lone fathers and to lobby governments for reform.
After further years of inaction by government, Barry in 1977 set up a tent on the lawns of Parliament House and went on a hunger strike. His young son Michael was also present with him at the tent embassy during this period.
Malcolm Fraser was now Prime Minister. After six days of Barry’s hunger strike, Mr Fraser agreed to meet with him. Barry asked to take Senator John Knight, Mr Bruce Goodluck, and Mr Michael Hodgeman, Minister for the Capital Territory, with him to the meeting.
At the meeting, Mr Fraser agreed that there was discrimination against men in the social security system, and told Barry that the single mother’s benefit would become the supporting parents’ pension as soon as the House rose. As a result of the meeting, a Bill was passed within 24 hours broadening the scope of the “mothers’ supporting benefit” to include supporting fathers, and the name of the benefit was changed to Single Parents Pension.
Senator Guilfoyle, the then Minister of Social Security, subsequently announced that the Government would discuss the new provision with the States to gain their acceptance, and noted that “This closes the gap in the Social Security benefits (and) will be of great benefit to lone fathers and their dependent children.”
The demand for the LFA’s services increased at such a pace during the 1970’s and early 1980’s that Barry and five other LFA members, Messrs Turner, McDonald-Holmes, Gavin, Scar, and Storer undertook a 15 weeks crash course in family law covering issues such as custody, access, property, incest, and domestic violence, in order to be able to better assist men and women requesting advice. LFA personnel are not legal practitioners, and if unsure of any topic, before giving advice the LFA seeks advice from its honorary solicitors.
Mr Williams’ achievements in lobbying on behalf of lone fathers and their children and assisting lone fathers on an individual basis were recognised in 1980 with the award of a British Empire Medal.
As requests for help continued to grow from all parts of Australia, Barry took on the task of opening new branches throughout Australia. The first branch outside Canberra was opened in Brisbane, followed by Perth, Sydney, Mackay, Bateau Bay, and Newcastle. Then came Northern Territory, Cairns, Rockhampton, Atherton, Melbourne, South Australia, Shepparton, Caloundra, Caboolture, Logan, and Bendigo.
In 1982, the Lone Fathers Association (Australia) Inc. was established as a national body, with its membership elected by the ACT organisation representing the LFA’s Australia-wide membership.
The role of the national body includes coordination of the activities of the LFA branches and making authoritative decisions about the policies being recommended by the LFA to the various levels of government.
As a result of the expansion of the branch structure, the LFA is now the largest and longest running family law reform group in Australia. Some 1,000,000 people have requested help in one way or another from the Association. They include men, women, and children, and comprise grandparents, police, social workers, legal professionals, doctors, court counsellors, members of parliament and many others. Those involved are people wanting help with either their own problems or the problems of their relatives or friends.
In 1983, major activities by the LFA included participation in Human Rights Commission seminars, at which the LFA explained the problems faced by children in lone parent families. The experience of both the LFA and Parents Without Partners (the largest single parent’s organisation in Australia, closely associated with the LFA) indicates that administration of the Family Law Act at times causes much hardship and suffering for children as a result of ill-considered decisions by the courts.
The Labor government which took office in 1983 began a re-examination of the definition of the rights of guardianship and custody, and attitudes of parents to the child and parenthood – to which the LFA made a policy contribution.
In 1984, the LFAA put forward a number of alternative recommendations to the Government’s National Maintenance Inquiry. One of these recommendations was to constructively work towards a more equitable and hostility-free environment. It included a proposal for the establishment of a “Separated Families Assistance Bureau” attached to the Family Court with provision for personal development of both parties to provide information and education services and financial advice – given that many marriages break up over these problems.
The proposal also involved the setting up of specialist magistrate courts for the resolution of family disputes in such areas as maintenance and access, without the divisive presence of legal advocates. These proposals eventually, two decades later, developed into proposals by the federal government for the establishment of a system of federal magistrates courts and family relationship centres.
In 1986, the LFA National President offered to walk from Sydney to Canberra to raise funds for a men’s and children’s accommodation and crisis service in the ACT, but the then ACT administration declined to supply significant funding for the project. The LFA were offered $600 to run such a service, at a time when very generous funding was being made provided for women’s refuges and other services for women.
In 1987, the federal government requested advice about the possible shape of a child support scheme based on administrative assessment. The LFAA advised that assessment of child support amounts by public servants would not be popular with clients (especially assessments by tax officers), and that there would be a large increase in the number of custody disputes, with more non-custodial parents seeking custody.
It was suggested by some commentators that there would also be increased demand for access and demands on the Family Court of Australia, that more non-custodial parents would cease work, and that non-custodial parents would be less inclined to “buy their way out” of periodical payments via concessions to the other party on property settlements. Self employment issues would have to be dealt with by the courts and there would be many appeals on assessments.
In 1987, Brian Howe, the then Minister for Social Security, appointed Mr Williams to be a member of a Child Support Consultative Group established under the chairmanship of Justice John Fogarty, to:
– Act as a mechanism for consultation with major interest groups and to advise the government on a legislative formula and the administrative assessment of child support
– Monitor the introduction of the new maintenance collection mechanism and advise the government on its operation
– Study and advise the government on the role of counselling in maintenance assessment, and
– Examine the problem of maintenance payments not being used to benefit the children, and to report on any appropriate action which could be taken to address the problem.
The Consultative Group held meetings in Canberra and Melbourne, considered papers, research materials, and statistics, and invited a number of interested groups and individuals to make submissions. The Group drew on experience from overseas countries in the application of formulae to maintenance assessment. The LFA representative on the group was responsible for some major improvements to the originally proposed design features of the scheme, notably adjustment of rates of contribution which had been set at excessively high percentages of income.
The Group reported back to the Government with a detailed design for a child support scheme for Australia, and this design was accepted and implemented by the Government. Mr Howe noted that the Group had brought together a range of legal experience, social welfare expertise, and concerns about the needs of parents and employers.
The LFA National President is currently a member of the CSN SEG which advises FaHCSIA (see above) and the Child Support Agency, and continues to work actively on child support issues.
In 1987, the LFA held a public seminar on domestic violence. The seminar was supported by crisis workers in the ACT such as Vietnam Vets Counsellors, Army and Air Force counsellors, counsellors for CARE, and many others. Also in attendance were members of the recent House of Assembly in Canberra. All agreed that a service to help men was essential.
In 1989, first funding recognition, of $1500, was received for the LFA national body.
The First Triennial National LFA Conference on Family Law was held at the Australian National University, ACT in 1990.
This was the largest convention on family law issues (National Convention on Lone Parent Issues) in Australia’s history up until that time. The convention was held at the Australian National University in Canberra, and 193 people attended. 90 were delegates, of whom 45 were women.
Mr Brian Howe, Minister for Social Security assisting the Prime Minister on social justice at that time, opened the convention. Other members of Parliament present included Senator David Brownhill, Senator Margaret Reid, and many other politicians. There were 12 other speakers, with subjects ranging from parental rights and medical intervention to societal perceptions of welfare, justice, and equity. These were specialists in their fields, such as clinical psychology, sexual abuse, and professional evaluation.
Many individuals spoke and gave papers, and over 50 resolutions were passed unanimously. It was resolved that a Senate inquiry should be conducted into the Family Law Act. This request was taken to Parliament by Senator David Brownhill (National Party NSW) who successfully moved in the Senate for the enquiry to be held. The Senate committee called for submissions from groups and individuals and called upon those who made submissions to address the committee in person. At the time the terms of reference did not include the child support scheme, but because so many of the submissions were child-support related a second inquiry was organised on those aspects of family law, chaired by Roger Price MP.
In 1991, Mr Brian Howe asked the LFA National President to travel throughout Australia conducting workshops explaining the child support scheme to organisations and other at public meetings. He did this over an 18 month period during which he covered nearly 25,000 km and met 40,000 people, and reported back to government in 27 major submissions on the people’s opinions and the arguments for and against the scheme. Funding was received to enable this major task to be carried out.
The LFA’s assessment, endorsed by its informants, was that, “Until we get a scheme where both parents’ incomes are taken into account equally you are never going to have a fair scheme”.
In 1993. the LFA held the Second Triennial LFA Conference on Family Law, at the Parents Without Partners Building in Dixon, ACT.
An LFA submission to the 1991 Inquiry by the Joint Select Committee on Certain Aspects of the Operation and Interpretation of the Family Law Act indicated that in the experience of the LFA the issues most commonly faced by fathers were:
– the contrast between enforcement of maintenance orders and non-enforcement of access
– the often prohibitive cost of legal representation for fathers against apparent unlimited legal aid for mothers
– unfair and inequitable property settlements with no review upon change of circumstances regarding the children, and
– lack of serious consideration of the father as an appropriate parent to have custody of his children, even in the most extreme cases of unsuitability of the mother.
The LFA recommended that, unless proven to be out of the question, no mediation or counselling post-separation should start from anything less than a basis of shared parenting. Similarly, no court order should ratify any agreement between the parties which does not allow for joint custody, so that future disputes over denial of access are permanently discouraged.
Other issues dealt with included the wishes of the child, false allegations of incest ands/or domestic violence, legal costs, the cost of court transcripts, and property settlements. Reference was again made to the concept, first outlined in the LFA 1984 submission, of “separated families assistance bureaus” – later adopted by the Government as Family Relationship Centres.
In March 1995, the National President informed the National committee that he would be erecting an on-site office on the lawns of Federal Parliament House Canberra. This was to be called the Australian Family Embassy and its purpose was to lobby Government and the Opposition to immediately set up an Office of the Status of Family. This would be an office to take up all family law issues. The view was taken by the LFA that, given that there was an Office of the Status of Women, why not an Office of the Status of the Family to provide essential policy balance.
Six LFA members kept the tent embassy going from 6 March 1995 until they were forced to leave by order of the Federal police on instructions from Parliament. The embassy closed on 28 April. In the time the embassy was there, nine politicians came down and spoke to the LFA and lent support, and hundreds of other people visited, had refreshments, and also lent support.
Reasons for the tent embassy included the need for:
Office of the Status of the Family
An LFA office – staffed by a secretary and a research officer
Gender inequality in family law to be addressed – see Sex Discrimination Act
Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be implemented
Research to be carried out on family violence and gender inequality
Disciplining of judges who refused to uphold their own orders
Special magistrates for dealing with access issues
LFA representation on governmental inquiries, and
Homeless youth allowance guidelines to be reformed to allow for more parental
Senator Sid Spindler from the Democrats Party visited the embassy, listened, and next day came back to report that his Party’s leadership group had passed a resolution to fully support the Office of Status of the Family.
Within two weeks the embassy had the support of 18 organisations covering a hundred thousand people.
An appointment was made for Mr Williams with Senator Crowley, Minister for Families on 28 April 1995. When the suggestion of the Office of Status of the Family was put to her, Senator Crowley said “I think you do a great job” and asked “Are you funded by the government?” The Senator said that she believed the LFA should be funded, with a paid secretary, paid researcher, and office. Mr Williams put this to all LFA members in the next issue of the LFA newsletter. The Minister also made an appointment with Brian Howe, then Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Williams met with Mr Howe who indicated that he supported such funding, but would not promise, although he would write a joint letter with Senator Crowley to the Attorney General supporting and requesting such funding.
The LFA continues to be of the view that an Office of the Status of Family is essential, and the Association continues to lobby accordingly.
Mr Greg Cornwall, MLA ACT indicated in 1995 that the new ACT Government was moving to lend a hand to the LFA by funding a long-overdue refuge in north Canberra for men with care of their children. Hackett House was judged to be unsuitable for a number of reasons. Mr Cornwell wrote to Bill Stefaniak Minister for Housing and Family Services to finally resolve the matter.
The LFA received funding in June 1995 to produce a national database and directory of information on family law issues, and eventually contribute to a network boost for institutions providing assistance in community service. It was appreciated that, for those in distress, this could be a lifeline.
In 1995, an LFAA brief was prepared (by Andrew Corish) and released on “How to run your own case in family law proceedings”
In 1996, the LFA hosted the Third Triennial LFA National Family Law Conference on family law, at the Griffith Centre building in Dixon, ACT.