Malcolm Brown had already gone to Greenwich by the time I got to work on July 4, 1984. A bomb had exploded outside an apartment in the lower north shore suburb, killing Pearl Watson, the wife of family court judge Ray Watson. Reporters at the Herald that day were horrified. Frantic. Brown, with a team of others, including Robert Thomson, now the chief executive of News Corp, Richard Macey and Andrew Keenan set to work.
The last piece filed that night was Macey's, a story which gave insight into Pearl Watson, made her more than "judge's wife". She'd worked for seven years, as a counsellor, to help people whose marriages were in trouble. Pearl and her husband Ray knew their work was risky. Only a few months earlier family court judge Richard Gee was injured by a bomb blast, and four years before that another family court judge David Opas was shot dead on the doorstep of his home in Woollahra. The Family Court building in Parramatta was bombed in March of 1984. There were two other murders linked to these attacks on the Family Court: Stephen Blanchard and Graham Wykes.
The news stories, the features, are still devastating after 30-odd years and they have one overarching theme: when women and men divorce, when they dispute custody, when they battle over property, it is bitter and contested. Ray Watson, who died in 2010, had some ideas about how to fix that but his plans were so ambitious, they have been ignored for decades.
I've followed the woes of the Family Court since its inception in 1975. Here we are in 2019, and it continues to be beset by problems, flooded with false solutions. This latest - the planned inquiry to be run by Kevin Andrews and Pauline Hanson - is billed as an attempt to "bring men along", but is really nothing more than pandering to extremists.
The vast majority of Australian men are way ahead of this game. They are bringing themselves along, slowly but surely; and don't need to be patronised.
The real problems are these: government after government has decreased funding, wanted to change the Family Court's makeup, and provided inadequate funding for counselling and mediation. The Coalition government, in particular, slashed funding to community law centres.
But one of the biggest threats to the efficacy of the Family Court is one with the potential to harm all courts but is particularly problematic in the family sphere. I'll let Jacquie Lambie explain because, in her usual way, she's brutally honest. "Most Australians would think that for a judge to get that top job you would have to go through a rigorous review process. I was shocked to discover that, instead of a peer review process to examine your experience and expertise, now all the Attorney-General Christian Porter has to do is ring up a mate and offer them a judgeship. That's crazy and frightening when you think that someone who may only have experience in corporate law is being asked to make a decision about where your kids live."
This style of recruitment, once a rare occurrence, became an epidemic just before the last election. As one source said, "It's never been on this scale." It's particularly terrible in the various tribunals, but Lambie fears it will permeate all courts. Porter has defended the recent appointments as all capable and qualified.
In family law, lack of experience in these most sensitive cases, dealing with fragile humans, will be exacerbated if other plans by the Coalition go ahead. A decision was taken last year by the government to fold the Family Court into the Federal Circuit Court - and that was before the Australian Law Reform Commission had even finalised its recent report into the family law system. Many authorities across a range of expertise in family law tell me this is a truly terrible idea.
Added to this - and before the commission's recommendations (put together by people who know what they are talking about) are adopted - we have another inquiry foisted on us, with the inexpert in charge. It will be a show inquiry, a vehicle for Senator Pauline Hanson to broadcast the range of her ignorance, fed on anecdotes from her son.
Hanson's poor grasp of the evidence about what happens in the Family Court is a red flag, although I'd argue that the appointment of Andrews is also concerning, with his evangelical mission to save marriages. Some marriages can't be saved and trying to do so puts parties at risk.
And what of Ray Watson's view on how to fix the conflict too often see in the Family Court? He told the Herald back in the early '80s exactly what the problem was. "It is the lack of equality between men and women in our relationships that is the problem."
The government could begin to fix that today. It could begin small - fix its own notoriously poor representation of women to provide an example of what equality looks like. It could mandate quotas for men in female-dominated industries, such as childcare, aged care and health and community services. Fund research that tells us how to teach kids in childcare, primary school and upwards how to treat each other with respect and then fund the rollout of those programs, instead of dismissing those programs as queerifying young people. Everyone benefits from respect and if that includes the queer, onwards, upwards. Just those few small steps would cause a revolution in equality in this country. All this could be done if the government's real concern was for the safety of Australian children and their parents.
I fear its only concern is boosting its stocks with Hanson and One Nation instead of pursuing an agenda that would benefit everyone. Hanson, in particular, has been touting figures provided by various men's rights groups, which claim 21 fathers a week suicide. There is no evidence for this claim. One of Australia's leading researchers in this area, Samara McPhedran of Griffith University, explains the national suicide statistics are not very detailed. We just don't know.
We should just give the Family Court the resources it needs. Let it get on with its work. And, as Heather Nancarrow, the chief executive officer of Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety, puts it: No more inquiries. We know what we need to do. Let the judges and the Family Court get on with it.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.
- SMH/The Age