"We are happy with the price", the former NSW premier Barrie Unsworth declared in an ABC News report, of having just paid double the odds for a run down suburban house in Sydney's south west.
What price nostalgia? Apparently $1.5 million for a property with a presale estimate of $700-750,000. And so another vital exhibit of the Whitlam legacy was secured: a group of Labor stalwarts had purchased the old family home of the former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in Cabramatta.
It's a pity that Labor stalwarts in the Commonwealth Parliament were not quite so successful in saving the Family Court of Australia, a key element of the Whitlam government's reform of Australian society in the 1970s.
Almost simultaneously with excited news of the house purchase, media reports barely noted the disappearance of the Family Court into the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.
On 18 February legislation merging the Family Court into the FCC passed the Senate, supported by One Nation and the senator Rex Patrick. Attorney-General Christian Porter claimed that the merger would make legal proceedings more efficient: "a single point of entry would make the system simpler and reduce confusion for families."
Exactly how is unclear. Women's Legal Services chief executive Angela Lynch said it was "a bizarre decision to move from a specialist court to a generalised model".
"This is a devastating outcome for families in Australia, for vulnerable children, and vulnerable women who are affected by domestic violence."
The legislation was opposed by an extraordinary coalition of 155 stakeholders including the Law Council of Australia, Community Legal Centres Australia and the National and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.
The former Family Court chief justice Alastair Nicholson disputed that the Morrison government's reforms would create greater efficiencies. Judges with "no real knowledge" of family law could lead to even longer delays for families trying to settle disputes.
Independent MP Zali Steggall, a former Family Court barrister, said that Family Court judges laboured under an impossible workload generated by chronic underfunding.
The Law Council of Australia observed that "even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Family Court and FCC were facing delays of more than a year's worth of cases each. Two in three FCC judges already have more than 300 matters in their dockets, some more than 600."
In short, the "broken" Family Court - as described by Christian Porter - was being blamed for a problem created by the government.
Labor and the Greens opposed the legislation. Labor's shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus described the passage of the bill as a "terrible day for vulnerable families.'
Dreyfus added that 'It is very telling that in contrast to the marathon parliamentary debate that the Whitlam Government enabled when it established the court in 1975, the Morrison Government shut down debate so it could ram its legislation through the Senate in just two days."
The Family Court of Australia was not simply designed as an efficiency mechanism: it recognised a basic right of human dignity, liberating partners ending their marriage of the burden of gratuitous and degrading judgements of fault.
The Family Law Bill, introduced by Labor's attorney-general Lionel Murphy, provided for a simple, single ground of no-fault divorce. As Gough Whitlam observed, former grounds such as adultery, cruelty and desertion "were recognised as symptoms rather than the causes of marriage breakdown."
The Family Court would be composed of judges trained in family law work, and was, Whitlam said, "designed to provide help, encouragement and counselling to parties with marital problems and to have regard to their human problems, not just their legal rights".
All systems struggle in the face of human reality, and distressed frailty; some fail. The Family Court could not outlaw unhappiness. No court could resolve the hurt of separation from spouse and children.
The old Whitlam family home is empty and decayed. The purchasers plan to restore and open the house to the public, providing a space to learn of the legacy of "social and political history in a very important time in our lives."
Perhaps for Labor stalwarts it can't come too soon. It's hard to avoid a suspicion that the Family Court merger seemed to scratch a conservative itch, relieving a need to finally expunge the Whitlam legacy from public policy and the institutions of justice and government.
Perhaps an unrenovated room of the Whitlam home could be set aside to remind visitors of the fragility of our legacies. The Whitlam government is still with us, its reforms contested and even resented by some. Whitlam challenged the prevailing power of privilege and patriarchy.
Finding an appropriate media headline to draw attention to the dissolution of the Family Court might prove difficult. Few surfaced around 18 February, as the media focused on another distressing revelation of abuse in the building where our laws are made.
- Dr Mark Hearn is a senior lecturer in Macquarie University's Department of History and Archaeology.