Stone the crows! There’s a case for the government sticking its bib in people’s marriages!

In 2005, then Attorney-General Philip Ruddock allocated $336m over four years to a chain of 65 family relationship centres, store front services where people could get advice on holding relationships together and resolving child custody disputes outside the courts.[i] “Centres should not assume that clients with relationship difficulties or going through separation will inevitably separate. They should be trying to prevent separation by referring families in appropriate cases to family counselling or other intervention programs that help keep families together,” Mr Ruddock said.[ii]

Yes, it sounds like social engineering to the Crows as well. But it was intended to save all taxpayers money and many of them heartbreak. By the end of the 1990s, close to 30 per cent of children were living with one parent, in step and blended families.[iii] One of the most divisive social issues of the Howard era was the push for shared parenting by divorced parents, the subject of an inquiry by Professor Patrick Parkinson.[iv] In 2011, there were some 23,000 divorces, and 48 per cent of the total involved children under 18.[v]

And then there was the cost to the budget, which led to the Howard Government’s welfare to work changes for single parents.[vi] Although no one seems to know what divorce costs the community in terms of running the courts and welfare payments, the economic case for couples to stay married is well established.

Divorce is an economic disaster, with divorced men and women earning less, and having fewer assets than couples. Divorce also has a six-year impact on people’s subjective well-being.[vii] And it is a long established article of faith among conservatives that as marriage is a foundation of society the state has a duty to foster it.

As then backbencher Kevin Andrews put it, in 1999, “the tragedy of marriage breakdown is not just the millions of dollars it costs each year. It is the tragedy of the personal and emotional trauma which research increasingly indicates affects many children, even into their adulthood, and the consequent diminution of health, educational opportunities, and wellbeing, including the stability of relationships of children whose parents divorced.” [viii]

So the question is, what might become of the relationship centres, now the government is in a mood for cuts. The opposition would be in no position to make too much of any reduction in resources, given Labor had a go at their funding and the not-for-profit community organisations which run them now provide means tested counselling.[ix]

According to the counselling lobby, they are worth speaking up for. Francesca Gerner reports they have reduced family court filings by 32 per cent.[x] The Attorney-General’s annual report cites their dealing with 430,000 clients in various programs. [xi]

If this means fewer people in the family court and lower overall government outlays it surely is a good thing – certainly a less painful one for families that do not end up having a court tell them what to do.

Then again, the previous government did not think so. The Rudd Government reduced funding for the centres in 2010, while upping legal aid budgets, which strikes the Crows as rewarding lawyers to deal with breakups, some of which could be prevented.[xii] As Kevin Andrews put it, “The government is not only ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, it seems intent on promoting rather than discouraging costly and emotionally-draining litigation.”[xiii]

Granted Kevin Rudd appeared to change his mind very late in the day, promising a funding term of four rather than three years during the election, but obviously he did not deliver.[xiv] And now the welfare lobby wants the Abbot Government to provide more money, at least reversing Labor’s cuts. [xv]

The Crows hope they get it. Not out of any enthusiasm for an expanded welfare state or new found faith in the efficacy of social engineering mind, but from the hope that it will save money some of the vast amount of money which is now spent in the courts and on welfare when families fail.

As Professor Parkinson puts it:

Law has a limited role in reversing the tide of family breakdown. The main focus needs to be on programs and services that have the goal of promoting safe, stable, and nurturing relationships between children and adults, and enhancing various protective factors that improve parental resilience. One way of doing this is to provide education programs about family life, which help address the knowledge deficits across the community through lack of healthy modelling in people’s families of origin.[xvi]

Optimally, we need to know what the centres save us through families kept out of the courts and off the welfare rolls – and continuing funding should depend on evidence that they are deliver net savings to the budget. But I’m guessing they do – counsellors come cheaper than courts and lifetimes eked out on welfare.

Need a speech or oped? Call the Crows 0417 469 093


[i] Budget Overview, May 10 2005 @ recovered on November 9

[ii] Phillip Hudson, “Ruddock in push to keep marriage off the rocks,” Sun Herald, October 9 2005

[iii] Pamela Kinnear, “New families for changing times,” The Australia Institute, 47 (June 2002) @ recovered on November 9

[iv] Patrick Parkinson, “In the best interests of children: reforming the child support scheme,” Department of Social Services, June 3 2005 @ recovered on November 9

[v] Francesca Gerner, “Family relationship centres: delivering family law reform since 2006,” Partnership of Victorian Family Relationship Centres, May 31 2013 @ recovered on November 9

[vi] Budget Papers 2005 -06, “Welfare to work” @ recovered on November 9

[vii] Australian Institute of Family Studies, “The financial impact of divorce,” July 24 2012 @ recovered on November 9

[viii] Kevin Andrews, “Developing a national family policy,” Family Matters, 54 (Spring/Summer) 1999 47-51 @ recovered on November 9

[ix] Australian Government, Family Relationship Centres @ recovered on November 9

[x] Auditor General, “Implementation of the Family Relationship Centres initiative,” Australian National Audit Office, 2010 @ recovered on November 9, Gerner, ibid

[xi] Attorney General, “Annual Report 2012-13: Program 1.4 Family relationships.” @ recovered on November 9

[xii] Adele Horing, “Marriage counselling facing cuts to enable a boost in legal aid,” Sydney Morning Herald May 10 2010

[xiii] Kevin Andrews, “No help for unhappy families in the budget,” Australian Polity, May 19 2011 @ recovered on November 9

[xiv] Patricia Karvelas, “Four year funding for families,” The Australian, August 1

[xv] Patricia Karvelas, “Family service wants boost to its centres,” The Australian, August 5

[xvi] Patrick Parkinson, “Another inconvenient truth: fragile families and the looming crisis for the welfare state,” Sydney Law School Research Paper 12/05, January 26 2012 @ recovered on November 9