Men's Rights Agency - Feminism

MRA Comments .....

The rise of fathers' rights groups in Australia is obviously causing some concern among feminist academics, Miranda Kaye and Julie Tolmie. With the guidance of Regina Graycar, Kaye and Tolmie have produced of a 50 page critique of  men's groups in Australia..

Gathering their information from interviews with the men's groups under the guise of collecting information for "government use" and from submissions made by the groups to various government inquiries as the basis for their report, Kaye and Tolmie, lecturers at the Faculty of Law, Sydney University, have demonstrated their lack of impartiality in the lead-in paragraph.   The authors have featured one of Judge Alistair Nicholson's more objectionable anti-male statements when he publicly accused those who disagreed with the practices of the Family Court , (mostly men) as being "discontented litigants, sometimes obviously dysfunctional". Nicholson, the Chief Justice of the Family Court further abused his advantaged position , (i.e. protected from rebuttal under the secrecy provisions within the Family Law Act), by claiming "most persistent critics behaved in a way which cannot stand up to public scrutiny, particularly in relation to issues of violence against women and children".

At the time, even the feminist friendly newspaper, the Brisbane Courier Mail (editorial 21/9/95) came to the defence of those who have to remain silent about their experiences within the Family Court by declaring "the fact that the court has decided that a father should not have custody of his child does not mean he is dysfunctional, nor that he cannot agitate for changes in the system".

For Kay and Tolmie to begin their 'discourse' with such statements clearly sets the scene that the primary intention of their research will be, most likely, to denigrate men's groups in any way they can.

Kaye & Tolmie's analysis attempts to define the groups' attitudes to issues concerning family law, contact with children, child support, and domestic violence. They focus on the divergence of opinions within the groups, particularly criticising the differing views put forward by localised groups that belong to national organisations.

Kay and Tolmie portray this to be a fatal flaw upon which to question the logic and validity of the expressed opinions and ideas. Men's/father's groups do not enjoy the stability of continuous leadership, primarily because they are totally unfunded. Whereas women's groups , who have been well funded for many years, have been able to establish a hierarchy and agenda that remains relatively unchanged.

Obviously submissions put forward by most groups will vary year to year according to the opinions of the volunteers who at that time take on the role of "submission writers". Their ideas vary because their experiences are varied. This should not be seen as a fault, but an advantage, presenting the opportunity to examine many differing opinions and suggested solutions. It is indeed fortunate that fathers' views have not been subjected to the rigid dictates that feminism demands of their followers. One issue, however, does not vary ... the welfare of their children. The vast majority of fathers want to play a role in the upbringing of their children, not be relegated to the sidelines as "an every other weekend dad".

If and when fathers' groups receive funding, an opportunity will be given to formulate strategies that encompass the views of most groups across the nation. This is now happening to some extent via the internet which has allowed father's groups to exchange ideas and formulate co-ordinated strategies.

Considering, the difficulties faced by fathers' groups I believe they have excelled themselves with the number and quality of the submissions put forward ..... all without the benefit of paid researchers. It's certainly shocked the feminists out of their complacency and belief they had control of the "system". Comments like "the movement appears to have gathered momentum, credibility and popular support as a political and media force in more recent years." or "the apparent success fathers' rights groups have had in setting the agenda for family law reform in Australia" shows the level of Kaye and Tolmie's concern.

The standards normally expected from university faculty members appear to have been forgotten in their attempts to grasp at straws to belittle the men's groups. I cannot speak for other groups, but in our own case I well remember the conversation with the researcher and as an example of the errors or deliberate misinformation contained in the report I refer to the following.

Under the heading Custody/residence the authors write: "Men's Rights Agency CLAIMS that, of the men who actually go to court, only 18% get sole custody" and then they comment "these statistical claims are generally unreferenced by the groups and so it is unclear what their data sources are".

Firstly, I found the researcher who questioned me under the guise of compiling data about men's groups for government reference to be singularly ill informed about family law issues. I attempted to add to the researcher's education by referring to Sophy Bordow's study in 1994. Her findings showed that in the case of custody "agreed to by consent" ... in 18% of the cases the father would have custody and of the cases "decided by the Court" then in 31% of the cases the father gains sole custody and that figure rises to 39% when joint, and split custody is involved. Bordow's research was very familiar to me as we had featured the study on the front page of our Newsletter in July, 1996. The authors published incorrectly the detail supplied by MRA: they used the word CLAIM to cast doubt on any information provided by MRA, stating sources are "unreferenced" and then they had the gall to use the Bordow study correctly in the next paragraph!!

Secondly, and this is a classic, under the Legal Aid section , note 313, the authors wrote "The Men's Rights Agency CLAIMS that the legal aid dollar is split 2:1 in favour of women". Once again using the word "CLAIMS" Kaye and Tolmie attempt to cast doubt on the information tendered, but only 6 lines later they confirm what MRA said was correct, that is if mathematical calculation has not nowadays succumbed to feminisation. According to Kaye and Tolmie's version "men receive approximately 32 - 39 percent of all Legal Aid funding in family law matters, Legal Aid in Australia 1993-1994, Statistical Yearbook. Now doesn't that equate pretty closely to 2 to 1 ratio of distribution?

Kaye and Tolmie describe their work as a "basis for future critical engagement". (Pg 20/21) If this is the standard as illustrated by the two examples concerning MRA, I don't think we'll have much problem in countering this report. But don't take my word for it, judge for yourself the quality of academic excellence!!!

Sue Price
Men's Rights Agency

Fathers' Rights Groups in Australia and
their Engagement with Issues in Family Law

Miranda Kaye and Julia Tolmie*

There is a constant and persistent view pursued by people who are often discontented litigants sometimes obviously dysfunctional, that the court is in some sense designed by anti-family groups to destroy the institution of the family in society... An unfortunate concomitant of this approach is that some people and some politicians with limited knowledge of the issues involved, tend to latch on to such dysfunctional persons for apparent political gain. This has the further unfortunate effect of empowering such persons to feel that their behaviour is not only acceptable but is the subject of sympathy and approval by politicians and government. It is all too often the experience of this court that its most persistent critics have behaved in a way which cannot stand up to public scrutiny, particularly in relation to issues of violence against women and children. Such persons, who often espouse the rights of fathers, do very little for their cause. There are legitimate matters that can be advanced on their behalf and it is equally as important that the court and those within it do not adopt stereotyped attitudes towards men as well as women. However, the behaviour and attitude of those who espouse so-called fathers' rights leaves little opportunity for rational discourse.1

Introduction

The movement to promote fathers' rights in the context of family law is newly emerging in Australia. While some fathers' rights groups have been in existence for a number of years the movement appears to have gathered momentum, credibility and popular support as a political and media force in more recent years. Evidence of this can be found in the media attention it has received,2 the apparent proliferation of groups and branches,3 the organisation of conferences4 and infrastructure,5 the expressions of support from politicians,6 the setting up of political parties,7 and the increasing sophistication and quantity of submissions such groups are making in respect of law reform references. Implicit evidence can be found in the strong reaction of the Chief Justice of the Family Court (cited above) and in the popular perception that fathers’ rights groups have played an influential role in respect of a number of the recent Australian family law reforms.8

In spite of the media debate fathers’ rights groups have generated in recent times there is still surprisingly little written about them in the Australian context.9 Accordingly, in commencing this research we were interested in investigating and describing the groups as a phenomenon. In other words we wanted to find out who they are, how influential they have been in setting the agenda for family law reform and what their main concerns are. We have relied on primary sources in our research: submissions such groups have made to law reform bodies on various family law references; telephone interviews conducted by our research assistant with representatives from various groups;10 self-generated literature; and media searches.

This article has two parts. In the first part we briefly discuss the apparent success fathers’ rights groups have had in setting the agenda for family law reform in Australia. In the second part we outline the major concerns raised by Australian fathers’ rights groups over the years. In our opinion such a project necessarily exposes the highly politicised nature of the fathers’ rights agenda. Our intention in providing this overview is to provide a basis for future critical engagement11 with such groups around the various issues raised. Because our intention is to describe, but certainly not to espouse, the views of the fathers' rights movement we have provided some (very limited) critical comment.


* Lecturers at the Faculty or Law, Sydney University. We are indebted to the helpful comments of Reg Graycar on earlier drafts of this article. We would also like to thank Jonathon Hunyor, Suzanne Christie and Veronique Maury for their invaluable research assistance which was funded by the New South Wales Law Foundation Legal Scholarship Support Fund.

1 Honorable Chief Justice Alistair Nicholson, from “Welcome" in “Enhancing Access to Justice", Family Court of Australia Second National Conference Papers, 2-23 September 1995, Family Court of Australia. Sydney, 1996, p 1.

2 For example: The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1984, p 1; 19 February 1988; 5 August 1992, p4; 22 September 1993, p9; 2 September 1994, p 13; 25 February 1995, p2; 22 June 1995; 2 September 1995, pp 116; 4 May 1996, p 8; 12 October 1996, pp 1, 4; 14 October 1996, p 11; 15 October 1996, p 11; 22 October 1996 (Series by Bettina Arndt); 28 November 1996. p 1; 12 February 1997. p 13; The Age, 14 November 1995, p 11; 28 January 1996, p12, 8 May 1996. p 20; 30 July 1996, p 15; The Australian, 2-3 September 1995, p 29; 13

3 March 1997, p 11; The Sun Herald 9 March 1997, p 39.

4 M Abernethy, "Paternity Wars: In Australia, Divorce is a Battle Men can't win", Australian Penthouse, April 1993.

4 Lone Fathers Association, Australia (LFAA) organised the first National Family Law Conference in 1990 and the second National Family Law Conference in 1997.

5 Participants at the LFAA Conference (1997) raised the possibility that more political gain may result from strategic alliances and the creation of an umbrella organisation. Cheryl Gregory from DADs is engaged in the task of developing a mailing list and appropriate structure.

6 At the LFAA Conference (1997) Barry Williams recounted his communications with Tim Fischer. Member of Parliament and former Chair of the Joint Select Committee into the Family Law Act Roger Price attended the conference as did Liberal backbencher Paul Marrick [should be Marek] (federal member for Capricornia), and ACT Attorney-General Garry Humphries.

7 The Family Law Reform Party (FLRP) is a registered political party which has run candidates at state level and intends to run candidates at the next federal election.

8 See L Young, “Parenting Disputes under the Family Law Act 1975: The New Regime" (1996)1 Sister in Law 93 at 101.

9 For one of the few treatments of these groups see R Graycar, "Equal Rights Versus Fathers' Rights: the Gild Custody Debate in Australia" in Child Custody and the Politics of Gender, C Smart and S Sevenhuijsen (eds), Routledge, London, 1989. Canadian research in this area includes the work of I Bertoia and J Drakich, "The Fathers' Rights Movement: Contradictions in Rhetoric and Practice" (1993)14 Journal of Family Issues 592. Work in the US includes S Coltrane and N Hickman "The Rhetoric of Rights and Needs: Moral Discourse in the Reform of Child Custody and Child Support Laws" (1992) 39 Social Problems 400. Work in the UK includes Richard Collier, "'Coming Together?': Post-Heterosexuality, Masculine Crisis and the New Men's Movement" (1996) IV Feminist Legal Studies 3.

10 These interviews were not a primary research resource. This was because we were unable to systematically locate groups and/or their representatives. However, the interviews did provide useful background information such as size of membership and the types of activities undertaken by the groups interviewed.

11 See M Kaye and J.Tolmie, “Discoursing Dads: The Rhetorical Devices of Fathers’ Rights Groups" (forthcoming in MULR).


Who are the fathers' rights groups?

For the purposes of our research we have defined fathers' rights groups as being either groups which explicitly represent fathers' concerns (whether custodial or non-custodial) or groups with an agenda which reflects the concerns of non-custodial parents (who are statistically more likely to be fathers). This definition is very loose. It includes groups whose sole focus is fathers' rights, groups that raise parenting concerns as an aspect of their more general focus on men's rights, and groups which don't claim to represent either parent and yet present in their law reform submissions and literature a strong agenda for non-custodial parents. An example of the former are groups like Lone Fathers Association, Equality for Fathers and Dads Against Discrimination, which are very obviously set up to perform the role of representing fathers. An example of the latter is the Family Law Reform Association NSW Inc which actually claims not to be a fathers' rights group. It says that it is after equality for both parents, it is just that fathers are usually the ones disadvantaged. It falls within our definition because it was started by men and has an agenda that primarily reflects the concerns of non-custodial parents.

There are a number of borderline groups which we have also taken note of this research. Some of these groups are borderline because they sometimes fall within our definition and at other times outside it. Parents Without Partners is the best example. One representative we interviewed said that it was a social group only with no interest in representing any particular constituency, while another representative we spoke to presented a strong fathers' rights agenda. One law reform submission produced by this organisation presented an agenda strongly supporting the concerns of the non-custodial parent, while other law reform submissions contained agendas sympathetic to the interests of custodial parents, either male or female. Other borderline groups include those such as Women Who Want to be Women or Women and Grandparents Treated Unfairly by the Family Law, who clearly claim to represent neither fathers' interests nor the interests of non-custodial parents and yet present an agenda that is strongly sympathetic to these constituents.

Many of these groups claim to represent a very large (and growing) constituency, although sometimes their figures are used in a loose sense. For example, a representative from Dads Against Discrimination claimed that it represented 350,000 men, that 'being the number of men caught up in the family law system.12 Some of these groups also claim to field large numbers of inquiries from members of the public. Typical activities undertaken range over a broad spectrum, including such things as organising regular self-help meetings for members to share their experiences in the family law system, organising public information meetings with guest speakers, making submissions to government bodies on law reform references, speaking to the media, producing newsletters and pamphlets, lobbying and encouraging members to lobby politicians and the referral of members to information and professional services.

One of our general impressions of the fathers' rights movement is the high turnover of groups. Many of the groups we attempted to make contact with for the purpose of telephone interviews seem to have gone out of existence since making the law reform submissions that alerted us to their existence. In spite of this turnover there are a number of groups which claim to have been around for many years.13 Our impressions are that these have tended to survive because of the tireless efforts of one or more key individuals in the organisation. Examples are Barry Williams who was the founding member and has been the National President of the Lone Fathers Association since 1973, has a high profile role in Parents Without Partners, with which he has been associated for more than two decades, and Nevil Abolish Child Support and the Family Court14 who has "run" Parent Without Rights for the last eight years. A common problem for the groups seems to be continuity in membership, with people tending to move on "once they have been helped".15

An interesting feature of these groups is the increasing involvement of women. Many of these groups are concerned to point out that they have members who are women and sometimes women as key players in the organisation.16 The women who are involved tend to be involved in their capacity as "second wives" or other family members of men who have had some engagement with the family law.


12 Communication with research assistant. The Family Law Reform Association NSW Inc, in speaking of those involved in its inception (in one of its' self-generated pamphlets), says that, “at times there were only four people at a meeting, but they were determined to press on for reforms to the Family Law Act, no matter how much support they received. They knew they were speaking for thousands of people and that it was imperative that they continue."

13 For example, Parent Without Rights was apparently formed in 1977. The LFAA claims to have started in 1973.

14 Mr Abolish Child Support and the Family Court changed his name by official deed poll. See "Nevil With A Cause", The Age, 3 October 1997

15 Dads Against Discrimination (communication with research assistant). The UK group, Families Need Fathers, in its advice to members thinking about starting a local group says, “Only a few people will stay longer in a group than it takes to settle - or abandon - their own problems. Don't be depressed...” See J Baker, Starting a local group: An FNF guide, Version 2, Families Need Fathers, London, 1996 at p 2.

16 See for example, Men’s Rights Agency which was co-founded by Sue Price.


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