Accidental Hero

by Peter Vogel

"I've always known about this issue, and Justice Walsh agreed to speak out. I knew this was a very powerful weapon for a journalist to blow it all open. It was a real gift - Walsh was very brave to do that. He's suffering a lot of repercussions."

That is how Bettina Arndt became motivated to break one of society's strongest taboos: criticising those mothers who deny their children contact with their fathers, and their silent accomplice, the family court.

The Judge who broke the silence is not the only one who is "suffering repercussions".

Arndt's controversial three part series was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, Australia's most influential newspapers (see sidebar opposite). The reponse of the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alistair Nicholson, to this devastating exposeé was to was to "shoot the messenger". He said the claims of "bias against men by a largely male bench was nonsensical". He accused Arndt of "considerable ignorance" as to how the Family Court works and selectively citing "a tiny number" of judgements to support her claims. He dismissed the comments of ex-justice Geoffrey Walsh, quoted extensively by Arndt, as "the idiosyncratic view of one retired judge".

Most surprisingly, he accused Arndt of inciting men to violence because, he said, the articles could give "the false impression that men cannot expect justice from the legal system" and "unwarrantedly increase men's frustration".

For a Judge, Nicholson seems to be relying very heavily on character assassination and denial rather than going to the heart of the issue: whether the "impression" really is false. If the laws are in fact severely stacked against fathers, is it possible that "men's frustration" may be justified? If Arndt really is wrong, then it would be very beneficial to set the public's mind at ease.

I spoke to Bettina Arndt shortly after the judge's response appeared in print. "It's an absolute joke for Justice Nicholson to accuse me of inciting violence," she said. "Everybody knows that in the majority of cases where violence does erupt it's over denial of access".

"Justice Nicholson chooses to believe that the Family Court is doing its job fairly. He says that under the new Act more men are getting custody, but he doesn't address the issue I was writing about, which is fathers' contact with their children. That's the main issue as far as I'm concerned".

Nicholson is not the only one who has tried to avoid facing the fact that many parents - mainly fathers - are denied contact with their children.

"The standard response in the letters from women's groups has been to put all the focus on violence. To say that the reason women are denying access is violence has become the standard kneejerk response" says Arndt. "But that was not what I was writing about. I am concerned about the cases in which the father is not violent, and that is the majority. And in many cases the father is denied access for tactical reasons".

Black sheep

Through her defence of men over the years, Arndt has become a hero of the men's movement. Yet she still considers herself first-and-foremost a feminist.

"I have recently been focussing on a lot of issues where I'm seen to be very pro-male. Actually, on this particular issue, although I'm very sympathetic to men, my real interest is in the effects on the kids. Just looking around you, the effects of the decisions that are being made are very obvious. And remember that when a man is denied contact with his children there are also grandmothers and aunties and a whole host of others denied contact as well."

It is not surprising that Arndt is considered a loose cannon by the more extreme feminists who feel a need for an enemy to rail against. Listening to her speak about the plight of men isolated from their children it was clear that when she speaks of feminism she means equal rights for men and women. She clearly feels deeply concerned about gender injustice, whether it disadvantages men or women.

I asked her how she came to be a "black sheep" of the feminist flock.

"I drifted into becoming what the feminists view as an apologist for men because I felt there was a big void there; on a lot of issues we were only hearing a female perspective. And it was my sex therapy background that had always made me try to listen to both sides, because you can't work in marital or sexual therapy without working with the couple. Essentially where I've come from is trying to work out how to get men and women to get along together better, and there are very obvious areas in recent years where we have only seen a female perspective on a lot of issues. I'm also very aware of why it is that men find it so difficult to speak out on some of these personal issues."


Arndt's articles do seem to be having some impact. Most importantly, it has been one of the few occasions that serious discussion of men's emotional dimensions has penetrated the "lace curtain" of the mainstream press, where emotional or relationship issues are still seen as women's issues.

In spite of Justice Nicholson's attempt to deny the scale of the problem ("A very limited number of people actually get into the litigious system"), the papers were deluged with letters. The Melbourne Age said that they cannot remember any other issue generating such a response.

The irony does not escape Arndt: "I can see how frustrating it is for men who try to speak out and then can't get it into the papers. It must be infuriating for men that I can write things that they couldn't get published. It's a weird position for me to be in, but in some ways it seems to strengthen it too, to have it coming from a female".

Publication of the articles has dragged several skeletons out of closets that some groups would prefer to keep locked. Even the presumably-apolitical Family Court was unhappy about the prospect of Arndt letting in some daylight: "When I was preparing the article, I tried to talk to Justice Nicholson but he wouldn't talk to me. Then when the Herald rang Nicholson's press secretary and asked for photos of various judges, they asked who was writing the article, and when they said it was me they said 'no way', they weren't going to help me at all. "

Perhaps the most important spin-off of the series was that many men, and women, who have felt isolated and abandoned by the justice system realised that they are not alone. "I've got some very sweet letters from men who say they cried and cried and were just grateful that someone's listening to them," Arndt told me. "People have sent me their huge case histories, even affidavits. Just terrible stories. Some people said 'you've given me new hope - I'll go back and try again', and part of me thinks 'Oh no, I hope they won't be disappointed'. I do encourage men to feel it's not hopeless because I think that's part of the change process. What I heard from a lot of lawyers and mediators is that men who believe they have a chance negotiate from a stronger position and that is producing change in itself. There is new recognition that children need both parents and that is filtering through to women and they may be more willing to be more reasonable about this issue".

Whether motivated by concern for the welfare of children, or by support for women, or by her sense of right and wrong, Arndt's dedication to telling it how it is - rather than how feminists would like to believe it is - is paying dividends for men, women and children. She told me that the judge in one of the cases she reported has asked to see the father again. Even if just one father is reunited with his child as a result of her articles, Arndt can be justly proud.

Quotes from Bettina Arndt's series in the Sydney Morning Herald:


October 14 1996

. . . The Famiy Court's failure to deal with breaches of access orders has been, without a doubt, the greatest cause of its troubled reputation. The court's impotence in the face of the continuing defiance by women of access orders has a long history. The court hasn't hesitated to severely punish men for non- payment of maintenance orders or absconding with their children - in the past, men have been imprisoned for such offences. But when it comes to taking sanctions against custodial parents who deny access to their children, judges have tradition-ally gone to water. . .


October 15th 1996

. . . [Many couples] manage to work out their own solutions to the thorny issue of parenting after divorce. These are solutions far removed from the usual custodial mother and Weekend Dad roles...

The Family Court's past handling of the welfare of children after divorce has been a disaster, as evidenced by large numbers of fathers losing contact with their children. Consequently Parlia-ment has directed a change towards shared parenting, seeking to ensure children's contact with both parents.

The reaction from many judges and lawyers has been to throw up their hands in horror... Their cynical reaction to the notion of shared parenting stems from years spent in the trenches, surrounded by divorcing people at logger-heads. . .


October 12 1996

. . . There's no doubt injustice has been done to men. The classic situation is the good father who sees his children every day and then Bang. The couple separates and the court gives him every second weekend. To have a dear little child that you love, and suddenly your contact to him is so restricted. It's a basic cause for the anger so many men feel about the Family Court."

Familiar words? The bitterness and sense of injustice experienced by fathers over their treatment in the Family Court is a constant theme in our society. Yet this time the complaint comes from the heart of the Family Court - an exclusive interview with Geoffrey Walsh, recently retired after 18 years as a judge in the Victorian Family court. . .

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