We were a small group of disgruntled, occasionally disheveled separated dads who had no experience of radio and no resources.
We would gather each Tuesday morning in the studios of Liverpool’s community radio station 2GLF in western Sydney — and tell the world, or whoever was listening, exactly what we thought.
From humble beginnings back in 2000, Dads On The Air has gone on to become the world’s longest running and best known fathers’ radio program, regularly interviewing national and international activists, advocates, academics and authors.
The name popped into my head one day and stuck. The show is now celebrating its 19th anniversary. And I’m proud to have been part of it.
These days the show is much more professionally produced, is much less polemical, has a wide range of often fascinating guests, and mercifully, no doubt, comes in at under half an hour — in contrast to the 90 minutes of indignation we once vented into the public square.
Dads On The Air is now also available for broadcast to community radio stations around the nation.
Nothing a politician hates more than spotting a separated father with a pile of folders under their arm bee-lining for them at a function. For we are the bottomless well of pain proving your system is a disaster.
Some of our critics muttered darkly about where we got the money from to keep broadcasting month in month out.
There was no money.
We were up against a multi-billion dollar government funded cash cow, a rotten to the core system full of dodgy lawyers, shonky psychiatrists, farcical family report writers, appalling and secretive courts and their protective phalanxes of bureaucrats.
We not just survived, we flourished. We ended up interviewing almost every major player in the field.
Amazing how far a sense of outrage over institutional corruption, social injustice and the fate of your children can get you.
From Little Things Big Things Grow
We were fortunate to find ourselves broadcasting in an era when there was no shortage of stories.
As that first small band of dads rapidly discovered, like no other subject, family law cut deep into hearts and lives.
Internationally, Fathers 4 Justice in Britain would climb Buckingham Palace and invade the House Of Commons.
Irish singer and political activist Bob Geldof would famously describe the family law system as “barbaric, criminally damaging, abusive, neglectful, harmful to society, the family, the parents and the children in whose name it purports to act.”
America’s Stephen Baskerville would write Taken into Custody: The War against Fatherhood, Marriage and the Family.
The issues we dealt with were universal across the Western world, from England to the US, Canada to Australia.
But we did not know that in the beginning.
Burning Down The House
At first we felt very much alone. Our bolshie broadcasts put us out on a limb. We would say what we had to say nervously, thinking that at any time the Australian Federal Police would come storming in to silence us.
Our fears were not unfounded.
The Family Court, which we referred to as The Palace Of Lies, had a long history of attempting to stifle its critics.
One man who suggested in a letter that the court belonged on a garbage tip found himself being arrested by three Federal Police.
Criticism of the court as “criminal” and “corrupt” now fly across the internet without consequence.
Dads On The Air was itself a prime example of the way the information revolution made it possible for a small group in western Sydney to cheaply create a program that could be downloaded by anyone with a computer in many different parts of the world.
The internet allowed us immediate reach outside the Liverpool radio footprint and enabled us to attract some of the nation’s and the world’s leading political, academic and social commentators.
With the spread of communication technology, the court’s arbitrary and cruel judgments were already the stuff of legends by the time we began broadcasting.
One father was jailed for sending a birthday card to his child.
One Indian migrant was jailed for writing to his parents in English. The court ignored his protestations that his father had two masters’ degrees in English.
The court has also ordered litigants not to contact the United Nations with their concerns, not to publicize the injustices of their cases in any way and not to take their children to a doctor or raise welfare concerns.
One father was ordered not to contact his children after he allegedly carried his daughter around on his shoulders, in a crowded park, in a suggestive manner.
Another father, in a case I witnessed personally, expressed a desire to talk to his adolescent son after the boy’s suicide attempt.
The father was ridiculed from the bench.
“You wanted to be there to watch, didn’t you, didn’t you?” the judge thundered from the bench. Again and again.
“You wanted to be there to watch, didn’t you, didn’t you?”
These institutions are in themselves sick; and enable a privileged judicial caste to act without conscience or consequence.
Similar stories of damaged lives circled the Child Support Agency.
The Agency claimed to be treating fairly a young father who was losing 80 per cent of his income in tax and child support and died with one of their letters in his hand. Another man took more than two weeks to die when he swallowed poison after a call from a CSA officer.
The CSA refused to attend the inquest despite a request from the Magistrate.
Governments find what they fund for, and fund what they want to find.
Hence there are no studies on the maltreatment of men within the family court and child support jurisdictions. The suicide rate of child support payers, and the blatant criminality of government functionaries involved in these cases, is an open scandal.
Nobody wants to be labelled a reactionary or a misogynist; and family law and child support are often seen as a triumph of Women’s Liberation and modern-day feminism.
They are nothing of the kind.
They are a rotten, damaging and socially destructive institutions which do as much damage to women as they do to men.
There are almost no academic studies on men’s issues; instead we have seen a flowering of advocacy feminist research. Never stand between an academic and a grant.
Father’s voices are almost entirely invisible in the public debate.
No one is prepared to fund or is interested in the fate of that awful thing, the patriarchy.
We’re all too modern for that.
Dads On The Air is a rare repository of the history of a long struggle for family law reform in Australia, not just by separated fathers, their supporters and their lobby groups, but by grandparents and other family members cut out of children’s lives by the discriminatory and destructive sole-custody model purveyed by the court.
Dads On The Air was strategically placed to cover the push for family law reform in Australia.
DOTA, as the show was often referred to as, was born not just out of a sense of outrage, but frustration with the mainstream media’s failure to take men’s issues seriously.
The history of Dads On The Air coincided closely with the evolution of Australian groups including Dads In Distress, the Non-Custodial Parents, Party, the Shared Parenting Council of Australia, the Men’s Rights Agency, the Lone Fathers’ Association, Dads Against Discrimination, Men’s Confraternity, the Fatherhood Foundation and Fathers4Equality.
Many of these activists embraced Dads On The Air.
We were proud to provide a conduit for groups otherwise little heard.
There were also many volunteers who helped along the way. They are more fulsomely thanked elsewhere. Standouts included former policeman and co-founder Rick Torning, Dads In Distress Counselor Phil York, musician Ian Purdie and “rockin’ pop”, as we used to call him, Peter van de Voorde
The early days of the show also coincided with a push by the Australian government to reform family law. An initially popular move, it finally died in a quagmire of bureaucratic obfuscation and striking political dishonesty.
Fast forward to the present and there are entire new generations of embittered fathers and renewed calls for a Royal Commission into the blatant malfeasance operating through the entire system.
But for a period many of the country’s leading politicians, including the Attorney-General, queued to come on the show; most wanting to demonstrate their support for shared parenting and for fathers.
Despite architect Lionel Murphy’s vision of a “helping” court when he brought no-fault divorce to Australia in 1975, co-operative parenting after divorce was almost never encouraged.
The phrase, “the best interests of children”, was used to cover a multiple of sins.
Almost from the minute the Family Court opened its doors it became a law unto itself, imposing sole mother custody on separating families despite the harm it caused.
There has never been any evidence that the adversarial system and the style of custody orders it embraced was indeed in “the best interests of the child”.
Reforms meant to promote shared parenting in 1995 actually saw the small percentage of such orders drop. Historically, the Family Court denied fathers contact with their children on the flimsiest of excuses or most ludicrous of accusations.
Overly legalistic, enormously bureaucratic, secretive, unaccountable and ideologically extremist, defying community norms of morality and propriety, it soon became one of the country’s most hated institutions.
Dads On The Air followed the antecedents of the Australian government’s 2003 parliamentary inquiry into family law and the story of what has happened since.
It may seem small beer for international readers, a long time ago in a country far far away, but the ramifications have been felt in hundreds of thousands of lives, and in a broader sense continues to be a major factor in the deep disillusion and estrangement the public feels towards their government.
Here. And in your own country as well.
It is also a cautionary tale on how bureaucratic inertia and ideology can thwart genuine grass roots campaigns for change.
Despite the deliberate blizzard of women’s and domestic violence groups stacking the inquiry, the public hearings around the nation exposed for anyone who cared to look the massive dysfunction of Australia’s family law and child support systems and the distress they created in the community.
The inquiry also exposed the divide between the taxpayer-funded mandarins and the general populace. The industry continued to blindly insist their only concern was the best interests of the child. It was a lie.
The 2003 inquiry was given added piquancy by virtue of being held during the final days of that aging lion of the left Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson. He had dominated family law in Australia for more than half of the Court’s life and took every opportunity he could to attack the conservative government of John Howard for its investigation of shared parenting.
The original announcement from then Prime Minister John Howard that the government would examine the idea of a rebuttable presumption of joint custody provoked a wave of positive media coverage and community support. His standing in the polls went up.
However the parliamentary inquiry’s final report, the poorly written, intellectually sloppy and ridiculously named Every Picture Tells A Story, caused many problems. It was condemned by family law reformers as a betrayal of the nation’s more than one million children of separated parents and of the often tearful parents who had appeared before the inquiry.
Millions of dollars of public funds were squandered for no outcome.
On air we described the report as just like a Family Court judgement: it bore no relationship to the evidence and no relationship to reality.
A Betrayal of the Public
The Australian government dithered for years over the issue of family law reform, destroying the public momentum for change.
Embarrassed by accusations it was influenced by men’s groups, it would not be until 2006, after yet more committees and calls for submissions, that the Howard government finally passed what DOTA condemned as sadly inadequate laws promoting shared parental responsibility.
Unconvinced the legislation would make any difference in practice, DOTA declared with characteristic chutzpah the fight lost:
“The liars, the lawyers, the bureaucrats and the social engineers have won the day.”
Not withstanding DOTA’s stance, the lengthy public debate engendered a cultural shift.
After 2006 many separating parents expected to share the care of the children. But the court itself was largely hostile towards shared parenting and impatient of parliamentary interference.
The incoming left wing Labor government had neither the guts nor the integrity to mention family law during the election campaign.
Fearful of losing votes, they did not acknowledge they were winding back the popular shared parenting laws. The rollback came under the guise of protecting women and children from violence. The government ignored the findings of the Australian Institute of Families Studies that there was no evidence shared parenting resulted in higher levels of conflict and that the new laws were widely supported.
There could be only one result from defining domestic or “family” violence so broadly as to include much normal human behaviour, in such a gendered way and couched in such a manner as to target only men as perpetrators.
As the government fueled moral panic over domestic violence, family law headed straight back from whence it came, to those dark days when many fathers entering the court were relegated to bit players in their children’s lives, or in all too many cases literally never saw their children again.
The government’s expansion of the definition of domestic violence in their Family Violence Bill was cheered on by the greatest opponents of reform, former Family Court Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson and former Family Court Justice Richard Chisholm.
Their court ran on that well known principle of feminist jurisprudence: facts are just weapons that men use to batter women and perpetuate the system.
In other words, this was a lunatic Marxist style jurisdiction where truth was subordinate to social outcome. Men who expected to be stepping into a normal court of evidence and due process were blindsided.
The resultant personal pain created a large body of disaffected men as well as grandparents and other extended family members, did the community as a whole great harm, brought the judiciary into disrepute and impacted badly on the children involved.
Our conclusions are even more valid today:
Successive governments from both left and right have failed to listen to their constituents and respond to their concerns. Even when enacting legislative reforms, these same governments left their enforcement in the hands of institutions notoriously resistant to change. They allowed or encouraged fashionable ideology, institutional inertia and bureaucracy to triumph over common sense. Common decency was lost long ago.
In terms of human suffering, the Australian public has already paid dearly for the failure to reform outdated, badly administered and inappropriate institutions dealing with family breakdown — and for the failure of governments to take seriously the voices of the men and women most directly affected by them.
The country’s failure to reform family law and child support is ultimately a failure of democracy itself.
John Stapleton is the editor of A Sense of Place Magazine. He worked as a news reporter on The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian for more than 20 years. A collection of his journalism is being constructed here.