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Wednesday, 13 May 1998
Page: 3261

Mr NEVILLE (10:56 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to wind up this debate on the Child Support Legislation Amendment Bill 1998. I am a bit of a radical on child support, and I do not say this with any criticism of either the current or the previous governments. I just do not think that we have gone far enough in addressing this problem. I think that we are developing a camel and that the Child Support Agency and its mechanisms have not fully encompassed the gravity or the size of the task we have in hand. When you consider that one marriage in every three now ends up in divorce, you are confronted by the conclusion that whatever we put in place has to be streamlined, fair, accessible, and above all, affordable.

I see a lot of abuse in my electorate. In fact, we say in our office—I have not tested this for a while—that we spend nearly 50 per cent of our time on matters related to the breakdown of families, be that in relation to divorce, property settlement, separation, access, pensions, the Child Support Agency, family allowance, and the like. If that is the case in the office of a provincial member of parliament—I imagine the case would be somewhat similar in capital city offices—and you multiply that by 148, you get some measure of the enormity of the task. We see it only at the margins or at the fringes. A lot of the problems are already being solved by the agency.

There are about 12 major measures in this bill and I think that some of them are very sensible. I think that the marginal increase in exempt income for payers of child support from $9,000 to $9,900 should have gone further. There is a good case there for having to go to 20 per cent, but I appreciate that there are limitations on what the government can do in any given year. I think $18 million is not a bad effort.

Changes to the amount of carer's income is to be disregarded. It has come down from $37,000 to $29,000 in round figures. That, too, is a fair assessment because, instead of being based on the average weekly earnings of someone in full-time employment, it is now being based on the average weekly earning of all employees. That takes into account that a lot of people with part-time work, permanent part-time work and even casual work are paying child support and, therefore, I think that is a fairer assessment. It possibly mirrors the sort of income that a custodial parent might be earning.

The introduction of a minimum income of $250 in calculating the amount of child support payable I think is a good rule. There are some people who are a bit manipulative. I have had people who have come in to me and said, `I am going to go on the dole, or I am going to go on the pension—I am not going to support my kids any more. I have had enough of this.' I am not saying that, at times, their circumstances do not call for reassessment. But I think the attitude that you can just throw yourself on the dole or the pension and not only be cared for yourself by the state but expect that you are exempt from all responsibility for your children as well is stretching it a bit far.

The token payment of $5 a week is an acknowledgment that there is a financial responsibility in bringing children into the world, no matter what your circumstances are. Whether you are the richest person in the land or you are on a basic pension or dole payment, everyone has the responsibility to look after kids.

Allowing payers and payees greater flexibility in reaching arrangements relating to child-care payments—that, too, is a very sensible measure. Addressing the situation where child-care arrangements have changed from that specified in various orders—again, a very sensible measure. Allowing child support to continue to the end of the school year where a relevant child turns 18 in that year—no one would expect that a custodial parent who was putting a child through their secondary education, and that date was perhaps in July or August of that year, should be deprived of child support. The reason for that is that I am sure even the non-custodial parent would acknowledge that there would be no point in both parties depriving the child of getting through to grade 12 and having the best possible opportunity.

There are also things such as the introduction of a review mechanism enabling the registrar to initiate a departure from an administrative assessment of child support where the registrar has information pointing to a review process rather than just the word of one parent. There is the inclusion of exempt foreign income and rental property losses in calculating income. I think we have all seen—in fact, I have one classic case in my electorate—that there are potential payers that have anything up to six or seven rental properties and have become very adept in using those properties to avoid paying their just entitlement.

There is a provision allowing determinations to be based on more recent years of income instead of having your income assessed at two years ago—and things can change dramatically in two years. It is basically the last full assessment. It also means that the payments can be altered automatically and in a more meaningful fashion.

The one that I particularly like is allowing 50 per cent of child-care expenditure to be excluded from the person's income for the purpose of family allowance. That has been long awaited. It also allows the non-custodial parent, in a case where that non-custodial parent has taken on a new family, to receive a more fulsome and reasonable assessment.

Returning to the case that I was talking about, it involved a young lady in my electorate who separated from her husband in Brisbane. I live in Bundaberg. It is not a great distance from Brisbane—about a four-hour car journey or fifty-minute plane journey. This triggered a series of court actions of various sorts for the custody of the child and for the requirement for her to live in Brisbane for her former husband's convenience. His was a case where his income was very deftly concealed in a series of family companies and discretionary trusts. Documents that were obtained in a previous court action attested to the fact that he could spend anything up to $300 per week in restaurants and $150 per week at liquor barns. Against that background and noting the fact that he drove the very best of cars and lived in the very best style of living, he was paying initially about $360 per month. It went up to about $440. Certainly it was in no way a reflection of his true income.

The thing that I found most galling in that particular case was the non-custodial parent, because of his financial capacity to force her into court periodically, aiming to nearly break her. This was going on for two, three or four months; there would be an application for some variation of order or custody. That virtually bled the custodial parent dry. I only have this second hand, but the non-custodial parent had said to her, `I will bleed you dry; I will bankrupt you.' I felt that was an oppressive use of the law and a circumstance in which the Child Support Agency and the whole Family Law Act did not respond appropriately and adequately in terms of equity and real justice.

For that reason, I have a great deal of support for one of the government members who is proposing a private member's bill or some amendments—I am quite sure how he intends to handle this. He proposes the setting up of a child support small claims tribunal, placing between the Family Court and the current administrative process a very simple mechanism where the parties could appear before a magistrate at a fairly low cost and, in most instances, without the requirement of lawyers and experts so that minor orders could be adjusted and justice and equity obtained without any great cost to either party.

I see many instances where one or other party has a very just case but they cannot get access to the Family Court. I do not want you to think I am prejudiced either one way or the other in these matters. I have another case in my electorate where a very manipulative former wife, the custodial parent, finds all methods of preventing her former spouse from seeing the children: she goes away at weekends; she says the children have got colds; and she does not dress the children appropriately, forcing the father to buy new clothes when the children visit him. When the children go back to the mother, she does not wash their clothes, so that the clothes go back to the father a month later in the same condition that they were in when the father had returned the children. Because of that sort of really vicious use of the children as a weapon against the father, I found that particular case really galling.

On one occasion the children came back from their mother with quite severe bruising. I actually saw those bruises on the children in my own office, and I have seen a videotape of bruising that occurred on other occasions. Their father became very concerned and my recommendation to him was that he take the matter to the state family services department for an assessment. The recommendation of the department was that he not return the children until a bit more investigation could be carried out.

The thing that surprised me was that within four days of that happening the custodial parent had got support and a court action demanding the children's return, despite the fact that on every occasion when she had breached orders the father could not get legal aid. There is an inequity there. I must add that it applies in both instances—sometimes it is the male and sometimes it is female who is the offending party. I am not saying that I have any particular preference.

This idea of a child support small claims tribunal has some merit. It would enable either party to apply for a variation of an assessment. A magistrate would deal with the case based on capacity to pay balanced against the needs of the child. A magistrate could even vary the percentage arrangements. Such a tribunal could be a very good thing, a very inexpensive thing, and it would deliver equity and justice in a simple manner. These magistrates could be experts in family law, be located in the capital cities and the major provincial cities, and perhaps go on a circuit to country areas. They could also back up the local resident magistrates who could also hear these cases if there was no other magistrate available.

What the bill also proposes is that in the case of avoidance the Child Support Agency would be able to make an application to the tribunal to have the potential payer examined. It could subpoena documents, place people on oath, and any failure to attend could bring about an action for contempt. This might bring some of those people who hide their assets in family companies and in discretionary trusts and the like to heel very quickly without the agency going into monumental action in other courts, a very expensive action costing anything from $10,000 to $20,000.

Once an order was made in a magistrate's special child support small claims tribunal, deliberate or wilful failure to pay could involve an action for contempt and a penalty. A lot of the people on both sides of the fence who offend now get away with it, and that is regrettable.

The fourth matter that I find quite appealing is in the area of deliberate frustration of access. In such a situation a magistrate would have the power to take that into account in varying the quantum of the assessment. I do not agree with the social engineers who say that you can put access to a child and the upkeep of a child in two separate categories. The non-custodial parent has a right to participate, albeit at arm's length, in the nurturing and in the upkeep of their child. That parent should have some rights, and access is one of those rights.

I very much applaud the work of the task force chaired by the member for Richmond (Mr Anthony). I commend him and the member for Deakin (Mr Barresi) for their addresses this morning. In their recommendations to the government, which I hope will be taken into legislation shortly, they are proposing that expenses that are paid by the non-custodial parent such as school fees, medical and dental costs, mortgage and rental costs, and motor and vehicle costs, to a limit of 25 per cent, will be able to be deducted from child support payments.

In a way, that will give the non-custodial parent some discipline and some say in the nurturing of the child. I think that, where the custodial parent will not play ball, is deliberately obstructive, and wilfully frustrates access to the child, that should be linked to the assessment. One very simple rule could apply automatically if the custodial parent deliberately frustrates the non-custodial parent. I have seen lots of cases where they have said, `The child has got a cold' or `You can have them for the weekend but you will have to pay for the airfares' or `You will have to come and collect them', something like that, knowing full well that the non-custodial parent cannot do that.

In those instances where the children do not go to the non-custodial parent for the court appointed time the rule should be that the quantum—one-fifty second—for each week deprived should be deducted from the child support payment going to the custodial parent. That would be a good discipline. It would say, `If you are not sending the kids, you are not going to get paid.' I think those two things should be linked. I support the legislation. I support the task force that is currently doing more work on the matter and I hope things will go further.

Motion (by Mr Sercombe) agreed to:

That further proceedings on this bill be conducted in the House.