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Wednesday, 24 May 2006
Page: 63

Mr ANDREN (1:51 PM) —Before beginning, I must acknowledge the statements of the member for Chifley and his longstanding contribution to and constructive role in the area of child support over many years in this place. The Child Support Legislation Amendment (Reform of the Child Support Scheme—Initial Measures) Bill 2006 represents the first of a raft of changes to the child support system that will be implemented from July this year, January next year and July 2008. Those contained in this bill could fairly be described as the least contentious. The bill increases and indexes the minimum child support payment from $260 to $320 a year or $6.15 per week. Such a payment is more of an indication of the obligation of all parents to contribute to the needs of children than of any substantial assistance with the care of children. The bill recognises and rewards non-resident parents on income support who have contact with their children.

Surely the aim of any child-support process should be not only financial support but also that essential physical and emotional support that an otherwise absent father or mother should be offering, and should have the opportunity to offer, to their children. Under these provisions, parents who have care of their children for at least one night a week will receive higher income support. As well, the legislation introduces a fairer assessment of parents’ capacity to earn income. This has been an area of concern for many constituents whose child-support payment is based on an earlier set of circumstances than applies at present—for example, they might have lost their job. The change will limit the circumstances under which a parent’s child support assessable income can be increased. I hope the provisions for a clearer determination in this vexed area will indeed provide the clarity and consistency that the government’s fact sheet claims.

The new legislation is aimed at ensuring that parents share the cost of raising children by assessing the combined income of both parents, which is further assessed to cover actual contact costs. The total income of a sole mother—including government payments to sole parents, which have increased significantly in recent times—is now assessed in the figure. While new support payment formulas that reflect the costs of raising children and create new teenage categories will come into effect from July 2008, from July 2006 there will be a reduction in the income threshold from $139,347 to $104,702. This is designed to eliminate the so-called subsidisation of the lifestyle of the former—now custodial—partner. This still requires a payment of around $24,600—at that capped income scale—by a parent who has little or no contact with his or her children.

No doubt, this will cause some consternation. But I am more concerned, quite frankly, to see that middle- and low-income families—which, after all, are the vast majority of child-support families—receive a fair payment to ensure the costs of raising the child are properly met. The increase from 25 per cent to 30 per cent in the amount a non-resident parent can direct to be paid for essential items for their children is very welcome. It will enable non-resident parents to have more say in how child-support payments are spent. But with many child-support clients engaged in ongoing personal issues—and many of us see that on a weekly, if not daily, basis—this needs to be carefully monitored. In almost all cases, it is the primary carer who is the most able to determine the child’s daily needs. But I accept that there is frustration among many non-resident parents who feel their child-support payments have not been used to best effect. Hopefully, this five per cent increase in prescribed non-agency payments will achieve part of the desired effect.

The bill also amends the provisions that deal with a parent’s capacity to earn. The current method can require a parent to continue to work extensive overtime if that had been their working pattern before the relationship broke down. Under this bill, a parent’s maximum capacity to earn is based on the level of normal full-time work for the occupation or industry in which he or she is involved. This will allow paying parents to reduce their working hours due to other responsibilities, due to no longer having to meet mortgage requirements or perhaps for health reasons. It allows payer parents to make decisions about their work and life, such as pursuing a different career.

This all seems fair enough when one considers the greater enforcement and investigative powers that will be introduced to identify those who abuse the system. Studies show that about 40 per cent of parents misrepresent their capacity to earn. However, this also recognises the situation in which an overworked payer parent has to support a very disinterested former partner who has not contributed to the household’s income despite a clear ability and opportunity to do so. Above all, there are checks and balances in this process and an ability to appeal any decisions, notwithstanding the protracted and often frustrating appeals process.

So, overall, these reforms are very welcome and should ameliorate some of the concerns that bring so many parents to the offices of MPs. Child-support cases still represent about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of inquiries at my office, but that is a halving of the number I had when I first met the rush of disgruntled, disillusioned and mostly non-custodial fathers who came to see me from 1996 onwards. In fact, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the amount of work that had to be done in this area. There is no doubt that things have gradually improved over those 10 years, and these provisions will certainly assist in that process. The move from the tax office chasing the unpaid child support to a more humane Centrelink and Child Support Agency process, and the outreaching of staff to conduct seminars in members’ electorates, has gradually helped to create an environment of far more trust and confidence in child-support clients and, I would suggest, has been welcomed by all members of this House.

The provision of family advisory services such as the family relationship centres must be welcomed if they achieve their aims. Many have doubts. The adversarial nature of much of the child-support process suggests that many partners will not accept counselling and will demand their day in court. Still, the lengthy delays in accessing the courts suggest that something must be done to provide some level of conciliation and counselling at the earliest possible stage.

This bill is the first in a three-stage series of legislative responses to the report from Professor Patrick Parkinson. The future bills, especially those to be introduced from July 2008, are likely to create far more debate than this one. While there are concerns about a proposal that non-custodial parents who see their child one night a week be relieved of 24 per cent of their child-support obligations, there is recognition of the need for differential payments for younger children aged up to 12 and teenagers aged 13 to 17. Many will welcome the recognition of first and second families in determining the child support payable. Also, in future legislation, some cuts in child support for residential parents will be balanced by the elimination of the requirement to split family tax benefits with former partners unless care is shared almost equally. I will reserve further comments until a future debate.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2.00 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.