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Tuesday, 24 March 1987
Page: 1370

Mr BLUNT —by leave-Today the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) has brought into this place a statement which purports to be the Government's policy on reform of child support. It is a totally inadequate document which underlines the inadequacy of this Minister's administration. It is a convention of this Parliament that the Opposition is provided with a statement some two hours in advance of it being delivered. That is a protocol that I recognise and adhere to. I am moved in this case to express some regret that, given the significance of this issue, the Minister has not adopted a truly bipartisan approach and allowed for fuller consultation on and consideration of the Government's proposals. I regret that his attitude to consulting with the Opposition on this issue reflects the Government's attitude of consulting with the community generally on this issue. I refer to the much vaunted--

Mr Howe —I raise a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will not have misrepresentation. The Opposition has in fact been informed on the development of the scheme.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! There is no point of order.

Mr Howe —The Opposition spokesman speaking has in fact been briefed.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The Minister will resume his seat. There is no point of order.

Mr BLUNT —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I find that the Minister's attitude to the Standing Orders of this House is quite amazing.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member for Richmond might not pursue that argument; he might deal with the statement before the House.

Mr BLUNT —Mr Deputy Speaker, as I was saying, the Government's much-vaunted statement on child support which was brought down last year-some 40 pages with 30 pages of appendices-is in itself an inadquate document in that it contains no details.

Mr Howe —You are showing your ignorance, Charles.

Mr BLUNT —I listened in silence to the Minister and I would ask that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, request that he accord me the same courtesy.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member for Richmond will continue with his contribution.

Mr BLUNT —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I can assure the Minister that if he continues to raise points by interjection I will reply to them and I will deal with him in the way in which he should be dealt with rather than in the bipartisan way in which I intend to.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! Let us deal with the statement before the House rather than deal with anybody else, thank you.

Mr BLUNT —Mr Deputy Speaker, the Government brought to this Parliament a document on child support and claimed to indulge in an extensive and widespread consultative process with interested groups in the community. It allowed seven weeks for that consultation and limited the consultation to a very small and tight list of approved and selected national organisations. The result was that within the community there were grave concerns and misgivings about the Government's intentions, particularly as the document contained no precise details of the formula that the Government proposed to proceed with. Today in this statement, which purports to be a further definition of the Government's intentions in this area, there are still no details of the formula that the Government intends to proceed with. This is, as the Minister says, a staged approach. It is staged in every sense of the word: There is a staged implementation and it is staged for the benefit of the politics of this situation. When we consider this document in total we see that it is a proposal to move as soon as legislation is available to establish a maintenance collection agency, which is a reform which the Opposition recognises is necessary. We do have some reservations about the proposals as they appear in this document and I will deal with those later.

The second stage is most interesting. It deals with the proposed formula. As I said, there are no details of this formula in the document. It is very interesting to note that the second stage, the stage which is most controversial, which involves the fairly arbitrary formula with no details and no specifics attached to it, will not be introduced until at least after the next election, if this Parliament does run its full term. Mr Deputy Speaker, I would suggest to you and to everybody else who is listening that the intentions of this Government in this area are absolutely transparent. The Government has a very difficult political issue on its hands. It has an ideological position which it intends to pursue. It is aware of the politics of the Australian community. The Government intends to move for electoral advantage at the next election and it intends to put off the nasty or unsavoury bits of its proposals until after that election. The Government must be extremely naive if it thinks that the community, which is particularly interested in these proposals, will allow it to get away with that tactic. Let me address the contents of the statement made by the Minister today. On page 1 he says:

All of us on both sides of this House know that the present system is unfair and ineffective.

I agree with that statement and I am sure there is bipartisan support for that proposition. In 1984 the Opposition parties moved in the Senate of this Parliament to achieve certain changes to the Family Law Act to remedy some of the inadequacies that the Minister referred to late in his statement. Earlier this year in the Opposition's family policy the Opposition made statements which addressed this particular issue. For the benefit of the Minister and the Australian community let me read briefly from that policy. It reads:

We will amend the Family Law Act to restore the primary obligation of parents to maintain their children, while confirming that support will continue to be provided for families in need. A fair, effective means of determining and enforcing maintenance payments by non-custodial parents for their children will be established and will include provision for collection of payments at income source where appropriate.

As I have said, there is bipartisan support in this Parliament for the need to reform not only the methods of child support but also the methods of maintenance collection. It is to the shame of the Minister that he has refused to adopt a bipartisan approach to this issue and has persisted in pursuing a partisan, ideological line which is going to make it extremely difficult for this Government successfully to reform child support and maintenance provisions in this community. The Minister is alienating the very groups in the community he needs to keep on side, by his refusal to consult effectively, his refusal to communicate effectively and his refusal to accept their constructive criticism of his proposals.

On the first page of the statement the Minister suggests that there is inadequate support by non-custodial parents for their children and that, as a result, they have been living in poverty. Part of the problem has been that this Government, in its four years in office, has done nothing whatsoever to address the question of maintenance collection, to amend the Family Law Act or to enforce the provisions of the payment of supporting parent's benefit under the Social Security Act. The Minister knows that he has sat on his hands for four years. Under immense pressure, for political reasons, he rushed through a proposal which, as I have demonstrated and will continue to demonstrate, is totally inadequate and is causing more problems than it solves.

On page 2 of the Minister's statement he says:

All too often these parents no longer support their children the way they used to and the responsibility falls on the social security system.

This Minister has done more than any other person in the Parliament actually to encourage that situation. He has done nothing to enforce the primary obligation of parents to support their children. He has done nothing to enforce the payment of supporting parent's benefit being conditional upon attempting to collect maintenance. He has done nothing to implement amendments to the Family Law Act. As I said, we suggested those amendments back in 1984. Had the Government wanted to take those amendments to its Cabinet, change them slightly and bring them back to the Parliament, it would have had bipartisan support. But not this Minister. He is too busy fighting the battles of the left wing, of his faction, to be concerned with his portfolio.

Mr Howe —Mr Deputy Speaker, I take a point of order. It is not my intention to pursue this discussion in a personal way. If the honourable member wants to be heard in silence, I suggest that he make his remarks in a rather less divisive manner.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! There is no point of order.

Mr BLUNT —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I make no personal reflection on the Minister himself, but simply on the way he conducts his portfolio.

On page 3 of the statement the Minister refers to the number of lone parents in Australia and their 450,000 children. He suggests that for most of these households the pension or benefit is their only source of income. The reality is that it is a result of this Government's policies that the pension or benefit is their only source of income. It is the economic policies of this Government, and in particular, of Treasurer Keating, that have created an economic situation where there are inadequate full time jobs for people to seek and also inadequate part time jobs. This Government has done nothing to alleviate the impact of what are known as `poverty traps' on single parent families. The Minister knows that there is a massive disincentive for people on social security benefits to earn additional income. He is aware that the Government, with great bally-hoo, in 1985 introduced legislation which purported to do something about it. It was introduced with a 12-month lead time. It was supported by the Opposition. We said: `It is a good idea. You should do more and you should implement it straight away'. Not only did the Government not implement it straight away, and not only did it intend to defer the legislation for a year, but when it came close to the implementation date the Government deferred it for another eight months.

The Minister comes into this Parliament today and suggests that for most of these households there is no income besides the benefit available from the Department of Social Security. He knows, just as I know and everybody else in this Parliament knows, that the reason there is no other benefit is that there is no incentive for people to earn any income besides the benefit because of the incredibly high effective marginal tax rates imposed on them by the policies of this Government-effective marginal tax rates which make the 60 per cent rate people complain about look small; effective marginal tax rates for beneficiaries of the Department of Social Security, people under the care of the Minister for Social Security, in excess of 100 per cent. He says in his statement today that they do not have any other source of income. What incentive is there for any other source of income? Had the Minister done his job and implemented that poverty traps reduction legislation on time, or when it was first brought to the Parliament, the statistics that he is citing today would be totally different.

The Minister makes reference to introducing a detailed statement of the Government's intentions on child support. As I have said before, he must be joking in this area. It is a flimsy document with no detail and which simply canvasses a number of options. In this statement today, which as I have said purports to be a further definition of the Government's policy in this area, we reasonably expected more detail. We expected to see the formula in black and white. We expected to see the qualifications attached to that formula. We expected to see the results of the consultation. We expected to see the results of the deliberations of the Cabinet and a statement of exactly where the Government will go. But not one thing do we see in this statement today. It is deliberately vague, it consists of generalities and there is no way that the people who will be affected by this statement will know exactly what its impact on them will be. The Minister knows that he has stirred up a hornets nest and that the single parent organisations throughout Australia will not be fooled or deluded by the carefully staged and orchestrated proposals that the Government is attempting to foist upon them in terms of its proposals for the reform of child support and the collection of maintenance.

On page 4 of the statement the Minister lays down five principles that he claims are the specific objectives of the proposals. The five objectives are quite laudable but, as usual, they are not specific. Without knowing the specific details of these objectives, it is not reasonable for the Minister or for the Government to expect the Opposition or the community at large to accept those objectives. The Minister talks about the capacity to pay without defining capacity to pay. What trade union would accept an agreement framed in terms as vague as that? He talks about adequate support for all children of separated parents. There is no comment about adequate support for the children of second families. He talks about ensuring that their needs are met without any definition of needs. He talks about encouraging people to participate in the work force. I have already dealt at some length with the appalling record of this Government in terms of poverty traps and the incentive for people on benefits to get back into the work force.

The fifth point, which is most telling, is that he talks about the overall arrangements needing to be simple, flexible and efficient. We do not know what the overall arrangements are in respect of personal privacy. Yet he proposes that an agency under the overall control of the Commissioner of Taxation will collect maintenance payments from employees. That means that employers will automatically know of the employee's personal arrangements and the obligations for the payment of maintenance. That will have some impact on the attitude of employers towards employees. Yet these proposals are to reflect personal privacy. I believe this is one of the great problems that this Government has: It talks in generalities without knowing how it will implement these proposals.

In stage one there is talk of establishing a maintenance collection agency to collect all orders. The Minister tried at some length to explain the categories of maintenance orders that would be collected by this agency. I ask the Minister: Why is it necessary for this agency to collect all orders? Surely in a free, democratic society, if people on the dissolution of their marriage or partnership decide to go their separate ways and come to a mutually agreeable settlement and are prepared to abide by that settlement and make the respective payments and honour the agreement, why is it necessary for big brother, for the bureaucracy, to become involved? I say to the Minister that there is no valid reason, except to indulge the ideological preferences of this Government or to indulge the excesses of the bureaucracy which wants to stick its finger into every possible pie.

The Opposition has considerable reservations about this proposal. It calls on the Government to answer the questions that have been posed not only by us but also by those people who are particularly concerned about the way that this proposal will operate. In recent weeks and months we have seen the inadequacies of the Australian Taxation Office in its failure even to administer effectively its own tax legislation. I ask the Minister what confidence he has in the Tax Office-an office which has a proven record of poor and sloppy administration, an incapacity to collect tax, an incapacity to administer its own Act and an incapacity to maintain accurate records of who has paid tax and to use the information that is available to it, and which is busy clawing for additional powers in the form of an identity card-to effectively administer this child support maintenance collection agency? I am sure that the Minister, if he is honest, has the same reservations about that proposal that he has about ID cards.

The Minister has explained how this formula will apply to the self-employed but he has not explained what will happen, in cases of joint or shared custody, to the responsibilities for maintenance. He has not explained whether the automatic application of a formula will encourage separation. I wonder whether his task force which did the work on this issue has considered the social impact of some of these legislative proposals. The Minister has not explained whether unwed mothers will be obligated to name the fathers, how disputes will be settled and what action he will take to ensure that evidence to settle those disputes is available. He has not indicated whether the task force has assessed whether this proposal will intensify custody battles, because the incentives will not only be emotional but also financial because of the potential impact of this formula. He has not explained why employers should know about their employees' personal arrangements and their responsibilities to their former spouses, partners or children.

The Minister has not explained in any detail what the new role of the Family Court of Australia will be and he has not explained whether this scheme will be retrospective or not. He has not explained whether, if a review is sought of a maintenance order, it will be caught by this new agency and whether it will be compulsorily collected rather than the present arrangements. He has not suggested whether there will be limits applied to this formula. He has not provided any details about the formula at all. He has not suggested to us what will happen in the event of changed income circumstances or what will happen when payments are not met. He has not suggested what the position will be with respect to the unemployed and whether the amount owing will accrue as a debt. There is no commentary on the rights of second families and there is no statement of the Government's recognition of their rights. There is no detail on the cost of this child support collection agency.

As I said, it is a totally inadequate statement. It is a most significant area for both government administration and for our society. There is an absolute and urgent need to achieve reform. This reform must be based upon community acceptance and equity. That can be achieved only by genuine widespread consultation, not the indulgence of an ideological position and by making sure that there is full understanding right throughout the community, particularly by all those people who are affected or potentially affected by what the Government proposes. In terms of those criteria, the Minister and the Government have failed absolutely in this statement today in the totally inadequate document that was tabled in this Parliament last year and also in the consultation process that has supposedly gone on between the two events.