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Thursday, 2 April 1998
Page: 2463

Mr WAKELIN (11:09 AM) —We all understand the background to the Child Support Legislation Amendment Bill 1998 . The bill implements the package announced by the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Kemp) and the Minister for Social Security (Senator Newman) in September last year. It is the second stage of the government's reforms and it builds on the changes made last year to the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989. The 1994 Joint Select Committee on Certain Family Law Issues made 163 recommendations, and the chairman of that committee is with us in the Main Committee today. The interim response of the government to that report canvassed 53 of those recommendations and, last year, amendments addressed a further 11. The legislation before us brings the total addressed to 111.

This package is based on the principle of parental responsibility, with a preference for private arrangements and with the government acting as a safety net for those unable to access such arrangements. The details of the bill are basically to do with enhancing the parents' capacity to provide financial support. Payers of child support will have more of their income exempted from the CSS formula, and the disregarded income level for carers will be reduced.

To tackle the apparent evasion of child support, rental property losses and previously exempt foreign income will be included in the assessable income of non-custodial parents. Furthermore, the registrar of the CSA will be given powers to better assess the declared financial circumstances of parents, in order to ensure calculation in as fair a way as possible. In order to make payments more flexible and to ensure fair and reasonable calculations, certain care arrangements will be taken into account in the calculation process.

In terms of parents' rights and responsibilities, the bill provides a number of additional rights and responsibilities for parents, both custodial and non-custodial. Some of these changes include allowing either parent to apply for administrative assessment of child support; and allowing the registrar to suspend payments of child support where the Family Court has been asked to make a decision. Private collection will be encouraged. Child support may continue until the end of the school year or until a child who is still a full-time student turns 18.

The bill also includes measures placing a greater onus on parents to notify changes in their circumstances to the CSA. There has been great criticism of the CSA and CSS, criticism which I am sure every member and every senator would be aware of, as there is an unwieldy bureaucracy involved in its operation. This bill will remove retrospectivity in relation to the commencement of a liability; it will enhance payment options for liable parents; and it will allow the registrar to offset debts between parents.

That is the basis of the legislation, as we all know. I will now make a few personal observations for five or six minutes and I look forward to enjoying the contribution from my colleague from Western Australia, the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Eoin Cameron).

The Child Support Agency is an offshoot of the Australian Taxation Office, as we know. It has about 2,500 employees, public servants, costing the taxpayer in excess of $125 million per year, I understand. It has been attempting, over the past decade, to deal with a very deep-rooted community change to do with the changing stability, if you like, of life contracts in marriage or in relationships. Parents are changing their circumstances and therefore the support arrangements for the children of those relationships are becoming increasingly complex in some cases. At the time, some 10 years ago now, the legislation was seen as being to offset, as I understand it, the increasing social welfare bill: parents who had conceived children would accept the maximum possible responsibility for their care, according to their means.

But, as ever when the government gets involved in matters of human activity, it is less than perfect. From my experience in my electorate office, I do not think there is an issue which evokes more emotion, difficulty and frustration than this one does. It is a blight on our society that we have not been able to be more successful. I do not blame anyone for that: the previous government made some genuine attempts, and this government has made some genuine attempts, but we have not addressed the issue at anywhere the level that we need to in order to bring about a reasonable acceptance of parental responsibility and the proper balance of the law.

I will give you a couple of examples and as I talk about them I will think of another 10 and so maybe I will pick out another one. This particular example will stay with me forever. I had a chap come into the office, a man in full-time employment, and he told me his story. His daughter had brought a child support scheme action against him, her own father, for the care of her younger sister, his younger daughter. I checked with the minister's office. I could not believe it; I did not think that would be possible. However, after checking with the minister's office, I found that it was true.

He told me his story with great dignity and great strength. He told me of his comment to his 19-year-old son when his son endeavoured to understand this: `We're not worth as much, mate, because you're over the age of 18.' That explained to me the complex nature and the difficult nature of the legislation that we have got ourselves involved in.

I have found the issue of the Australian Taxation Office to be less than satisfactory. In these matters where people are in the most difficult circumstances they will ever confront in their lives, a relationship breakdown, we need an organisation with a little more care and a little more compassion. I do not believe the Australian Taxation Office is where this organisation should be.

In the two or three minutes I have remaining I want to raise three matters where I think the cause may be advanced, because I do not want to see these amendments as the final chapter in this thing. I do not think they can be. I think we have at least two more stages to go over the next year or two to bring it to some reasonable conclusion. Like all speakers on both sides of this debate, I want to enable people to have some kind of a new life once a relationship breaks down, and the focus of all that is reasonable care for the children.

I will offer three points. Firstly, I believe the parliament must look at proper incentives for private arrangements. If we bring children into the world then we have a responsibility to care for them. I guess we have that responsibility to the day we die, but certainly until the child's legal age of 18. Whatever our personal relationships might be with the other parent, we must always respect that. That is the principle we have to bring from the parliament to the people on this issue. We have to bring it home to people who have children that they have that responsibility to make sure they care for their child to the best of their ability. The government has to offer the proper balance and incentives to make sure that they can do that. The government has to ensure that there are incentives for private arrangements for payments to be made for the care of a child when a relationship breaks down.

I mention again the 2,500 public servants, the $150 million of taxpayers' money, just to say that parent A should pay parent B. Surely it is better for parent A and parent B, as difficult as that might be, to come to their own arrangements. Hundreds of thousands of Australians do that. Therefore, we want incentives for those other hundreds of thousands of Australians who cannot do that to be brought into that net as much as possible.

The second point I wish to stress is the imbalance in the equity between the custodial and the non-custodial parent. Many speakers have spoken of that. We cannot have this imbalance between the custodial and the non-custodial parent. We must move to complete fairness. It has to be gender neutral. It is not a matter of female or male. It is a matter of the overall responsibility and fairness. We have to ensure that people can begin their lives and give maximum care to their children.

The last point I will make is that it must come back to a reasonable philosophical base. It must come back to what I talked about earlier, about respecting the fact that parents do have that fundamental responsibility. In regard to the responsibility of MPs, I guess that will be never ending and I believe it is totally unsatisfactory under our current structure.

One particular issue that I would wish to bring to the public mind is that, in regional Australia, it is significantly difficult because the Child Support Agency does not have offices readily available around Australia and, therefore, access to the offices of that organisation is somewhat more difficult. That is just another issue that regional Australia has to contend with.

There are a couple of other smaller points. I believe we have the technological ability now to reflect the fortnightly wage, and if we must stick with this gross wage formula we do have the ability not to go on some historical 12-month basis. With computers these days, there should be no trouble reflecting the actual wage of that fortnight. It should not be difficult to do that. These historical arrangements are just so unfair. They only further provoke people and lose greater credibility for our system.

I do not wish to go any further. I am sure many other speakers have canvassed the range of issues on this matter. It is terribly difficult, but we have to keep trying. We are a number of years away from the proper answer on this matter. The overwhelming thing that I would like to leave with the Main Committee is that we must allow people to get on with a new life and to give those children the best chance.