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Thursday, 2 April 1998
Page: 2467

Mr TUCKEY (11:27 AM) —Madam Deputy Speaker, I have entered the debate on the Child Support Legislation Amendment Bill 1998 for two reasons. One is that there has been some confusion arising from the speakers list, as you would be aware from your position on the speakers list. The other is the opportunity, particularly after the address to the House by the member for Throsby (Mr Hollis), which I thought was extremely well balanced, to speak on this issue that confronts us. He suggested, and I had discussed this previously with the member for Dickson (Mr Tony Smith), that we have here an issue, about which there is a legion of evidence, of how the system, as it was originally proposed, is not working. The member for Throsby made the point that there should be a bipartisan approach to address all the problems in a fair and equitable way. In my view, that is a matter that we should deal with very seriously. I think it is something that the parliament should try to do more frequently.

In Western Australia, the people there found themselves confronted with an unacceptable law on abortion. There has been quite magnificent debate on it. I am not nominating where I might stand in that debate. All the feedback I have from state members of parliament is that a huge social issue is being addressed by a conscience, as we call it, and that the level of debate has been excellent. Nobody has been saying, `It was all your fault.' Nobody has been trying to score points. They recognise it as a great social issue. Huge courage has been demonstrated by a large number of people who, under substantial pressure, are taking their responsibility as a member of parliament and setting out to address the issues.

This is another one of those sorts of circumstances. I think it would be better the sooner we and our leaders got together and said, `Let's treat this in a bipartisan fashion, if not a conscience fashion, and let's get a common position to address the difficulties.' You cannot put percentages of somebody's salary down as a means of addressing the amount of money needed to look after children. That is just plainly silly. It will not work and it should stop. That, to me, is a fundamental.

It is going to be extremely difficult legislation simply because, when a marriage breaks down, people want to turn to the law to punish the other member of the family, and both sides try to do it. That is a tragedy. I have been close enough in a family situation—not personally; I celebrated my 40th wedding anniversary the other day—

Mr Wakelin —Congratulations.

Mr TUCKEY —Thank you very much. The realities are that in everybody's family, and in their extended family, they have to confront as a family the issue of marriage breakdown. You have one partner telling you, `Never talk to that so-and-so again,' and the reverse discussion in another family. We will never legislate that sort of emotion out. It is just another reason why we need sensible legislation that recognises these facts and does its best to find solutions. I can tell you that, while formulas might be fine in science, they are certainly not suitable for social issues. Unfortunately, we handed it to, of all people, the Australian Taxation Office, who are all about formulas, tables and a very impersonal and penalising approach to life—`If you don't do it, I'll tax you; I'll apply a penalty.'

A constituent of mine the other day sent a letter he got on to me. The letter points out that this person got into arrears with obligations under the Child Support Agency and was immediately taxed 17 per cent. That was not as a charge against the amount but as a continuing amount. That same person is under a garnishee order and his employer sent me the garnishee order. It is the most insulting document that anybody could ever receive. The employer is not in dispute with the employee's spouse. The employer just happened to give a job to someone who has this problem. If you read the letter you would think the employer was a crook. He is threatened with 12 months gaol if he does not comply with the order, when it would strike me that a letter asking him to assist the government would have been a nicer way to put it.

Again, it is all this confrontationist type of approach to a very sensitive issue. It is silly. I think that, of all the people we could have given the job to, in terms of sensitivity the tax office was probably the last one that should have been chosen. Personally, I think they need to be further down the chain. We have a thing called the Family Court. We are appointing judges to that court who, hopefully, understand the difficulties of these things. Quite frequently, I am not sure that people involved in the system have that view.

It is an amazing thing—and this might be attacked by some—but we are told each day there is equality between the sexes. I would like to contribute to that view. We cannot suddenly go to a point in time and say that it does not exist when it comes to looking after children; that no man has any special qualifications to do that when, of course, there is ample evidence they do. In our extended family, I can identify a family with a wife who is a highly paid professional and her husband, from day one, has stayed home and looked after the kids. He does an excellent job of it and that is their choice. Why is it that, when people go before the Family Court, there is an immediate decision that the supporting parent will, in nearly all cases, be the wife and that the male will therefore be subject to having money taken from their wages by government to support that situation? The logical argument would have been for the court to say, `Okay; you are both here'—although I know that in some cases they are not both there: someone has bolted and that creates other difficulties. It is not all simplistic. In these circumstances why cannot the court first ask, `Who has the financial resources to look after these children?' and custody be granted accordingly? If that is not satisfactory to the person who has the financial resources, or there is evidence that that would be inappropriate, you go to step two.

But in so many cases I think it would be appropriate. That is why we have courts, to determine when it is appropriate—but at the moment that is not considered. They are all issues, from my point of view, that we as a parliament have an obligation to resolve. As is typical in so many of these cases, once we get into the parliamentary scene we are confronted with party politics and we always get a second-best solution.

The member for Throsby is the person who stood up in here, to his great credit, and said, `Isn't this an issue on which we should all get together?' We might be astounded at the outcome that collectively we could achieve. We have got the evidence, as members of parliament, because the people have come to our offices. We know it is not as simple as to say that the blokes have had all the problems. We know it is not as simple as that. But the reality is that collectively we have gained a great deal of experience. Surely, then, we could get together, go back to the Family Law Act and write something that is proper, fair, and above all, addresses the needs of the children—not the supporting dad or the supporting mum, but the children.

Let us be a little bit broader in our approach and find out why it is that the people more likely to escape the measures of the child support legislation are those who do not admit who the parents are. It is pretty easy to establish who the mother is, but it is not so easy to establish who the father is. I will give another example: the young daughter of an employer of mine had twins. I asked, `What are you going to do about the father?' The reply was, `We don't want to know about him.' Why? Not only because that person might have some access to the children but because it complicated their access to welfare. What is the difference? It almost raises the question, `Are you so silly as to sign a contract called marriage?' because it makes you so easily identifiable. But it is just another issue.

Clearly, on the grounds of equity, if you have got some rules relating to the protection of children and their upkeep, all parties that father children should have a similar responsibility. It should not relate simply to those who have made the process for the Child Support Agency relatively simple by having got married.

All these issues are before us. I think we understand them. I would hope that we, in our party room, can convince our leaders that it is time to sit down. We do not want a committee such as was formed just the other day in our party room of Liberals and coalition people, to address this issue. We want a committee of the parliament. That need not be select or standing, and I do not know that we want to go into all the formalities of taking evidence. We know what the problem is. What we want is a group of people to sit down with goodwill and sort out a piece of legislation that works. I repeat that that must start with the Family Law Act.

The means by which we pursue those who refuse to meet their financial contribution is the secondary issue. That is easy; it is probably a role for the tax office, collecting the money as determined by others, but certainly not by a formula.

I was in the hotel business for all of my younger life under the old rules relating to maintenance, as we knew it. The further north you went in Western Australia—and I suppose on the east coast—the more maintenance dodgers you had on your staff. I would like a small contribution to my campaign funds for every time that I found myself going up to the court as the employer, paying money on behalf of, and in advance, for a staff member to keep that person out of jail. That is where such people used to go, and the maintenance used to tick up while they were there.

We set out to address that gross inequity—a very stupid way to address the matter—and we rewrote the Family Law Act. And what did we say in it? We said that welfare should fill the gap. Of course it should not. Of course people have a responsibility. But having got the changes, we then went about setting up a collection process which is just patently wrong and unfair, and everybody knows it.

I now see that there are many people on the speakers list who are wishing to continue with the debate. Probably, I should have spoken for fewer minutes, but having joined the debate, I wanted to demonstrate that I understand the problems. I make that appeal and I hope that the member representing the opposition here in this chamber today, the member for Bruce (Mr Griffin) will be joining with Mr Hollis and going off and saying to his leader, `Let us get together on this thing. Nobody needs to win the next election on this issue. We should get together and come out of it with a fair and equitable arrangement for all Australians, but most particularly for the children involved.'