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Thursday, 3 June 2010
Page: 5191


Mr HAYES (12:37 PM) —Family bonds are the link to our own being and, as a guide to our future, we rely on families a lot. As I have said in this place many times in a range of different debates, there is also no doubt about the cost of raising a family—and having three kids myself, and now four grandkids, let me tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it does not stop when they leave school or university. I guess that is one of the things that comes with parenting. There is a commitment to children because that is what we do, that is innate in us as parents. Without trying to put too fine a point on it, there are very real costs in raising children, with cost pressures associated with a range of different things, from school, to sport, to everything else.

Unfortunately, an inescapable fact of life—and this statistic is extraordinary—is that for every, I think, 2.3 or 2.4 marriages or unions there is one separation. That has a real impact not only on the social and emotional wellbeing of the family but also on the financial aspects of raising children. Having been married now, as of last May—I have got this figure right—for 34 years—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Congratulations.


Mr HAYES —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I could give you the date too, but I won’t! My youngest son has been through a separation and I know the impact that has had emotionally on both sides and I know the effect on my granddaughter. It is something that involves the whole family and it is inescapable that people are going to look internally and externally for reasons. But, at the end of the day, we need to provide for the child. That is what this legislation we are debating is about—putting the child front and centre in all this. It is about encouraging parents to settle their disputes, to make sure that first, second and third in their thinking is the proper raising of their child. That is what we are attempting to do. We are not trying to say that we are removing the emotional and financial stresses. We are trying to put a better balance in place that will at least allow the parties to address the real issue at stake, and that is providing support for the child.

It is not uncommon for each of us as members of parliament to hear some very tragic stories when people come to our offices. Many of them are pretty emotional when they see us. We are the last port of call. In my electorate of Werriwa alone there are 11,000 kids on child support. We have to be pretty positive that we are making sure those kids in my electorate, and kids in the same situation in everybody else’s electorates, are given the best opportunity so that they are not scrounging and will not be apologetic for life about coming from a separated family. We have to make sure that they are able to participate and feel included in a normal life as a child. This is what we are trying to do. As I said, parents have to learn to sort out their problems as maturely as they can, and I know that it is often somewhat difficult. But we must focus our arguments and our attention on what we deliver for these young people who are going to go on to become the Australians leading this country in the future. Responsibility does not just start and stop with the parents. We need to focus their attention on the cost factors associated with the child and we want to make sure that they are reasonably met.

The bill before us, the Child Support and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010, will do a couple of things. Firstly, it will introduce amendments making rules easier for separated families by implementing the 2009 budget measure aligning care determinations between family assistance and child support. The Child Support Scheme aims to ensure that children receive the appropriate level of child support from their parents. Conversely, to assist with the costs of raising children, many parents receive family tax benefit. Under the current arrangements, the Family Assistance Office and the Child Support Agency use different rules to determine the care levels for child support and family assistance, and this creates inconsistencies and unnecessary duplication of processes and decision making between both agencies.

Under the current rules, where there is no alignment, parents may not receive their correct assessments unless they separately notify each agency. Unquestionably, this can put additional strain on separated parents who have to deal with two agencies and two different sets of rules. As a consequence, there can be numerous elements of inconsistency. To address this, the bill makes amendments to provide for a single determination of care for both child support and family tax benefit purposes. Aligning the determinations of care will provide consistency in decisions about the level of care being provided by separated parents who have to deal with both agencies. Another advantage expected is that this will reduce objections and appeals flowing from the separate determinations in the two agencies.

To those parents I have had to have discussions with on this, I say that the government is listening, is taking these matters into account and is trying to make it easier for them to balance their arrangements and finances and to do what they need to do in making provisions for their children.

The bill also makes improvements to the process of estimating income for the purposes of child support. To determine their child support obligations, some parents estimate their income. The estimate is reconciled with the actual income earned and various corrections are made to ensure that the correct amount is being paid. Currently, when parents estimate their income to calculate their obligations under the Child Support Scheme, it is for a child support period of 15 months. This period can cross over up to three financial years.

It comes as no surprise that estimating income over multiple financial years can be difficult for parents and often leads to inaccuracies. As a consequence, debts and credits can accrue. Often, reconciliation cannot occur until the parent’s actual income for each financial year is known. We are therefore introducing measures that will help align these child support periods directly with financial years. This measure will make it easier for parents to estimate their income, which will be automatically determined with the filing of your tax return. This will mean that people will not have to wait until the end of their child support period before making adjustments. When you submit your tax return at the end of the year, the estimate will be automatically reconciled and this reconciliation can be taken into account in making any necessary adjustment. I can confirm that these amendments will not affect the length of the child support period, being 15 months, but they will make the adjustment process more practical and will allow it to occur automatically, as I said, with the filing of the income tax return.

Lastly, there is a minor amendment to family assistance provisions. The bill excludes two circumstances from the provisions that prevent family tax benefits being paid if tax returns have not been lodged. This amendment will put in place more flexible arrangements for the 2008-09 budget measures, which have applied since January of this year, 2010, to suspend fortnightly tax benefit payments for recipients who have not lodged tax returns and who have a family tax benefit debt as a consequence of not filing those returns. The budget measure was designed not to punish people but to encourage family tax benefit customers to lodge their tax returns to ensure that they receive accurate payments and, as a consequence, to reduce the incidence of overpayments. It was a measure that was recommended following the 2007 Australian National Audit Office report and one that is made more flexible by this legislation.

I know this suite of amendments will not remedy the issues that arise for young people when relationships tragically break down, but what we are trying to do is to make sure that the loving products of those relationships, the children, have a fair stake in their life ahead. We are trying to encourage parents not to use children as weapons in protracted disputes but rather, in a loving way, to make sure that their children are put first and foremost in a way which provides for their future. I commend the bill to the House.