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Tuesday, 18 June 2013
Page: 6199

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (13:35): I rise to speak on the Marriage Celebrant Administration Charge Bill 2013 and the Marriage Amendment (Celebrant Administration and Fees) Bill 2013. These bills seeks to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to implement a range of new fees in relation to registered and prospective Commonwealth registered marriage celebrants under the marriage celebrants program, which is managed through the Attorney-General's Department. The bills will also allow for the imposition of an application registration fee for those seeking an exemption from any of the above mentioned fees.

There are also amendments in relation to the administration of the program that seek to allow an Australian passport to be used as evidence to determine the date and place of birth of marrying parties. Furthermore, the requirement for the Registrar of Marriage Celebrants to conduct performance reviews on all marriage celebrants every five years will be removed.

Currently, there are three categories of people under the Marriage Act who are authorised to solemnise marriages in Australia. The first category includes ministers of a religion of a recognised denomination under section 26 of the act. These minister are nominated by their denomination—for example, by the Catholic or Anglican churches—and are registered and regulated by state and territory registrars of births, deaths and marriages. In total, there are approximately 24,500 people in this category.

The second category includes officers in states and territories authorised to perform marriages as a part of their functions in registering marriages, of which there are approximately 730 in Australia. Again, they are regulated by state or territory registrars of births, deaths and marriages. The third category, which this bill addresses, are Commonwealth registered marriage celebrants registered by the Registrar of Marriage Celebrants in the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department. This includes approximately 10,500 people who are civil celebrants or who are ministers of a religion whose denomination is not proclaimed under section 26 of the act.

Currently, Commonwealth registered marriage celebrants are not required to pay a fee to be authorised under the marriage celebrants program. Under these changes, the fee will be set at a maximum of $600 in 2013-14, with an application processing fee of $30 for those seeking an exemption from the annual celebrant registration charge, the registration application fee or the annual ongoing professional development obligations.

The impetus to commence charging registration and administration fees is recognition of the changing nature of marriage ceremonies and therefore which category of marriage celebrant solemnises marriages. When the program was established in the early 1970s, approximately two per cent of marriage ceremonies were civil ceremonies. Today, that figure stands at approximately 71 per cent for all marriage ceremonies. Significant attempts at reforms have been made since 2001 to, according to the Attorney-General's Department, improve the transparency of the appointment process and improve the overall quality of the services provided to the public. Ultimately, from 2003 to 2012, the number of Commonwealth registered marriage celebrants grew from 3,632 at the end of 2003 to 10,467 at the end of 2012.

The government announced in 2011 that it would introduce cost recovery for this program and would implement this from 1 July 2013. I find it curious that the government has waited this long to introduce the bill and that we are debating it today, considering that, although the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is due to report on this bill today, 18 June, at this specific point in time the report has not been released. One of my constituents has reiterated to me her concerns about the imposition of a fee on marriage celebrants. Broadly speaking, it is important to consider the nature of the work that marriage celebrants do and the effort that goes into conducting it. As my constituent has noted, celebrants have a lot of expenses to get work. They need to advertise to the general community via the Yellow Pages, websites, social media, bridal magazines and other publications. Some attend wedding expos and other promotional events. There is a lot of expense in advertising each year, as well as insurance, peak body subscription fees to keep up to date and travel and publishing expenses. There is a fairly expensive course to become a celebrant, and then, often, some years waiting to be registered. Therefore, it is extremely important to consider that a celebrant needs to perform quite a lot of weddings each year just to break even.

Given these upfront costs, the feedback that I have been receiving is in favour of the department implementing a fee per wedding. I understand that civil celebrants see the costs in terms of keeping up with new legislation and professional development as reasonable, but civil celebrants feel it is a step too far to then impose further fees on someone who may not be using the services of the department. To quote from my constituents specifically: 'Why would a celebrant doing, for example, 50 weddings a year pay the same annual fee as a celebrant starting out or working part-time doing just a couple of weddings a year?' 'I am happy to pay to attend an annual all-day professional development session, so I am already getting that information at my cost.' Civil celebrants are already paying to maintain their professional standards and therefore want to know exactly what they will be paying the federal department for with a proposed new annual fee.

To their credit the government implemented a consultation process in 2011 on those proposed measures. I have noted some of the concerns of one such constituent who was closely involved in these deliberations. The Attorney-General's Department organised a consultation meeting in Brisbane in November 2011 which I understand was well attended by marriage celebrants. Many issues were raised regarding the imposition of an administration fee on those who act as marriage celebrants on a part-time basis. Those people were very much against the idea. Of course, it must be noted that well-established and full-time marriage celebrants would receive an advantage if there is, in fact, a decrease in the supply of marriage celebrants with perhaps hundreds or thousands dropping out of the program. The most recent anecdotal evidence I have heard is that imposing a fee may make it prohibitively expensive to continue to be involved and many may drop out of the marriage celebrant program.

As I mentioned, to be a Commonwealth registered marriage celebrant one must first complete compulsory training courses, specifically a Certificate IV level qualification, which can be quite costly. A registration fee will be yet another cost to becoming a marriage celebrant. It is worthy to note, however, that for many who are working part-time or are considering starting out the imposition of a fee means that their participation in the marriage celebrant program will simply not be feasible. What I want to see and what the Senate committee should address is that the department needs to fully account for the costs involved in administering the program and, therefore, as part of the formal cost-recovery policy, it should be honest and upfront about how the fees will be used to cover those costs.

I do note that the Attorney-General's Department have said in their submission that these fees will enable the department to improve the services delivered to marriage celebrants while also effectively regulating the celebrants. This does beg the question, of course, of whether the department considers the services they currently deliver to be adequate for the program. The department should identify how they will improve services and, indeed, which services they consider need improving. They also need to consider that if Commonwealth marriage celebrants do, in fact, drop out of the program, what affect will this have on the cost of administering the program. If costs are reduced, is it likely that the department will consider reducing the fees and charges? I do not hear of many examples where a government department actually genuinely cuts the fees it charges even if the associated costs are reduced.

There do remain genuine concerns and questions which still need to be addressed. I will therefore wait to see the report of the Senate committee due on 18 June, today, and the recommendations therein.

Sitting suspended from 13:44 to 16:00