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Tuesday, 24 March 1987
Page: 1215


Senator PETER BAUME(4.09) —The statement which has just been presented by the Special Minister of State (Senator Tate) on behalf of the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) concerns the Government's response in the area of child support proposals. The statement is a consequence of a discussion paper on child maintenance entitled `Child Support' which was published in October 1986 and which has been the subject of widespread discussion since then.

The Minister's response makes clear some elements of the problems we face. Between 1974 and 1985 the number of sole parents increased by 73 per cent, from 183,000 to 316,000. Of course, that figure hides within it a much larger number of the children of those parents. The Minister points out further that the overwhelming majority of cases are the result of a marriage breakdown or a split in a de facto relationship. It is worth emphasising that point because some of the less generous discussion that goes on in the community and some of the more reactionary elements would have us believe that there is an army of promiscuous young women somehow acting on their own who are in fact causing this increase in the figures for the sole purpose of getting access to welfare benefits. The actuality is that by far the majority of people caught in this situation are there as a result of marriage breakdown or a split in de facto relationships. As the Minister points out, most of the children in these families come from homes where two parents once shared responsibility for expenses and care.

Further in his statement the Minister makes clear that currently there are more than 250,000 lone parents on benefits caring for 450,000 children. He makes the point that the pension or benefit is the only source of income for most of those households. That gives some indication of the size of the problem with which the Government and the Opposition have been grappling and to which we have been addressing ourselves for some years. We understand that those in receipt of the supporting parent's benefit are, for the most part, in that position as a result of family breakdown. We are also aware that families dependent upon the supporting parent's benefit to bring up their children are, for the most part, living in poverty. We are further aware, as other honourable senators will be aware, that this problem affects particularly the women and children of Australia. It is not a problem which affects men to any great extent; it is particularly a problem which concerns women. This is one of the reasons why there has been feminisation of poverty in Australia. The other significant reason, of course, is the extra longevity of women. There is an increased number of aged women who are often without partners and who have limited income. So, this is a real problem. It is an issue which concerns the whole community. It is especially a problem for women and children. For those who think that it cannot happen to them, we can say that they are only one marriage breakdown away from the supporting parent's benefit. So, it is a potential problem for any one of us.

The problem seems to have arisen in part from inadequacies in both the legislative and administrative arrangements which surround the whole question of family law and the questions of maintenance arrangements and the support for children. First of all, the problems have arisen, as is now recognised and as is acknowledged by the Minister, from a primary reliance upon the benefit as a source of income. Secondly, connivance has led to artificial arrangements whereby parents have not been encouraged to take responsibility for their own children after marriage breakdown. Thirdly, the problems have arisen because of the non-enforceability of many of the maintenance orders which are made through the Family Court of Australia.

The problem has been of very great concern to us. Indeed, on behalf of the Opposition, Senator Peter Durack introduced a private member's Bill into this place. That Bill received its second reading on 5 December 1985. That happened almost 1 1/2 years ago. Senator Durack's Bill identified certain things that might be done to overcome the problems which we recognised then, which the Government recognises and to which this statement provides some response. Senator Durack sought to do three things. First, he sought to have the Family Court not take into account the eligibility of a party to a marriage for any benefit under the Social Security Act or the Repatriation Act. The fact that we did that in 1975 when we amended the Family Law Act has led to some of the problems.

Further, Senator Durack sought to have inserted a sub-section to make it clear that the Family Court, in determining the amount of maintenance which should be the subject of a maintenance order, should give priority to the needs of the party or of the children for which provision is claimed, and to make this the primary provision. The third main provision of Senator Durack's Bill was a suggestion that there should be a power to imprison people who were simply failing to comply with maintenance orders.

The Government, in the response which has been put down by the Minister and in respect of which we are now offering comment, seems to have acknowledged the validity of Senator Durack's approach on behalf of the Opposition on what really should be a bipartisan matter. It has indicated that it will be giving support to the first two of Senator Durack's propositions, either in the form in which he proposed them or in a slightly amended form.


Senator Crowley —Big difference, Senator.


Senator PETER BAUME —I note Senator Crowley's interjection but it is the approach and the principle which are important.


Senator Crowley —That is right-what do you think is missing?


Senator PETER BAUME —This is an occasion on which we believe the Government has taken notice of what the Opposition has proposed. It has taken notice of the problem as we have identified it, and, to that extent, we find some of the Government's proposals of some interest to us. The Government has picked up the proposal that in fact the needs of the children and of the marriage partner should be placed first. It has also taken up our suggestion that the courts should not really look at the eligibility for welfare as prime concern ahead of looking at the responsibility of the parties to continue to care for their own children, because they are still their own children even after marriage breakdown.

We have had the statement for about three hours. On looking at it we get the impression that it is a statement on which we would want to offer some general support. The Government appears to be suggesting that it will proceed through two stages. Stage 1 in 1987 will see the introduction of legislation to establish a child support agency to collect maintenance. Also, the Family Law Act will be amended to do two things. First, it will be amended to assert the priority of child maintenance and to make sure that court orders put the financial position of children ahead of everything except the essential commitments of the parents. That was something that Senator Durack was seeking to achieve. Secondly, it will be amended to remove reference to social security eligibility to make clear that child support should not be treated as a `top-up' to social security pensions and benefits. Stage 2 of the Government's proposal in 1988 would seem to be the introduction of legislation to put in place a formula to calculate the quantum of the maintenance. We are not quite sure what the formula will be.

I might make several comments even at this stage. First, we agree completely with the goal that governments in this country should take action to reduce the number of children living in poverty. If this proposal will help to achieve that, we will look at it with great interest and with considerable sympathy. This statement indicates that the Government wishes to ensure that parents face up to their responsibilities to their children-that is what the Minister says in his statement-and to that extent we support that as well. But there are some comments that I would offer. First, the Government has offered us now only half a package. It has said to us what it will do in 1987 and has indicated that the formula, which is an essential part of the package, will not be revealed yet and will not be enacted until 1988. The agency will be established this year but the collection formula will only come later. We know something about the agency from what the Government has announced; we know nothing about the formula. We would hope that the formula, which the Government will put forward, will be acceptable and fair to all parties. We hope that it will be a formula which will achieve the goals that the Minister has identified, to reduce the number of children living in poverty and to ensure that parents continue to take responsibility for their children.

Secondly, when we look at what the Government has proposed, it seems that the proposed mechanism is to apply universally instead of applying, for example, to defaulters or to those cases where there is no agreement between parties after marriage breakdown. We would wonder whether it is appropriate to put a formula in place that would apply universally in the event of the dissolution of marriage.

Thirdly, it seems to us that the Government is going to use the taxation mechanism, to use deductions through the pay as you earn system, to collect the money. We need more detail on this before we know whether that is the appropriate or the best system.

The Opposition welcomes any indication that this Government will move to help reduce the number of Australian children living in poverty as a result of marriage breakdown. If, at the same time, by improving child support we can reduce poverty for women in Australia, for supporting parent beneficiaries who are in this situation as a result of marriage breakdown, that would also be a social gain. What we do not know yet are the fine details of the Government's formula or the details of the actual collection process. We reserve judgment on those. But to the extent that some principles which we have been espousing in opposition for several years, and which are shared by the Government and which are now contained in the Minister's statement, seem to be common ground between us, we welcome the statement and we look forward to more detail from the Government.

Question resolved in the affirmative.