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Tuesday, 24 March 1987
Page: 1217

Senator POWELL —Mr Deputy President, I seek leave to make a statement on the child support proposals statement by the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe).

Leave granted.

Senator POWELL —Thank you. As Senator Peter Baume has said, the statement on child support proposals is welcomed also by the Australian Democrats, but it is also one which has in it some unanswered questions. There is no doubt that there was a good deal of community interest in the discussion paper which was brought before us towards the end of last year. However, there was also considerable criticism that there was not due time for the community consultation which the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) had called for. I imagine that this may have been the case with other senators, but I certainly received quite a deal of correspondence expressing this view. A letter from a significant group concerned with the welfare of women and children, and particularly with those in the single parent situation, said that the group was totally dissatisfied with the two-month limit on community consultation. Another letter-this one from a significant group in Victoria, the Coburg Legal Service-which was perhaps in a little stronger terms, said that the lack of time as a result of the poorly advertised consultation caused this particular group to feel that it had been badly treated. However, we now have before us the Minister's statement and a proposal from the Government. I must say that what we have, as Senator Peter Baume has said, is half a proposal. I think the Government is taking the position that the easy bit will be done now and the difficult bit will be done later. I will have some comment to make on that later.

The Minister recounts in his statement the grim facts; that in fact the number of sole parent families has increased in the period from 1974 to 1985 by 73 per cent, from 183,000 to 316,000. We said that the overwhelming majority of cases in that statistic result from marriage breakdown or a split in de facto relationships. Those are facts that we know and this proposed legislation, which, it appears, is to come before us in two parts, is designed to address the poverty which has been the result of that vast increase, as well as the lack of responsibility that has been shown by non-custodial parents; in most cases, that being the male parent. While I certainly agree that this problem needs to be addressed, it is merely the effect of the family breakdown. I propose that the Government also has a responsibility to look at the causes of such a dramatic change in our social structure.

I would like to take this opportunity to call to the Senate's attention a pilot program which I believe does just that. I believe it has the potential to do one of the other things which the Government is doing, or is attempting to do, with its moves on child support and other moves with which we substantially agree, and that is to prevent the need for a great deal of government cost in this situation. I am referring to the Family Conciliation Centre, one of two pilot programs. The one with which I am most familiar is the one in Victoria, the Noble Park Family Conciliation Centre. This pilot program was set up by this Government in 1985 at the initiative of the then Attorney-General, Senator Gareth Evans. I would like to draw the goals of the Centre to the attention of the Senate. The aim of the Family Conciliation Centre in Noble Park was:

. . . to develop a service that would effectively resolve family disputes thereby preventing them from getting out of control. The effectiveness of the service as providing an alternative to legal processes was also to be assessed.

In summary it stated:

. . . the service would recognise the diversity of families and offer intervention strategies in the early stages of a dispute. It was also to empower families to effectively resolve their own disputes.

Those were the key aims. Perhaps, as a result, the Centre could provide a true alternative to litigation, which we all know is a very expensive process in the settlement of disputes. In order for families to resolve their disputes the establishment of this Centre recognised that they need two things-information and a forum in which they can communicate and negotiate in order to make decisions. That is provided for in this pilot program through mediation and, as a means of making decisions, this model is very cost effective when compared with others. This program, as was suggested on its establishment, has been continually evaluated and the evaluation report has been presented. That evaluation was conducted by the Commonwealth Department of the Attorney-General and the recommendation from that evaluation is as follows:

. . . for the next five years, there be established a specific network of alternative programs in family dispute/conflict resolution, which are charged with the development of new forms of services, continual review of those services, research, training and sharing of information with the rest of Australia.

I wholeheartedly endorse that recommendation of the review conducted by the Attorney-General's Department of the Family Conciliation Centre. I do so because I believe that is in this kind of area, as well as in the sort of legislative area which is proposed in the Minister's statement and the in the upcoming legislation, that a major contribution toward redressing the problems can be made, and in particular in preventing the problems which have become the cause of such a dramatic rise in the incidence of family breakdown and, more particularly, in the numbers of children and their parents, most of them women, living in poverty.

I conclude my remarks on the Conciliation Centre by drawing to the attention of the Senate that the funding for this pilot program ends on 30 June of this year. I believe that this program has served its purpose as a pilot, that it should have ongoing funding and that the recommendation, as set out, should be followed as far as is possible in a wider sense. This is a community based program which serves the interests of families across the board. It is one which should have been a pilot and should now be the model for a good many other services of a similar nature in order to prevent, as we have seen, the increasing incidence of family breakdown.

We do not have a wide network of family conciliation centres and we do have increasing numbers of children living in poverty. The Minister referred in his statement to community consultation, which is the basis of his decisions following the discussion paper. Very many groups in the community found that their time for consultation was too limited and they felt that their access even to the discussion paper was not adequate. It took part of that time for them even to get hold of it.

The Minister has said that in order to implement the more difficult second stage-the one which will deal with the problems of implementation and, in particular, with the establishment of a formula-he will set up a consultative group to advise him, to monitor stage one and to be part of the establishment of stage two. My concern is that that consultative group should be broadly based. It should consult with many community groups, particularly community groups which, as I have said, are in daily contact with some of the major problems which result from family breakdown-problems of women and their children. They should be adequately consulted, and drawn into that process. The concerns of women and their children should be listened to very carefully.

One other area of criticism which has come to my attention has been that various people who have an interest in this area have been rather disconcerted that some of the decision making appears not to have been made with the fullest co-ordination with other thinking and work that is being done in allied areas. In particular, I refer to the social security review which is addressing families and children in poverty and the role of government services in that area. It issues paper No. 1 `Income Support for Families with Children' in particular addresses these issues. The Australian Law Reform Commission's report on matrimonial property is due to be brought down early this year. The question has been asked whether there has been proper co-ordination on this issue between all of the interested bodies.

On page 4 of his statement the Minister gives a list of the specific objectives. I make it clear that the first objective-that non-custodial parents share the cost of supporting their children according to their capacity to pay-is strongly supported by the Australian Democrats. So too is the second objective that adequate support be available for all children of separated parents. I would simply add the words `whatever the source of that support' because I am a little concerned that that objective should be read in context with the third objective, which is that Commonwealth expenditure be limited to what is necessary to ensure that those needs be met. It is important that objective No. 3 does not assume an importance over and above the other objectives. It should be clear that objective No. 2 means that adequate support should be available whether it comes from government sources or from the responsible actions of custodial and non-custodial parents. Objective No. 4 states:

. . . to ensure that neither parent is discouraged from participating in the work force . . .

Whilst that is a fine objective we must be very careful to recognise that in the case of female parents in particular there are specific difficulties, difficulties which go to the whole question of the continuing inability of women in any significant numbers, to break into the more substantial, more highly paid and highly regarded areas of the work force. Of course those problems are compounded if we are talking about women who are sole parents and have responsibility for children. To that extent I think it is important that a number of other comments which have been made be taken into account in the whole business of establishing the most difficult part of the next stage of legislation in this area. I quote from the Southern Halfway House people in Cheltenham, Victoria, who I think made a very definitive statement. They stated:

Where the non-custodial parent has substantial debts the child should be considered as the most important creditor . . .

That principle must be part of the deliberations regarding any formula which might be established. That same concern was also expressed by the Institute of Family Studies, which stated:

Maintenance or child support is an issue of parental responsibility first and foremost and not an issue of welfare or cost cutting and nor is it restricted to sole parent families.

I would urge that those principles be firmly in the minds of the Minister, his consultative group and all of the people who are preparing the next stage of this legislation. In the fifth objective the Minister uses the word `flexible'. The objective states:

. . . that the overall arrangement should be simple, flexible, efficient and respect personal privacy.

The emphasis in the proposed establishment of a formula should definitely be on the word `flexible'. It is quite a challenge to come up with any kind of a formula which can really address that issue significantly and fully. It is terribly important, and it is one of the things we will be looking at most closely when the legislation comes before us, that any legislation-I again quote from the Southern Halfway House submission-should also take into consideration:

. . . that any move on their part that reduces the safety, dignity and privacy of the custodial parent, will, without doubt, adversely affect the lives of the children.

That must be a major consideration in the decision making process on this whole area. The Australian Democrats too support the view that responsibility should and must be taken by all parents for all children. To that extent we are pleased to have the Minister's statement. We look forward to the legislation and anticipate that those issues of considerable and important principle will be met in it.