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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1401

Senator POWELL(4.01) —I rise to speak on the Family Law Amendment Bill 1985, which was introduced in that year by Senator Durack, who has just pointed out to the previous speaker, Senator Coates, that after four years of this Government we now have before us the relatively immediate prospect, at least, of some legislation on this matter. It is interesting to note that in 1985 it had been 10 years since the election of a coalition government in 1975, during which time there had not been any action either. I for one welcome what seems to be a flurry of activity lately on this issue. Senator Durack, through his Bill, can take some credit for having been a burr under the saddle, in more recent years at least, on the issue of child support and in particular how to ensure the discharge of responsibility by parents for their children.

As I have said, this same week we have also had a statement from the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) foreshadowing government action. There has been reaction in the community to that ministerial statement. I for one would want to go again on the record to say that I believe it is important and valuable that at last we are addressing this issue very seriously, and that we will have comprehensive legislation on it, because there are 800,000 children living in poverty in Australia. Most of those children are in single parent families. Most of those families are headed by women. The reasons for those people living in poverty vary, but substantially, and particularly in the single parent family group, the very low level of government benefits is one reason. Another reason is that unemployment levels are high and that the women heading those single parent families often have great difficulty in securing employment-firstly, because of the high unemployment level; and secondly, simply because they are women with responsibilities for children and with added problems, such as what to do with those children in terms of child care, how to pay for that care if they can find it, and indeed how to find employment which will bring in for them sufficient money, because women, in these enlightened times, are still largely clustered in the low income, low status levels in the work force.

Another factor in the poverty of these 800,000 children and their parents-mainly women-is that some 60 per cent of maintenance orders in the case of family breakdowns are not complied with. In these instances the vast majority of people concerned are, of course, men. The main issue of concern is the lack of continuing parental responsibility for children in the event of family breakdown.

I am extremely happy about the activities taking place on this issue, particularly if the reason for so much activity is that we are genuinely concerned for the large numbers of children living in poverty, and that we are genuinely concerned that some adults are not accepting and carrying out their parental responsibilities. When we talk about parental responsibility, we are not talking just about responsibility to pay the costs of having children, to contribute financially to their well-being, but also about contributing to their care, their nurturing and their upbringing by maintaining contact wherever possible with them in spite of the breakdown of the relationship between the parents.

If the issues are the concern for the poverty of so many children and the concern about parental responsibility, I am very happy. However, I have a concern, which is shared by a number of people in the community, that the reason we are finally getting some action in this area is the stringent economic circumstances in which we find ourselves as a nation-to be quite blunt, the desire to get the welfare bill down, to reduce the deficit. I note the comments of a spokesperson from the Women's Electoral Lobby, Eva Cox, which were published in today's Canberra Times. She expressed concern:

that the Government was approaching the reform as a cost cutting exercise rather than as a comprehensive program aimed at solving the problems of sole parents.

I would add the words `their children'. The Council of Social Service in South Australia, through its spokesperson, Ms Helen Spurling, while welcoming the move, as I do, said:

. . . the Government would save $100 million through the reforms and that this should be redirected to low-income families.

Unfortunately, we do not have any guarantee about that. I believe we should approach this issue from the two aspects that I have stressed: From the need and the desire to improve the lives of so many children who are members of single parent families, who are suffering in many ways, but particularly financially, from the breakdown of families. Just to underline the enormity of this problem I remind the Senate that in the 11 years from 1974 to 1985 the number of sole parent families increased by 73 per cent, from 183,000 to 316,000. So we are dealing with a very large problem.

As I have said, I have concern that if the motive for this exercise is simply to save costs we will run the risk that, even though we might quite successfully tackle the problem of parental responsibility, and although we might through new legislation achieve a situation where a far higher proportion of maintenance payments are actually paid to the custodial parent and to the children, we in fact will still have a very large number of children living in poverty. However successful we might be in establishing a new maintenance system, we must face the fact that there will always be problems. If we are going to see this totally as a cost cutting exercise, then a great many people will still suffer.

In May we will have the mini-Budget, and there is a lot of concern in the community about what is or is not going to be cut. It is in this environment that I express that concern. There is great pressure out there for quite large cuts. The Business Council of Australia put in its bid for a $4,000m cut in that context. It has listed all sorts of areas where those cuts could take place. They include the area of social security payments, which is the area which largely we will address in this legislation. The Business Council of Australia has proposed an enormous cut-well over $1,000m-in a section of the Budget which is one of the largest outlays that the Government has to meet.

Just today I received with some concern a letter from yet another representative body of the business sector, the Confederation of Australian Industry-not a body which I think would take quite as tough a stance in some of these areas as the Business Council of Australia. This letter was a copy of a letter sent to the Minister for Social Security, Mr Howe, as a comment on the discussion paper. It concerns me because it expresses very strong resistance to the establishment of a maintenance collection agency and, in particular, to any proposals for employers to deduct maintenance payments from the wages of employees. It concerns me because of what I believe it represents.

Let me share with the Senate some of the concerns expressed in the letter from the Confederation of Australian Industry. It begins by welcoming the consultative process and expressing willingness to continue to participate in further consultations. I confess that because of the content of the letter I have some concern about a voice such as the Confederation's having any considerable weight in ongoing consultations. An initial concern in the letter appears to be that if employers are asked to collect maintenance payments from the wages of employees this will put inordinate pressure on the relationship between the employee and the employer.

The Confederation points out that the experience of employers with garnishee orders has not been happy and it believes that a permanent garnishee system for maintenance payments would result in a considerably greater degree of defiance and more attempts at non-compliance. I must say that I hardly see how non-compliance could really be increased beyond what it currently is. Perhaps this demonstrates a little lack of understanding by the Confederation of the enormity of the problem and the need for its member organisations to co-operate in such a system.

The Confederation acknowledges the pressure on government revenues of the cost of child support. Again, a significant body in the community has what I believe is the wrong motivation in addressing this issue. The pressure on government should be coming from its concern for the poverty of children and for the lack of responsibility in parenting. The Confederation is concerned about the cost to employers of any garnishee system for the collection of maintenance. In a second attached letter in which it goes into more detail it suggests that there ought to be some kind of payment to employers to recompense them for this service.

It seems a bit odd to me that employers who customarily withhold taxation payments, union dues and a number of other payments from employees' pay packets should suddenly come up with what is such a considerable and considered response to a government discussion paper which is concerned for the lives of families and children and that this system should be seen by employers to be such an imposition when they are in a position to facilitate the justice of this issue. They point to administrative problems and their concern that they might be seen as a tool of the family law system. They are concerned that it will be an encouragement for people to use false identities and that employers might lose workers. They also say that people in small communities might be embarrassed by or resent their employer knowing their personal position and that some employees might have their desire to work diminished by the fact that they have to pay for their families. Looking at the wider issue, they also question the cost of establishing such an agency.

Senator Durack —I take a point of order. I have been listening for some five minutes or more to Senator Powell's disposition on some letter she has had from the CAI and its objections to a scheme which is unrelated to the Bill. I suggest that there is no relevance whatever to the Bill in what she is saying.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Townley) —I have been listening too, and I remind Senator Powell that she has to relate her discussion as closely as possible to the Bill. Some latitude is permitted but I would be grateful if she would get closer to the Bill.

Senator POWELL —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. At the beginning of my remarks I pointed out that Senator Durack made a considerable contribution through his putting forward of this Bill several years ago and his pursuit of it now, on the issue of the collection of payments from non-custodial parents for their children. I am bringing before the Senate concerns which other people in the community have for this whole process. I do that because unless we recognise why we are attempting to do these things we might make errors of judgment in the approach we take to the specific proposals before us.

In that context I turn to some of the provisions in Senator Durack's Bill. I am extremely pleased to note that there is to be an amendment which will remove one of the provisions which was of most concern to the Australian Democrats at the time the Bill was presented. That is the very punitive provision for imprisonment for failure to comply. I am pleased that it is proposed to remove that provision. I suggest that it is that kind of approach to the issue which is unhelpful as, I believe, was the approach taken by the Confederation of Australian Industry. To be helpful in this issue we have to not just address the problems before us, which are the result of the very large increase in numbers of family breakdowns, but as a parliament and as a society look also at the causes. When we talk about family breakdown and family responsibility, which I take to be the motivation behind Senator Durack's legislation, often we do not realise that this responsibility is the responsibility of both partners in child rearing. Often this matter is seen totally as a matter of concern for women.

The matter I was particularly raising in spending so much time on the letter I received today was that the influence in this issue will come very much from men in the community who, for a very long time, have been able to escape their responsibilities. I would much prefer not to have an approach of resistance, such as the one to which I drew the Senate's attention, but one which looks at the issue, says `Well, why do we have this very large increase in family breakdown?' and recognises that there are problems for the male parent in a great many cases. The approach should also recognise that very often in these sorts of circumstances men feel threatened-and hence perhaps the sort of response which has been received from at least one business organisation.

I wonder how much input that response had from women members and indeed how many women members in that organisation are expressing their views. If we are trying to make efforts-I believe certainly Senator Durack with his legislation is trying to make efforts-not just to collect money but also to improve the way in which family breakdowns are handled and to ensure the smoothest possible means of having families meet their responsibilities, it would also be useful for us to say to ourselves that perhaps we could be doing some things which would reduce the incidence of family breakdown. We could look at our attitude to parenting-in particular to the role that we often ascribe to male parents. We should certainly not look at just punitive measures. I am not suggesting for a minute that this Parliament should not pass legislation of one kind or another which will include them, but I do not think we should take a punitive attitude. We should encourage fathers' involvement with their children, whether or not the marriage has remained intact. If we were to encourage fathers' involvement with their children from the beginning, many more marriages would stay intact and we would have less of a problem to address.

As I said earlier, we have had quite a big week in this area, and we have other amendments from Senator Durack which bring the aspects of his legislation closer to those of the proposed legislation which the ministerial statement outlined earlier this week. I would point out that Senator Durack's Bill, in common with the Government's proposals, is not totally comprehensive. As far as the Government's proposals are concerned, some time will pass before they will be able to be implemented. The two-stage system is understandable in that the second stage will be a very delicate one, with the establishment of some kind of a formula which, one stresses, would need to be flexible so that we are not being punitive, which we are at risk of being if we pursue some aspects of the proposed legislation. I am happy to see that the tremendously punitive imprisonment provision of Senator Durack's Bill has been removed.

The other aspect of Senator Durack's Bill to which I would like to refer is the prevention of court-approved maintenance agreements being used as a mechanism to evade the obligation to pay maintenance for children of a marriage. We have all heard of numerous occasions on which these sorts of agreements have been made. When we talk about the need for flexibility we must bear in mind that, in the case of marriage breakdown, it will not necessarily always be a fact that people will not always be unable to communicate and come to agreements which are amicable. I underline the fact that we have advanced in this area. As Senator Durack said, we have had four years of this Government and, as I have said, it was 10 years after the Family Law Act was introduced in 1975 that we saw Senator Durack's Bill. I hope we will have some more rational system but one which is based on an humane approach and one which is backed up by support for preventive mechanisms in the community in order to reduce the incidence of marriage breakdowns.

We have been told this week of statistical evidence that money worries are the largest cause of marriage breakdown in the community. We should think about that when we are looking at the comments of business groups, for instance, in relation to this area of legislation on things such as a wages policy and social security payments because, what in some people's eyes might be seen as economic responsibility, to other people is simply the straw which breaks the camel's back and which breaks up a family and causes the need for some kind of draconian exercise being legislated for.

When I was addressing the ministerial proposal earlier in the week I suggested that some programs in the community aim to keep families together and to help them make proper and amicable decisions, even if they cannot stay together, and that such organisations should be supported. I mentioned the Family Conciliation Centre in Victoria. I point out that, of the 557 cases which came before that Centre in its last financial year, the issue of management of family finances was involved in 220. If the operation of a centre such as that, which is minimally funded by government and whose funding is to be reviewed at 30 June this year, can prevent family breakdown of the sort that we have seen in the last decade, I would suggest that, while paying attention to the issues raised by Senator Durack's legislation and by the Minister in his statement, we should also be looking at this sort of process because of its preventative ability-not just in terms of human damage and a better lifestyle for families and their members but also in terms of financial saving in the community where families which are able to stay together are less of a cost to the public purse.

I stress that it is absolutely essential that in any decisions that we make on the issue of child support we must be very, very careful that our motivation is the correct one and that we do not attack this issue from the point of view of total cost saving. The Australian Institute of Family Studies warns against a too-easy expectation that a proposed child support system would save millions and that a formula should not be chosen on the basis that it will reduce public expenditure. It states that it may not, but that that is less important than establishing in the public mind that marriage and parenthood carry with them clear responsibilities for and obligations to children which cannot be avoided.