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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6369

Senator WEBBER (2:10 PM) —My question is to Senator Vanstone, the Minister for Family and Community Services. What response does the minister have to a constituent of mine whose appeal against a family tax benefit debt was turned down, notwithstanding that the SSAT accepted that the applicant `did not contribute to the debt in any way whatsoever' and that the debt was incurred solely through the uneven flow of child support payments? Given that the SSAT accepted that recovery of the FTB debt would be likely to place this family in significant financial hardship through no fault of their own, what hope can the minister give to the many families in this situation that they will not be facing the same hardship again next year?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank the senator for her question. This question has in fact been asked here before recently, possibly by you, Senator. It has just been reworded and attached to an anonymous, possibly even hypothetical, example. Nonetheless, let me go to your question. You ask the question about a family that has had an appeal, and you point out that the appeal has been turned down. I have to say that that immediately makes me think, `Hmm, what does that tell you?' They had an appeal to an independent authority and it was turned down. I would think about that before you put the question this way again.

But let me get to the point of your concern: you say there is a family that, due to the uneven flow of child support payments, ended up with an overpayment of family tax benefit. I would like, and I am sure all of us would like, child support payments to be paid on time, but I have had a couple of examples of this where you have a family—let us take a hypothetical example—that has a $30,000 income and, all of a sudden, a $10,000 back payment of family payments, child support payments, arrives. You are now talking about a family that in that year had a $40,000 income. What you are saying to me, Senator, is that somehow we should treat them as though they did not have that extra inflow of money, that they are still back as a family that has $30,000. Why did the family get an overpayment? Because they suddenly got a lot more income. Somehow, Senator, you want me to believe that a family that has suddenly got a lot more income (a) should keep the additional payments that they have got and (b) has not got the money to pay them back. What did they do with the sudden inflow of additional family payments? What did they do with that money? The situation is that, at the end of the year, this very fair system ensures that a family on the same income with the same number of kids gets the same amount of money. The obvious extension of your question is that, if a family gets a lump sum back payment of family payments from a previous spouse, we should somehow ignore that and treat them as though they did not have that income. It is just not going to happen.

Senator WEBBER —Mr President, before I ask my supplementary question, I seek leave to table the SSAT ruling on this matter.

Leave not granted.

Senator Chris Evans —Senator Vanstone said it wasn't true a minute ago.

Senator Vanstone —I never said it wasn't true.

Senator Chris Evans —Look at the Hansard.

Senator WEBBER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. What action will the minister take to ensure that all families are fully aware of the likely FTB consequences of their income estimates, particularly when uneven Child Support Agency payments make accurate estimates impossible? How does the minister respond to the statements of the SSAT that are in this document in the case of my constituent, who said that the tribunal also appreciates the applicant's frustration at being faced with a substantial debt that she had no idea that she was incurring and no way of avoiding in the future?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank you for the opportunity, Senator Webber, to speak on the record, lest Hansard alter the text of what I have said, as they have done once before.

Senator Faulkner —How terrible!

Senator VANSTONE —I notice that Senator Faulkner says it is terrible—it is a funny thing, but it was words of his and my response that were removed.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator VANSTONE —It was not at my instigation, I hasten to add.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I remind honourable senators on my left that shouting across the chamber is disorderly.

Senator VANSTONE —Let me make it quite clear. You will not find in Hansard me saying that what you said was untrue or that what the appeals tribunal said was untrue. But the fact that appeal was not upheld does tell you something. It is always a difficult thing when people get lump sum back payments of child support. I notice you talk about uneven payments from the Child Support Agency, as if it is their fault. If you have instances where it is their fault that they are uneven, please raise them with me, but I think you will find that the uneven payments are a function of uneven collection of the payments, and that is not their fault. (Time expired)