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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6383


Senator WEBBER (3:17 PM) —I also rise to take note of the answers given by Senator Vanstone, the Minister for Family and Community Services. As mentioned in question time today, I have previously asked the minister a very similar question to the one I outlined today— namely, a question about the situation that a person finds themselves in when they receive inconsistent child support payments and the effect that this has on their entitlement to the family tax benefit. When I last asked Senator Vanstone a question along these lines, I was told that the senator did not answer hypothetical questions—although at the time Senator Vanstone did offer to investigate the matter if I forwarded the information that I had to her. That was back in August. I must say that I am still waiting for an answer— and so is the constituent whose case I referred to the minister.

The issue I have with the case I quoted today is that we are seeing exactly the same procedural stuff-up that we saw in the case I referred to her in August: a person who— through no malice, no intent, no failure to make an effort—is being made to pay back an amount of money that they had no control over. Indeed, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal in this matter have upheld the decision to recover the money, but that is only because they must do so according to the law. The law as it currently stands does not give them the flexibility to make any alternative arrangements. Given the fact that there are numerous examples of how recipients who are also receiving irregular child support payments—and unfortunately there are far too many of them—can hardly ever accurately estimate their income and therefore are always in risk of debt, one has to conclude that the system must be reformed. The system as it currently stands unfairly penalises people that access a certain amount of their income through the Child Support Agency. At the very least, in my view, the law should be changed to allow some flexibility to the people administering the legislation to take this into account and, indeed, to allow the Social Security Appeals Tribunal to also take this into account. In ruling on the case which I referred to earlier today the SSAT state:

However, these factors can only be taken into account where a debt or a portion of a debt is attributable solely to administrative error.

Unfortunately, with irregular child support payments that is not solely due to administrative error. They go on to say that they accept that the individual `did not contribute to the debt in any way whatsoever'. And, finally, they state that they appreciate that the applicant is `frustrated at being faced with a substantial debt that she had no idea that she was incurring and no way of avoiding in the future'. Therein lies the heart of the problem. This issue existed for the applicant last year, it exists this year and, unless there is a change to the law and the way that it is administered, it will exist next year as well. The system as it currently stands is condemning this applicant to a treadmill of debt year after year with little or no means of repaying it. This is not the hypothetical Wright family that the minister referred to in this place when she had a previous portfolio; these are real people confronting the impossibility of the current system that she has created.

When you look at this law and the way that it is administered and the minister's view on this law, can you really trust what Senator Vanstone has to say? In fact, it has been brought to my attention that on Radio Nationalyesterday, when talking about the breaching regime, she said:

This regime that we now have was in fact endorsed by parliament completely and has subsequently been softened by the government—not by the Labor Party, by the government.

You used to have a system where when you got breached you lost all your payments. It's a Liberal government that changed it to a system where, on your first breach you lost a portion of your payments for a period of time, second breach a larger portion for a longer period, third breach you lose them altogether for an even longer period.

Have I got news for Senator Vanstone. Let us calm down and not rewrite history. Back in 1996 the government destroyed the skilling and training infrastructure that was provided to unemployed people under Labor and proposed an unbelievably harsh regime to strip people of their social security entitlements completely. (Time expired)