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Tuesday, 8 May 2018
Page: 2522


Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (13:45): I rise to speak on the Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2018. As a former early childhood educator, I know the importance of giving young children the best start in life. To enable that to happen, we have to make sure that parents have the proper resources they need. One way of ensuring that parents have those resources is through the child support system, and another way is to ensure that their children are safe from potentially deadly diseases that can be prevented through immunisation.

The bill we are debating today addresses both of these issues. Labor have always supported evidence driven approaches to policy development. That's why we will support measures that improve the health and wellbeing of all Australian children. If Mr Turnbull were serious about improving the lives of Australian children, he wouldn't be attempting to cut support for single parents who are studying to improve their employment prospects. And if Mr Turnbull were serious about supporting families, he wouldn't be trying to slash family tax benefit payments for 100,000 Australian families. Labor have a strong history of standing up for vulnerable Australians, including children. We support a fair child support system that puts the wellbeing of children at its core.

The child support scheme was introduced by the Hawke government in 1988 and was designed to address the difficulties a parent could face when attempting to collect maintenance from the other parent. There were concerns at the time that women and children particularly were increasingly facing poverty after family separation and, as a result, the federal government was increasingly bearing the cost of raising children when one parent was refusing to contribute to their child's upkeep. The scheme was designed to make it simpler for caring parents to receive child support from the other parent by giving the responsibility for collection and enforcement to the Australian Taxation Office. The tax office was also given responsibility for assessing the amount of child support to be paid. Subsequently, the responsibility for the administration of the child support scheme has now been shifted to the Department of Social Services and delivery of the scheme to the Department of Human Services.

The scheme seeks to implement the principle that both parents should contribute to raising their children through care and financial support. Assessments should reflect the realistic cost of raising children and a parent's actual capacity to pay. While the issue of child support is often by its nature an emotive one, the system works well in the vast majority of cases—but that doesn't mean that it can't and shouldn't be improved. It does mean that these improvements can be made through incremental advances, not through a radical overhaul of the system. We will work with the government to make improvements, rather than trying to exploit this issue for political gain like we've seen other senators and their parties try to do.

The change in this bill implements three of the 25 recommendations put forward by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs in 2015 following its inquiry into the child support program. While three out of 25 is not a particularly good hit rate, we will largely support these changes because they will strengthen child support in Australia. The bill includes changes to the amount of time before a child support assessment is recalculated to reflect the actual care being provided where parents are in dispute about a care arrangement, and the amount of time that the assessment remains the same during a dispute is known as an 'interim period'. The current interim period is too short to allow sufficient time for dispute resolution processes to take place before the assessment is recalculated to reflect the actual care taking place.

This bill increases the interim period in most circumstances while one parent is trying to enforce their rights under a custody order, provided that they are actively engaging in the dispute resolution process. Currently, exemptions from participating in dispute resolution processes are available for families that have experienced family and domestic violence. These exemptions will still be available. The bill also makes it easier for courts to set aside binding child support agreements made before 1 July 2008. Since 1 July 2008 it has been a precondition that parents entering into a binding child support agreement receive legal advice. At this time the requirements were tightened for when the court could intervene to change or set aside a binding child support agreement. This has meant that for families who have made their agreement before 1 July 2008, often without the benefit of legal advice, it has become very difficult to amend agreements that were made under a different set of rules.

This bill also implements a recommendation for child support assessments to be adjusted to take into account amended tax assessments. The amount of child support payable is determined with regard to a person's adjusted taxable income, among other factors. Currently, if an income tax assessment is found to be wrong, a child support assessment is not able to be varied until the next financial year and if special circumstances apply. This can result in serious inequalities either if the initial assessment is too high and causes the amount of child support payable to be calculated from an artificially high income and be unaffordable for the paying parent or if the child support payments are too low and cause financial difficulty for the recipient parent. However, the bill, as drafted, would allow the new assessment to be applied retrospectively, creating large and unexpected debts for parents, and we're concerned that this change may leave payees with an unexpected debt after receiving payments in good faith. I understand my colleague Senator Pratt will be moving an amendment dealing with this matter. Child support payers and payees need to have certainty in the amount of their fortnightly payments. This bill also makes the child support agency's power to recover overpayments consistent with their powers to collect arrears. It's taken two years for the government to act on these sensible recommendations.

Child support can be a complex and emotional issue for families. For the government to have delayed action for so long is an insult. We must recognise that, when things do go wrong in the child support system, it is unfortunately the children who are disproportionately impacted. We must act to ensure that, where improvements to the system can be made, they are addressed in as timely a manner as possible.

As I mentioned earlier, this bill is concerned with two issues, and the second issue is that of immunisation. Australia has fought a hard battle with polio over the years. At polio's peak, in around 1953, when the first vaccine was introduced to Australia, about 10,000 people a year—mostly children and teenagers—were catching the disease. The polio virus causes paralysis by targeting the nerve cells in the spine which control muscles. Hundreds of people were dying as a result. Many tens of thousands of people were infected from the 1930s to the 1950s and many thousands of Australians are living today with the legacy of this disease, but incredible progress has been made against polio. The entire western Pacific region, which includes Australia, was declared polio free less than 50 years after the vaccine was introduced to Australia.

On 27 March 2014 the World Health Organization, WHO, certified India as a polio-free country, marking more than three years since the last case of polio. Ten other countries in the World Health Organization South-East Asia region were also certified as polio free in March 2014. Indeed, by 2013 the number of worldwide polio cases had fallen from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to 407 in 2013. That's a decline of more than 99 per cent of reported cases. Sometime in the coming decades polio will be completely eradicated, making it the second disease after smallpox to be so.

Incidences of other diseases that were extremely common and were quite deadly have also been radically reduced. In Australia, in the period from 1926 to 1935, 4,073 people died of diphtheria, 2,808 died of pertussis, 879 died from tetanus, 430 died from polio and 1,102 died from the very commonmeasles. In contrast, in the period from 1996 to 2000, just 14 deaths were caused by these five diseases combined. The reason for such a transformation in our childhood health landscape is down to vaccinations. There's been a concerted effort from many governments, the medical fraternity and parents to remove these diseases from our society, and that's where the second half of today's bill comes in.

The No Jab, No Pay policy results in families who fail to keep their children up to date with the vaccination schedule losing the family tax benefit part A supplement. Medical exemptions exist to ensure that children with legitimate medical concerns are not unfairly impacted by this rule.

When the No Jab, No Pay policy was introduced, families earning more than $80,000 per annum were eligible for the family tax benefit part A end-of-year supplement. Currently, families below $80,000 per annum are eligible for family tax benefit part A and the family tax benefit part A supplement. However, more recent changes mean that families earning over $80,000 a year are still eligible for family tax benefit part A but no longer eligible for the family tax benefit part A supplement. This means that families with higher household incomes have not been impacted by the No Jab, No Pay rules in the same way as some other families who also receive family tax benefit part A.

This is not only unfair, as the policy only impacts on low-income families, but it has seen an unintended public health impact. We've seen an example across the water from Tasmania: in four of Melbourne's wealthiest suburbs—Burwood East, South Yarra, St Kilda and Brighton—immunisation rates have dropped to around 85 per cent, down from around 94 per cent five years ago.

This bill changes the No Jab, No Pay policy to withhold approximately $28 per fortnight—or $2.02 per day—from family tax benefit part A payments instead of withholding the end-of-year supplement where a child does not meet the vaccination requirements. Once a child falls behind on the vaccination schedule, the family will be notified of this by the Secretary to the Department of Social Services and this will trigger a 63-day grace period, during which time the vaccination must either be caught up on or a valid medical exemption sought. If neither of those things occur during the grace period then fortnightly payments will be reduced, effective from the notification date. This means that families who do not keep their child's immunisation up to date will face a financial penalty regardless of whether they earn above or below $80,000 a year. It's hoped that this amendment will also encourage those families who earn over $80,000 and who have so far not updated their child's immunisation to do so.

Labor supported the original changes in 2015 and we will support these changes because the science is clear: vaccines save lives. This policy has bipartisan support. We know it works. Since the program commenced in 2015, about 200,000 families have initiated or updated their immunisation coverage. That's great news, but we've got to maintain our vigilance. The amendments in this bill will strengthen this policy, because vaccines mean less disease and considerably fewer deaths. Strengthening immunisation rates is key to ensuring all Australian children have the best chance at growing up strong and healthy.

We know that not everyone can be immunised. There are infants who are too young to be vaccinated, as well as the elderly and the sick who may be too frail for vaccinations. But it's vital that we reach and maintain herd immunity to protect those who are unable to be vaccinated. The larger the percentage of immunisation coverage in the community then the greater our herd immunity, the fewer disease outbreaks we will have and the more lives that will be saved. Strengthening the immunity of our population so that unprotected babies will not be afflicted with whooping cough or other life-threatening and preventable diseases is just the right thing to do. It's also an important protection for people for whom a vaccine may not produce a strong immune response.

However, there are some in this chamber who do not believe in the value of ensuring that diseases can be vaccinated against. I've got to say that I was just aghast when Senator Hanson sought to jump on the anti-vaccination bandwagon with populist and opportunistic comments during the Western Australian election last year. I thought that it undermined public confidence in vaccination. Senator Hansen made those dangerous comments, telling parents to 'investigate' whether or not they should vaccinate their children.

Sadly, we live in an age where the internet is full of people making unqualified and incorrect comments on every topic available. The proliferation of people with a flat-earth mindset is an example of the conclusions that can be arrived at by listening to some of the opinions found online. Whether these people are genuine and misinformed, or have an alternative political or commercial agenda, they can do quite a lot of harm to individuals and to society. The results of such an 'investigation' is exampled by an outbreak of chickenpox at Brunswick Primary School in 2015 that infected 80 students, as well as a measles outbreak in the suburb barely two months later. Since the outbreaks, immunisation rates in Brunswick have lifted to approximately 97 per cent, up from 91 per cent in 2014-15. So the research on the issue is clear: immunisation saves thousands of Australian lives and millions of lives internationally each year. It's that simple. Despite Senator Hanson's view that No Jab, No Pay is a 'dictatorship', it's an important public health measure, and part of the reason that tens of thousand of Australian children are not dying each year from diseases that can be vaccinated against. While the two topics of this bill we are debating today are quite different, they both impact—

The PRESIDENT: Order, Senator Bilyk. It being 2 pm, we will move to questions without notice. You will be in continuation upon resumption of the debate.