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Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Page: 5317


Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (17:49): I speak in support of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Further Election Commitments and Other Measures) Bill 2011. There are three main measures here, all in fulfilment of election commitments that the government made. The first measure of better access to family payments with more flexible advance payments of the family tax benefit will improve the lot of 1.5 million Australians. The Healthy Start for School initiative will affect 92,000 children and strengthening compliance child support, as estimated by Treasury, will benefit the Australian taxpayer by reducing family tax benefit payments by $78.6 million as child support payments increase and as people fulfil their parental responsibility to care for their children, regardless of whether they are married or separated.

Family tax benefit A and B is an initiative of the Commonwealth government. Family tax benefit A is the main payment designed to help with the costs of raising children. It is payable to a parent, guardian or approved care organisation for a child under 21 years or a dependent full-time student between 21 and 24 years of age. Family tax benefit B is designed to provide assistance to families who have one main source of income including sole parent families with a dependent full-time student up to the age of 18 years.

In August 2010 under our election package, Better Access to Family Payments, the Australian Labor Party committed to simplifying and making more flexible access to family tax benefits for unexpected costs such as the TV or freezer breaking down and where people needed to get access to money. It is already possible for people to get access to family tax benefit and to get an advance, but we wanted to make sure that this would help families in unexpected circumstances.

This is an important reform and it will go a long way to making flexible arrangements that people need as their circumstances change. For instance, in my electorate of Blair, which represents most of Ipswich and the Somerset region, many families, thousands in fact, have been flood affected. Their circumstances are such that they require assistance from social security, and many people lost furniture and household items such as TVs, fridges and freezers. More flexible advance payment of family tax payments would assist those people with these unexpected costs. Many of these people simply did not expect to be flood affected and so the benefits here will assist. The maximum amount of advance payment will be linked to a family's rate of payment and generally a maximum of 7.5 per cent of a family's rate of payment could be advanced. For a family with one child under 12 years of age it is around $312. For a family with two children under 12 years of age it is $625. Overall a maximum amount of $1,000 will apply. Advances will only be approved if Centrelink is satisfied that it will not cause financial hardship. This is a good initiative. It will help my electorate as it recovers from the flood. It means that families will have that capacity to provide for the recovery and reconstruction of their lives. I support it.

The second initiative, Healthy Start for School, is a commitment the Gillard Labor government made during the last election campaign. It is a measure for family tax benefit recipients on income support payments. It will make the payment of the family tax benefit A supplement for a child turning four in a particular income year conditional on the child undertaking a health check, such as a Healthy Kids Check provided on the Medicare benefits schedule or checks conducted by state or territory maternal and child health services.

The objective here is to identify whether children have hearing loss or a problem with their eyes, whether they are suffering from some illness or condition, and to treat and identify it early so that steps can be undertaken to give that child every chance in life, to prevent learning difficulties and to make sure that child gets appropriate and adequate medical treatment. I do not resile from the conditionality of this initiative. I think it is important. We want to make sure that children get every chance in life and this is an opportunity to do so. This initiative is helpful to children.

It is sad but true that some parents do not necessarily consider that the health of their child is a high priority. Regrettably that is a very common occurrence for those people who are struggling in circumstances where they are under pressure. They might have mental health or psychiatric problems. This does not occur in most families across the country but we want to make sure that even in those difficult circumstances children are healthy and fit and ready to learn when they start school. This can only happen if parents really take that initiative. So the parents will need to confirm with Centrelink that the check has been done. The checks are serious checks. They are not simply a tick-a-box thing that someone decides they might go down the road for. They have to consult a medical specialist. It gives the opportunity for parents to get guidance in terms of a healthy lifestyle and what early intervention strategy can be undertaken if a child is suffering from some adverse health condition. This will break down patterns of disadvantage and socioeconomic hardship for families. If we can break that intergenerational cycle of poverty and disadvantage, which is so evident by postcode across this country, that will be a benefit from the Torres Strait right down to Tasmania.

It is important that children are able to participate in community life, get access to every educational opportunity and therefore provide financial security for themselves and their families by getting a good education. If they are suffering from some form of disability or illness, that needs to be identified early. I support that initiative. I think that is a worthy cause to undertake and it is important that we encourage parents on income support payments to ensure their children receive their health checks before they start school.

The third initiative deals with the area of child support. This is a vexed problem for many families across the country. Most people do not get charged with criminal offences, they do not have car accidents, they do not contact the legal system of the country, but many people across the country live in separated households. Their relationships have broken down, whether they have been married or otherwise, and generally children are born from those relationships. What happens in those circumstances is that those children need to be financially supported. If the parents are not fulfilling their statutory and common-law obligations to provide primary care for their children financially, then the taxpayers take up that cause. That is exactly what happens in circumstances where mothers or fathers fail to pay child support.

Child support has been the system in this country since 1989 and is paid under the Child Support (Assessment) Act and collected under the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act. There is a formula in place and people should know their obligations. It is very much dependent on the payment of tax and people lodging tax returns. If they do not lodge tax returns it makes it difficult for the child support system to assess how much is payable. Therefore people can make arrangements to avoid paying child support. In my previous life as a lawyer practising in family law I met many people who adjusted their financial affairs to evade paying child support and was involved in literally thousands of cases in courts, family courts, federal magistrate courts or other aspects of the jurisdiction, where I was attempting to encourage people to pay child support and fulfil their obligations.

We are trying here to get a more accurate system of payment of child support. We are strengthening compliance. A more accurate default arrangement will be introduced that uses a parent's previous taxable income instead of a low default income—that is two thirds of MTAWE—in cases where they have not lodged a tax return. Sadly what happens is they say, 'I am not going to lodge my tax return', particularly if it is a situation where they see they are going to be paying more child support and be in a higher tax bracket. They arrange their financial affairs in a way that they do not lodge their tax return so we do not get the accurate figure and they end up with a lower default income under the legislation. This amendment will ensure a more accurate child support assessment and it removes the almost accidental disincentive for a parent on a higher income to avoid paying child support and getting a lower child support assessment based on the formula that has been established, the lower default income assessed support. The amendments in this legislation make a difference. This means that people's real income or, more likely, their more accurate income will be used for the calculation of child support and, therefore, they are more likely to pay a higher child support payment. The consequences of that are that we, the taxpayers—the taxpayers across the country—are more likely to pay less money to that particular family, as the payer, usually a male, will pay higher amounts of child support. That is good common sense. It is good that we require parents to take on their financial responsibility for their children. It also adds to the integrity of the tax system by making sure that parents fulfil that responsibility and that all of us pay less taxation payments to that particular family. Again, this is a good initiative. It is another federal Labor government initiative. We have stood up for families.

I am also proud to be part of a government that has cut income tax for three years in a row. That has made a big difference. Someone on $30,000 a year is now paying $750 less in tax than in 2007-08. Someone on $80,000 a year is paying $1,400 less in tax than in 2007-08. I am most proud of the fact that we have increased the childcare rebate from 30 to 50 per cent. That has had a big impact in my electorate. Since June 2008, we have seen more than 5,600 local families benefit from the additional childcare rebate payments. There is $3.143 million in additional assistance being paid to people in Ipswich and in the Somerset region as a result of our reforms. Unlike those opposite who, after they came to power in 1996, ripped $1 billion out of the childcare system, we are investing a massive amount of money in the childcare system across this country. We are providing $20 billion over four years for early childhood education and child care. That is a whopping $12.8 billion more than was provided in the last four years of the Howard government. We are providing $16.4 billion to help 800,000 Australian families annually with the cost of child care.

We have the runs on the board with respect to families. This budget has of course made a big impact on families in my electorate: 5,600 families in Blair benefited from an extra $4,200 per child aged between 16 and 19 years under changes to the family tax benefit system. This was on top of Australia's first paid parental leave scheme. We have extended education tax refunds to cover uniforms as well. You can see what this government has done with respect to helping families—and not just that, there is $16.4 billion for education. And there is almost a doubling of funding for health. This is after the coalition ripped $1 billion out of the health system when the Leader of the Opposition was the federal minister for health. They capped GP training places and disinvested in the health and hospital system—all of which was vital to Australian families and their interaction with the health and hospital system in order to care for their young children. When the opposition were in power they never had the wit nor the wisdom to make the reforms that we have to help Australian families.

We have also invested in our local schools through BER projects: $109 million in the electorate of Blair. Those wonderful projects provided the halls that acted as evacuation centres for flood affected families in my electorate and across the Brisbane valley. Those opposite can carp and snipe and whinge about what we are doing but they are hopeless, helpless and hapless when it comes to Australian families.