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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 212

Mr NEVILLE (4:53 PM) —I am pleased to speak in support of the Child Support Legislation Amendment Bill 1998 , a very important bill. It was introduced into the House of Representatives in the previous parliament, and I spoke on it in this second chamber. It was passed, with government amendments, in May 1998. The bill has been reintroduced to the parliament because it had lapsed due to the prorogation of the parliament in September.

As I said at the time when I spoke on the bill in this chamber, I am a bit of a radical on child support. I do not say this with any criticism of the current government, nor of the previous government. I think that the Child Support Agency and its mechanisms have not fully encompassed the gravity or the size of the task we have before us, and I stand committed to that view.

Statistics tell us that as many as one marriage in three ends in divorce. When reflecting on this startling figure, we are confronted by the conclusion that whatever we put in place has to be streamlined, fair, accessible and, above all, affordable. There are some very sensible measures in the bill which address most of the concerns of the Joint Select Committee on Certain Family Law Issues, which the member for Lilley just referred to. It underscores the fundamental principles that parents are primarily responsible for the financial support of their children. I think the marginal increase from $9,000 to $9,900 in the exempt income for payers of child support could have gone further, but I appreciate there are limitations on what the government can do in any given year. I personally would like to have seen it increased by 20 per cent rather than by 10 per cent.

The amount of the carers income to be disregarded has come down from $37,000 to $29,000, in round figures. That, too, is a fair assessment because, instead of being based on the average weekly earnings of someone in full-time employment, it is based on average weekly earnings of all employees, and I think that is a far better benchmark to work on.

I think the introduction of the minimum payment of $260 per annum in calculating the amount of child support payable is a good rule. I have had people come to me and say, `I'm going on the dole; I'm going to go on the pension; I'm not going to support my kids any more; I've had enough of this,' because of some emotional frustration with the previous partner. I do not think that is good enough, and I think the fact that people have to pay $5 a week is an indication that everyone has a responsibility, even those on the lowest of incomes.

I am not saying that at times people's circumstances do not call for reassessment. But I think the attitude that you can just throw yourself on the care of the state and expect to be exempt from all other responsibilities for your children is stretching the issue too far. The amendments will allow a token payment of $5 per week from social security pensioners and beneficiaries. It is an acknowledgment that there is a financial responsibility in bringing children into the world no matter what your circumstances are. Allowing payers and payees greater flexibility in reaching arrangements relating to child care is a very sensible measure too, as is addressing the situation where child-care arrangements have changed from those specified in various orders.

Allowing child support to continue to the end of the school year in which a child turns 18 is completely reasonable. Where a child turns 18 in July of their final school year, no-one would expect the custodial parent putting that child through grade 12 to have to support that child without any assistance for the second half of the year.

There are also such things as the introduction of review mechanisms enabling the registrar to initiate a departure from the administrative assessment of child support where the registrar has information pointing to a review process, rather than just the word of one parent. I think that also has been long awaited.

There is inclusion of exempt foreign income and rental property losses in calculating income. I think we have all seen potential payers become very adept at using rental properties to avoid paying their just entitlements. I would personally like to see that part of the bill strengthened even further. I have a number of outrageous cases amongst my constituents where income is hidden in all sorts of family companies and discretionary trusts. I know of one instance of a gentleman who drives around in a BMW and who spends $300 a week in restaurants, $150 a week on liquor, takes frequent trips overseas and then pays his wife a pittance, because the family has been very adept at concealing income. I think the registrar and the ATO should have some mechanism of probing those sorts of things more fully.

Also in the bill is a provision allowing determinations to be based on more recent income, instead of on income from the previous two years. Basically, assessment will be on income from the last full year. It also means that payments can be altered automatically and in a more meaningful fashion.

The one that I particularly like amongst these is allowing 50 per cent of child care expenditure to be excluded from a person's income for purposes of family allowance. This has been long awaited, and it allows the non-custodial parent, in the case where that non-custodial parent has taken on a new family, to receive a fuller and more reasonable assessment.

By the way, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not see the government's amendments as being the end of the process. I would like to see this put in the hands of an ongoing committee. Whatever form that takes, whether a parliamentary committee, a select committee, a joint committee, or a prime ministerial task force, I think that this thing is so fraught with emotion and with financial abuse that there needs to be some monitoring body that ensures that fairness prevails.

I have in my own electorate groups of the men's support service, a group in Bundaberg and another in Gladstone. Recently I attended the Bundaberg men's support service. I do not say that with any sort of gender bias; they just happen to be the ones who have most of the non-custodial parents as members. They have some horrific instances that relate partly to the Child Support Agency and partly to the Family Court, and I would like to touch on something in the context of this today.

I am not one of those who believe that you can separate access to children from Child Support Agency matters. I know the theorists tell us it should be that if you bring children into the world that is one responsibility, and to have access is another one. We have manipulative parents, as you all know, who do not send their kids for access. Suddenly the kids get the flu on the morning that they are due, or the kids are going to a cold climate and the parent says, `Yes, you can have the children but you will have to buy them warm clothes,' or, `Yes, they can go, but I cannot pay half the plane fares this time.' All those sorts of things go to frustrate the non-custodial parent having reasonable access.

I have had some outrageous cases of custodial parents who have been defying the courts for nearly three years. When once or twice the non-custodial parent—because the child has been sick or there has been a suggestion of some form of abuse—has held the children for two or three days, the custodial parent never seems to have any trouble getting legal aid to have the children returned. Yet, when the boot is on the other foot and the custodial parent is defying the court on an ongoing basis, sometimes for two and three years at a time, nothing ever happens.

For that reason, I would like to touch briefly, in the few minutes remaining to me, on the proposal put up by the Attorney-General for the establishment of a federal magistracy. I am a great supporter of this, and we actually debated this in the context of a similar debate in this very chamber in the dying stages of the last parliament. The former member for Dickson, himself a barrister, made some very good suggestions about this. If we had federal magistrates, some of those orders that are being abused could be rectified very quickly. Solicitors' expenses would be reduced; barristers would be less likely to be needed to be briefed; waiting times would be lessened; legal costs and costs incurred through litigation would be kept to a minimum; access to magistrates in regional areas would save litigants having to travel. I hope that when the Attorney-General brings in his legislation we get a degree of bipartisanship about this because I think it is urgently needed. If we could get very clear-cut rules that both sides have to abide by, we would get a much better result in this matter.

I have exhausted my 10 minutes, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I know that the minister wants to wind up this debate, so I will conclude on that and commend the bill to the House.