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Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Page: 20205

Mrs HULL (7:58 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Extension of Time Limits) Bill 2003. There is no doubt that the way in which families now involve themselves in the workplace makes it very difficult to have a one-size-fits-all model that does not have some people and some families who fall through the cracks. This will always be the case. But the one thing that can be said is that the Minister for Family and Community Services has opted to try to change those issues that have seen some people being disadvantaged by some of the legislation that has been passed by the House, and for that we need to congratulate the minister. The minister has not put herself in a position whereby she is not of a mind to change. She has proven that time and time again by making the system fairer as everything gets brought to her attention.

When a government or an area puts together a policy, there is no way that they can envisage every single problem that might appear through an anomaly caused by someone's personal circumstances. The difference is that some people would continue to move that way and not ever move toward rectifying the situation, regardless of how unfair it might be. That is something that cannot be said of the Minister for Family and Community Services. She is constantly looking at updating, rearranging and ensuring that Australian families are not disadvantaged if it is at all possible. This government is about assisting families; it is not about hindering families or deliberately putting obstacles in the way of families. It is about moving towards supporting families, and providing them with the benefit of assistance that they largely need to assist them to bring up children in this new age of living.

The family tax benefit undoubtedly offers much assistance to many families, helping them purchase the necessary items and services that all families need and face with their growing children. This government provides assistance for families to meet the needs of their children, and the family tax benefit is but one of those areas that lends that assistance. There are 2.2 million Australian families with over four million children who have benefited from the new family tax benefit. This figure equals more than 90 per cent of all Australian families with dependent children. Many families choose to receive their family tax benefit at the end of the financial year, so at tax lodgement time they are anticipating a lump sum payment that will no doubt be useful in paying household bills or buying school supplies.

Those families who are in a state of flux in the way in which they work can opt to have their payments made throughout the year, and invariably some of those families will underestimate some of their income. They will receive a double payment, because they will receive a payment for having estimated a low income and then, at some stage, their income will increase beyond that estimate. When it comes to any reconciliation time, if you have received more than you are entitled to, there is a payment period. The minister moved toward moving that payment period back in order that people were not disadvantaged and got an additional 12 months to be able to repay any debt that was unwittingly created by the way in which their employment and their children's employment happened throughout the year. I reiterate that, when any of these issues are uncovered, this minister moves towards assistance and moves to rectify them. As I said, you can only admire that will and tenacity to do that.

Previously, payment of the family tax benefit was limited to a 12-month period following the end of a financial year. This bill will extend the time limits for making past period, lump sum claims for the family tax benefit and child-care benefit by 12 months. It is an additional 12 months that I am very pleased about, and I am very supportive of it coming into this House. The amendments will mean that families have two years—I think that is a very fair time—after the end of a relevant income year in which to make a past period claim. For example, for the 2001-02 income year, families will have until 30 June 2004 instead of the current 30 June 2003 to make a lump sum claim. That is fair by any means, and nobody at all could say that this has not improved the circumstances of the many families who, through no fault of their own, do not get a tax return done in the financial year.

The time frame for the payment of top-ups of the family tax benefit as a result of income reconciliation is also extended from one to two years after the end of the income year to which these payments relate. This is another movement which I am sure is welcomed by Australian families. This measure will allow top-ups to be paid for the 2001-02 income year if tax returns are lodged by 30 June 2004. These new time frames will also apply to future income years. This bill does not in any way change the legal requirement for families to lodge tax returns within 12 months. It is not intended to. You still lodge your tax return within 12 months. What it does mean is that, if you do not lodge your tax return within a 12-month period, for whatever reason, then you will still be eligible for a top-up if you lodge in the following 12 months.

I have met with and received correspondence from a number of my constituents over a period of time, and some of them have missed the cut-off date to receive their family tax benefit in a lump sum payment. I am sure the minister is aware that the majority of these families have missed out on completing their tax return for reasons out of their control. This is the reason why she is moving graciously toward enabling these families to still be able to take advantage of and benefit from this family tax benefit payment. Basically, as the minister has recognised, those families who have genuine reasons for not lodging their tax return within 12 months and who have been unfortunate enough to miss out on their annual family tax benefit payment have now been given that reconsideration.

One of my constituents and his wife opted, like many of my constituents, to receive their family tax benefit in a lump sum at the end of the financial year due to an inconsistency in their wages. This was an ideal decision to make, ensuring the payment they received was in line with their incomes. This couple lodged their tax returns with their accountant in January 2002, well before the cut-off date for the family tax benefit of 30 June 2002. But their tax return was not completed until August 2002, and therefore they missed out on their family tax benefit of approximately $900. That is certainly a useful sum of money for any family. It is one that I would make representations for any day, because many families have difficulty in making ends meet at many times, so $900 is a significant amount for them. We have moved to rectify the anomaly.

My constituent, having missed that cut-off, contacted both Centrelink teleservices and a local office to be told that, unfortunately, nothing could be done as he had missed the family tax benefit cut-off date. As most people could understand, the couple were quite upset. Every member has probably had a couple similarly upset. That is why every member should come into this House and support these changes. That is the best part of being a member of parliament—you have people coming to your office who are terribly upset about a certain set of circumstances, and you are able to get back to them and say, `Things have changed. You may not have got it this year, but certainly you will be able to take advantage of it next year.' That is what being a member is all about—not only taking the good with the bad, but also being part of the necessary mechanisms to ensure change so that people in the future are not caught under some anomaly that was not considered or foreseen at the time.

For this couple the cut-off date was adhered to—they provided their tax return to their accountant six months prior to the required date. The couple continually contacted their accountant on a monthly basis, and yet circumstances out of their control meant that their tax return was not lodged. This couple had followed all of the rules and, due to a delay on the part of their accountant, they missed out on their family tax payment. This amendment will encourage many families to lodge their family tax benefit claim at the time they complete their tax return and opt for a lump sum payment, which will prevent miscalculations of income that ultimately result in incorrect payments from Centrelink.

It is not always easy estimating your income over the period of a financial year and that is why we have always encouraged families who have varying and unpredictable levels of income to overestimate or wait until the end of the financial year. I recognise that some families cannot wait until the end of the financial year to receive payment. Some families desperately need the fortnightly family tax benefit, so they tend to be scrupulous in the way in which they estimate their income and yes, unfortunately, sometimes circumstances change in such a way that they may have already earned the amount of income they are able to in that year. But, over time, most families recognise that the government is doing its very best to support the living standards of families in order that children can have a better quality of life.

The changes outlined in the bill are further evidence of this government's willingness to meet the needs of Australian families while recognising the many pressures that working Australians face. Extending the family tax benefit cut-off date will assist those families who find that, for a valid reason, they are unable to complete their tax return on time. This government is not unreasonable and wants to ensure that all families who are eligible for the family tax benefit receive exactly what they are entitled to. As I said, this government is about putting into place measures to assist and support families; it is not about intentionally going out to hinder families and cause them duress and distress. Unfortunately that happens in any field. It is not only government that can cause a family duress and stress over a particular issue. It can happen anywhere. It is not intentional, and as soon as an unintentional consequence has been recognised the minister has moved diligently and reliably to ensure that that does not happen again and is not restricting families in the future.

There are many cases that could come to the attention of every member in the House on this issue, as I am sure there are on many issues we deal with. Another case that came to my attention was that of a family who had previously opted to receive their family tax benefit in a lump sum yet, due to a serious illness in the family, the constituents missed the cut-off date for their payment for the financial year 2000-01. Again, I welcome the amendment before the House because it allows the payment of family tax benefit to be more flexible by extending the amount of time available to claim payment. We are also recognising that there are sometimes circumstances that individuals cannot control and which prevent them putting in a tax return within the 12-month period.

I am pleased that the amendment will be retrospective to the 2001-02 financial year, allowing many families who missed out to receive their correct payment. At the same time, I recognise that there are those families—and some of them will be in my electorate—who will miss out and not be able to meet the time line. But again I am very happy to go out and be part of the process of saying, `It happened here but it won't happen again, providing you get in within this two-year window.' We have moved toward making this issue more palatable and easier to deal with for families. It ensures that, in the future, families will have longer to claim family tax benefit, ensuring more families are able to receive their payments as originally planned by this government.

There has been a significant amount of misunderstanding in the community about the family tax benefit, and this change will assist many families to access their payment that otherwise may have been forfeited had they not put in their tax return on time. I have no doubt that the many families who opt to receive their payment at the end of the financial year will welcome this amendment, which allows for greater flexibility in the payment of their benefit. I have no doubt there will be people who think that this has not gone far enough. However, I reiterate that I believe it is important that we go out proactively and be part of these very good changes that ensure people do not get caught in the future under the same anomaly.

I congratulate the minister for moving toward these changes and for listening to and hearing the Australian people. That is part and parcel of the minister's role—one she has proven time and time again that she is willing and able to fulfil—of listening to the people, acting and reacting to ensure that she closes the gap that may have been there and that may have created some stress and duress for families through no fault of their own. Again, congratulations to the minister for moving forward and for showing that this government is about supporting families and not about putting hurdles and obstacles in their path.