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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23331

Mr HAASE (4:16 PM) —I rise to highlight an issue that has vital significance in my electorate of Kalgoorlie. Many in the House would not realise for a moment that the issue of child support is such an insidious one. Some 16 per cent of my electors are involved with the Child Support Agency. The reason that it is such an incredibly high figure, I believe, is the fact that so many non-custodial parents, believing that they are in an irreversible mire of poverty, come to my electorate to engage in often long hours and dangerous activities to earn more money to get themselves out of the mess they find themselves in. Because the assessment of child support is based on a percentage of gross wages, they never get ahead. They work more hours and they earn more pay but they never get ahead.

There is currently an inquiry going on into joint custody and child support. That inquiry has received more than 1,700 written submissions. It was brought on after the Minister for Family and Community Services, the Hon. Larry Anthony, and the then Attorney-General, the Hon. Daryl Williams, called for an inquiry into family separation, following the Howard government's response to a report that was tabled in May this year. That report was called Out of the Maze: Pathways to the future for families experiencing separation and it was released by the Family Law Pathways Advisory Group. Following that joint initiative, various government agencies and non-government agencies were involved in the report.

The report contained 28 recommendations in three major areas. It recommended early assistance for families to minimise conflict and to provide better information and support, better outcomes for children and young people involved in family separations and an integrated system that meets families' needs. There is no doubt that the Howard government supports the advisory group's recommendations. As part of the response, $27.8 million was allocated to the Attorney-General's portfolio in the 2003-04 budget for improvements to services and implementation of recommendations in the report. There is no doubt that the Howard government is committed to evaluating and revising the current laws, with the best interests of the child of paramount concern. Something that I am sure that those involved in this debate overlook is that all children who are so affected are our pathway to the future. They are the tomorrow of this nation. The gross neglect that we seem to show them is unforgivable.

But my greatest concern is for my constituents who come to me on a regular basis—some hundreds a year—feeling very frustrated by the inequity of the system. They find themselves in that situation for various reasons, but there is a common thread. At the outset let me say that I am not somebody who has no sympathy with that group of citizens who are unfortunate enough to exist in a loveless or, often, abusive relationship, or a situation where a responsible male walks out—turning him into an irresponsible male, I suggest—leaving destitute and at the mercy of charity a mother with responsibility for a large number of children. I think that is absolutely inexcusable and I make no apology for those people.

My concern is for the genuine, honest, decent, hardworking men, in the main, who, because they spend a lot of time earning money to provide the material aspects of life for their spouse and family, are considered to be neglecting the matrimonial situation and are walked out on because a bored mother finds herself another partner. She takes the children with her, the court gets involved and often sells up the family home or allocates the family home to the custodial parent, usually the female ex-partner. The hardworking male is turfed out. He has to make his own way and try to reorganise his life and he often suffers intense shock because there was no expectation that that would ever happen. When people turn to the system for assistance they find that the system provides none. When so many people say to me that the system is biased against fathers—against males—on such a repetitive basis I have no alternative but to believe that where there is smoke there is fire. That is why I am so keen to see the eventual tabling of this report, which we hope will happen this side of Christmas.

Some aspects that I believe need urgent change relate to the taxation system. We know that the formula that is worked by the Child Support Agency runs from 18 per cent of gross wages payable for child support to a maximum of five or more children requiring 36 per cent of gross wages for child support. Considering that some of these people are working very hard and very long hours and might earn in the vicinity of $100,000 per annum and are paying the top bracket tax—they are paying 39 per cent of their wage in tax and 36 per cent of their wages in child support—that does not leave them much to start a life and have a decent lifestyle.

I believe the better system, one that ought to be considered by anyone making recommendations in this report, is that the amount paid as child support ought to be a deduction on taxable income for the non-custodial parent, the payer of that child support. Conversely, just as there is a huge range of incomes for custodial parents—sometimes it is zero, I accept, but it is sometimes a very hefty figure when they are in a high-income family with a new partner, living in the lap of luxury, pursuing a career, with children in day care and also earning in the vicinity of $100,000—the child support they receive ought to become part of their taxable income. The result would be a far more equitable system.

Further, today the Family Court might make a ruling about access to children that will, we hope, take reason into consideration. It often gives equal access—a basis that I believe ought to be the foundation for decisions on access to children in the future. But when that equal access is given, there is often a vicious pattern of behaviour on the part of the custodial parent where that smooth, fortnightly access is denied. It is denied for no other reason than that the custodial parent believes it is perhaps disruptive to their aspirations for the children. Given that that access is denied—and deliberately denied out of no more than bloody-mindedness most of the time—the non-custodial parent has no recourse but to keep paying child support.

I therefore believe most fervently that there ought to be a direct nexus between the continued payment of child support and court-awarded access to children. If that access is interrupted—for whatever reason—there ought to be a direct impact on the receipts of the custodial parent. If there is not then there is no justice in this legislation. So I look forward to the tabling of the report of the inquiry into child custody arrangements in the event of family separation, I look forward to some strong recommendations that will restore some equity to the arrangements of the Child Support Agency, and I sincerely hope that the figure of 16 per cent of my constituents who are tied up with this vicious agency is one that will be diminished in the future.