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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1405

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(4.28) —The Senate is debating the Family Law Amendment Bill 1985, the private member's Bill which was introduced by Senator Durack in 1985, proposing amendments to the Family Law Act along the lines of amendments put forward in 1983 in a Bill that also was introduced by Senator Durack. In debating this Bill I would like to say a couple of things. The first is that I do not intend to make a long speech because we would like to bring the Bill to a vote this afternoon but, with the length of speeches that have preceded mine and the possible length of those that will follow, we may not meet that objective. In any event, I would prefer not to contribute to our not being able to bring it to a vote.

I would like to say a couple of things in response to what was said by Senator Powell. She made the point that this should not be an isolated matter and regarded as the be-all and end-all in terms of our treatment of these family difficulties. In bringing forward this Bill there is no suggestion by the Opposition that this is the sole thing that is required. I refer the Senate to the policy overview on families which was published by the Opposition in December last year. That policy overview directly refers to the need to amend the Family Law Act. If I may quote from it, we said:

We will amend the Family Law Act to restore the primary obligation of parents to maintain their children, while confirming that support will continue to be provided for families in need.

In the same section of the policy, which is the section headed `Family Law', there is also reference to the encouragement of reconciliation counselling to improve the chances of harmony being re-established within troubled marriages. Perhaps it is also important to acknowledge that, whilst we are concerned about the fact that many Australians are abdicating their responsibilities towards their dependants and shifting the burden of family financial support from themselves on to taxpayers, we understand that for many families in Australia today there are very great difficulties under the policies of this Government. We believe-this is expressed in the policy-that governments have a direct interest in the social and economic value of people meeting and maintaining their family responsibilities. We want to see support for families in a whole series of ways which are referred to in the policy, including the tax system.

I note the enthusiasm with which middle class welfare is being attacked at the moment and the views being expressed that the family allowance should be cut and tax allowances for dependent spouses should be removed. I can only say that I hope that the very good arguments that have been put forward by people such as Bettina Cass are being considered very carefully. People with family responsibilities have seen a reduction in their circumstances under this Government. In my view burdens have been unfairly focused on families with dependants and I will be watching the May mini-Budget with great interest to see whether those burdens on people who are maintaining dependants are further increased. It would be socially regressive if that were done. I hope that Government back bench senators will be urging their front bench colleagues to watch that aspect of the matter, to look to the interests of families.

It was suggested that little has been done about this matter or that little interest has been taken in it and I want to touch on that matter also. This Bill is important because, over the last 10 years or more, there has been a very substantial shift in the burden of looking after children in particular from private people to the taxpayer. The Government's discussion paper made that clear. As a proportion of all families in Australia, the number of sole parent families rose from 9 per cent in the mid-1970s to 14 per cent in 1986. Between 1974 and 1986 the number of sole parent families increased by 73 per cent, from 183,000 to 316,000, and the proportion of sole parents on a pension or benefit went from 65 per cent to 85 per cent over the last decade. About a quarter of a million people are receiving the supporting parent benefit, with 450,000 children in their care. Less than 30 per cent of those parents have any additional source of income. Government expenditure on supporting parents has risen by 245 per cent in real terms since 1973-74, from $160m to $1,757m in 1985-86. Less than 30 per cent of custodial parents are receiving regular cash payments from non-custodial parents. This legislation is one of the things-I stress that it is only one of the things-that can be done to alleviate that sort of problem.

We support the idea of a national maintenance collection agency, an idea that we have been asserting for some years and which is now firm government policy, although we have yet to see some of the detail on it. This is one of the contributions which can be made to the relief of poverty. There are a substantial number of sole parent families where children and, indeed, custodial parents are in circumstances of great want. Also, it is an opportunity to shift some of that massive burden from the taxpayer back to those whose responsibilities truly are involved.

The statistics I have mentioned are not statistics which materialised in the last year; they are statistics which, of course, have accumulated over the past decade or more. I remind the Senate that in the Budget of 1982-the last Fraser Budget-that problem was acknowledged and the need to encourage greater individual responsibility was mentioned and dealt with in part in it, with the restoration of the requirement that individuals who are being supported by the taxpayer should have an obligation to take reasonable steps to obtain a contribution from the non-resident spouse. That old provision was discounted, I think, by the Whitlam Government and its return to the social security area was not welcomed by the then Opposition-the Australian Labor Party. Indeed, it discontinued the requirement when it took office. I mention that matter because it has been fairly typical of the very negative response that the Opposition-the Liberal and National parties-has had from the Government when these matters have been raised. Indeed, back bench supporters of the Government have been even further behind the game than their Ministers.

In September 1985 I drew attention in a speech at Queanbeyan to the need to change the law to put greater obligation back on to non-custodial parents. I referred to the efforts we have made in the past, the efforts made by Senator Durack as Attorney-General and later as shadow Attorney-General. When I referred to that matter, Senator Reynolds came bustling into the chamber and suggested that a reactionary policy had been advocated by me. It was a fascinating suggestion because on the previous day the Minister for Social Security, Mr Howe, had acknowledged in a speech in Sydney the need to take action to improve the private contribution in these areas. In the silly, time wasting and very grudging speech that was Senator Coates's contribution to this debate one had the same sense of reluctance that attempts should be made to lift the private contribution, to take some of the burden off taxpayers and a real horror that there might be the sort of emphasis that I thought Senator Powell very properly put in the debate towards making some effort at reconciliation and preserving marriages rather than simply regarding family law as a matter which should facilitate the termination of marriage and family arrangements.

The Bill which is before us is to be the subject of some amendment. Senator Durack has circulated amendments which will remove in particular the suggestion that was contained in the original Bill that there should be restoration of the capacity of the courts to imprison people for the non-payment of maintenance. There is a very great difficulty in ensuring that maintenance orders can be enforced and that is why the Opposition has had for a number of years now-going back to the policy that was prepared by Senator Durack as the shadow Attorney-General in 1983-84-a consistent policy that there should be a maintenance collection agency of the sort to which the Government is now committed.

The Opposition regards this matter as one that cannot just be allowed to roll on and that is why it would like to see this Bill dealt with with more urgency than apparently the Government wants. This Government is to be condemned for its failure to act over the nearly four years that it has been in office on an area of real community concern, an area in which a substantial burden is placed on taxpayers which could, in part, be relieved to the benefit of both taxpayers and those who will receive the additional maintenance.

The national maintenance inquiry produced a report of some 40 pages on the courses that could be taken by the Government and it was brought down in February 1984. It took the Government a year and a half before a Cabinet sub-committee was established to examine options for reforming current child maintenance arrangements. That has finally resulted in a discussion paper and the paper which was put down by the Minister just a few days ago. The reality is that there has been an alarmingly lackadaisical approach by the Government to this matter. There is a real need for this Bill, which principally would make the change which would restore the primacy of personal responsibility for children, now to be treated as a matter of some urgency.

The important point to note is that since this Bill was introduced there has been a substantial movement by the Government in the direction which has been urged by the Opposition. Mr Howe is now certainly agreeing that the private maintenance should not be simply regarded as something which tops up the responsibility of individuals. The Government now seems to concur and has agreed that there is a need for legislation which would-I quote Mr Howe's statement:

. . . remove reference to social security eligibility to make clear that child support should not be treated as a `top-up' to social security pensions and benefits.

That is totally in line with what has been said by this Opposition since 1983. It has taken this Government four years to catch--

Senator Walsh —It is not in line with what Blunt said a couple of days ago.

Senator CHANEY —The critical point on which Mr Blunt was concerned was the issue of whether one had to have a system which was obligatory, as in covering every non-resident parent. The concern that was expressed by Mr Blunt was that there should be room for private arrangements to continue, provided those private arrangements are reasonable for the parties. That is a matter which I think the Government's own--

Senator Walsh —That is one of the big problems, because they make a capital settlement and then come back on to the welfare system.

Senator CHANEY —I think I will leave some of this detail to Senator Durack, but in fact there is a clear need for the whole of the family law side of this matter to be dealt with in an appropriate way, and there is certainly no wish on the part of the Opposition to see any room at all left for agreements which put additional burdens on the taxpayers in circumstances where families in fact have adequate means to look after their dependants and where the social security system is simply being used as icing on an already rather rich cake. The important thing that I wanted to note, though, was that the view which is being put forward by the Government now contradicts the arguments that were put forward by the Minister representing the Attorney-General, Senator Evans, in February of 1986. It is good to see that, after a great deal of time and effort on the part of the Opposition, there is some movement of the Government in this important area. We would like to see some sign of good faith on the part of the Government by its helping to bring this legislation to a vote and seeing it passed into law as soon as possible for both the benign social effects that can be achieved and for the relief to taxpayers which could also be achieved.