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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 129

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (9:07 PM) —I wish to address the amendment in schedule 10 of the Tax Laws Amendment (2004 Measures No. 6) Bill 2004. It is an amendment to which Senator Fifield has referred—that is, the retrospective entitlement of adoptive parents to apply for the baby bonus. That amendment has come about, as I understand it, as a direct result of lobbying by my office on behalf of the Australian Democrats. Senator Murray referred to Kellie Caught, our adviser on this issue. I pay tribute to her and Raina Hunter for their work on this issue. We called for greater recognition of the adoptive process and for appropriate support for what is a very worthy group of parents, who no doubt face similar experiences to parents who have a new biological family.

The eligibility criteria for the baby bonus included the requirement that the taxpayer must be legally responsible for the child. Adoptive parents are legally responsible for a child only when an adoption order is issued. However, in all states and territories, except, I think, your home state of Queensland, Mr Acting Deputy President Cherry, a child is placed with a potential adoptive parent for some months, sometimes even years, before an approach is made to a court to legally formalise the adoption. During the time of placement and prior to the adoption order being made, the legal responsibility for the child is actually with the director-general of the department responsible for overseeing adoptions in that particular state. However, the responsibility for the day-to-day care of that child and, of course, the child’s welfare and development, is with the prospective adoptive parents.

When the baby bonus legislation was first introduced, adoptive parents were not entitled to claim the baby bonus during the period from the commencement of care to the granting of the adoption order. According to research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, as many as 500 families each year who adopt children under the age of five are excluded as a result of this process. During that placement period, up to 500 families were not eligible to claim the baby bonus.

It is no secret to anyone here that the Australian Democrats were not strong supporters of the baby bonus. In fact, Mr Acting Deputy President, as you would know, we voted against the baby bonus, preferring a system of government funded, nationally run, paid maternity leave. Having said that—and the government having introduced the baby bonus and then replaced it with the maternity payment—we see no reason for a particular group of parents such as adoptive parents to be ineligible to claim that payment.

As some members would know, I wrote to Minister Helen Coonan, who is in the chamber, who at the time was the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, asking her to consider amending the appropriate legislation so that adoptive parents would be eligible for the baby bonus and would be eligible from the date of placement. I am very pleased that the government has acted on this issue and to see the amendment to this legislation before the Senate today, though somewhat belatedly. Nonetheless, this legislation will backdate eligibility to 1 July 2001 when the initial scheme was introduced.

But there are some outstanding issues. After receiving a letter from Mr Ross Cameron on 9 February informing me and the Democrats that the government was going to amend the legislation specifically in relation to the baby bonus, we were quite bemused that only three months later—this was last year—the government announced it was going to change the process so that baby bonus would no longer be the financial support to be offered by the government and it would be replaced by the $3,000 maternity payment. We were bemused not only because the government once again had decided to forgo the option of, say, a 14-week national government-funded paid maternity leave scheme but because, once again, in introducing the maternity payment, the government had discriminated against adoptive parents.

I do understand that the maternity payment legislation recognises that adoption is a method of forming a family and that parents adopting a child face the same financial impacts of a new child entering a home as any other new parent—biological parents et cetera. However, the problem with that legislation is that it actually limits the eligibility of adoptive parents to those adopting a child under 26 weeks of age. This limitation will exclude the majority of parents who adopt a child from outside Australia. The vast majority of these children are older than 26 weeks when they are adopted. For example, in the 2003-04 financial year there were 370 placement adoptions of children from outside Australia—41 per cent of these were aged one year or under and 52 per cent were between the ages of one and four. Unfortunately, we do not know how many were older than 26 weeks. The data supplied to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare by the states and territories does not have a more detailed breakdown in relation to ages, but the anecdotal evidence does suggest that the majority are actually older than 26 weeks.

Once again, a group of parents—adoptive parents—are going to be excluded under the current legislation. This amendment bill will deal with those people who are claiming the baby bonus retrospectively, but it will not deal with those parents who are now excluded as a consequence of the maternity payment changes. In the 2004-05 budget, the Treasurer stated:

The Maternity Payment recognises the cost of a new child and will assist all mothers many of whom leave the workforce and leave paid work at the time of the birth of their child.

Adoptive parents of course also incur additional costs when adopting a child, and often they choose to take time out of the work force as well in order to care for their newly adopted child. In fact, while it is not legislated by the states or territories, the adoption unit in each state strongly encourages parents to take time out and to stay at home full time for up to 12 months following an adoption, irrespective of the child’s age. If parents do not agree to this, it actually can hamper the likelihood that they will be chosen as adoptive parents.

The Workplace Relations Act 1996 also recognises the right of adoptive parents to access unpaid maternity and paternity leave regardless of the child’s age. In addition, the HREOC report entitled A time to value: proposal for a national scheme of paid maternity leave examined a number of the issues facing adoptive parents and recommended that government funded paid maternity leave should be available to all adoptive parents irrespective of the age of the child.

The current maternity payment legislation does discriminate. It discriminates against the vast majority of families who are endeavouring to start or grow their family through the process of adoption. What I can do is continue to lobby the government on this particular issue. Tonight I hope that the opposition and the government will consider the amendment that has been circulated in my name on behalf of the Australian Democrats. We seek to rectify an omission that we believe the government has already acknowledged in relation to the baby bonus and we hope it will acknowledge in relation to the maternity payment. I wrote to Ministers Coonan and Patterson pretty much immediately after the budget in May last year outlining my concerns and the many concerns that have been made clear to me by adoptive parents. In that letter the Democrats urged the government to amend the legislation and make the maternity payment available to all adoptive parents, irrespective of the child’s age.

I am happy to be corrected on this if there has been some update in recent weeks or months, acknowledging that I have been on maternity leave, but I am not aware of a response from the ministers and I am certainly not aware of any attempts to amend the legislation to give those families the access to the maternity payment that we believe they deserve. My understanding is, however, that the Prime Minister said to cabinet that he would be willing to consider those changes, and I hope that that is true. I believe that was reported in the media. I hope that the Prime Minister is sincere in that comment and that it will come about.

As I said in my letter to the ministers, given the relatively small numbers of parents who adopt, inclusion of this group into the maternity payment legislation would be quite inexpensive for the government but it would provide financial support and recognition for a very worthy group of parents who face similar experiences to those of parents starting a new biological family. To this end, I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

 “but the Senate:

         (a)    is concerned that the Government continues to discriminate against parents who adopt children, by restricting eligibility to the Maternity Payment (which has replaced the Baby Bonus); and

         (b)    calls on the Government to:

               (i)    afford adoptive parents the same rights and supports as biological parents, and

              (ii)    amend the Maternity Payment to make it available to all adoptive parents, irrespective of the child’s age”.