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Tuesday, 13 June 2006
Page: 120

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (6:15 PM) —Family First supports a fairer system for child support and believes the Child Support Legislation Amendment (Reform of the Child Support Scheme—Initial Measures) Bill 2006 is a step in that direction. The bill implements a number of the recommendations of the report of the Parkinson ministerial task force set up in 2004 to examine the Child Support Scheme and how it can be improved. The bill will increase the minimum rate of child support from $5 to $6 per week; increase the proportion of child support that can be directed by the payer to cover the costs of medical care, school fees and child care; and change the test under which parents can be deemed to be reducing their earnings to pay less child support.

Child support is a complex and sensitive issue. Too often it descends into conflict between mums and dads. It can be hard to separate the issue of child support from the broader difficulties and sadness of the relationship break-up. It can also be hard to determine how changes affect children. Professor Patrick Parkinson and his ministerial task force had the difficult task of wading through all these issues and proposing a better and fairer system. I have no doubt that they did not get it 100 per cent right, but they have closely examined a very difficult policy area and come up with detailed recommendations to improve the system.

There are always going to be winners and losers when changes are made to areas like child support that involve carving up a person’s income, so it is vital to get the fundamental principles right. Family First believes the task force’s approach of focusing on the cost of raising children and ensuring the income of both parents is taken into account when determining child support payments will result in a fairer system. Currently, the custodial parent has to earn more than $40,000 a year for their income to be included. The Parkinson report also acknowledges that some non-custodial parents have been paying more than they can cope with. It is important we have a fairer system because parents are more likely to respect it and cooperate. Many non-custodial parents who recognise and accept their responsibility for contributing to the financial cost of raising their kids are still reluctant to pay under the current system because they believe it is unfair or because it places an unfair burden on them.

Family First is in no doubt that other senators have been contacted by many fathers with stories of their despair after losing contact with their children after a marriage breakdown. That affects their employment and ability to pay child support. I have been told stories of fathers who have taken their own lives, partly because of the difficulty of trying to make ends meet and start a new life after they pay the required child support. Obviously, many fathers have been able to start new lives and have perhaps married and had a new family but they also find it difficult to survive under the current formula of paying child support for their children as well as supporting their new family. Clearly they have responsibilities for both families, but what is the fairest way of assessing their financial responsibility and ensuring they honour their obligations? One father described himself to me as an ‘EFT dad’—that is, an electronic funds transfer dad. That is the only contact he had with his children. Family First can understand the frustration of contributing financially to raising your children yet not being able to be part of their lives.

One of the aims of the Parkinson report is to remove disincentives for greater contact between children and both parents, and that can only be a good thing. Family First believes we should be doing all we can to ensure children have as much contact as possible with both parents, except in exceptional circumstances, such as abuse. It is certainly disturbing that 40 per cent of non-custodial fathers, or about 300,000, do not pay more than the minimum payment of $5 per week or $260 per year. That is a huge number, and Family First believes that should not be tolerated. About half of these fathers receive welfare. It may be that many other dads are trying to reduce their taxable income, by taking cash payments for work, for example, so that they pay as little child support as possible. The people who really suffer here are the kids. That is the real tragedy here. Family First strongly believes that both parents should pay their fair share of the costs of raising their kids. I support the Child Support Agency in its efforts to track down child support cheats and ensure they meet their responsibilities. I believe most Australians would also think this is fair and reasonable.

Finally, Family First is concerned at how long it is taking the government to implement the recommendations of the Parkinson report. While it was published a year ago, this is the first piece of legislation we have seen which implements some of its recommendations. Further, I understand that other changes will not be fully implemented for years to come. Clearly these changes are long overdue and I call on the government to implement them a lot more quickly. Family First supports a fairer system for child support and supports this bill. (Quorum formed)