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Thursday, 4 June 1987
Page: 3952

Mrs SULLIVAN(10.17) —The amendments before the Committee today are a consequence of matters that were raised in this chamber during the debate on the Social Security Amendment Bill. In that debate I pointed out that the Bill would allow a de facto spouse under the age of consent to be legally considered as a de facto spouse. The Bill sought to set aside State and Territory laws relating to the age of consent in order to enable payment of a spouse benefit in a de facto situation where one or both of the parties was under the legal age of consent. The age of consent is, of course, a matter for State and Territory laws and is a matter of the criminal law. In the debate the implications of the proposed amendment to the definition of de facto spouse were pointed out. At the time I moved an amendment that would have prohibited the payment of a spouse benefit where one or both of the parties was under the age of consent. In debate on that amendment, the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) argued that a real point had been raised, but the Government was not prepared to accept my amendment at that stage.

I then pointed out to the Minister that it was open to the Government to adjourn debate on the Bill-to report progress of the Committee-until such time as an acceptable amendment to the proposal could be proposed. My suggestion was not pursued by the Government and, in the event, the Committee divided and the Government voted against my amendment. The next day, the honourable member for Barker (Mr Porter), who is the spokesman for the Liberal Party on social security, asked the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) the following question:

Does the Government endorse the fundamental principle of law that one should not be permitted to benefit from the commission of a criminal offence, which is precisely the argument put by the Commonwealth to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in the case involving payment of spouse benefits to under-age de facto spouses? Will he explain why the Government is now legislating to compel the Department of Social Security to pay married rate benefits to girls as young as 14 years of age who establish a de facto relationship and who are under the age of consent in the various States and Territories? Is this the first time ever that a Commonwealth government has legislated to reward those who have breached the criminal law?

In his answer, having directed some gratuitous personal abuse at the honourable member for Barker, the Prime Minister said these words:

I had my attention drawn to this question this morning.

It is worthy of note by this chamber that it had had a Bill put to it for consideration which had presumably been considered by Cabinet and for which the Prime Minister, as the head of Cabinet, must share collective responsibility. The Prime Minister cannot claim, after the Bill had been voted on and the Government had voted against an Opposition amendment, that it was only the day after that vote that his attention was drawn to the matter. He was responsible for it from the time that it came into this chamber. So the attempt of the Prime Minister to wriggle out from under should not be allowed to go without notice. The effect of the Prime Minister's answer was to fool most people. On that same day the Minister for Social Security issued the following Press release:

The Minister for Social Security, Brian Howe, today announced he would not pursue the clause relating to under-age spouses in the Social Security Amendment Bill currently before Parliament.

`The provision was proposed to clarify administration of rates of payment following Administrative Appeals decisions last year in the Kennison case.

`I intend to consider further the implications of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision on the rates of payment for under-age de facto spouses'.

The Minister was not indicating at that stage what direction his consideration would take. In the event, those who report to the nation on these matters were utterly fooled. The Daily Sun of 2 May in a report on the subject of payment of supporting parents benefits to under age girls and boys contains the following words:

The statistics follow criticism of the Federal Government's short lived legislation which allowed increased benefit payments to under-age children living in de facto relationships.

Changes to the Social Security Act passed on Thursday night, but quashed yesterday after strong public reaction, meant under-age parents living together in de facto relationships would have received more than $200 a week in benefits.

The Age newspaper carried the following report on the same day:

The Federal Government will not proceed with legislation to allow de facto spouses under the age of consent to receive social security benefits at the married rates, the Social Security Minister, Mr Howe, said yesterday.

After discussions yesterday morning with the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, Mr Howe agreed to drop the clause from the bill containing various technical changes to the Social Security Act.

As I said, at that point certainly the Press and, I think, many of the public were fooled about the implications of that move. On 5 May, the next sitting day, in the House of Representatives, I asked the following question of the Minister representing the Minister for Social Security:

Does his statement of last Friday that the Government will not proceed with its proposal to change the definition of de facto spouse in the Social Security Act mean that the Department of Social Security will continue to determine eligibility of a social security recipient for a spouse benefit in accordance with the 25 November 1985 determination of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, namely to pay spouse benefits in a case where the de facto spouse is under the age of consent?

The Minister representing the Minister for Social Security in his response said:

I am able to tell the honourable member that it is my understanding that the administration will remain the same as it was prior to the Minister's announcement.

In other words, the effect of the announcement by the Minister, and the words used by the Prime Minister the previous week, had been to indicate to people that benefits would not be paid. Under the ruling of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, to have dropped the proposed definition of de facto spouse straight out would have meant that benefits would have been paid in those cases. It was only because of the persistence of the Opposition in this matter--

Mr Cadman —No, it was the fight you put up.

Mrs SULLIVAN —I thank the honourable member very much. I am very flattered by his words. I certainly did it with the full support of the Liberal Party. It is only because of the persistence of the Liberal Party in that matter that this amendment comes before us today.

The Liberal Party supports the amendment, the effect of which is to prohibit the payment of a spouse benefit where a person is under the age of consent according to State or Territory laws so that the previous ruling of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is overturned. The Tribunal went on to make the point that two people cohabiting in a state of marriage, where one or both are under the age of consent, at present could receive a higher benefit if each is in receipt of some sort of benefit. For example, if the fellow is in receipt of unemployment benefit and the girl is in receipt of, say, a special benefit there will now be a prohibition, under the amendment we are considering, on their receiving a higher payment. The Opposition welcomes the amendment. It is extremely regrettable that the original proposal ever appeared in the Social Security Amendment Bill. We have not had an explanation from the Government as to how it got there. There was no reference to it in the Minister's second reading speech when he introduced the Bill in the first place. We have had no explanation as to why today's amendments have been introduced. I have my own suspicions as to how all of this happened. It may have been partly inadvertence and a lack of alertness on the part of certain government members-certainly on the part of the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister. I believe that the effect of the amendment as it previously stood would have had most benefit for certain public servants who must have felt a little uncomfortable about having to approve payment of benefits in a de facto situation where one of the partners was in breach of the criminal law. The previous amendment would certainly have protected their position.

As I have said, we support today's amendments. We regret that the provision ever appeared in the Bill in the first place and that it has taken such a struggle to get to the point we have reached today. I know that many people in this country will be relieved that the amendments are being passed, judging by the number of letters I have received, particularly from parents, expressing concern about the further deleterious effect this would have had on family life in Australia.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Resolution reported; report adopted.