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Thursday, 16 March 2000
Page: 14849

Mr ALBANESE (9:56 AM) —Before commenting on the detail of this bill, I would like to make a few observations about the Child Support Scheme. The introduction of the Child Support Scheme a decade ago attempted to put in place a set of principles that I think no-one could disagree with—that is, that parents share in the cost of supporting their children according to their capacity and, secondly, that adequate support is available for all children not living with both parents. The third important reason for the establishment of the Child Support Scheme is the principle that government should not be expected to pay the costs of supporting a child where one or both parents have the financial capacity to do so unassisted.

These are all fairly uncontroversial facts, and ones that any reasonable person would concur with. The problems that many people currently have with the system lie in the judgments it makes about people's capacity to pay, in what circumstances exceptions should be made and how the collection of payments is enforced. The difficulty lies in the fact that complaints about child support are divided evenly between those who pay and those who receive. For every aggrieved payer who argues they are forced to give too much towards the upbringing of their child, there is a payee arguing that they are struggling to meet these costs and they have not got their payment through on time. All of us would certainly be aware of this issue in our own electorates. Some of these issues are resolvable if the government of the day is prepared to work through these issues and talk to the people whom the scheme makes requirements of or guarantees to. But it is important to recognise that the system will never have the capacity to resolve the disappointment and hurt that often go hand in hand with family separation and divorce. The successful resolution of these very human issues lies outside the scope of the Child Support Scheme, and indeed lies outside the scope of the role of government.

This is an area in which the current government have failed to show leadership and support. They have stripped around $5 billion of social services and other supports from our community, creating a huge social deficit. These services directly assist people to cope with the personal dimension of separation. The government have introduced an unfair tax—the GST—that actively discriminates against those most vulnerable in our community, in spite of the rhetoric by the government about battlers. Child support payers and payees, struggling to mend their lives and go forward, are being slugged. The GST will push up the cost of child support, putting people under further stress. We need to examine very carefully the impact of these changes with the GST. In particular we need to have a close examination of whether some in our community will lose.

The core issue is whether, as a result of the GST, payments that are designed to support the upbringing of children are adequate. While the government claims that people have been compensated, it remains unclear in the case of child maintenance whether payments will keep pace with higher costs. That is because a custodial parent who is receiving appropriate payments from a non-custodial parent meeting their commitment is not in receipt of family assistance. Therefore they will not be a beneficiary of any increase in family assistance, however inadequate that may be, designed to compensate for the introduction of the goods and services tax.

In addition to that, payments by non-custodial parents will not take into account the income tax cuts which people will receive on 1 July as a result of the introduction of the GST. Therefore, my concern is that custodial parents who are already struggling to get by may indeed be worse off as a result of the GST. This is an area that needs examination by the government, because any further economic stress placed on custodial parents will also lead to social disadvantage being reinforced. This needs to be viewed in the context of the fact that a lot of that social support has been taken away by the cuts to social services since the election of the Howard government in 1996.

Only this week, we have seen a classic example of how the GST will put pressure on the most vulnerable in our community. Indeed, the Minister for Community Services would be well aware of that particular group in our community—permanent caravan park residents—because he has 6,649 of them in his electorate of Richmond. Unfortunately, we have seen from this government a refusal to even have dialogue with these Australians. That sends out a message that this government is not prepared to listen to the concerns of the most vulnerable people in our community who, as a result of the ideological agenda being pursued by this government, will suffer the most as a result of the introduction of the GST.

We do have an obligation to make the child support system as fair and painless as we can. I think we still have some way to go before we can truly say that child maintenance is being delivered in this way. This legislation is a step in the right direction in that it seeks to ensure that the system applies fairly and equally to those living outside Australia, whether they be a payer of child support or a recipient.

This bill also amends Australian domestic law to enable Australia to fulfil its international child and spousal maintenance obligations. The proposed amendments provide for regulations to be made which prescribe for matters relevant to the recognition and enforcement of child support and spousal maintenance liabilities. I will go through some relevant examples: the enforcement of administrative assessments; allowing the Child Support Agency to make an administrative assessment even though the payer is not resident in Australia and does not have an Australian taxable income; in the case of New Zealand, providing that the creation and variation of liabilities will be able to be undertaken only in the country where the payee is resident; obliging each country to assist in locating payers, serving notices and providing advice so that maintenance liabilities can be enforced; allowing the Child Support Agency to collect overseas maintenance liabilities which have not first been registered in an Australian court under the Family Law Act 1975; and, requiring reciprocity in legislative presumptions of parentage. All these measures in this bill appear to the opposition to be uncontroversial in nature. Whatever anyone may think of other parts of the system—and I recognise that there are concerns on the part of both payers and payees—this measure seems to be fair and reasonable. As a result, the opposition will be supporting this legislation.