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Thursday, 16 March 2000
Page: 14851

Mr LINDSAY (10:06 AM) —I will just set the scene for the bill that we are discussing today—the Child Support Legislation Amendment Bill 2000. This bill has its origins in the report of the Joint Select Committee on Certain Family Law Issues brought down by the Hon. Roger Price in November 1994. The bill stems from one of the recommendations that was contained in that report. Certainly for members, child support in the community was one of the issues that was right up there in lights. I think all members of the House of Representatives have had constant representations from either custodial or the non-custodial parents in relation to unfairness and inequities that they see in the system. How to manage the issue of child support is certainly very difficult when families break up. It is a very difficult issue for the government to manage fairly for both the parents and also the children of that particular union. The problem is also exacerbated by the fact that one size never fits all—everything is not black and white—and for governments to try to meet all of those competing concerns is extraordinarily difficult when it comes to the very real human problems that are involved.

From my perspective, the current issues that are very important in the minds of people who are affected in this way are matters like that of families which become separated by distance, where a family breaks up and one parent decides to move to the nearest capital city a thousand kilometres away or to the other side of the country and the other parent then does not have access to his or her children. It is very difficult for the government to deal with that particular issue. I just wish parents themselves could deal with things in the interests of their children. The next problem is that, even if parents are separated by long distances, some parents for one reason or other choose not to allow the other parent access to the children. The question of access is certainly very significant for constituents who come to see me. And it is on both sides. This is not a male or a female thing or a custodial or a non-custodial thing; you see it on both sides of the ledger. It is very sad indeed when one parent tries to use the children against the other parent. I just wish that marriages never broke up in the first place, but I guess that is an impossible dream. It is really sad for the children when you see this. Another issue that continues to come before us as members of the parliament is the question of the cost of children—how much money should be paid across and how that should be managed. That is something that members on both sides of the House wrestle with. Generally it surfaces because the non-custodial parent is poor, is unable to get on with their lives and is unable to start a new relationship or a new family. You see some very sad cases indeed. It happens to not only people in relatively poor circumstances but also people in relatively well-off circumstances, and there are reasons for that.

I suppose the government has gone a long way to addressing many of these problems. I was remarking earlier today that it has been the experience in my electorate office that we are seeing fewer constituents with problems with the Child Support Agency or problems related to child support payments. Last year—my memory says July—the government introduced a number of new initiatives that came out of Mr Price's recommendations in particular. It was a pity that they were so long in coming because, when they did come, there was strong support in the community for the particular amendments. The bill we are discussing today is also a response to the 1994 report. Unfortunately it has been a long time coming, but it is often very difficult and very time consuming when you have matters relating to other governments and you have to put all of that together. I guess that is code for: sometimes the bureaucracy does not move all that fast.

The initiatives last year were in three major categories. They were in relation to changes to the amount of child support payable, changes benefiting second families and changes to improve administration. Initiatives such as these have resulted in some quite remarkable changes within the Child Support Agency itself. The CSA has been improving its client service. I have certainly noticed that in Townsville. The people in our Child Support Agency are extraordinarily caring and extraordinarily cooperative with my office. They bend over backwards to try to solve problems. They understand that when one partner or the other comes to see them that they are emotionally upset and, in the emotion of the moment, tend to say things they really should not have said or do not mean to say. In that sense, the Child Support Agency is very understanding. As members we get claims that if a male goes into the Child Support Agency he is seen by a female who is obviously anti-men. That is just not true. The Child Support Agency is very sensitive to those sorts of things. If a man ultimately thinks that is the case and wants to see a male client service officer he can do that. But I can assure anyone who is listening to this particular broadcast that that is not in the CSA's charter, and the staff of the CSA are very careful to try to avoid being put in that particular situation.

One of the pleasing things is that now over 44 per cent of parents do not need to pay through the Child Support Agency; they pay each other directly. That is a step in the right direction. If parents who are separated can get on well and, as mature adults, can talk to each other and make arrangements and recognise their liabilities, that is a good move forward. I welcome that and support that. I also note, on a technical matter, that the agency's costs have been falling, that the average cost of collecting each dollar has gone to just 13c. That the agency's operational costs are falling is a terrific result for the government. I also note that, if you ask the agency's clients and look at research on the agency's professionalism, you see that is certainly improving. The clients are saying that actions taken by the agency to improve client service are working. Again, I would say to anyone who may be listening to this broadcast that, if they feel that they have a particular problem with the agency, it can be sorted out. They should contact their local member, who would have close links with the agency. I have never had a problem in Townsville in my electorate in being able to resolve any issues of that kind of nature.

In relation to the bill before the House, I am particular interested in and supportive of—as the member for Grayndler is—the arrangements for enforcement of overseas obligations either way. That is, the obligations of Australians who are overseas can be enforced while they are overseas and the obligations of foreign nationals in this country can be enforced within Australia. That is a good move forward. It is understandable that the most number of cases that require this kind of assessment are between Australia and New Zealand. I think everyone would understand why that would be. When this bill goes through, we will have arrangements that will allow cross-Tasman enforcement not only of court orders but also of administrative assessments. Administrative assessments are very important because more and more we are tending towards putting administrative assessments in place because they save the very high costs of going to the Family Court. Of course, the very high costs of going to the Family Court are another matter for discussion at another time.

I have had constituents complain to me that their partner has gone overseas specifically to avoid child support payments or has made their arrangements so that they can avoid child support payments. This bill will go a long way towards ensuring that those responsibilities are met. I have certainly seen that some smarties among Australians, in situations where they had an Australian assessment, have found they could go to New Zealand, for example, and obtain an assessment there for the specific purpose of extinguishing arrears owed under Australian maintenance orders. That is disgraceful. This bill will put an end to that and the smarties will get their comeuppance.

Of equal importance is the fact that this bill will enable arrangements between the 19 countries that are members of the Hague Convention. For practical purposes, this bill will see Australia's accession to the Hague Convention having the same effect as establishing many bilateral reciprocal arrangements. In that sense, I certainly think we would all support that. The other area of specific interest is the arrangements with the United States of America. As I understand it, child support arrangements in the United States are dealt with on a state by state basis, so the Australian government has been having difficulty in finding a mechanism by which it can enforce Australian orders in the United States. In the reverse case, the states of the United States have had difficulty in enforcing orders or assessments in Australia. Fortunately, the US State Department has proposed that the Australian government sign a new agreement with the US federal government which would put the existing arrangements on a federal level. That is terrific. That is a very good outcome. The agreement with the US federal government will provide for the recognition and enforcement of administrative assessments of child support.

I am very pleased to support this bill. I am certainly among those in the parliament who have some very significant feelings for the parents and children who are affected by separations and marriage breakdowns. I, along with many of my colleagues, want to see done whatever can be done to help both sides of those situations. While wishing that it did not happen in the first place, I recognise that it seems to be a characteristic of modern life that a lot of marriages do not last and I will certainly do what I can to assist where these terrible break-ups happen and where hurt and distress permeate families, including children. I am very strongly supportive of this bill and I thank the opposition for supporting the bill today.