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Tuesday, 4 April 2000
Page: 15193


Mr ANTHONY (Minister for Community Services) (10:21 PM) —in reply—I would first of all like to thank all honourable members for their contribution to this debate. On the government side, I would like to thank the member for Herbert, and I would like to also thank on the Opposition side the member for Grayndler; the member for Chifley, who spoke very passionately about this and has been involved in this debate for many years; the member for Throsby, who spoke just now; and the member for Calwell, who I gather spoke in earlier days. I can certainly appreciate the sentiments that they spoke about today. Time does not allow me to go into great detail on some of the issues that they talked about.

I would like to come back to the Child Support Legislation Amendment Bill 2000, which is before the House, but I would like to make the point that the Child Support Agency was introduced in 1988 probably for all good reasons. Many sole parents, particularly non-custodial parents, were not being adequately looked after, many children were not being sufficiently looked after and there was a necessity for the previous government to introduce it. A number of changes were made in the last parliament, and I think these were positive changes, but it is a process of evolution. If we knew then what we know today, perhaps it would be a very different system. Some of those changes, as was mentioned by the member for Chifley, were about greater flexibility in non-agency payments—25 per cent. Families could now claim 50 per cent of child support paid as a deduction from household income for family support purposes, which was not done before. There was an increase in the exempt income amount of child support payers, a lowering of the disregard income amount for child support payees and many other things which were trying to bring about some more equilibrium, but it is an ongoing process.

Regarding this bill, I think the important point is that this is a very emotional issue. It is a highly charged issue. I do recognise as the minister and certainly when I am in my electorate that these are the most difficult cases for any member of the House of Representatives. But we should always bear in mind that this is about trying to provide adequate income support to the families and to the children who are caught in marriage and relationship breakdowns. It is not just the parents who are hurting in family break-ups; we should never forget the children. In many ways, this is why the Child Support Agency does have an important role to play in helping separated parents meet their financial obligations and responsibilities for their children. But there is more work to be done, and I want to acknowledge that to the members who spoke on this bill.

The purpose of this bill is to amend domestic legislation so that the Child Support Agency will be able to play an increasing role in international maintenance enforcements. In November 1994, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Certain Family Law Issues reported on the operation and effectiveness of the child support scheme. The committee recommended that Australia increase the scope and effectiveness of arrangements in the international arena for the reciprocal enforcement of child support responsibilities. Australia's existing international child support enforcement arrangements are designed to deal solely with the court order maintenance which has been gradually replaced in Australia by administrative assessments. It is clear that the new arrangements which apply to administrative assessments are desirable.

This bill will provide the necessary changes to allow Australia to become a party to the following three international agreements: the agreement with New Zealand on child support and spousal maintenance, the Hague Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Maintenance Liabilities, and the new agreement with the United States on the enforcement of the family and maintenance support obligations. These agreements will replace the existing costly and time consuming court based process with access to administrative processes where possible. A regulation making power will be inserted into both the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988 and the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989. Regulations will then be made prescribing the countries with which Australia has child support arrangements and prescribing all matters relevant to the recognition and enforcement of child support and spousal maintenance liabilities. In particular, the changes will be provided for the enforcement of administrative assessments of child support as well as continuing to provide for the enforcement of court orders and registered agreements.

In the case of New Zealand, current arrangements involve lengthy and costly applications of the courts. The new agreement will allow for reciprocal recognition and enforcement of administrative assessments made by the country. Australia has more child support enforcement cases involving New Zealand than involving any other country. Existing arrangements were devised on the basis that all liabilities were in the form of orders made or agreements registered by a court. Obtaining maintenance orders can involve costly and lengthy applications to Australian courts on behalf of overseas payees. This approach is no longer appropriate, as court order maintenance is being gradually replaced by speedy and relatively inexpensive administrative enforcements. The agree-ment provides for recognition and enforcement of administrative assessments as well as court order and registered agreements. This may result in savings in expenditure of Australian legal aid funds and a reduction in payments by the Attorney-General's Department to the states and territories for the use of state courts in family law matters. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.