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Tuesday, 27 February 2001
Page: 24471

Mr McCLELLAND (2:36 PM) —My question is to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Minister, are you aware that since 1 July 1999, as a direct result of the government's budget cuts to the Family Court, the number of counselling staff in regional registries has been reduced by 27 per cent? Are you also aware that over the same period the number of hours of circuit counselling in regional areas has declined by 26 per cent and that Family Court counsellors no longer visit the towns of Nowra, Orange, Parkes, Burke, Lightning Ridge, Muswellbrook, Tenterfield, Glen Innes, Inverell, Ayr, Bowen, Emerald, Mount Isa or Griffith? Isn't the fact that rural and regional Australians are losing these important family counselling services one reason why public confidence in you and your government is collapsing?

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Denison is warned!

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) —I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to that question. The member for Barton has, I think, attempted to highlight some changes that have been going on in the administration of the family law system. I think the picture that he seeks to represent is not an accurate one. Let us get the facts straight. Some funding has been transferred from the Family Court to the Federal Magistrates Service. The Federal Magistrates Service has taken over a large part of the less complex work done in the family law area. In addition, there has been some reduction in the Family Court's budget designed simply to reflect the fact that they no longer pay wholesale sales tax on a lot of supplies. There has been no other reduction in the Family Court budget, so any changes that have occurred in relation to the administration of the court have other reasons. The Family Court has decided that it will to some extent cease providing voluntary counselling in some centres. Some of the centres mentioned by the member for Barton are those that are affected. What is happening instead is that those services, through arrangements made by the Family Court—

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Brisbane is warned!

Mr WILLIAMS —and the Federal Magistrates Service, are being picked up and run by community organisations.

Since 1996, it has been an overriding policy of the government to try to keep people out of court, particularly to keep people out of the Family Court. Where the issues can be resolved by primary dispute resolution methods such as mediation and counselling, we have sought to provide funding to community organisations. In the course of a number of budgets, the amount of money going to mediation and counselling has increased significantly.

Mr SPEAKER —The Deputy Leader of the Opposition is warned!

Mr WILLIAMS —We now spend $30 million on mediation and counselling in this area and in the last budget $15.7 million was added. I have recently approved the use of $1.75 million of that to provide voluntary counselling where it will no longer be available through the Family Court. My department is working with the Family Court, the Federal Magistrates Service, the Department of Family and Community Services and community organisations to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place to ensure that voluntary counselling is available to a greater extent than ever previously—and we are achieving that. In addition, an amount of $1.2 million has been provided to the Federal Magistrates Service for that service to purchase mediation and counselling services at the areas where they provide circuit.