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Friday, 13 September 1985
Page: 530

Senator Dame MARGARET GUILFOYLE —I direct a question to the Minister representing the Attorney-General which follows the questions raised earlier by Senator Reynolds and Senator Chaney. I ask Senator Gareth Evans whether he is aware of the statement of the Minister for Social Security, Mr Howe, that the Family Law Act should be amended to require the Family Court of Australia to ignore social security benefits in determining maintenance. If he is aware of that statement, does he not agree that the point of it is that the Government has in prospect the setting of maintenance, rather than the collection of maintenance, which was the matter being discussed in the other answers this morning? If the Government proposes the amendment of the Family Law Act and the setting of maintenance by the Court, will the Government allow its members a free vote on any provisions in the Family Law Act, as was the case when that provision was inserted in the Murphy Bill?

Senator GARETH EVANS —As to the latter part of the question, I am sure there is a very big difference between the substantive provisions of the Family Law Act which govern the basic ground rules for marriage and divorce and those provisions in the Act which concern the administration and enforcement of payments made under it. I doubt very much whether the latter would ever be construed as an appropriate subject matter for a conscience vote. That is something that the Party room will have to have a look at.

On the question of maintenance collection and enforcement, when I was Attorney-General I initiated a major inquiry which looked comprehensively at the best systems of maintenance enforcement, both in Australia and overseas. That inquiry produced a substantial report which was released last year for public comment. It recommended a new national enforcement agency with major improvements in enforcement methods. It also recommended that the systems which presently exist in South Australia and Western Australia, and which have achieved substantial success in those jurisdictions, be absorbed into rather than superseded by the operations of any such national body. As Senator Ryan has said, the Government is presently considering, through an interdepartmental committee, a range of options to improve enforcement of support obligations, including the possibility of a new agency of this kind. The Government will form a view and reach a decision on that in due course.

Senator Dame MARGARET GUILFOYLE —I ask a supplementary question to clarify the matter. Is the point of Mr Howe's statement to affect the part of the Act which says that the Family Court shall take into account the eligibility for social security payments when setting maintenance? I am not discussing the collection of maintenance or a maintenance collection agency; I am discussing the section which refers the Court to the eligibility for social security payments when setting maintenance.

Senator GARETH EVANS —The interrelationship between private maintenance component collection and the treatment of the social security benefit is one of the questions that are addressed in the particular report to which I referred and it is one of the questions which are being addressed by the interdepartmental committee.

Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle —And on which you will not give a free vote.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am not in a position to make any announcement about that but I would not have thought that that was appropriate when one is dealing with enforcement and administration provisions of this kind. I conclude by saying that I am not familiar with the terms of whatever it was that Mr Howe said on this subject--

Senator Durack —It was on the front page of the Age.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I believe very few things that I read on the front page of the Age or any other page of that paper, unless I get substantive, independent verification of it. That is what I will seek in this particular instance and I will advise the Senate further if there is anything I can usefully add.