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Thursday, 19 August 1993
Page: 363

Senator REID (4.58 p.m.) —On behalf of the Joint Select Committee on Certain Family Law Issues, I present an interim report of the committee on the Child Support Hotline, which was held a couple of weeks ago and seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

  Leave granted.

Senator REID —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

In speaking to this report, I wish to refer to the report of the same committee entitled, `Aspects of the operation and interpretation of the Family Law Act', which was presented earlier this year to the parliament and which contained many recommendations. But perhaps the most important thing that we drew to the government's attention appeared in the conclusion to chapter 16, where in part we said:

The committee considers that the government, as a matter of urgency, must address the anomalies currently inherent in the child support scheme so that both parents share an equitable burden of the cost of supporting their children after marriage breakdown.

The reason we suggested this is that throughout that inquiry the number of times that we heard people making comments about the child support scheme made us realise that it was well overdue for review. I think all of us already knew that from the number of representations that we had had in our electorates.

  Constantly people are coming in—both men and women, custodial parents and non-custodial parents—with complaints about the agency, the way it operates and the way the scheme itself is structured. When the committee inquired into the Family Law Act, we were left in no doubt that many of the problems that people talked about relating to access to and support of children flowed from this.

  As I have said, Thanks for listening is a report on a hotline that the committee ran in Canberra to enable people to have access to it. From our own electorate offices, we all knew that some of the constituents who had complaints about the agency would write submissions and send them in, but we also knew that there were a lot of people who were hurting very deeply because of aspects of this scheme who perhaps did not have the skills or the confidence to write what seemed to them to be a fairly demanding thing—a submission to a parliamentary committee. The committee attends hearings in other places, but again there would be some people who would have some reluctance about coming to meet us. This way we knew that we would be making ourselves available to large numbers of people.

  When it was first suggested that we should have a hotline, I expressed some reservations—not because I did not want people to have access to the committee but because I knew that the number of people who would attempt to contact us would be so vast that our capacity to cope with it was, by comparison, very limited indeed. Unfortunately, that proved to be the case. Telecom has told us that in the two days that this operated, 21 and 22 July this year, over 150,000 calls were attempted, 80,000 of them on the first day and the balance on the second day, getting up to just on nine and a half thousand attempted calls in one hour during that period.

  A number of us manned the phones that we had available. In all, we talked to just under 700 people. That is not very many out of 150,000 calls. We know that that figure included people who rang several times trying to get through. We know that we spoke to people who had been hanging on for a very long time after they got through before they actually got to one of the people taking the calls. The level of frustration was quite high—and understandably so.

  We also know that during the same two days many of our electorate offices had calls from people who were trying to get through but could not. That has continued, and many have now written in. People now understand that a submission to the committee does not have to be a PhD thesis; it can be a letter giving their version of what it is about the way the scheme operates that is causing them concern and distress.

  A number of things came out of the inquiry. Clearly the formula needs adjusting. I do not think any of us who answered the phones that day did not realise that the formula needs to be examined very closely. When the legislation was before us, there was bipartisan support for the concept of seeing that parents support their children. There was no argument about that at all, but we did say at the time that we would need to review it and see how it worked. The issues come in two parts: firstly, the formula as to how maintenance is assessed and what things are taken into account in assessing it and, secondly, the way the tax office operates the scheme. There were many complaints in both areas and they are set out in this report which we have placed before the Senate today.

  These are some of the complaints: the fact that it is based on a gross wage, not a net wage; the way overtime is calculated; the way changes in financial circumstances are not taken into account for perhaps two years after a wage may have dropped considerably—the new circumstances just do not seem to operate in time; the application of an indexing factor of 3.4 per cent when inflation is not that high; the fact that a non-custodial parent can be left with $8,000 per annum whereas a custodial parent's current income is not taken into account unless it is above $30,000.

  We heard from men who explained that they had absolutely no capacity whatever to embark upon a new life after they had been dealt with by the agency. We heard from people who were paying maintenance and were happy to pay maintenance but were unhappy about the way they were treated and the way that it operated. I will not go through every one of the concerns that have been listed here. They are the issues that we will be pursuing more closely as the committee goes on with its work and the major inquiry that we are undertaking.

  We refer also to the administration of the Child Support Agency. The agency has a case load of nearly 206,000. The stress and strain on the tax office and those involved in it has been very great. There are criticisms. We had people tell us—and I heard it on the phone a number of times—`You are treated like a criminal by those on the other end of the phone if you ring up or if you make any inquiries'. We heard complaints about the agency's lack of enforcement of orders. We heard complaints about the delays in paying money once it had been received by the agency. There certainly are areas that need to be looked at.

  Perhaps the agency does not have sufficient resources to enable it to do well the things that are required. I know from my own dealings with it that it has made considerable changes in the last 12 months or so in an effort to address the complaints that are being made, but there is still an enormous sense of frustration in the community with those who are dealing with it—and many people are dealing with it.

  The title of the report, which we present with some humility, is Thanks for listening. While sitting and listening to and taking notes of the things that these people wanted to say, it was very moving to see the number of people who felt that they had never before been able to say these things and who had never had anybody who would listen to them. A number of the calls ended with people saying, `Thanks for listening'. I think all of us need to take note of that and remember that it is important to listen to the people who are affected by the sort of legislation that we enact here. They are entitled to be heard and it is important.

  Amongst the calls that I took—and I can only talk about the work that I did on those two days—so frequently this came up: `I don't mind paying maintenance for my children, but surely there must be some mechanism to ensure that I am able to see them—that I am able to have a meaningful relationship with my children'. It is not easy to answer that one, but somehow somebody has to try to find the answer, because it happens all too often.

  Mr Acting Deputy President, you will understand what I am about to say. In one morning, quite by chance—there were about eight phone lines operating—I took a number of calls from Queensland. My electorate, here in Canberra, is pretty compact and people can get to see their member pretty easily.  For three of the callers that I spoke to—all from places I had not heard of—the nearest Child Support Agency office was Townsville. The first man that I chatted to was complaining about ringing and never being able to talk to the same person. He was not actually complaining about the people in the Townsville office; it was the way it operated. In fact, most of the people involved with the Townsville agency thought they were doing a good job. Not knowing where he lived, I said to him, `How far are you from the Townsville office?'. He said, `Oh, it'd be a good 12 hours drive, luv'. That makes an impact on somebody who lives in an electorate where 25 minutes would be the longest anyone would need to get just about anywhere. I come from the country, but I have never lived 12 hours from somebody I wanted to talk to.

  Another person told me that he was about 1,000 kilometres from Townsville. The other one said, `I'm out in the coalfields', and indicated the distance. The frustration of that being the nearest place to go to get an answer is something that perhaps we need to take into account. As I said, I am talking about your electorate, Mr Acting Deputy President, and you would know better than me. It was a worthwhile exercise, even though we did not get to many of the people who wanted to talk to us.

  I understand that this is the first time any parliamentary committee has run a hotline of this kind. Perhaps this is a unique inquiry where it is important that people have the chance to speak to us. But it was not just an exercise to let people have a say. It was a very genuine endeavour to enable people to say to us the things they wanted to say. None of us who took part in the hotline will forget the things that were said to us that day.

  In particular, I should like to refer to the staff of the committee, members of my own staff and others in the parliament who volunteered to take part. Their names are listed at the beginning of this report. Some of them had not done this sort of work before and found it quite stressful to be involved in the sorts of conversations they had. To somebody like myself, who worked in family law for many years before I came to the Senate, it was in a sense going back to hearing things that I had been familiar with and am familiar with in my electorate office. But to many of these who participated that day I say a very sincere thank you for what they did to make it possible for us to talk to 700 people. It was only with the assistance of so many members of staff of the parliament that we were able to speak to even that number of people.

  I emphasise that this is an interim report, which I hope people will read. We will not be presenting the report of the inquiry until some time next year because there is a great deal of work still to be done.