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Tuesday, 8 May 2018
Page: 2512

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (12:54): Today I rise on behalf of the Labor opposition to make remarks about the bill before us. The Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill. I note that it gives effect to measures announced this time last year, which is the government response to the parliamentary inquiry into the child support program, and, indeed, support for the No Jab, No Pay and Healthy Start for School new compliance arrangements. I want to say at the outset that we support dealing with some of the complexities in the child support program. While we don't entirely believe in the approach the government is taking, we certainly support the No Jab, No Pay component of this legislation and the majority of proposed changes to child support in schedule 2.

What I want to flag with the chamber this afternoon are Labor's concerns about changes relating to amended tax assessments and overpayments when it comes to child support. We support the change to allow the Child Support Registrar to take into account an amended tax assessment and change a child support assessment as a result. What we are concerned about, however, is that the bill allows a child support assessment to be applied retrospectively. We have communicated our concerns to the government about this, and we're awaiting their response to whether they'll take action on that in this bill. I hope that by the time I've finished these remarks you'll be able to give us some advice about how you intend to proceed.

I raise this because we're concerned that child support recipients who've received child support payments in good faith will unexpectedly owe debts, having already spent the money—that they received in good faith—legitimately on their children, recognising that many of these households are low income and that you can't suddenly acquire an unexpected debt in a low-income household with children. Today we're seeking that child support registrars are able to take into account the circumstances of the parent and whether or not a retrospective child support assessment would place them in unjustifiable hardship, having regard to the financial circumstances of the parent also.

There are a number of ways to do this. We can delete that schedule and deal with it at a later time or we can have regard for an amendment to that effect, which Labor would like to put forward. We believe our amendment maintains existing arrangements that allow the registrar to make a retrospective child support assessment where there has been, importantly, evasion or fraud—that is, evasion of tax or other fraud. Otherwise, Labor's amendment limits the registrar to making only prospective changes to child support assessments. And I'm letting the chamber know today that, if these solutions are not successful, we will seek to separate schedule 1 part 2 from the bill so that the Senate can consider the No Jab, No Pay changes, which are clearly important for the health and welfare of Australian children.

I'm going to make some remarks about No Jab, No Pay. It's important that we strengthen immunisation rates so all Australian children have the best chance of growing up strong and healthy. In government, Labor made important changes to the family tax benefits designed to lift immunisation rates. We made the decision to link family tax benefit end-of-year supplements to immunisation, and, ahead of the 2013 election, we committed to the further tightening of immunisation requirements within the family payments system. This has been incredibly important to the lifting of immunisation ratings across Australia. So these principles have enjoyed bipartisan support for a number of years, and we, on this side, believe very strongly in vaccinations.

Vaccinations are one of the greatest success stories of human development over the last century. We've seen the eradication and the near eradication of diseases such as polio and smallpox, including here in Australia. According to the World Health Organization, in 1980, prior to vaccination, measles was responsible for about 2.6 million deaths each year.

It's incredibly important that policies like No Jab, No Pay underlie the government's belief in the importance of vaccination because we know that there are a number of anti-vaccination beliefs that people try to propagate within the community and they do get their foothold in small communities around Australia, including, indeed, in some of the better-off communities in which family tax benefit type No Jab, No Pay payments are not as influential. Immunisation rates fall and children's and other people's lives are placed at real risk if you have a cluster of unimmunised people, particularly children, who become exposed to a disease like measles. We need to rely on strong herd immunity through vaccination and ensuring that people receive adequate vaccination. We want to be able to stop the chain of infection and we know that the greater the number of people who are immune the smaller the probability that those who are not immune will come into contact with that infection.

Since No Jab, No Pay, some 200,000 families have taken action to ensure they meet these immunisation requirements, and that is incredibly significant when it comes to reducing the burden of disease on Australians. I note that these are not the only policies that are important. We've had No Jab, No Play laws in places like Victoria, and other policies in other states such as my own home state of Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT. Indeed, No Jab, No Play is also important because, as I said, not all families are influenced by the family tax benefit payments. The policy is working but we can't be complacent, so we very much support the principles in this legislation.

Large vaccinated populations protect those who are weak or susceptible to disease, or whose immunity from previous vaccination has fallen. So we very much support the No Jab, No Pay policy and the elements of this legislation before us that implement that. Schedule 2 in that regard outlines that parents who do not keep their child's immunisations up to date are not eligible to receive the family tax benefit part A end-of-year supplement. The supplement will be paid at $737.30 per child for an income under $80,000, and the bill amends the No Jab, No Pay rules to instead withhold about $28 per fortnight of family tax benefit part A payments to families whose child does not meet immunisation requirements instead of withholding the supplement. This would come into effect on 1 July 2018.

We note that when a child's vaccinations are overdue, the family would be notified and a grace period would apply for either the child to get vaccinated or for a valid medical exemption to be obtained. If the vaccination is not complied with within that 63-day period, or an exemption obtained, that's when the fortnightly reductions will begin. The change is required because, as I indicated before, we need to make sure that as many families as possible have an economic lever applied to them in this regard. Currently, the existing rules do not apply to families with an annual income in excess of $80,000. So we need to make sure that that lever is applied to as many families as possible. Those families need this change because they're no longer eligible to receive family tax benefit part A in an end-of-year supplement.

I will now move on to some discussion about child support. We very much support the child support system here in Australia. We know that there are complexities for families trying to navigate the system and for the government in trying to implement that system. In the main, we support what the government is doing in this bill. In relation to schedule 1, part 1, the amount of child support and family tax benefit payable is assessed on the paying parent's taxable income and the amount of time they spend caring for children or a child. We know that sometimes one parent is providing more care than another under a court order or agreement. In this instance, the other parent might be aggrieved because they're not getting as much opportunity to care as they would like, or as they believe they should be entitled to, and feel that they are therefore paying more child support than they should be.

Under these circumstances the registrar can make a care arrangement, which is an interim determination based on a written agreement, parenting plan or court order rather than on actual care. This is very important. The arrangement generally runs for a period of 14 weeks. In special circumstances it can be extended to 26 weeks. The amount of child support paid during that period is based on the agreed care or court order, not the actual care provided, and based on the parent who is paying taking reasonable steps in terms of compliance with that parenting arrangement. This option of an interim period is intended to give both parents time to resolve the dispute over care. This means that, after the interim period lapses, the child support assessment changes to reflect the actual care.

I note that these changes very much come out of an inquiry into the child support program undertaken by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs and their report From conflict to cooperation. The committee made 22 recommendations, all of which Labor supported. The committee heard evidence that 14 weeks is shorter than the normal length of time it would take parties to resolve their disputes over care, given the length of time it takes for dispute resolution to commence or for legal proceedings to be resolved. The proposal in part 1 of schedule 1 is to change the length of interim periods, and Labor supports this.

I don't think I've got time to go into the full detail of what is in the bill in relation to disputes about care where there is a pre-existing court order. But we support those provisions in the bill relating to the time periods. We do note, however, that, for disputes about care where there is a non-enforceable agreement of a parenting plan, not a court order, the maximum interim period would be 14 weeks and that this would be reduced to four weeks if the disputed care change occurs after the first year of the agreement or the plan and the person with increased care continuously takes reasonable action to participate in family dispute resolution. We are concerned and agree with concerns that people can unreasonably delay and drag their feed in resolving a family parenting order through the courts and that that in turn has an impact on child support payments. The interim period ends if the person with reduced care stops seeking to enforce the order, agreement or plan. It also ends if a new care arrangement begins to apply or if the existing one stops applying.

I will not dwell too much on schedule 1, part 3, because we support those changes, or on schedule 1, part 4, the collection of overpayments. In the short time I have available, I want to return to schedule 1, part 2, where we have some concerns about the current legislation.

Currently the amount of child support paid is calculated on the basis that the individual's tax assessment for a given year is fundamentally correct and cannot be recalculated if the tax assessment is shown to be incorrect, unless special circumstances, such as tax evasion or fraud, exist. We've seen cases where payer parents are obligated to pay an amount of child support that is artificially high, out of step with their income and unaffordable, or, alternatively, where they are underpaying for child support because they can only pay what they can afford to pay, but, in the meantime, they accumulate a debt because they're told that they owe more child support than they, in effect, actually do.

So this part of the bill allows for the amount of child support to be recalculated, based on an amended tax return. In circumstances where an amended tax assessment results in a higher adjustable income, the higher adjustable income would be applied retrospectively to the paying parent's child-support obligation over the course of the year. If the amended tax assessment results in a lower adjustable taxable income, this would also be applied retrospectively if the paying parent applied for the amendment of the tax assessment either before the lodgement of that year's tax return falls due, or within 28 days of receiving the tax assessment, within 28 days of becoming aware of an issue with the tax assessment, or if special circumstances exist. This reduces the amount of any potential overpayment that could be claimed from a payee by requiring that action be taken quickly on behalf of the payer.

What we, on this side of the chamber, are concerned about is that this could lead to child support payees unexpectedly receiving a potentially large debt, having received payments—money that they have received in good faith. As I highlighted before, child support recipients are often on very low incomes and are unlikely to be able to service a debt, particularly where it has arisen through no fault of their own. So we're seeking today to move amendments or to learn what the government's intention is to address these concerns around these issues.

Finally, we very much support the No Jab, No Pay policy. We support amendments that are laid out in this bill. We do, however, have some concerns about the child support changes in this legislation, particularly relating to amended tax assessments. The concerns that we highlight to the chamber today are that child support recipients who have received child support payments in good faith will unfairly owe debts, and we're seeking to move amendments to address this situation.