Thursday, 3 June 2010
Child Support and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010
I will speak briefly in relation to the Child Support and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010. The organisations which impact on Australians the most in terms of services are Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency. These government agencies impact on people’s lives by providing financial support, providing care, reimbursing people for their health costs, and providing assistance at times of loss of economic security through the loss of jobs and at other times. Making sure that there is alignment in relation to these great government organisations is absolutely crucial to ensuring that we deal with Australians consistently and decently. We need to make sure that they have access to all the information and financial support that enables them to meet their family’s needs, pay for their household challenges and get the kind of health care and assistance that they richly deserve in the Australian community. We want to make sure that they have the kind of help that allows them to clothe themselves, house themselves, educate their children and make sure they have jobs and job security. These are vital for the needs of average Australians.
The bill makes amendments to implement our budget measures. It lines up care determinations between the Family Assistance Office and the Child Support Agency; it makes improvements to estimating the income for the purpose of child support; and it makes some minor changes in relation to family assistance law to exclude two circumstances from the provisions that prevent the payment of family tax benefit on the basis of an income estimate if the relevant tax returns have not been lodged.
Since coming to office the Rudd government has been diligent and determined to deliver significant reforms across a suite of areas, particularly in areas of pension reform. The member for Dawson talked about the very significant pension reforms—the largest pension rises and the biggest change in the 100 years of Australian Federation. We have substantially increased assistance to carers for those with a disability and in the House of Representatives we have legislated for Australia’s first Paid Parental Leave scheme. These things make Australia’s systems of help for families better and simpler. It is a real scheme that we believe will make a difference in people’s lives. Those opposite have failed to assist Australian families, whether it is in the area of paid parental leave, the area of social security and pensions, or whether it is in the area of child support and other sorts of assistance.
We have provided enormous assistance. The Child Support Agency was a reform of the Hawke-Keating government back in the late 1980s. For a long time before that—decades before that—the child maintenance systems in this country were inadequate. When I was practising as a family lawyer all manner of child maintenance was avoided by both mothers and fathers at various stages. You had to end up taking cases to court on behalf of clients who were not being paid, often without legal assistance. It was a really difficult set of circumstances. Enforcing those orders were very difficult and costly for people in time, effort and money. The Child Support Scheme, for all its failings, faults and foibles, has taken us forward. It is not without difficulty or problems. It interfaces with people at the coalface. Most people do not get charged with criminal offences, most people do not involve themselves in fraud, most people do not have contract breaches, most people are not injured in car accidents and most people do not face the litigation system in this country. But many people end up separating from their partners and spouses, and child support becomes a real thing of them.
The child support systems in this country say very clearly that parents have a primary obligation to support their children and provide for their proper needs from reasonable and adequate shares in the income, earning capacity, property and financial resources of both parents. It is stated very clearly in the Child Support (Assessment) Act. Similar words are used with respect to the care of children in the Family Law Act. Indeed, in section 3 and section 114 of the Child Support (Assessment) Act the act says that there are extra duties and responsibilities and that parents have a primary duty to maintain their children. If people are unhappy with the outcome of the decision that is made with respect to child support, they can always seek internal reviews and they can rely upon section 117 of the Child Support (Assessment) Act, which sets out the grounds for departure orders. They can undertake internal reviews and then look at the SSAT and the Federal Magistrates Court for further justice if they feel they have been hard done by.
The legislation here makes the interaction between the family assistance provided to people and the child support arrangements more consistent. In determining people’s child support obligation some parents use an estimate of their income and that estimate is then reconciled against actual income to make sure the correct amounts are paid or received. Also, if they are not happy with a child support assessment and a feel that their income is 85 per cent of or less than the actual estimate, they can, under section 60 of the Child Support (Assessment) Act, request the Child Support Agency to look at it again.
We have made changes in this regard in terms of the estimates and the reconciliation. The measure in schedule 1, which talks about child support income estimates, will make it easier for people to estimate their income and allow the Child Support Agency to reconcile the estimates automatically once the actual income is known. The amendments do not amend the length of the child support period, which remains at 15 months. The amendments only change the period over which an estimate can be reconciled—from 15 months to a financial year. That makes sense, because most people look at their budgetary arrangements on a financial year basis.
There are also changes with respect to percentage of care. This implements a 2009-10 budgetary measure to create simpler and clearer rules for separated families. We know that the Child Support Scheme aims to provide adequate levels of child support, which of course is used to meet children’s needs. But there is also assistance given with family tax benefits, which help parents pay for their costs of raising their children. Currently the Family Assistance Office—that is really Centrelink and Medicare—and the Child Support Agency use different rules with respect to determination of care levels for child support and family assistance. Those care levels are always difficult and problematic, and often discussions with respect to these matters take place on the doorstep of courts and also in lawyers’ offices, at mediations and arbitration, at conciliation conferences and at Family Relationship Centres.
The reconciliation and removal of inconsistencies and unnecessary duplication is a good thing. The amendments make plain it is to provide a single determination of care for both child support and family tax benefit purposes. There are some amendments, too, with respect to schedule 3, as it deals with more flexible arrangements with respect to details concerning family tax benefits. That follows a recommendation of the Australian National Audit Office in a report concerning the reduction of family payment debts. This second change will have some benefit, because there are people whose personal and financial circumstances are such that they are vulnerable and are open to challenges. Dealing with separation is really hard. They do not always think of Centrelink and Medicare changes or electoral enrolment changes or child support issues.
I was a litigation lawyer practising in family law for more than 20 years before I came to this place. People do not always think as clearly as they should or as they would normally think when they separate and are facing circumstances that they never thought they would face. Often they are affected by illness, domestic violence or other circumstances which cause them not to think clearly. Anything that makes the situation better for them or makes their circumstances easier with respect to family tax benefits is a good thing. Flexibility, simplicity and clarity are important for them in those circumstances.
The member for Menzies had a go at the government about family relationship centres and other types of assistance that we are providing within the family law system. But the member for Menzies did not talk about the great initiatives that the Rudd Labor government is undertaking in these areas—the extra $154 million that is being given to family law services, particularly legal aid services, for people who are facing child support issues and family relationship breakdowns. The previous government—the Howard government—gutted legal aid in this country. They came up with a ridiculous artificial distinction between Commonwealth matters and Commonwealth persons. The Rudd government is seeking to address the failures of the previous government to invest in legal aid, providing for Indigenous people and those with family law or child support needs in a way that the Howard government never thought to do. It is providing additional legal aid and putting a greater emphasis on family dispute resolution, particularly with the new civil dispute resolution bill implementing recommendations made by the National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council. There is also a greater emphasis on mediation, particularly the use of family relationship centres for property and spousal maintenance matters, with very few exceptions.
The member for Menzies is simply not correct when he criticises the Rudd government’s commitment to alternative dispute resolution. We have improved access to justice with this bill. That was a budgetary measure. The Commonwealth contribution to legal aid services across the country now totals over $1.2 billion, far more than the Howard government ever had the wisdom, the wit or the will to undertake. We are putting a huge amount of resources into making sure that there is access to legal services in rural, regional and remote areas through providing additional funds. The previous government should stand condemned for its failure to provide adequate legal services.
In Ipswich in my electorate of Blair, we are giving additional assistance through Centrelink; Commonwealth, state and local government services; Job Services Australia; disability employment services; and education providers. Community welfare organisations are going to join Centrelink to provide improvements in services for disadvantaged job seekers. We are one of four locations across the country which will host this initiative. They will be wraparound type services—a local connections-to-work program, providing disadvantaged job seekers with access to justice. This will be all at one location, providing the kinds of services that will deliver for all of us and deliver for those who are disadvantaged, helping with financial assistance advocacy, housing, employment, health services and education as well as giving advice on child support and family assistance, which is the topic of this legislation.
This is important reformist legislation. Those opposite would not do it. Those opposite failed on legal aid, they failed on child support and they failed in providing these integrated services. It is up to the Rudd Labor government to do that which is necessary to help those in need.