Thursday, 3 June 2010
Child Support and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 26 May, on motion by Ms Macklin:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise to speak on the Child Support and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010. This bill is designed to align legislative arrangements relating to child care, particularly those relating to payments. Firstly, the bill aligns child support pay income estimate periods with financial years rather than child support years. Essentially, this changes the period over which income estimates are reconciled from 15 months to a financial year. This will ensure greater accuracy and efficiency as it is a simpler process to assess taxable income at the end of the financial year. This will also reduce delays in the automated reconciliation process.
Secondly, the bill will align care determinations under both the family assistance law and child support legislation. This amendment will allow parents or carers who are recipients of family tax benefit and who are paying or receiving child support to have the same care determinations made for a child in the case of a child having multiple carers.
Thirdly, this bill also allows for payments of family tax benefit to recipients who have not lodged their tax returns in the hope of having a lower accessible income to be cancelled. This will allow parents or carers who are entitled to FTB and also child support payers or payees to have the same care determinations made for a child where the care of the child involves more than one carer. This payment will be based on their adjusted taxable income.
The coalition has a proud history of child support policy. It was the former coalition government that established the Family Law Hotline to enable Australians to access information and advice about family law and child support issues. It funded a child support strategy that was aimed at improving post-separation relationships and encouraging parents to maintain contact with their children, which, evidence shows, will increase the likelihood of child support liabilities being met. It let payers with second families claim 100 per cent of child support paid as a deduction from the household income used for determining family tax benefit and the childcare benefit entitlements and increased the family tax benefit income test deduction for child support paid by non-resident parents with a subsequent family.
It was also the former coalition government that offered unemployed parents who had a child support responsibility access to community based parenting and relationship support services. When relationships break down and children are involved and where parents cannot agree on what support should be provided, our child support system plays an important part in ensuring that appropriate support is provided. If the government were serious about helping families and resolving disputes quickly and amicably, they would not have cut $50 million from family relationships centres and marriage counselling services in this year’s budget.
But Labor did just that. Mr Rudd, the Prime Minister, has demonstrated that the government is genuinely disinterested in families when it comes to ensuring smooth and efficient dispute resolution. For example, the government has decided not to replace four judges in the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court, placing unnecessary pressure on the judiciary, meaning that family law matters will now take even longer to get to court, let alone to be resolved.
The decision to cut almost $50 million from the Family Relationships Support Program is one to be deplored. In the budget papers the Treasurer announced a $4.5 million slashing of funding to marriage counselling in Australia. What was not in the budget papers, but was revealed in the next 24 to 48 hours, was a further slashing of $43.9 million to the family relationships centres. As my colleague here at the table will recall, these family relationships centres were established by the previous government—
and were very important centres. I think there were about 65 of them throughout Australia, set up with the intent of providing a place where families having disputes and problems or issues with their relationship could go to a one-stop shop for assistance. They could obtain advice, information and assistance in relation to those disputes with a hope that reconciliation of the difficulties might be achieved and, where reconciliation could not be achieved, to at least conciliate rather than litigate the outcome of those difficulties.
The problem with this sneaky decision—sneaky because it was not announced on the budget night and was not in the budget papers but we found out afterwards—to slash $43 million from family relationships centres is that the very centres, the very organisations, the likes of Relationships Australia in the various states, and Centacare and Anglicare and other similar agencies around Australia, charitable and voluntary agencies that are providing excellent services to Australian families, will have less funding to provide those valuable and important services to Australian families right throughout Australia. As I said, it is something to be deplored and condemned and it is hard to understand why a government that routinely has used the phrase ‘working families’ in its rhetoric would actually pull funding out from the very services that provide support for families right around this nation. There has been no explanation as to why that has been done. As I said, it is regrettable in the circumstances.
The coalition support legislation that makes the interface of citizens and government departments and agencies simpler. We support aligning legislation in the areas of child support and family assistance to make life easier for parents and carers. Because of that, we will be supporting this bill.
Family bonds are the link to our own being and, as a guide to our future, we rely on families a lot. As I have said in this place many times in a range of different debates, there is also no doubt about the cost of raising a family—and having three kids myself, and now four grandkids, let me tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it does not stop when they leave school or university. I guess that is one of the things that comes with parenting. There is a commitment to children because that is what we do, that is innate in us as parents. Without trying to put too fine a point on it, there are very real costs in raising children, with cost pressures associated with a range of different things, from school, to sport, to everything else.
Unfortunately, an inescapable fact of life—and this statistic is extraordinary—is that for every, I think, 2.3 or 2.4 marriages or unions there is one separation. That has a real impact not only on the social and emotional wellbeing of the family but also on the financial aspects of raising children. Having been married now, as of last May—I have got this figure right—for 34 years—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I could give you the date too, but I won’t! My youngest son has been through a separation and I know the impact that has had emotionally on both sides and I know the effect on my granddaughter. It is something that involves the whole family and it is inescapable that people are going to look internally and externally for reasons. But, at the end of the day, we need to provide for the child. That is what this legislation we are debating is about—putting the child front and centre in all this. It is about encouraging parents to settle their disputes, to make sure that first, second and third in their thinking is the proper raising of their child. That is what we are attempting to do. We are not trying to say that we are removing the emotional and financial stresses. We are trying to put a better balance in place that will at least allow the parties to address the real issue at stake, and that is providing support for the child.
It is not uncommon for each of us as members of parliament to hear some very tragic stories when people come to our offices. Many of them are pretty emotional when they see us. We are the last port of call. In my electorate of Werriwa alone there are 11,000 kids on child support. We have to be pretty positive that we are making sure those kids in my electorate, and kids in the same situation in everybody else’s electorates, are given the best opportunity so that they are not scrounging and will not be apologetic for life about coming from a separated family. We have to make sure that they are able to participate and feel included in a normal life as a child. This is what we are trying to do. As I said, parents have to learn to sort out their problems as maturely as they can, and I know that it is often somewhat difficult. But we must focus our arguments and our attention on what we deliver for these young people who are going to go on to become the Australians leading this country in the future. Responsibility does not just start and stop with the parents. We need to focus their attention on the cost factors associated with the child and we want to make sure that they are reasonably met.
The bill before us, the Child Support and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010, will do a couple of things. Firstly, it will introduce amendments making rules easier for separated families by implementing the 2009 budget measure aligning care determinations between family assistance and child support. The Child Support Scheme aims to ensure that children receive the appropriate level of child support from their parents. Conversely, to assist with the costs of raising children, many parents receive family tax benefit. Under the current arrangements, the Family Assistance Office and the Child Support Agency use different rules to determine the care levels for child support and family assistance, and this creates inconsistencies and unnecessary duplication of processes and decision making between both agencies.
Under the current rules, where there is no alignment, parents may not receive their correct assessments unless they separately notify each agency. Unquestionably, this can put additional strain on separated parents who have to deal with two agencies and two different sets of rules. As a consequence, there can be numerous elements of inconsistency. To address this, the bill makes amendments to provide for a single determination of care for both child support and family tax benefit purposes. Aligning the determinations of care will provide consistency in decisions about the level of care being provided by separated parents who have to deal with both agencies. Another advantage expected is that this will reduce objections and appeals flowing from the separate determinations in the two agencies.
To those parents I have had to have discussions with on this, I say that the government is listening, is taking these matters into account and is trying to make it easier for them to balance their arrangements and finances and to do what they need to do in making provisions for their children.
The bill also makes improvements to the process of estimating income for the purposes of child support. To determine their child support obligations, some parents estimate their income. The estimate is reconciled with the actual income earned and various corrections are made to ensure that the correct amount is being paid. Currently, when parents estimate their income to calculate their obligations under the Child Support Scheme, it is for a child support period of 15 months. This period can cross over up to three financial years.
It comes as no surprise that estimating income over multiple financial years can be difficult for parents and often leads to inaccuracies. As a consequence, debts and credits can accrue. Often, reconciliation cannot occur until the parent’s actual income for each financial year is known. We are therefore introducing measures that will help align these child support periods directly with financial years. This measure will make it easier for parents to estimate their income, which will be automatically determined with the filing of your tax return. This will mean that people will not have to wait until the end of their child support period before making adjustments. When you submit your tax return at the end of the year, the estimate will be automatically reconciled and this reconciliation can be taken into account in making any necessary adjustment. I can confirm that these amendments will not affect the length of the child support period, being 15 months, but they will make the adjustment process more practical and will allow it to occur automatically, as I said, with the filing of the income tax return.
Lastly, there is a minor amendment to family assistance provisions. The bill excludes two circumstances from the provisions that prevent family tax benefits being paid if tax returns have not been lodged. This amendment will put in place more flexible arrangements for the 2008-09 budget measures, which have applied since January of this year, 2010, to suspend fortnightly tax benefit payments for recipients who have not lodged tax returns and who have a family tax benefit debt as a consequence of not filing those returns. The budget measure was designed not to punish people but to encourage family tax benefit customers to lodge their tax returns to ensure that they receive accurate payments and, as a consequence, to reduce the incidence of overpayments. It was a measure that was recommended following the 2007 Australian National Audit Office report and one that is made more flexible by this legislation.
I know this suite of amendments will not remedy the issues that arise for young people when relationships tragically break down, but what we are trying to do is to make sure that the loving products of those relationships, the children, have a fair stake in their life ahead. We are trying to encourage parents not to use children as weapons in protracted disputes but rather, in a loving way, to make sure that their children are put first and foremost in a way which provides for their future. I commend the bill to the House.
I rise to support the Child Support and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010 and I am glad to have the opportunity to address the issues that it raises. The Child Support Scheme, as we know, was first introduced over 20 years ago by the Hawke government. It was implemented to ensure that separated parents share the cost of raising their children, subject to each of their financial capacities to do so. The system was, however, subject to heavy criticism over many years at a variety of different levels. It was subject to confusion, to misunderstanding and, in some cases, to misuse. Many parents felt that the child support formula was unfair and, whilst parents could understand the need for a system that looked after children, they felt that the system in place did not in some cases give them a fair go. For instance, many parents felt that it did not take into account the often large costs that were incurred by the non-custodial parent when the children were under their care.
The 2003 report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs entitled Every Picture Tells a Story found that, of the 597,000 families who had a child with a natural parent living elsewhere, 41 per cent received no child support, 42.3 per cent received cash child support and a further 16.3 per cent received only in-kind child support. In the report of the Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support entitled In the best interests of children—reforming the Child Support Scheme, a number of issues were identified. For instance, the report found that, under the fixed percentages that were paid in child support, it was assumed that people across the income range spent the same proportion of their income on children. However, the research of the task force found that, while the higher the household income the more parents spent on their children in dollar figures, expenditure actually declined as a percentage of their income. The report also found that, in setting the percentages paid in respect of children regardless of their age, the scheme did not adequately reflect the much larger cost of caring for teenagers, which was estimated at two to three times the cost of caring for younger children. The report also found that the system in place at the time did not take into account the issue of parents who had started new families with children and the extra associated costs that those children brought to their lives. These were just a few of the issues raised. There were many more.
In response to the Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support, the system was subject to a major overhaul between 2006 and 2008 to provide a fairer and more flexible calculation of child support. A key element of the reforms was the development of a new formula to calculate how much child support would be paid by using an income shares method, which calculates and shares the costs of children between the parents according to their share of the combined income. Currently, approximately 1.1 million children are supported through this scheme.
The amendments put forward by the government aim to build on the recent changes already made to the system. Firstly, they allow for the implementation of the 2009 budget measure of aligning care determinations between family assistance from Centrelink and from the Child Support Agency. This will create simpler rules for separated families. Currently, the Family Assistance Office, which covers Centrelink and Medicare, uses rules to determine care levels for child support and family assistance that are different to the rules used by the Child Support Agency, creating inconsistent processes and decision making between the two agencies. Under current arrangements, where the rules between the Family Assistance Office and the Child Support Agency differed, many parents did not receive their correct assessments unless they notified each agency separately.
It would be fair to say that many separated families undergo the strains of tense and acrimonious circumstances. Many members in this place, including me, can attest that very strongly. The fact that parents had to deal with two different sets of rules under the two agencies created additional strain within these families. This need not happen. These amendments will make a single determination of care for both child support and family tax benefit purposes, thus removing the acrimony that can be created by separate decisions. It is expected that it will also reduce the number of objections and appeals that are lodged as a result of the two different determinations from the two agencies. Therefore, it has the added bonus of saving Australian taxpayers money—money that was spent unnecessarily on appeals—through simple clarification of the system.
Secondly, the amendments will correct anomalies that occur where parents estimate their income. Some parents estimate their income, and this estimate is reconciled against their actual income to ensure that the correct amounts have been paid and received. Under the current system, parents can estimate their income for a period of up to 15 months. This period has the potential to cross over into three different financial years. Understandably, where this means that parents have to estimate income over multiple financial years, it can easily lead to inaccuracies in their estimates.
One of the outcomes of these amendments will be to align estimate periods with financial years, thus making it easier for parents to estimate their income. Once their actual income is known, it will allow the Child Support Agency to reconcile the estimate automatically. These amendments do not affect the length of the child support period, which will remain at 15 months. However, they will change the period over which the estimates are reconciled from 15 months to a financial year.
Thirdly, the amendments will put in place more flexible and fairer arrangements where fortnightly payments are ceased for parents who fail to lodge tax returns. Following recommendations in a 2007 Australian National Audit Office report into the reduction of family payment debts, new rules were introduced to encourage family tax benefit recipients to lodge tax returns in order to ensure that they received the correct amount that they were entitled to, thus reducing overpayments. These amendments will retain those arrangements. However, they are also more flexible in that they will allow payments to continue in circumstances where people do not have a family tax benefit debt, or where the cessation of payment would cause hardship.
There will also be the provision to suspend the loss of entitlement of family tax benefit where special circumstances apply. This measure is to target certain vulnerable sections of society, such as those affected by severe illness, domestic violence or bereavement. These measures build on and strengthen the comprehensive changes previously made to the child support system. The amendments make many improvements, particularly in the area of the estimation of family income. We are hoping, in fact we are planning, they will make the system fairer and more flexible.
As other members have said and as I wish to say as well, this system will probably never be perfect for the reason that, with this legislation and this area of public policy, probably more so than in any other area, we are dealing with human nature and intimate family relationships at a level that only those who are in those relationships can understand. It really can be a very difficult and very fraught area of public policy. The intent of these amendments and the intent of the legislation generally is to ensure that children in families where separation does occur are at the centre of the argument, the discussion and the debate, and that their ability to be cared for is uppermost in all of our minds. I know from the experience I have had in my office with some very difficult cases the lengths that people of both genders have gone to in the past to avoid their responsibility or to use the situation to pay back for some relationship issue they have had in the past. Where children are concerned, that cannot be countenanced. Where this legislation is concerned, everything we are doing is to put in place as safe and as secure a system as we can to allow the CSA process to work for the benefit of the children and the families concerned. I commend this bill to the House.
In what may be my final speech in this House, I wish to make a few remarks reflecting on my close to 12 years as a member of this parliament and express my thanks to those who have made my time in this place memorable. In my first speech in November 1998, in a parliament which would see Australia and the world entering a new millennium, I saw my challenge in a quotation by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who on her graduation expressed this thought:
… for too long now, our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practise politics as the art of making what appears impossible, possible.
That is not an easy challenge, you would agree. On the same day as I made my first speech, the newly elected member for Griffith, now our Prime Minister, quoted Keynes’s well-known remark:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist.
The member concluded:
Debate, therefore, about fundamental ideas … about the proper role of the state in the economy and society, is critical to an informed discussion about policy.
So it is with some sadness that, when I reflect on my years as a member of this parliament, I note there has been little achieved in this place in addressing these challenges. Indeed policy—whether it be economic, social or foreign affairs—is increasingly framed within a straightjacket of orthodoxy. Think tanks, academics, editorial writers and radio shock jocks all sing from the one song sheet, all the slaves of some defunct economist. They cast a long shadow over governments and, it seems, this parliament.
When I was first elected to this parliament, I had already been a member of the Australian Labor Party for more than 30 years. I have been described by some journalists as being the outspoken member for Fowler or ‘old Labor’. I wear those comments as a badge of honour. I believe that there are, as the title of the well-known Ben Chifley pamphlet declared, things worth fighting for. I saw my role as carrying on the causes that so many former members had fought so valiantly for.
I am one of the few remaining members who began their political life in what was the Labor Youth Council in the late 1960s. Its leaders then included Paul Keating, Laurie Brereton, Bob Carr and Leo McLeay. While we were on opposite sides of the factional aisle in those days, Leo proved to be a great supporter and friend during my earlier terms, and I thank him. Along with Michael Lee, those people held the soul of New South Wales Labor, and I believe Michael might have proved to be a fine Labor leader in time.
I should also mention Labor’s leader for most of my time here, Kim Beazley. On three occasions I walked proudly with Kim to caucus ballots, and each time he lost. I half expected Kim to ask me not to walk with him anymore, as I must bring him bad luck—so for that, Kim, I apologise. To my mind, Kim Beazley was the greatest Labor leader never to have become Prime Minister.
In my time here, my spirit has not always made me friends on either side of this House, but I believe it has earned me the respect of those who I hold in high regard, especially Senator Steve Hutchins, who has made that very long journey from the Senate to be here today, and that is all that matters to me, Steve.
On issues such as drug addiction—especially drug law reform—unemployment, single parents and refugees, I, like the Member for Kooyong, have not been afraid to take up the cause, even when doing so has not been in line with the popular view. And then there is Palestine. It could be said that foreign affairs matters are not often debated in this House, the Iraq War being one exception and the short debate on my Middle East peace motion in 2002 being another. The nature of that debate explained why that issue is rarely discussed in this parliament. Even the 2006 war on Lebanon did not raise more than a ripple of concern. It seems that our reluctance to participate in real debate about the Middle East has placed a muzzle over the parliament on all foreign affairs issues.
A large part of the work of backbench members is their work on policy committees. I have had the opportunity to serve on a number of committees which have conducted inquiries into issues of great concern to me.
I mention some of the inquiries which influenced me and which I believe have produced reports addressing some of the most important issues facing Australia today. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration report entitled Not the Hilton, which was tabled in 2000, reviewed migration detention centres at that time. The report raised concerns about conditions in migration detention centres and recommended improvements. However, unfortunately, in the wake of the Tampa incident and the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’, it seems that most of the committee’s recommendations were thrown overboard by the Howard government.
My longest committee experience was with the variously named committees on family and community services, and my friend Annette Ellis, the member for Canberra, chairs the current committee. The social policy area has always been my main focus in public life, and this committee conducted a number of inquiries which covered some of the thorniest issues faced in our society. We began in my first term with an inquiry into substance abuse. As the often-described ‘drug capital of Australia’—Cabramatta—was in my electorate, the issue was of vital importance to me. As with later inquiries, there were widely different approaches to the problem of drug abuse as well as a great deal of common ground. Not surprisingly, I found myself contributing a dissenting view on some parts of the final report tabled under the title, Road to recovery.
The next inquiry was into the controversial area of child custody. With the member for Riverina as chair, the inquiry made forthright recommendations on shared parenting and other custody issues which, thanks to the continued advocacy of the chair, have since been included in legislation. Other inquiries included overseas adoption and balancing work and family. Again, in the last inquiry, along with my Labor colleagues, a significant dissenting report was included.
In terms of winning and losing on the many issues confronted, I would have to say that I have lost more than I have won, which has brought some of my friends and some people in the media to award me the portfolio as the ‘minister for lost causes’. Perhaps because of my record, or in spite of it, I was appointed as the first Chair of the Petitions Committee, which was established in this term of the parliament. You could say that I have found my spiritual home, along with my deputy chair, a man of integrity, Russell Broadbent, the member for McMillan. I have certainly found it to be the most rewarding of my many roles in this place. In guiding the committee in its formative years, I have attempted at every opportunity to make the committee a sounding board for the people of Australia in this parliament and to welcome public participation in the parliamentary process. I am very pleased with the progress we have made and I look forward to the many potential developments in the petitions process which can enhance our parliamentary democracy.
The other role of members of this place is their work in the electorate. Having worked in electorate offices since 1975, I have seen the value of this part of a member’s duty. In assisting me to represent the people of my electorate of Fowler I have had the benefit of a loyal and dedicated staff. As I frequently remind them, it may be my name on the door, but we are all part of a team. I have been fortunate to have had long-serving staff, including Joy Petrovic, who has been with me from the beginning. Joy has assisted constituents efficiently and sympathetically as well as keeping me organised—and she has had to on many occasions—in times of acute chaos. I wish Joy and her husband, Petro, well in their future life with their family in Cairns. Margaret Brindley, also known by us as ‘Have a chat’, is the heart and soul of the office, whose political knowledge has been invaluable and whose service to constituents has been outstanding. Rocco Leonnello’s knowledge of the electorate, assistance with community groups and advice have been second to none. John Alam has ably supported me, particularly in Canberra. I promised him when he started with me two years ago that it would not be boring—and I think I have delivered on that front, John. Pina Violi, my relief staff, was thrown in at the deep end when she started but has been quick to learn, in spite of the political culture shock.
Others who have given so much of themselves in the past include Justin Lee, the wild man of my office and an adviser of the first order, and Dean Superina, who has always been a calming influence. Last but not least, Grahame Hungerford, who was with me for nine years, brought a touch of creativity as well as nitpicking correctness to the task. Grahame could be lovable, although infuriating at times, but he was dedicated and loyal to the end. All have shown great understanding and empathy with our local community and I could ask for no better support than I have had from all my staff in my years in this parliament.
I should at this time add my thanks to those on the other end of the phone—the parliamentary liaison officers in the various government agencies, in particular, Immigration, Centrelink and Veterans’ Affairs. Probably the most rewarding aspect of my work has been the small personal victories won on behalf of constituents, sometimes against an unfeeling bureaucracy but more often simply by putting a case on behalf of people who did not have the experience or resources to do so themselves.
In an electorate such as Fowler, where economic and social disadvantage are more commonly found than in most parts of Australia and where too often people are not aware of their rights or are afraid to press for their entitlements, I have always been proud to speak out on their behalf and felt especially receptive to their concerns. In such a diverse community as Fowler, community organisations have a special role to play. I am proud to have been associated with the ex-service organisations in Fowler—‘my boys’, as I call them—at Canley Heights RSL, Liverpool RSL and Cabra-Vale ex-services, and I specially mention the boys at Bonnyrigg Men’s Shed.
Indigenous and migrant community organisations have been crucial in developing the greater community of the Fowler electorate. Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian, Croatian, Serbian, Lebanese and so many other community associations and religious bodies provide the pillars for integration in our greater Australian society. I have been pleased to work with these organisations to benefit our local and national progress.
To my loyal ALP branch members go my sincerest thanks for their loyalty and support, for their patience and for their assistance. They are too many to mention by name, but let me acknowledge two people: Sid Hugen and Joan Windsor, whose wise counsel and staunch support over the years have been much appreciated. Without the support of the people of Fowler, my role here in this esteemed chamber would have been all the more difficult. It has been a singular honour to represent them, and I trust that my representation has played a small part in helping them to fulfil their aspirations.
After 11½ years as the member for Fowler, like many other members I could say that I have never stayed in one job for this long. For me that has meant travelling to Canberra from my home in Sydney. Considering my work as a staffer since 1990, that is now 20 years of driving down from Sydney. I can say that the road has improved quite a bit in that time, and I think at times I could almost make the drive with my eyes closed. But I am fortunate in that for the last 10 years I have had the hospitality of Anne and Michael Gardiner to look forward to on my arrival. I have come to feel a part of the Gardiner family and I have been privileged to share in their lives. As a member spending 20 or more weeks a year away from home, being able to spend some time with an ordinary family while in Canberra has kept me in touch with the real world, something that other accommodation would not have provided. While family are only a phone call away, it is always more comforting to have warm and caring people like Anne and Michael with whom one can share the ups and downs of each day of parliamentary life.
Another part of my extended family in Canberra—and I will mention them—have been the Comcar drivers. Always courteous and always friendly, they have helped me get off to a good start to each sitting day and seen me safely home after a hard day’s night, as well as kept us all in touch with the real world in, I will add, a most discreet way.
The same can be said of the attendants and security staff here at Parliament House. When you think of the time we spend locked away in here during sitting weeks, it would be impossible to endure if it were not for the friendly smiles and happy remarks of those staff. And I would especially thank the dedicated clerks and committee staff who make it all possible. If I have caused committee staff some angst over the years by insisting very strongly on making dissenting reports, they certainly showed no outward signs at the time.
And if I may, through you, Mr Speaker, make my peace with the chair for my many lapses in decorum.
Yes, I am apologising! I do not know if I hold the record for female members of this House—I may share the record with my friend and my mentor, the Hon. Janice Crosio, former member for Prospect—for the number of occasions of being sin-binned during question time, and possibly two or three times being asked to leave for 24 hours. But I assure you, Mr Speaker, that this morning—and you are going to be very, very proud of me—I finally did take the trouble to read standing order 94 and I can now see what all the fuss was about. And having said that, can I thank speakers past and present for the many indulgences I have been allowed over the years and in particular today.
Which leaves me with the other 148 members of the House, friends and foes alike. As has been said before, not all the foes are on the other side of the House and not everyone on this side can be counted as a friend. Can I say to the friends, and they definitely know who they are, I thank you for your friendship and support over my years in this place. And to those friends who will go on to the next parliament, can I offer the tribute made by Les Haylen—a man I have had discussions with for many years, along with his son Wayne—in his book Twenty years hard Labor:
To my mates in Canberra, the ones who saw clearest, fought hardest and suffered most in the struggle.
Mr Speaker, there is one other group that I must thank: my family. Unlike Petro, I am leaving this until the last. When I look back over what now seems a short time, I have seen my children, Rebecca and Blake, grow into adulthood, complete university and establish their own homes, and I am so proud of them. I have been blessed with two beautiful grandchildren, Liam and James Hunt, and I lost my beloved father, Alan Welsh, in 2006. Family life goes on regardless of what happens here in Canberra. With my mother, a true believer, a life member of the party, Lois Welsh, and my sister, Helen del Gallo, I have known the love, support and comfort of a very, very close family and I have been sustained through the highs and definitely the lows of life as a member of parliament by the love and support of my best friend, my husband, Geoff.
Those members fortunate to have a loving partner will understand the bliss at the end of a sitting week of returning to a home-cooked meal and a chance to shrug off the mask of life in Canberra. Thanks to Geoff I have been able to return for another bout, refreshed, rearmed and ready for another battle. While there is much that I will miss in Canberra, I am looking forward to the role finally of being a full-time wife, daughter, sister, mother and grandmother.
Mr Speaker, like Hillary Clinton I have not made the impossible possible, but I have definitely given it my best shot. I do leave this place with my heart bruised but it is definitely not broken, my spirit tested but not bowed and I leave with my integrity intact.
To be or not to be a federal politician: that is the question. Why? Because it is the road less travelled as a career path. There are very few people who can truly relate to the experience. In fact, when I came to Canberra for the very first time in my life in November 2007 as the elected member for Dawson, I was told that I was the 1,020th federal member of parliament to be elected in 107 years of Federation. I recognise the honour and the privilege that was bestowed upon me by the 45,000 people who voted for me in that historic Rudd Labor election win, with a swing of 16.9 per cent and a two-party preferred vote swing of 13.2 per cent. Labor won the seat of Dawson for the first time in 32 years. I consider it to be the greatest political honour and achievement in my life. This would not have been possible without the dedication of the rank-and-file membership of an active volunteer base of the Australian Labor Party and union movement in the seat of Dawson.
So what is it that inspires a man or a woman to aspire to this office, where so many are called but so few are chosen by the people? For me, it was the passionate conviction in my heart for social and political change in our society and workplaces to improve the lot of everyday working people. All politicians are driven people. They are focused, determined and single-minded, and some, dare I say it, are ruthlessly ambitious. Their souls burn with conviction.
What drives me is the passion to fight injustice wherever that occurs, whether it is in the workplace or the home. It may be the worker who is being victimised because they are speaking out for better workplace health and safety, or asking for better wages and conditions. That is why I am so proud to be part of this historic Rudd Labor government that said it would scrap Work Choices, and we fulfilled and delivered that promise to the people of Australia. The good news for the workers of Australia is that this Rudd Labor government has saved you from unfair dismissal laws; this Labor government has saved your long service leave from being scrapped; this Labor government has saved your sick pay from being abolished. We can say with proud conviction that this Labor government has delivered to you, everyday working Australians.
The global financial crisis revealed corruption and bad trading activities overseas which resulted in global capitalism being put into crisis and in meltdown around the world. This, in turn, had a knock-on effect in this country. Thankfully, the people had a Labor government who had as its priority the protection of everyday jobs for people. We were engaged in an economic stimulus package, and that would not have happened under a conservative Liberal-National Party government. They would have let the anarchy of the free market rip and shred over 200,000 jobs. They would have explained it away as merely a market correction. This government has a totally different view. We intervened when capitalism went into crisis, and we stepped in to save those jobs from being lost. I believe in grassroots democracy, and that for me means being on the street meeting people outside newsagents, video stores, post offices, fish and chip shops and in the marketplace. During the election campaign it meant getting up at 5 am every day, being out at 6 am and standing outside the local newsagent, 7 am standing at a busy intersection greeting the early morning traffic and then, at 8 am, I would fulfil my duty as a single parent doing fifty-fifty child care, and take my kids to school.
I am proud to say I totally kept my commitment to my children during the whole electoral campaign, from April 2006 through to November 2007, as well as during the past 2½ years as a member of this parliament. It is not easy being a member of parliament and a single parent. I know there are a small number of people on both sides of this House who really know what it is like. Two of my three children are in the gallery today—Zoe, who is nine, and my son, Jade, who is eleven. Jazmin, who is 14, could not make it today as she has had exams this week. My children are the most important people in my life, and I will always love and be proud of them. I love their straightforward and ruthless honesty. Being a member of parliament also puts a huge strain on relationships, partnerships, family life and personal time. Political life has caused a rollercoaster of emotions for my partner Davina, and I want to thank her for her love through all the highs and lows over the last four years.
I want to thank Brendan Greenhill and Lee Webster, a great couple who housed me at Curtin in their spare room. These good friends of mine I knew in Bowen before they moved to Canberra just before the election. They have truly given me a home away from home; a real brother and sister who looked after me with wonderful hospitality. Another good friend and brother who has been there through all the rough and tumble of this job is the member for Blair, Shayne Neumann—you are a good man, and I will deeply miss your company and our long political, religious and social conversations. There was never a dull moment!
I would love to name all 34 of my Labor colleagues in the class of 2007—but time is of the essence! So I wish to have the whips list of new Labor members’ names and photos included in this speech. Perhaps I will table that. I am proud to be with you in history as helping to form the Rudd Labor government. Each and every one of you has so much potential, talent and vision to serve the Australian people. Thank you for all your friendship and support.
I want to acknowledge the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the full cabinet and ministers in their commitment to grassroots democracy demonstrated by bringing the federal cabinet to Mackay in June 2008. That was a historic first for the city. Also I want to acknowledge the three other visits in this term of government by the Prime Minister as well as his three visits during the election campaign. The people of Dawson know you take the contribution of the region and its value to the bottom line of the nation’s wealth very seriously, compared with the previous Prime Minister who visited only once in 11 years. I can say with confidence to the Prime Minister that your sacrifice of time has borne fruit and it is widely appreciated in the community that this government has delivered for the people of Dawson.
Funding for Dawson includes, for example: roads $350 million, including $50 million for the southern approach to Mackay and $95 million for the port access road in South Townsville; health, $6.1 million for brand new training facilities for dental care at the base hospital in Mackay and a new clinical training facility at the Mater Hospital; and education, 2,022 computers for secondary schools across Dawson, $121,247,926 for the Building the Education Revolution, with 278 individual projects across Dawson, and $9,376,617 for trade training centres. In May 2010 the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard—who I think has done a fantastic job—visited the nearly completed TTC for the Mackay Christian College-Carlisle Christian College-Whitsunday Anglican cluster. There is also a state cluster made up of Mackay North, Mackay High, Mirani High, Pioneer High and Sarina High. This project is in danger if the Liberal-National Party form the next government. There is no guarantee for that cluster. For training and TAFE, there is $2,645,000 for the Mackay TAFE Training Infrastructure Investment for Tomorrow program, and $2,630,994 for Better TAFE Facilities Program projects in Bowen, the Burdekin Cannonvale and Mackay
There was funding for community infrastructure: $4.9 million for Mackay Regional Council, Whitsunday Regional Council and Burdekin Shire Council; there was $742,727 under the National Bike Path Project for the Whitsunday Regional Council. Under Caring for our Country there was the Reef Rescue package worth $15,106,424 in 2008-09 and 2009-10. That is delivering for the people of Dawson. There was the Better Regions program. There is more! There was $8.8 million for the Mackay Stadium; $4 million for the Bluewater Lagoon; the Australian Mining Innovation Centre based in Mackay is worth $14 million. For social housing, there was $24,496,692 for 82 new housing units and 281 units to undergo repairs and maintenance.
I am proud to be a part of this government’s increases in pension payments—the best in 100 years. These increases, following on from 2009, mean that total pension payments for those on the maximum rate, including base rate and pensions supplement, is $701.10 a fortnight for singles and $1,057 a fortnight for couples, combined. This represents an increase of around $100 per fortnight for singles and around $74 a fortnight for couples, combined, in pension payments as a result of the government’s increases and indexation in 2009. Wayne Swan, the Treasurer, has done a fantastic job in delivering for the pensioners across the whole nation.
To all my electoral staff, I say thank you for all your work during very difficult times, particularly during the Mackay floods in February 2008. We had only just moved into our federal office in December 2007 and then were completely flooded out. We moved into my house and operated from a spare lounge room for three months. Then we moved to The Dome Shopping Centre in Mackay’s CBD before finding permanent accommodation in November 2008. It was an incredibly disruptive and stressful first year. No-one should underestimate the problems it caused on many different fronts. I still have all the same staff. None of us had worked in a federal office before, and I can tell you that we are now all older, wiser and greyer. I put on record thanks to government services based in Brisbane for all their help in re-establishing offices we could work from. I also thank all parliamentary staff in this building and thank the Comcar drivers for their professionalism in helping MPs do their job. I thank Roger Price, the Chief Government Whip, for his wisdom and advice over the last 2½ years and all the executive for their support.
I, James Bidgood, federal member for Dawson, can stand here today with my hand on my heart and truly say I made a promise to deliver for the people of Dawson. The Rudd Labor government and I have delivered over $600 million to the people of Dawson in 2½ years—more than was delivered in the previous 2½ years of the conservative Liberal-National Party government. The only way for this to continue is for the people of Dawson to vote Labor in the upcoming election. I totally endorse Mayor Mike Brunker of the Whitsunday Regional Council who is the new Labor candidate for the seat of Dawson. I am proud to have established a Labor legacy in the seat of Dawson, and long may it remain a Labor seat into the future. I have passionately served with all of my heart, soul, body and mind. I have given 110 per cent, and I thank the people of Dawson for the honour of serving them.
During the member for Dawson’s contribution he sought to include material in Hansard. There were no dissenting voices, so I take it that leave was granted. However, that might be a challenge to the Speaker’s guidelines for incorporation, so, given the intent and the generous spirit of the member for Dawson, leave will be granted for the documents to be tabled and they will form part of the parliamentary papers.
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.
in reply—I thank those who have contributed to the debate on the Child Support and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010 and particularly recognise the previous speaker, the member for Blair, because he has considerable experience in this area. His contribution to the debate has been very valuable, as is his advice on child support and other family law matters.
The bill contains three measures affecting the family assistance law and child support legislation. All measures are largely administrative and are designed to make government systems easier for families. Firstly, the bill includes a measure from the 2009-10 budget that will align care determinations in the child support and family assistance systems. This will simplify administrative decision making, making life easier for separated families. Current rules allow for two different care percentages to be determined for the same child in child support and family assistance. This amendment will provide for a single determination of care that applies across both systems, bringing consistency and reducing administrative complexity.
Secondly, the bill amends the income estimate process under the Child Support Scheme. A number of parents provide an estimate of their income to assist in determining their child support obligations. To make sure that the correct amount of child support has been paid or received when actual income is known, the amount is reconciled against the estimated income. This amendment will align estimate periods with financial years and is intended to avoid inaccurate estimates, which can occur when parents are providing estimates for multiple financial years. It will also allow automatic reconciliation against tax returns, speeding up the reconciliation process. This will also help improve the accuracy of child support calculations to make sure that the correct information is used.
Lastly, the bill contains amendments to the family assistance law to provide greater flexibility in dealing with family tax benefit non-lodger debts. This will amend rules introduced in January this year that allowed for the temporary suspension of fortnightly family tax benefit payments where a person has not lodged their tax return more than 18 months after the end of the financial year. These amendments will give the secretary the discretion to determine that the rules that will apply in special circumstances and to clarify that, where there is no outstanding family tax benefit debt due to the failure to lodge a required tax return, the new provisions will not apply. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.