Senate debates

Tuesday, 8 May 2018


Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2018; Second Reading

12:54 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment and Water (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

1:13 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2018. I'll point out that, as has just been discussed, there are two main components of this bill. One's about No Jab, No Pay, and the other, of course, is about child support. I'll be addressing my comments to the child support component of this bill, and Senator Di Natale will be addressing the issues around No Jab, No Pay.

Child support, I'll acknowledge straightaway, is a very complex area to address, and it's often very controversial. But it is an absolutely essential component of our families policy and our approach to supporting children in the community as they grow and making sure that they are adequately supported. So we do think there is a need to address some of the issues around child support.

The Greens, however, do have concerns regarding the measures that are contained in this bill. The proposed child support changes are primarily based on the recommendations from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs report of 2015, From conflict to cooperation: inquiry into the Child Support Program. Given how complex and detailed the child support system is, and given that changes to child support are often controversial, the Australian Greens are deeply concerned that there has not been an opportunity for stakeholders to provide feedback through the normal committee inquiry process. Any proposed changes to the child support program should be the subject of comprehensive modelling prior to implementation, with particular regard to the potential impact on people affected by family violence and issues around child safety.

The House of Representatives committee made 25 recommendations in their report. The government tabled its response to the inquiry into the child support program in August 2016. At that time, in their response, the only recommendation the government committed to legislatively was recommendation 22, which relates to debts and the collection of overpayments from carers or payees—the parent with the higher percentage of care. A number of the 25 recommendations related to how to improve the child support system. Unfortunately, the government has only chosen to implement three or four of those recommendations. They have moved beyond just recommendation 22. In their response, they committed to a legislative commitment on recommendation 22. They did support some others in principle, which is why, I presume, some of these have been included in this particular piece of legislation. Unfortunately, some of the recommendations the government has chosen to implement in this bill are harsher measures that relate to debt recovery processes from single parents rather than addressing the systemic issues. I understand there will be further legislation introduced by the government at some later stage relating to some of those other recommendations. I'm also aware of the family law reform review process that is currently underway. However, I do have concerns that these are the recommendations that have been brought in the absence of that overview.

The amendments are in four parts in schedule 1. Part 1 relates to the interim care determination periods. Part 2 is around the amended tax assessments—and I'll come back to some of these. Part 3 relates to child support agreements and part 4 relates to child support overpayments. We have concerns that the debt recovery changes will be seen by single parents as a more punitive approach that will make their lives more difficult. Because we didn't have a committee inquiry into these proposed amendments, we've gone out separately to talk to stakeholders to see whether they have any concerns relating to this bill. We are particularly concerned about the impact on single parents, of whom a majority by far are single mothers. Of the child support recipients whose gender is known, 86 per cent were identified as female and 14 per cent were identified as male. So some of these changes are disproportionately going to impact on single mothers.

The most concerning measure in the bill is that it aligns the debt recovery methods available to the registrar for overpayments to child support payees—in other words, the main caregiver—with the current methods available for recovering debts from payers. This bill allows for overpayments resulting from backdated reductions to an assessment or other maintenance liability to be recovered by the registrar, in most cases, and amends the back-paying provisions for retrospectively creating overpayments or arrears. This change mean that a payee—and that's usually the mother—will have harsher debt recovery methods used against them if they are overpaid, which is often due to an administrative error. In most cases, this overpayment occurs through no fault of their own. They are not rorting the system. They are not claiming fraudulently. They are receiving a payment that was calculated by a third party, through a court order or an agreement. The calculation of child support payment is quite complex and is reliant on a number of factors. A child support payee would trust that the authorities and the appropriate decision makers who have made the calculation have done it correctly and lawfully. The payee in most cases is taking their payment in good faith, on the provision of a court order, as I said, or a private agreement. It is not up to them to work out how much they are being paid.

This measure has the potential to unnecessarily and unfairly punish single parents if they have been mistakenly overpaid or their payments miscalculated. The child carer could be treated in a much more punitive manner, potentially in the same way as someone who is not paying their child support and has a child support debt. Methods for debt recovery include through employer withholding of wages; withholding of social security, family assistance or veterans payments; offsetting other debt payments against the carer debt; court orders to prevent certain transactions from taking place; the proceeds of certain transactions being used to pay a carer debt; and the use of departure prohibitions to prevent overseas travel in certain circumstances. Wilfully avoiding support for one's children by refusing to help pay for their upbringing—and taking avoidance measures to do that—and being accidentally overpaid an account are very different circumstances. Why should people avoiding their responsibilities be treated in the same punitive way as a single parent who has the larger share of caring responsibilities, when their circumstances are not in any way the same?

We are concerned that this measure will exacerbate the already difficult circumstances faced by single-parent households. We know that single-mother households make up a high proportion of families living in poverty. We know that it is the children who will suffer when their main caregiving parent has their income reduced through a debt recovery process. The median income of a child support recipient in my home state of Western Australia in December 2016 was just over $25,000. Around 56 per cent of people receiving a child support payment are also receiving an income support payment, and people already know how insufficient those income support payments are. Twenty-four per cent of people receiving a child support payment are owed arrears, and the average amount of arrears owing is $5,800. If you are on the median income of a child support recipient, you might be owed almost a fifth of your yearly income. Where are the measures to strengthen the system to ensure that parents are adequately supported to raise their children?

This change to overpayment recovery is not supported by evidence. There is no evidence showing that the existing recovery provisions for overpayments are not working or that there is a sufficient problem of payers not being reimbursed any overpayments, and this measure addresses largely anecdotal concerns. There is also no data available showing how many payees receive overpayments, nor data on whether or not these overpayments are recovered. If overpayment to payees is in fact such a significant issue, it should not be addressed through such a sledgehammer approach. We need to see the data, and a change such as this shouldn't be legislated on the basis of anecdotal evidence.

During the inquiry into the child support payment system, National Legal Aid raised concerns about the existing arrangements for the collection of overpayments, particularly through the withholding of child support payments, which can cause significant hardships, pointing out that these overpayments are often not the fault of the payee. A significant number of overpayments to payees are caused by factors outside the control of the payee—for example, the late lodgement of tax returns on the part of the payer, and I want to come back to that issue of late payment of tax returns.

This bill also allows amended tax assessments to be taken into account by the child support register in child support assessments if it results in a higher taxable income or where it results in a lower taxable income under certain circumstances. The amount of child support paid is currently based on a person's tax returns. Special circumstances such as tax evasion or fraud allow for reassessment. The proposed changes allow the child support payment to be recalculated based on an amended tax return. The amended assessment results in a higher adjustable taxable payment. This would be applied retrospectively to the paying parent's child support obligation. If the amended tax assessment results in a lower adjustable payable income, this would also be retrospectively applied where the paying parent applies for the amendment of the tax assessment either before the year's tax return is due to be lodged or within 28 days of becoming aware of the issue with the tax assessment, unless special circumstances exist. The time limit for assessment does not reduce the amount of any potential overpayment that could be claimed from a payee. However, again, there is a concern that this will result in child support payees receiving an unexpected debt, as they have received payments and spent the money believing the information provided to the tax office was accurate.

We share the ALP's concerns about part 2. We think part 2 should be either withdrawn or amended. We have concerns about the impact this will have. There are other issues in relation to child support that we think need to be addressed, and that's why I'll move a second reading amendment in a minute. We think these are very important concerns. They were raised during the 2015 inquiry. We would have liked to have seen those addressed as a matter of urgency. A case study was submitted to the child support inquiry which outlines an issue in regard to tax assessments that needs to be addressed. It said:

A client sought assistance from a commission. She had a private collect case and the father was originally assessed to pay the minimum rate for their three children. The client was not aware of the father's financial circumstances and did not question the assessments. Child Support retrospectively re-assessed several years of child support when the father lodged tax returns (late). This resulted in assessments that were much higher than the minimum rate. Because the case was private collect, Centrelink assumed that the client had received the (newly revised) assessed rate of child support. Shortly afterwards, the client was issued with a notice from the Family Assistance Office advising her that she had been overpaid almost $8,000 in Family Tax Benefit A and that this would need to be repaid. Centrelink then took immediate steps to recover the overpayment by withholding the supplementary amount she was entitled to receive, as well as a portion of her Family Tax Benefit. When she contacted Child Support she was told that as the case was private collect they could not assist in collecting the shortfall from the payer.

In other words, she hadn't received the money that she was assessed to have received but Centrelink took it into account as if she had already received that and then docked her family tax benefit. That is clearly unfair. This issue has been flagged for a long time and has not been addressed. It should be addressed. In circumstances such as this case study, where a retrospective adjustment results in a higher child support assessment and the case is private collect, consideration must be given to permit a payee to register the result in retrospective arrears for collection with the DHS. This is particularly due to the impact of revised calculation on FTB A in creating an immediate Centrelink overpayment even though the payee has not received the newly collected child support payments, which means that they have a debt even though they have not received any extra money.

I am moving a second reading amendment in relation to this issue and the non-lodgement of tax returns. The non-lodgement of tax returns has been identified time and time again as a difficulty in properly calculating child support payments.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you moving that amendment now?

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes. I move this amendment to the second reading motion:

At the end of the motion, add:

  ", but the Senate calls on the government to:

  (a) take action to address the chronic non-lodgement of tax returns to ensure the integrity of the Child Support Program; and

  (b) amend the legislation to protect Private Collect payees who receive a Family Tax Benefit A debt as a consequence of the payer's child support reassessment."

In its response to the inquiry into child support, the government has failed to address the key recommendation regarding parents who fail to lodge tax returns in order to avoid paying child support. Recommendation 7 reads:

The Committee recommends the Australian Government amend current policy to ensure that the penalties applicable to the non-lodgement or late-lodgement of tax returns are enforced for all clients of the Child Support Program.

Nonlodgement of tax returns allows parents to hide or minimise incomes and results in the CSA working from an estimated income. The nonlodgement of tax returns corrodes the overall effectiveness of the Child Support Scheme and must be addressed by this parliament. We think it is now just as urgent, if not more so, as addressing the issues around recovering debts from carers. We need to ensure that people have enough money to live on by addressing the integrity of the child support system. These practices are obviously corroding the effectiveness of the child support system but also landing principal carers in debt when recalculations occur and Centrelink takes them instantly into account. We believe it's important that these issues are addressed. My second reading amendment calls on the government to compel the lodgement of tax returns or to require this issue is addressed to ensure the integrity of the child support program.

Another way to ensure the integrity of child support is through a child support guarantee system, which was also discussed in the House of Representatives committee report. The committee recommended this be considered and modelling be conducted. A number of countries have a child support system in which the government agrees to make up some of the shortfall or the entire shortfall if the paying parent does not meet the child support requirements. In other words, children do not miss out because parents aren't doing the right thing. This removes the financial impact of spasmodic payments and nonpayments and is particularly important for low-income families living from week to week. It would also sever the use of child support as an avenue to practise abuse and controlling behaviour—which does occur. We believe there are important changes that need to be made to the child support program and we urge the government to get on and deal with the other committee recommendations, which would significantly improve the system.

1:33 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight, Australians will hear more news from the Treasurer about the Turnbull government's ongoing commitment to making Australia a better place and making this a better country for all Australians. The Treasurer will tonight outline some of the financial approaches the government is taking to ensure that we continue to progress. This is a government that not only looks after roads and bridges and hospitals and schools but also tries to help people and help families to achieve their best in the modern society in which we live. The name of this bill actually says it all: Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2018. This bill is the Turnbull government's commitment to supporting families and to protecting the health and wellbeing of children. It's about prioritising the protection of Australian children. I certainly support the bill and I encourage all other senators to support this important amendment with the view to prioritising the welfare and wellbeing of all children.

The bill contains a number of provisions to help families and help children. I want to briefly concentrate on schedule 2, which is a policy that I know the Prime Minister—indeed, all of our government—is very committed to and very proud of, and that is helping more Australian children become immunised. Since our government first introduced the No Jab, No Pay policy in 2016, national immunisation rates have increased across all three targeted groups of one-year-olds, two-year-olds and five-year-olds, and more than 210,000 families have taken action to ensure that their children now meet the immunisation requirement.

Immunisation coverage rates for one-year-olds and five-year-olds have reached more than 93 per cent, as at June last year, and this is nearing the critical level of 95 per cent to provide what is known as herd immunity. That means when large numbers of individuals are immune to diseases and the chains of infection are disrupted, thereby stopping or slowing any particular disease. Acting Deputy President, as you know, and as all senators will know, this is vital to protecting children, and not only children but the wider community as well, particularly young babies who haven't yet been fully immunised and older people who, perhaps, cannot be vaccinated from preventable diseases.

As part of the 2017-18 budget, the government provided some $14.1 million over four years for ongoing catch-up vaccinations for almost 375,000 Australians aged between 10 and 19 and for more than 8,000 adult refugees and humanitarian entrants. The government also provided $5½ million to encourage Australian parents and carers to vaccinate their children. This campaign specifically targeted areas of low vaccination rates by addressing some of the myths and misconceptions that abound while at the same time explaining the benefits of childhood vaccinations for both the individual and the community in which they live.

Schedule 2 of this bill strengthens the current immunisation incentive measures to ensure that from 1 July this year children must meet immunisation and health check requirements as a prerequisite for families to be eligible for their full fortnightly entitlement to family tax benefit A. Currently, senators will know, because we've dealt with this issue before, that the No Jab, No Pay and Healthy Start for School policies link family tax benefit A end-of-year supplement for each child to meeting immunisation and health check requirements. The new measure that we're introducing now will replace this incentive and serve as an immediate and constant reminder to parents of the need to immunise their children and to access a health check for their four-year-olds on time.

The new measures will also ensure that all family tax benefit families, irrespective of income, continue to have a clear financial incentive to immunise their children. Under the new rules, if a child does not meet the immunisation or health check requirements, their fortnightly tax benefit part A will be reduced by around $28 per fortnight. Over the course of the year, this is the same value as the current end-of-year supplement, but the glory of this is that it serves as an immediate reminder to parents who may have just inadvertently overlooked it that their child does need to get the health check or meet the immunisation target.

Should the child not meet the immunisation requirements, families have 63 days to meet the immunisation requirements. This grace period provides parents enough time to comply with those requirements even if they experience a delay in vaccinating their child—for example, due to illness, being away on holidays or something like that. It also aligns with the 63-day grace period in which to meet immunisation requirements in order to receive childcare payments.

The bill, as well, makes technical amendments in relation to the approved form and manner in which an application for a medical exemption from immunisation requirements may be made. This change will further enhance the integrity of the measure and help ensure that only legitimate cases qualify for an exemption. The government believes—and I think the community generally has the same belief and expectation—that there is no excuse for parents who, for no valid medical reason, choose not to immunise their children. These parents are putting at risk not only their own child's health but the health of every other person's children as well. Parents still have the right not to vaccinate their child, but a family's choice not to immunise their children is not supported by the government, nor should such action be supported by taxpayers in the form of undiminished family payments.

I recall, when this debate first started, a group of people coming to see me, as one of their federal representatives. They were very much opposed to the vaccination of children. I recall meeting with them. They seemed genuine. They were committed to their view. I didn't quite agree with them but I listened intently to them, had a discussion with them and was, as I say, impressed with their sincerity. But as a community we understand the benefits of vaccination. It's vaccination not just for our own children—and grandchildren, as the case may be—but for all children. If our children are not properly vaccinated, we put other families and other children at risk. The bill doesn't mandate that families have to vaccinate; it just says: if you don't, you're going to lose some of these family payments. If that's the choice families make, we think they are putting their child and the community at risk of infectious diseases, and they will no longer be eligible to receive the full fortnightly family tax benefit part A payment. We hope that the incentives will encourage them to vaccinate their children so that Australia can achieve the vaccination rates we desire.

Can I conclude by giving some brief statistics on vaccination rates since the government introduced its initial No Jab, No Pay policy, in January 2016. About 246,000 children and their families have taken action to ensure that they now meet the immunisation requirements. Immunisation coverage rates for the one- and five-year-old cohorts have reached 93 per cent. In March 2018, 94.05 per cent of children aged between 12 and 15 months had been vaccinated—up 1.77 per cent since the policy started. Of children aged between 24 and 27 months, 90.52 per cent had been vaccinated, and that's up by 1.21 per cent since the policy started. And the percentage for children aged up to five years is up 1.64 per cent since the policy started. The immunisation rate for Indigenous five-year-olds is now over 96 per cent.

When large numbers of individuals are immune to disease, chains of infection are disrupted, stopping and slowing the spread of disease. I think this is good policy. I urge the Senate to support this bill in all its provisions, but particularly the provision to encourage even greater immunisation of children.

1:45 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2018. As a former early childhood educator, I know the importance of giving young children the best start in life. To enable that to happen, we have to make sure that parents have the proper resources they need. One way of ensuring that parents have those resources is through the child support system, and another way is to ensure that their children are safe from potentially deadly diseases that can be prevented through immunisation.

The bill we are debating today addresses both of these issues. Labor have always supported evidence driven approaches to policy development. That's why we will support measures that improve the health and wellbeing of all Australian children. If Mr Turnbull were serious about improving the lives of Australian children, he wouldn't be attempting to cut support for single parents who are studying to improve their employment prospects. And if Mr Turnbull were serious about supporting families, he wouldn't be trying to slash family tax benefit payments for 100,000 Australian families. Labor have a strong history of standing up for vulnerable Australians, including children. We support a fair child support system that puts the wellbeing of children at its core.

The child support scheme was introduced by the Hawke government in 1988 and was designed to address the difficulties a parent could face when attempting to collect maintenance from the other parent. There were concerns at the time that women and children particularly were increasingly facing poverty after family separation and, as a result, the federal government was increasingly bearing the cost of raising children when one parent was refusing to contribute to their child's upkeep. The scheme was designed to make it simpler for caring parents to receive child support from the other parent by giving the responsibility for collection and enforcement to the Australian Taxation Office. The tax office was also given responsibility for assessing the amount of child support to be paid. Subsequently, the responsibility for the administration of the child support scheme has now been shifted to the Department of Social Services and delivery of the scheme to the Department of Human Services.

The scheme seeks to implement the principle that both parents should contribute to raising their children through care and financial support. Assessments should reflect the realistic cost of raising children and a parent's actual capacity to pay. While the issue of child support is often by its nature an emotive one, the system works well in the vast majority of cases—but that doesn't mean that it can't and shouldn't be improved. It does mean that these improvements can be made through incremental advances, not through a radical overhaul of the system. We will work with the government to make improvements, rather than trying to exploit this issue for political gain like we've seen other senators and their parties try to do.

The change in this bill implements three of the 25 recommendations put forward by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs in 2015 following its inquiry into the child support program. While three out of 25 is not a particularly good hit rate, we will largely support these changes because they will strengthen child support in Australia. The bill includes changes to the amount of time before a child support assessment is recalculated to reflect the actual care being provided where parents are in dispute about a care arrangement, and the amount of time that the assessment remains the same during a dispute is known as an 'interim period'. The current interim period is too short to allow sufficient time for dispute resolution processes to take place before the assessment is recalculated to reflect the actual care taking place.

This bill increases the interim period in most circumstances while one parent is trying to enforce their rights under a custody order, provided that they are actively engaging in the dispute resolution process. Currently, exemptions from participating in dispute resolution processes are available for families that have experienced family and domestic violence. These exemptions will still be available. The bill also makes it easier for courts to set aside binding child support agreements made before 1 July 2008. Since 1 July 2008 it has been a precondition that parents entering into a binding child support agreement receive legal advice. At this time the requirements were tightened for when the court could intervene to change or set aside a binding child support agreement. This has meant that for families who have made their agreement before 1 July 2008, often without the benefit of legal advice, it has become very difficult to amend agreements that were made under a different set of rules.

This bill also implements a recommendation for child support assessments to be adjusted to take into account amended tax assessments. The amount of child support payable is determined with regard to a person's adjusted taxable income, among other factors. Currently, if an income tax assessment is found to be wrong, a child support assessment is not able to be varied until the next financial year and if special circumstances apply. This can result in serious inequalities either if the initial assessment is too high and causes the amount of child support payable to be calculated from an artificially high income and be unaffordable for the paying parent or if the child support payments are too low and cause financial difficulty for the recipient parent. However, the bill, as drafted, would allow the new assessment to be applied retrospectively, creating large and unexpected debts for parents, and we're concerned that this change may leave payees with an unexpected debt after receiving payments in good faith. I understand my colleague Senator Pratt will be moving an amendment dealing with this matter. Child support payers and payees need to have certainty in the amount of their fortnightly payments. This bill also makes the child support agency's power to recover overpayments consistent with their powers to collect arrears. It's taken two years for the government to act on these sensible recommendations.

Child support can be a complex and emotional issue for families. For the government to have delayed action for so long is an insult. We must recognise that, when things do go wrong in the child support system, it is unfortunately the children who are disproportionately impacted. We must act to ensure that, where improvements to the system can be made, they are addressed in as timely a manner as possible.

As I mentioned earlier, this bill is concerned with two issues, and the second issue is that of immunisation. Australia has fought a hard battle with polio over the years. At polio's peak, in around 1953, when the first vaccine was introduced to Australia, about 10,000 people a year—mostly children and teenagers—were catching the disease. The polio virus causes paralysis by targeting the nerve cells in the spine which control muscles. Hundreds of people were dying as a result. Many tens of thousands of people were infected from the 1930s to the 1950s and many thousands of Australians are living today with the legacy of this disease, but incredible progress has been made against polio. The entire western Pacific region, which includes Australia, was declared polio free less than 50 years after the vaccine was introduced to Australia.

On 27 March 2014 the World Health Organization, WHO, certified India as a polio-free country, marking more than three years since the last case of polio. Ten other countries in the World Health Organization South-East Asia region were also certified as polio free in March 2014. Indeed, by 2013 the number of worldwide polio cases had fallen from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to 407 in 2013. That's a decline of more than 99 per cent of reported cases. Sometime in the coming decades polio will be completely eradicated, making it the second disease after smallpox to be so.

Incidences of other diseases that were extremely common and were quite deadly have also been radically reduced. In Australia, in the period from 1926 to 1935, 4,073 people died of diphtheria, 2,808 died of pertussis, 879 died from tetanus, 430 died from polio and 1,102 died from the very commonmeasles. In contrast, in the period from 1996 to 2000, just 14 deaths were caused by these five diseases combined. The reason for such a transformation in our childhood health landscape is down to vaccinations. There's been a concerted effort from many governments, the medical fraternity and parents to remove these diseases from our society, and that's where the second half of today's bill comes in.

The No Jab, No Pay policy results in families who fail to keep their children up to date with the vaccination schedule losing the family tax benefit part A supplement. Medical exemptions exist to ensure that children with legitimate medical concerns are not unfairly impacted by this rule.

When the No Jab, No Pay policy was introduced, families earning more than $80,000 per annum were eligible for the family tax benefit part A end-of-year supplement. Currently, families below $80,000 per annum are eligible for family tax benefit part A and the family tax benefit part A supplement. However, more recent changes mean that families earning over $80,000 a year are still eligible for family tax benefit part A but no longer eligible for the family tax benefit part A supplement. This means that families with higher household incomes have not been impacted by the No Jab, No Pay rules in the same way as some other families who also receive family tax benefit part A.

This is not only unfair, as the policy only impacts on low-income families, but it has seen an unintended public health impact. We've seen an example across the water from Tasmania: in four of Melbourne's wealthiest suburbs—Burwood East, South Yarra, St Kilda and Brighton—immunisation rates have dropped to around 85 per cent, down from around 94 per cent five years ago.

This bill changes the No Jab, No Pay policy to withhold approximately $28 per fortnight—or $2.02 per day—from family tax benefit part A payments instead of withholding the end-of-year supplement where a child does not meet the vaccination requirements. Once a child falls behind on the vaccination schedule, the family will be notified of this by the Secretary to the Department of Social Services and this will trigger a 63-day grace period, during which time the vaccination must either be caught up on or a valid medical exemption sought. If neither of those things occur during the grace period then fortnightly payments will be reduced, effective from the notification date. This means that families who do not keep their child's immunisation up to date will face a financial penalty regardless of whether they earn above or below $80,000 a year. It's hoped that this amendment will also encourage those families who earn over $80,000 and who have so far not updated their child's immunisation to do so.

Labor supported the original changes in 2015 and we will support these changes because the science is clear: vaccines save lives. This policy has bipartisan support. We know it works. Since the program commenced in 2015, about 200,000 families have initiated or updated their immunisation coverage. That's great news, but we've got to maintain our vigilance. The amendments in this bill will strengthen this policy, because vaccines mean less disease and considerably fewer deaths. Strengthening immunisation rates is key to ensuring all Australian children have the best chance at growing up strong and healthy.

We know that not everyone can be immunised. There are infants who are too young to be vaccinated, as well as the elderly and the sick who may be too frail for vaccinations. But it's vital that we reach and maintain herd immunity to protect those who are unable to be vaccinated. The larger the percentage of immunisation coverage in the community then the greater our herd immunity, the fewer disease outbreaks we will have and the more lives that will be saved. Strengthening the immunity of our population so that unprotected babies will not be afflicted with whooping cough or other life-threatening and preventable diseases is just the right thing to do. It's also an important protection for people for whom a vaccine may not produce a strong immune response.

However, there are some in this chamber who do not believe in the value of ensuring that diseases can be vaccinated against. I've got to say that I was just aghast when Senator Hanson sought to jump on the anti-vaccination bandwagon with populist and opportunistic comments during the Western Australian election last year. I thought that it undermined public confidence in vaccination. Senator Hansen made those dangerous comments, telling parents to 'investigate' whether or not they should vaccinate their children.

Sadly, we live in an age where the internet is full of people making unqualified and incorrect comments on every topic available. The proliferation of people with a flat-earth mindset is an example of the conclusions that can be arrived at by listening to some of the opinions found online. Whether these people are genuine and misinformed, or have an alternative political or commercial agenda, they can do quite a lot of harm to individuals and to society. The results of such an 'investigation' is exampled by an outbreak of chickenpox at Brunswick Primary School in 2015 that infected 80 students, as well as a measles outbreak in the suburb barely two months later. Since the outbreaks, immunisation rates in Brunswick have lifted to approximately 97 per cent, up from 91 per cent in 2014-15. So the research on the issue is clear: immunisation saves thousands of Australian lives and millions of lives internationally each year. It's that simple. Despite Senator Hanson's view that No Jab, No Pay is a 'dictatorship', it's an important public health measure, and part of the reason that tens of thousand of Australian children are not dying each year from diseases that can be vaccinated against. While the two topics of this bill we are debating today are quite different, they both impact—

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Bilyk. It being 2 pm, we will move to questions without notice. You will be in continuation upon resumption of the debate.