Senate debates

Thursday, 15 June 2023


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Child Support Measures) Bill 2023; Second Reading

11:07 am

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Health and Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill works to improve debt recovery and help prevent future debts for low-income parents, and for that reason the coalition will be supporting this bill. Two of the measures in the bill are measures that were previously put forward by the former coalition government as part of the 2021-22 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook that were not legislated before the last election.

These coalition measures strengthen Australia's child support framework, and it is pleasing to see that the current government recognises the hard work of the former minister in this area by legislating these important reforms. The former coalition government committed $7.8 million to strengthen child support compliance activities, enabling child support debts to be recovered in more circumstances. This includes allowing Services Australia to dock parents' pay packets to repay child support in more circumstances, including after a child turns 18, overturning the existing loophole where it was effectively case closed once a child turned 18 and there were limited ways to then collect that debt.

The former coalition government also worked to strengthen the departure prohibition order system, which prevents parents who fail to pay child support from leaving Australia, another measure within the bill before us today. The coalition government worked to give Services Australia the discretion to refuse an exemption if they had reason to believe that the parent is likely to shirk their responsibilities and fail to pay back the remainder of the debt when they return to Australia. Under the coalition, from 2017, 5,394 parents were issued with a travel ban, enabling the recovery of nearly $100 million, ensuring the wellbeing and economic security of those children that were affected by the breakdown. It's expected that these changes will recover up to $164 million in debt owed to parents and their children. The coalition understands that family breakdowns are incredibly difficult, so child support is in place to ensure that, no matter where and with whom they live, children affected by family breakdown remain financially secure. The coalition makes no apologies for using tough measures to ensure child support is paid, because parents who shirk their responsibilities are depriving their children of financial support that will help them live a better life. The coalition recognises that most parents do the right thing and fulfil their child support obligations. Since its introduction in 1988, the government spend has transferred over $33 billion in child support payments.

When parents don't pay their child support on time, it has a real and material impact on the financial security of single parents and their children. These coalition measures will go some way to closing loopholes and provide Services Australia with additional capacity and capability to stop those seeking to shirk their responsibilities to provide their children the financial support that they need and deserve. With these important reforms, the coalition remain committed, just as we were in government, to seeing parents and children receive the financial support they are entitled to and that those seeking to shirk their child support obligations are held accountable. In 2021-22, the agency worked with separated families to help the transfer of $3.89 billion, supporting 1.1 million children, in both child support collect and private collect. Services Australia collected and transferred $1.82 billion in child support payments.

The measures in this bill are initiatives of the former coalition government and were partly announced as part of the MYEFO, broadening powers to recover child support, but they were unfortunately not legislated. The former coalition government committed $12.4 billion in the 2017-18 budget towards addressing three priority recommendations in response to the 2015 From conflict to cooperation: inquiry into the child support program report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs. These proposed changes in the Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill were part of the government's phased approach to achieving the best possible outcomes for separated families and their children. The measures addressed longstanding issues in the child support program relating to care disputes, amended tax assessments, child support agreements and payee overpayments, including strengthening incentives to comply with court orders or participate in dispute resolution processes about care, enabling changes in circumstances to be more easily reflected in child support assessments without parents having to go to court or through onerous administrative processes, and aligning the recovery of overpayment of child support from payees to be more consistent with the recovery of debts.

On that basis, the coalition will be supporting the passage of this bill.

11:13 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to indicate that the Greens will be supporting the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Child Support Measures) Bill 2023, but I note there is so much more that needs to be done. These are three minor measures that will improve the ability of single parents and their vulnerable children to receive child support. But I think the scale of what still needs to be done is indicated by the fact that this bill is estimated to recover up to $164 million in child support debt, whereas it is estimated that there is $1.59 billion of unpaid child support. So there is an awful lot more to be done to support vulnerable single mothers and their children. We've got deception from partners; we've got unequal onus of proof; we've got ex-partners not lodging tax returns; we have got misleading on how much income they've got; we've got care arrangements being difficult to prove; and we've got really awful interactions with the family tax benefit, where single parents—mothers in particular—are presumed to be receiving child support when in fact they're not.

We know that the women this is most affecting are those that have been subject to family violence. They have left their partners, and those former partners are continuing to mistreat them and their children. So we will be supporting this bill, but we note there is still an awful lot more work that needs to be done.

11:14 am

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank senators for their contributions. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Child Support Measures) Bill 2023 will make it easier for Services Australia to collect child support debts and help prevent future debts by improving income accuracy for low-income parents.

The changes in the bill are unlegislated measures—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It's now 11.15, Minister, so this debate is interrupted.