Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

Child Support Reform

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (4.24 pm)-When the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment (Child Support Reform Consolidation and Other Measures) Bill 2007 came before us, there was such a sense of familiarity because, as we all know, this is an ongoing process of looking at reform of very complex legalisation. When we were preparing for this process we were lucky enough to have yet another attempt at a Senate committee to consider these changes. We well remember in this place that when the second tranche of legislation in this process came through, there was an unholy rush-to rush through the committee process, to rush through what was then consideration with the community and also to make sure that we met a deadline that was imposed from outside the process, to meet an expectation that the legislation would go through this place, which then was not met because something more important came up. So all that rush around the second tranche of the legislation was unnecessary in many ways. We were looking at something that has been going on in the community for a very long time. I am not going to go into the particular technical aspects of the bill and I do not think anyone has time to go into them because they are so complex. We have been looking at effective child support legislation in this country from the time the first round of legislation was introduced under the Hawke government. No-one pretended that the legislation was going to be perfect. When dealing with the issue of broken families, there is no way that legislation can appropriately respond to all the needs. However, from the time that the first round of family support legislation was brought forward, there was concern in the community and in the various departments-I think they have changed names a bit since that time but I think the expertise, the knowledge and the commitment remain-that these processes were complex, they would need to be looked at very closely and they would need, most importantly, to have the engagement of those people who were affected by the legislation. The only way that this process was going to be improved was to have some hope of looking at what was the key expectation of this legislation from day one, which was the protection and wellbeing of children-no-one argues with that; that has always been the No. 1 priority-and the attempts to work with this legislation have been based on that. We know there have always been concerns, and I do not think that there will ever be legislation that will be able to respond effectively to all the concerns. Given that, we all shared the understanding that, from the time that the House of Reps committee report Every picture tells a story was formed, there would be a close look at the existing legislation and a commitment from all those involved that we would work to improve it and that it was going to be a long-term process. Certainly it has been long term, and I think we all come together now to make sure that we, as effectively as possible, move forward. This third round of legislation is supported by Labor, but we need to raise our ongoing concerns at this time or we are not doing our job. From the time that the legislation came through in response to Every picture tells a story and in the supplementary approach, the Parkinson inquiry, we were concerned about who were going to be the winners and the losers out of the changes. That would seem to be an automatic response. When you change an existing system, you should have clear knowledge of how the current system works, who is impacted by it, who would benefit from it and what the impact of the new legislation is going to be. We would expect that in the drafting of the legislation and a formal impact statement there would be widespread community consultation. The government and the departments involved have continued to commit to this community consultation. We were told that through the Parkinson process there were clear understandings that, through these longterm deliberations, whatever happened into the future, there would be ongoing consultation and engagement of the various stakeholder groups. 'Stakeholder' is a term I do not like, but it is the current term in legislation so we will work with that. There was an understanding that the stakeholders would continue to have automatic and important involvement in the process-not just the cursory window-dressing of calling a few meetings but absolute involvement in what was going through.

There was no promise and, I believe, no understanding by anyone involved that that would mean that people would automatically agree. Indeed, in this particular area I feel that there is possibly no agreement except on the key issue that the children must be the most important element of where we go in the future. But, in terms of getting the various groups together, we have seen, even through the very truncated Senate committee process, that there are widespread and entrenched differences between people who have views on this process. So, although we were told in the second round of legislation discussions that the stakeholders committee would continue to meet and that they would have involvement in what happened next, we know that there has been only one meeting of the stakeholders group in the time between the second and third round. We hope that there will be more meetings. In fact, everybody said there were going to be more when we had the discussion at the Senate committee. If the minister can assure me that there have been more and effective meetings, I am happy to hear that, but the evidence that we heard at the Senate committee was that there had not been extensive meetings of the stakeholders committee. What we need is transparency around what will happen in the future and to know that all the groups that have expressed their desire to be part of the process will have that opportunity. No-one can control whether or not they take that up or whether they feel that they can actually agree with other people sitting around the table, but the transparency must be that the stakeholders feel that they are part of the ongoing process.

In terms of where we go, questions that we asked in this place at the second stage of the reform of the legislation were around the effective modelling and review of the impact of this legislation on the people involved, when we saw that, at exactly the same time as the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment (Child Support Reform Consolidation and Other Measures) Bill 2007 was going to be implemented and impact on the community, in particular on single parents, the government were implementing their Welfare to Work changes. All the way through this process we consistently asked: who has looked at the combined impact of these two significant pieces of legislation on the people who are living the experience? That is not necessarily academic involvement in the process-although the involvement of effective, committed and well-trained academics must be valued and must continue-but the use of the life experiences of people who are now raising children alone, often as a result of broken family relationships. What is the combined impact of legislation coming at them from both sides?

Again, at the recent Senate committee hearing, it was confirmed to us that that degree of modelling has not happened; that degree of examination has not happened yet. There was goodwill and an understanding of a commitment from the government to do that. There was also urgency from people at the Australian Institute of Family Studies and FaCSIA as a whole that that must happen and that it would happen in the future. But, once again, we have very significant and complex legislation being brought down on a group in our community and there is a real element of 'trust us; let's see what's going to happen; let's hope that it's going to work'. We all hope that. What we must have at this stage in the whole process is at least some degree of trust from all those who are involved in the process that there is a willingness to move forward together and that there is an understanding that these issues will be considered.

I know that Senator Siewert has some particular issues around child care-who has responsibilities and the financial acknowledgement of that degree of care. Senator Siewert will raise that, so I will not touch on it. Labor, as I have said-and Senator Stephens will take this up-will support this legislation, but, once again, it is with some genuine concern about what happens next. This group in our community has suffered immensely. In evidence to the committee, we were led to believe that the kinds of figures that could be under consideration in this legislation on a fortnightly basis-for people who are single parents-are enormous for people on a fixed income. While people here can look at the loss of $60 or $70 a fortnight as something that can be budgeted around and that we can move forward effectively on, there are people who are currently living on a very tight budget. I know that people in the department looked very closely at the evidence that came forward in both committees. There was gutwrenching evidence about the effectiveness of budgeting by families who know exactly where each dollar goes. So, when we are talking about legislation that is being introduced that will cut any of that income, there must be acknowledgement that there is pain and that we need to make sure that the whole environment in which these changes are made offers the best hope of support for the people involved, otherwise this legislation comes in by itself and those people will be lost in the transition.

Briefly, before Senator Siewert makes her contribution, I want to add something about the proposal in this legislation to make sure that all births are registered. This was raised in the committee. Many on the committee felt that there was an understanding that people had to have registered births before they were able to claim payment under the Centrelink system. It was enlightening to find out that that was not the case and that we needed to have this legislation in place so that we can be absolutely confident that we have effective statistics on the growth of our population and we can effectively use those statistics to plan for the future-in particular for putting the welfare of children most importantly at the forefront of any legislation that we deal with that comes under the heading of 'families and community services'.

As a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs I would like to put on record my concerns: ensuring that the people who are most engaged in this process, by living the experience, continue to be involved; acknowledging that they have genuine input to any change in this legislation; and acknowledging that there is not a political attempt to enhance disadvantage but a genuine attempt to maintain certainty, so that people know that they are able to effectively raise children in our community.