In my remarks yesterday afternoon on the Child Support Legislation Amendment (Reform of the Child Support Scheme-New Formula and Other Measures) Bill 2006 I was making the point that there had been an amazing amount of very positive work done to review this legislation and acknowledge that it needed to be changed. But my fear is that the undue process-the lack of consideration of the actual legislation-could make it more difficult for us to engage with all those people who need to be involved in the ongoing process will feel pushed away and dismissed, and therefore not able to fully have their views understood and respected . This is an absolute shame because this legislation that touches upon families and children and their survival in our community has not been given the respect it deserves. In the time that I have left, I want to make a couple of points about Labor's concerns. One of the things that we raised in the committee inquiry was the impact of the changed model on those people who currently rely on their payments for their continuing survival in our community. I speak about this aspect having had the opportunity of being involved in the Senate's poverty inquiry several years ago. That inquiry heard significant evidence from all states across Australia of the financial difficulties experienced by single parents. Their difficulties are not denied by most people-certainly not by the people who represent single parents or the welfare agencies in this country that work most closely with people who need support on a regular basis. Support is not only provided on the basis of a one-off crisis, which used to be the way that welfare agencies operated in Australia, agencies like St Vincent de Paul, Lifeline, Anglicare-the whole range of community support organisations-and, particularly, the Smith Family, who focus exclusively on issues to do with children. Those agencies provided evidence with one voice to the Senate inquiry on poverty-and many of them also provided submissions to this legislation inquiry-and pointed out the tenuous balance that single parents have in regard to their financial security. And we know that there is not just one stream of financial support.
In terms of the way that single families balance their income, we know that they have child support payments, which is the basis of the legislation the Senate is discussing at the moment, and we know that they have the family tax payment benefits brought in by this government as well as other elements of employment response that all come together in the bucket of money that families need to survive. One thing that is very clear about the bucket of money we are talking about for single parent families in lower income brackets is that it is precariously small. The debate that we are going to have on rejigging the model, which is the basis of the whole revamp of this legislation, will determine exactly how payments will be distributed-those payments being a major stream of finance for any single parent family. We know that the modelling is being conducted with strong research provided by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and we welcome that. In fact, the role of the AIFS must be enhanced in any future consideration of the impact of this on Australian families. That is a particular concern for many of us on this side of the chamber.
Under questioning to the AIFS about the kind of work they did leading to the development of the child support legislation, we asked specifically whether the Welfare to Work legislation had been considered in their research and extensive modelling. They said no. We then asked whether that inquiry had been put to them, whether their significant expertise had been requested in the various considerations by the government about what the implementation of Welfare to Work would do to single parent families. They said no.
That was extremely confronting for us on the committee, because there has been a focus on single parent families by this government over a period of time, most particularly over the last 12 months or so as the Welfare to Work legislation has been brought through this place and implemented in the community. The Welfare to Work legislation focused on economic security for single parents. None of us have any argument with the concept of access to employment and the development of enhancements for single families. The issue about which we are arguing is how the government can pursue legislation in the child support area, using a range of consultation mechanisms and talking about where this is going to take single parent income into the future, whilst at the same time introduce another raft of legislation focused on those same families. It does not look at them together. In a period when we consistently talk about cross-departmental liaison and whole-of-government response, how could this be seen as credible?
In terms of where we go next, as I have said consistently, we need to have a process whereby people feel confident in the system and feel as though their issues are being taken into account by the system. They need to know that there will be genuine involvement in whatever happens in their interactions between them and the government. How can we move forward when such a basic issue is seemingly ignored? No-one seemed to have an argument with whether this was appropriate or not; it just had not been done. The message we have for the people dedicating their time to developing the child support legislation and the reform of the Child Support Scheme is: moving forward, please ensure that the consultative mechanisms involve the best possible resources that this country can offer-and we have them. That is one of the more frustrating elements. We have the Australian Institute of Family Studies, we have various community groups and we have people working to put forward the views of single parents.
One of the things we did find-and I know that this is no surprise to people-is that, when we had representatives looking at the issues of single mothers and the issues of non-custodial men, sometimes it was difficult to have them cooperate effectively at the table and to respect each other's views. But we did have an understanding that, if we are going to proceed, that kind of discussion must occur. It may be difficult. It may sometimes be difficult when developing the legislation to balance effectively and to find a path upon which most people can agree, but the discussions must be had. People must be assured that their views are not being taken in a token way-that the issues will be genuinely reviewed and considered and the whole impact of what is happening in our society and economically will be taken into account so that one series of decisions will not be taken in isolation. That has been one of the serious faults until now.
There is no way that the Child Support Legislation Amendment (Reform of the Child Support Scheme-New Formula and Other Measures) Bill 2006 will have the opportunity to succeed if those issues are not effectively considered. No piece of legislation can ever be considered in isolation, and no piece of legislation is beyond review. We need to have a process of review before the legislation is put in place. We have an opportunity to do that with this legislation because it is a part of a series of implementation processes, which I understand will not be concluded until 2008.
We have the chance to engage with people effectively throughout this whole process. But the engagement is dependent upon a sense that the voices will be respected and heard. If you lose trust now, if you in any way dismiss people from credibly partaking in this process, it will fail. We cannot afford it to fail because no-one believes that the child support system at the moment is working perfectly. In fact, I do not think anyone truly believes that the child support system will ever work perfectly. It is reliant on so many streams of information and knowledge and it is also dealing with people during a period of crisis. So we need to ensure that what is put in place is as effective as possible so that people feel confident in being part of the system. They need to be able to acknowledge that-even if their personal pet projects or issues are not taken up-they have been considered and the review process will continue. The legislation is dynamic. If things are implemented and found to not be as effective as they ought, we must have the chance to come back and rejig things. I think that is something that our system allows, but we need to make sure that there is an ongoing review process and that it is not just at set times. This is not the kind of process that can rely on a two-year or 10-year review. At the beginning of the implementation of the new model, the process that I believe has been effectively put in place till now with the various streams of advisory groups, using the expertise that we have in this country, should be continued formally-not on an informal basis but formally. That commitment seemed to be given by the department and the government during the committee process that we had.
We have the opportunity now to move forward. I continue to be concerned about some of the implementation processes, and I believe that will come up in the committee process. How we ensure that the Social Security Appeals Tribunal process is effectively resourced and how we can make sure that the legal elements around that are implemented is something we can discuss.
I am pleased that the Child Support Agency received a considerable increase in resources in the last budget. I have said on previous occasions that I was deeply concerned that the Child Support Agency had not received appropriate resourcing over the last 10 years and that if we are going to have confidence in this system being able to be implemented fully we need to have a strongly resourced public sector that is doing the work that has to be done. They need to be well trained, well resourced and responsive to the range of people who are relying on child support for their financial security. In terms of where we go next, there needs to be an ongoing process of cross-departmental cooperation, because child support is not a single agency. It relies on so many other forms of legislation and bases. The department has been introducing things over a period of time. The Attorney-General's Department, Centrelink and the Taxation Office all have to be brought together such that they focus on the issues of child support. As we work through the Welfare to Work process, working with agencies who now work with the community is essential. The government have said that that is part of their plan. We want to be part of that plan. Wonderful people continue to come forward, consistently saying that they want to work with the government despite the fact that they know that their own issues may not be able to be dealt with completely. Those people from various community groups came to see us when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs was meeting. We must continue to value them. We respect their honesty. We also know that it is our community responsibility to respond to children particularly through the child support legislation. The hope that was brought to so many families when the original legislation was passed must be maintained. It can never be allowed to just go without question. Children are the central point of any legislation looking at child support, and the financial and social interests of children must be maintained into the future.
09 November, 2006