In talking to this piece of legislation this evening, I think it is important that all of us in this place and those in the community understand that the people whom we are discussing are those in deep personal crisis . The history of this legislation is that in 1988, when the first round of reforms was announced and the Child Support Scheme was introduced, there was massive community involvement and outrage because it was a new system. It was a system that was being introduced to deal with families at a time of great disruption and pain. We acknowledged this at that time-and I was working in the Public Service-and there was extensive discussion amongst those of us working in the public sector about the impact of this legislation on the wider Australian community. There were allegations at the time of social intervention and experimentation. At this time of breakdown and dealing with the handling of such difficult arrangements, it was important that through this process the government would offer support, personal support, and give a degree of understanding while working with families to ensure that the No. 1 priority would be the rights, welfare and security of the children. That principle has never changed. In terms of the way the scheme has operated, there has been significant debate about whether any piece of legislation can effectively fulfil that outcome. There are arguments that no single piece of legislation can effectively work through these difficult processes. But, whilst balancing the impact of this legislation, we need to understand that families are working through so many other elements of change. As Senator Evans outlined, when we are looking at the introduction of this round of amendments to child support, there is no way that you can consider this in isolation. The families who are working through how they will be affected by the document called the Child Support Legislation Amendment (Reform of the Child Support Scheme-Initial Measures) Bill 2006 are also working through the complexities of the family tax system. They are often working through various elements of the family law system and they are seeking to survive at a time when other elements of welfare change are being imposed on the community. For many of the families affected by this piece of legislation and seeking to know where their family income will be coming from, the Welfare to Work changes will be imposed at the same time. Whilst we are not here to debate those changes, once again it reinforces that we cannot in this place talk about bills in isolation because the families cannot be absolutely clear about where one piece of legislation begins and ends and where the other one takes up when we are talking about their very survival and their livelihood. I think this is something all of us should consider. The complexity of the whole legislative framework is one with which we are struggling and I can assure you it is one with which families are struggling on a daily basis.
I am aware of that struggle through my experience working in the public sector in the then Department of Social Security and, subsequently, having the privilege of working in this place and being involved in Senate committee hearings such as the poverty inquiry. Many of the people who came to give evidence and share their personal stories about family struggles during that inquiry were trying to survive on single incomes. They are the people that a government must keep in mind whenever we are looking at change and, most particularly, when we are looking at equity of change.
This particular initial measures bill is but the start of the current round of reforms to the Child Support Scheme. The legislation was introduced in 1988. People's personal experience, the operations of departments and changes in government were worked through until early in the 1990s when the first round of legislative changes were made. This legislation continues to impact on people and must continue to be reviewed constantly. Also, nothing can be put aside and left alone.
This bill is possibly the first major, significant change to the child support legislation since it was introduced, and it has not come upon us suddenly. We had the very, very valuable House of Representatives committee report, Every picture tells a story, which I hope all senators have had the chance to consider. Through that process, the families of Australia, as well as so many of the agencies that work with them, the legal profession and the support groups chose to come forward and work with their political representatives, to give their stories, to talk about the proposed changes that they think would best impact on their own circumstances and to share with their political representatives what the impact of the current legislation has been on them and their lives. We had significant response to the public meetings across the country. I urge people to read that report if they have the opportunity, because it effectively reflects so much of the personal experience-and also the pain. This particular area of legislation is one where I cannot separate the issues of personal pain from those of legislative change. Through the Every picture tells a story process, we heard the genuine, painful experiences of families who had worked through interpersonal breakdowns but who were then working through how they were able to maintain contact with their children, how they could retain the financial security that was being sought and, most importantly, how they could effectively develop family relationships after an initial parenting relationship had broken down. These are the people who will be affected by the raft of changes that are coming through now in three parts from the government. These are the people who most know the experience, because it is their lives.
Indeed, as a result of the Every picture tells a story report there was further community consultation. I know that through my own party and, I would anticipate, through other parties represented in this place there was great debate about the best process to take on from the community consultations that occurred. The government decision to institute a formal review of the process through introducing the Parkinson task force was extremely positive and one which I think was welcomed by all of us here and, I think, more importantly, by those people who had been part of the Every picture tells a story experience because they could see that their experience was being considered and that the government was then going to take professional advice on the issues that were raised. I do not think there was anyone in the community who felt that any range of legislation was going to solve all the problems, but I think that there was genuine acceptance that the government process was at least considering a way forward. Now, two years down the track, we are in the position of looking at the initial round of what is now going to be a three-part implementation of change. Certainly I have some concerns about the time period over which these changes are going to be implemented and also about the time period for some of the most important changes-in particular, the formula change. Anyone who works in this area knows that the formula on which the financial arrangement is based is the key component to working out what you are going to receive in your budget on a regular basis, and that is the living money of people who are raising children in single relationships, often without very much extra money around. So the fact that the formula change is further down the track-the actual way that people can see their own circumstances and make the calculations is further down the track-makes the immediate impact of the legislation less powerful. In terms of expecting the change to happen, in the community in which I was working there was an expectation that these changes were going to happen in 2006 as a result of the previous processes. But when you examine the way in which the legislation is being brought in, the full complete changes-whatever they turn out to be in terms of the government debate and what happens-will not be in place in family relationships until 2008. That is a long way down the track.
In terms of the concerns we have had about the impact on any family in this process, of course we welcome the fact that the Parkinson report did some very valuable modelling of the financial impact and the expenses of raising children. That was something that was long overdue. Anecdotally, people talked about their own experiences and we had heard of the various expenses involved in child rearing, but until, through the Parkinson process, we were able to have a look at the data sets and see the background on which the decisions were made, there was still a degree of uncertainty about what the basis of the legislation was. I think that having that research was a very effective way of engaging people and showing that, whilst all of us have individual circumstances, at least there was a genuine attempt in developing the legislation to look at objective data-as objective as any discussion on families can be. There is no such thing as a model family. All of us need to work within the constraints of the community. We all look at different expenses and demands. It is very difficult, when you are talking about the impact of raising families, to be able to see yourself in the data. That is one of the things that I have been doing with some of the groups with which I have been working-taking the standard environment and the background and then working with people to see how they best fit within the mix. Indeed, in terms of the process of finding out how people best fit, one of the things that I think is most valuable in the changes that the government is introducing is, I believe for the first time, a significant influx of funding into the Child Support Agency and some genuine dedication of resources into upskilling the people who work in that area, providing alternative service delivery mechanisms and putting outlets closer to the community so that people who are working through this system are able to deal with people who best know the system. All of us in this place would have regular contact with families who are not happy with the service that they receive from the Child Support Agency-in some cases a feeling that it is distant, that the staff in the Child Support Agency are not taking a personal interest in their circumstances and are somehow so far away, so uncaring and so unmoved by the individual pain of those with whom they are dealing that there is no genuine understanding of what it is like to be balancing a family expense account as well as working through all the other demands of raising children alone. I think that the acknowledgement by the department that there is a need for some immediate work on behalf of the people who are working in the field-to look at specialised training programs and to ensure that people working in the Child Support Agency have effective support mechanisms as they work through quite difficult circumstances-is a major advance. That alone will ensure that the people who are working in this field feel better about themselves and feel more confident that they understand not just the technical aspects of the legislation but also the difficult personal circumstances of the people who are their clients.
I also believe that the introduction of better telephone services and hotlines will help, as will people knowing that Child Support Agency staff are well trained, they will understand their situation and they are accessible at any time. That is because some of the key issues for people who come to us concerned about decisions that have been made about their circumstances are that there is a delay in getting service from the public sector workers; there is a lack of sympathy, a lack of compassion; and there is no understanding that every single case has its own dynamic. The acknowledgment of this need for training and development is a major part of my hope that at least this first step of the process will be more effectively communicated to the public and that there will be a move towards making the process of implementing the legislation more accessible to the wider community.
Labor is concerned that, for the people who will immediately lose funding under the changes to the legislation, there will not be effective support or any ability to readjust their financial circumstances before the impost is placed on them. No matter how well you think you are operating your budget and no matter how effectively you believe you are planning your future, if there is a significant loss of regular income from your budget, which is going to impact on your lifestyle as well as that of your children, that will cause more stress and sometimes quite serious disruption to the operation of the family unit.
We acknowledge that the funding experiment has been done and that we understand that there are models in place to work out some changes to the way non-residential parents are working with the residential parents and how there can be variations to the expected amount of money that is paid on a regular basis. There are specific aspects of the legislation, such as lowering the cap and the changes to the way that people's money can be assessed in terms of their ability to work, that are welcome. However, when that translates to a fortnightly decrease in the money on which you are expected to live, that can create great pain. As Senator Evans pointed out in his contribution to this debate, these are the people who need particular support from all of us as we look at the longterm impact of the changes.
In the whole process of the Child Support Agency working with the community, there must be an understanding that this particular change will have varying impacts on the families that are currently clients of the Child Support Agency and that, once again, there is no way that one size can fit all Australian families. We would expect there to be personal service given to each of the families who are working through the changes-a personal approach to each family so that they fully understand the impact of the changes on them. During the Senate estimates process, we talked to officials from the department about what process will be in place to implement the changes when they have been approved by the different levels of government. There was an acknowledgment that there would have to be an implementation process on a personal level, rather than just a general notice-or even a general letter like the letters that come from many government departments. Whilst some of us believe that such correspondence fulfils our legal responsibilities to ensure that a change is known and understood, those of us who have worked in the public sector understand that in reality it does not. The responses of individual clients to getting a letter from a government agency vary enormously, and there have been some research papers done on this issue.
I urge the government, in working out the implementation process for whatever changes come through, to do so through a very personalised information-sharing process with the families who will be impacted. Unless these changes are fully understood, there will be even further pain for the people who can least balance such changes. It is very simple for us in this place to talk about balancing the various costs and imposts of raising children, and understanding the various streams of income that come through from the government, including the range of family tax benefit changes we have discussed at length in this place. But, all too often, things that seem quite straightforward to the people who are developing the legislation and those working with it every day are not that straightforward or clear to those who are relying on the payment.
We already have a complex child support system, and that is one of the biggest complaints we have heard. So, in putting forward this major review of the way the system is going to operate, along with the fact that the government is going to do it in three stages, it is very important that we bring the people along with us so that every step of the way is clear to them.
There is absolutely no guarantee that a personalised process would be accepted by every client or something that they would welcome, but the least that the people of Australia who are clients of the child support system should be able to expect is that such a service is offered to them so that the changes are explained. If that is done, I think it will at least show that we have listened to some of the experiences to come out of the House of Reps committee inquiry-because the people who gave evidence to that review were clear that sometimes they felt that their interests were not best protected by the people who created the legislation. They also felt that the very title of the House of Reps committee report, Every picture tells a story, reflected the need for this personalised explanation of any changes that are going to be implemented.
13 June, 2006