The child support system must be in children's best interests - Terri Butler MP, Labor for Griffith

The child support system must be in children's best interests

I spoke on the Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2017 in February.

You can read the full speech below.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith): Like the other speakers in this debate, I support the overwhelming majority of this bill and I have reservations about one aspect of it which goes to child support and the potential recovery of payments made to payees when a later tax return demonstrates that the assessment ought to have been less than it was.

The aspects of this bill that go to the other matters are, indeed, very commendable. It is pleasing that both the opposition and the government are in such furious bipartisanship when it comes to supporting the importance of vaccinations. We've all seen news of the damage that's done by antivaccination campaigns. We've all seen the concerns that doctors and other experts have raised in respect of misinformation and, in fact, disinformation in respect of the effects of vaccinations.

It is important to our community, as a whole, that people continue to trust the vaccinations that are offered by medical practitioners and to trust the vaccinations that are supported through the Commonwealth, and I think, sometimes, it's regrettable to see some of the people who are willing to make comments that tend to promote the anti-vaxxer movement. We all know that there's a senator in this parliament who, in the context of the Western Australian election, made some comments supportive of the anti-vaxxer movement. I think that was regrettable, not just because it spread this disinformation but, because when something is uttered by a senator, that tends to give it a cloak of authority and believability—not everyone would agree with that, of course. But when someone in authority speaks it can tend to, unfortunately, have that effect. When those comments were made, I think that they were quite rightly disagreed with and abhorred by people from across the political spectrum, and I was pleased to see that.

It is absolutely important that we, in looking at this legislation, support the provisions that promote a pro-vaccination culture. It's important to do that not for the individual children who are vaccinated only—though, of course, it is very important for them to be able to avoid terrible diseases such as polio, as the member for Moreton discussed, and hepatitis and whooping cough—but it's also important for our entire community that we maintain herd immunity. That means that by failing to vaccinate you are not just putting your own children at risk; you are putting at risk the children of others.

I want to place on record, though, some concerns about the child support provisions of the legislation and, as other speakers have said, I'm very hopeful that resolution will be able to be reached and compromise will be able to be reached once this bill is in the Senate. The specific concern I have, as I said, arises from the provisions in respect of amended tax assessments. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, child support payments are calculated according to a formula. An important part of calculating child support payments is to look at your income. Child support assessment looks at the income according to your income tax assessment, and there are some serious issues with the use of income tax assessments in respect of child support by some people in the system. Those issues were ventilated during the social policy and legal affairs committee's child support inquiry, of which I was a member in 2014. I've certainly got concerns about stories that I hear of people deliberately failing to put in their income tax return in time, knowing they don't have a debt to the tax office so they won't be fined but that it would materially affect the amount of child support they're required to pay.

That is a serious problem and I've raised, both in the social policy and legal affairs committee and the tax and revenue committee, my view that we should be doing more to ensure that people who are payers of child support do submit their tax returns on time. There should be more done to promote compliance amongst people who may not have a debt to the revenue but who do have obligations to their children. But that's not the specific issue that this bill seeks to deal with.

This bill seeks to deal with the situation where somebody does put in a tax return and ends up with a changed income tax assessment at some point during the financial year. This bill seeks, at the moment, to allow for that tax return to automatically change the child support amount that's calculated by reference to the formula. That's absolutely fine from my perspective, provided it's prospective. The difficulty arises, of course, when that is retrospectively applied.

If you are a payee of child support and you have received money in good faith, spent it on your children's shoes, school fees or food, and you are then told that, through no fault of your own and without your knowledge, you now have a debt because of the retrospective application of a provision around somebody else's income tax return, obviously that's going to be quite challenging—particularly for people in lower income households. If you're a single parent in a low-income household and you are suddenly told that you now have a debt, which could be in the hundreds of dollars, as a consequence of something completely beyond your control—something you did not know was going to happen—that obviously gives rise to some concern.

Similarly, if the money hasn't actually been paid—the money hasn't been received and hasn't been spent—the income tax assessment goes in and there's a new amount calculated by reference to the child support formula, it would not be my view that the payee should be able to recover against the payer for the period when the assessment calculation was different. But I am very concerned about a situation where single parents can be left with surprise debts.

This is a very sensitive area of policy, of course, and an issue that does require some thought. In my submission, the overriding principle that we should take into account when considering how this legislation should work should be the best interests of the children concerned. In a situation where someone is a child support payee and they're doing the majority of the caring for the children, it's going to be a rare case where the balance of considerations would, in my view, support the creation of a new, surprising debt that the person may have grave difficulty in paying.

Whichever way you slice it, there will be some unfairness in this system. If you end up with a lower calculation and you have paid money, it's going to be a situation where it's either unfair to the payer, because they can't recover that money, or unfair to the payee because they thought they were entitled to it and spent it, as I said, on shoes. In a situation where you cannot avoid the prospect of some unfairness, I would encourage us to look to the best interests of the children concerned, with a view to resolving where the unfairness must fall.

There are certainly many reasons why you might get an amended income tax return. I certainly do not stand here to say that anyone who gets an amended income tax return deliberately delayed putting in their income tax return, but it is important that we are very careful, in making this area of policy, to take into account the impact on individuals' lives and on households, and that means working together to find a resolution. I'm quite sure it's not beyond us. In fact, the 2014 child support inquiry that I mentioned earlier gave a unanimous report, regardless of the fact that this is a highly controversial and contested area of policy. I obviously thank the member for Dawson, who was the chair of the committee at the time, for his cooperation and bipartisanship in the course of that inquiry. Given that the member for Dawson and I, and other members of the committee, were able to, in a consensus and on a bipartisan basis, find common ground in relation to child support bodes very well for our ability collectively as a parliament to seek to resolve the issues in this legislation once it heads towards the Senate for consideration.

I encourage the parties concerned, including the government—and, of course, we will—to ensure that we work cooperatively to seek to resolve these issues. This is important. We are talking about people's lives. We are talking about the lives of single parents, which, frankly, are hard lives to start with. Let's not unnecessarily make them any more difficult. Let's work together to find the best possible solution.

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