I acknowledge Australia’s historic nation forged by Christian explorers and pioneers from Britain and other European lands, which created the federal Commonwealth under the Crown, and I acknowledge Australia’s first inhabitants, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as part of our nation. Australia is in a dysfunctional and toxic relationship with itself. One party to this relationship is the Australian government via its various agencies. The other party is the Australian people. All relationships are built on trust and empathy. It does not matter if it is a commercial relationship or a personal relationship; they have the common elements of trust and empathy.
So, what is the situation with regard to the Australian government and the people? Simple. The people feel like they are not being heard and they do not trust their government. The erosion of trust and empathy has created a dysfunctional and toxic relationship that is bad for our democracy. What happens when relationships break down? Well, in the commercial realm, one party will break the relationship and find another company to partner with. It is no different in the personal realm either; if the level of deterioration is large enough, one party will make a break and re-partner and move on.
The problem with the government is that, while the government can churn through the people it partners with, the people have only one government and therefore are not in a position to choose unless they relocate to another country. This makes them feel powerless and weak. That is not a position people want to be in. The Australian government is repeatedly attacking its citizens as if it were waging war on them. I wish I could tell you it was for a good reason, but I am at a loss as to why any government would embark on a strategy to seemingly attack its own citizens.
It is not because of bad laws. The legislation in the examples I will quote today is actually quite good. The problem arises when the culture of government organisations is such that the legislation is not applied fairly and without favour, or with the other party’s best interests at heart. In reply, Australians take steps to retaliate. They engage in tax evasion as if it were a victimless crime; they are ‘sticking it to the government’ and feel they are achieving something when they do it, without any thought of how harmful it might be to the general populace.
But let’s look at some examples in detail to illustrate my point. One of the more obvious examples is the immigration disaster. But I will speak about that topic on another occasion. The recent Centrelink debacle is a great example of a government embarking on a malicious and callous campaign targeting the most vulnerable members of our society. With almost limitless resources, the Department of Human Services attempted to claw back money from the community that they are not entitled to take. The trumped-up claims of debt were a disgraceful attempt to impose measures on the community to bail out a bankrupt government.
How did they do it? IT people were tasked with making changes to database software enabling the Centrelink computer system to calculate debt using the customer’s entire Centrelink history rather than just their recent history. The two managers have since left—one to retirement and the other to the NDIS—leaving behind a system that was doctored to bluff customers into paying a fabricated debt rather than challenge it and discover there was no debt. It is cavalier. It is inaccurate. The error rate of the letters is near 100 per cent. It is corrupt. How do you fix it? Close it down and start again. New organisation. New people. New relationship.
Another Department of Human Services organisation, the Child Support Agency, has a long history of financially gutting non-custodial parents in a relentless strategy that seems aimed at rendering their victims insolvent. Again, the legislation is fairly sound and does not need to be changed much if it is applied fairly. The problem is that it often is not applied fairly. It is not a gender issue but, because the majority of non-custodial parents are the fathers, men usually end up being the ones most affected by the actions of this group of individuals.
On a societal level, one of the unintended side effects of marriage breakdown is the high incidence of suicide. It is one of the most pressing issues of our time and predominantly impacts males. It depletes our productivity and destroys families. It cannot be totally eradicated but it can be substantially reduced. The solution requires a government with the conscience to feel ashamed by it and the political courage to do something about it. There is also the matter of female suicide, which is no less important but not as prevalent. Suicide is a complex issue with many triggers. It is not always easy to know which trigger causes an individual to take her own life—what the final straw was—but in some cases it is very evident.
Suicide is a symptom, not a cause. Before we can tackle the cause, we must expose its various components. This will simplify it. To make the issue easier to understand, let’s look at one area of male suicide—that which might be attributed to the actions or inactions of the Family Court, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Child Support Agency. If three whales beached themselves on Bondi Beach every day, there would be a public uproar to help them or to do something about the situation to prevent it from happening. A crazed lunatic uses a car to kill five people in Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall, injuring some 37 others, and there is an outpouring of grief for the victims. Yet up to 90 Australian men commit suicide every month because of their Family Court and Child Support Agency experiences and no-one bats an eye. That is not to detract from the tragedy of the former examples but to assist in putting the events into perspective. The statistics do not relate only to men. For women it is roughly 18 per month, and there is one child under 18 per month. The average of 90 per month for men is three a day—each and every day. Let’s think about that for a moment. That is someone’s father, brother, uncle, son, cousin or nephew—gone forever.
As I said, this is not really a gender issue. The split does not occur between husbands and wives but along the lines of custodial and non-custodial parenting. That is where the female statistics come from. When the issues of non-custodial parenting impact on women, some of them take their lives in the same way and for the same reasons that men do. The common denominator is the Family Court that determines custody or the child support agency.
What does it say about us as a society when we allow so many men and boys to commit suicide—an entirely preventable outcome? Why do we provide almost no support for males? Why do we provide almost nothing for male victims of domestic violence, preferring to sweep it under the carpet along with the male suicide rates? Why do we continue to cling to the paradigm that men cannot love their children as much as women can and do? Where do we draw the line? To stand aside and allow it to happen is negligent. To be aware of it and do nothing almost makes it deliberate, especially if you are in government and have the power to stop it.
For the most part, the legislation around family breakdown is reasonable. The problem arises in its application. When public servants have power but there is no independent oversight and no penalty for wrongdoing, the system can run out of control. What happens then? Well, we know what the outcome is. We see it in the statistics. The recommendations of the 2005 review of the family law system were not implemented when the Rudd government came to power in 2007. The recommendations of the 2015 parliamentary inquiry into the child support system were diluted to get them through a hostile Senate. Recommendation 21 of that inquiry would, if implemented, have been beneficial to a constituent whose story I will detail shortly.
Who fails to implement recommendations of an inquiry when it could stop the alarming suicide rate? Why? We must ask ourselves these questions. We might not like the answer, but we must ask them and forge ahead to an outcome that is acceptable to our community. In the family law arena, we often hear the phrase ‘in the best interests of the child’. I have yet to understand how the suicide of a parent is in the best interests of a child.
Over the last Christmas break, I assisted a New Zealand woman who came to Australia to visit her children for Christmas. She had experienced a period of unemployment and had accrued arrears of child support, which she arranged to pay by instalments via the New Zealand internal revenue office directly to the CSA in Australia. The woman went to return to New Zealand, because she had to go to work. For no reason, as a payment arrangement was in place, CSA issued a departure prohibition order preventing the woman from leaving Australia until the debt was paid. The woman had no accommodation in Australia and limited funds. What’s more, she lost her job in New Zealand, removing any capacity to pay anything more of the child support debt. Doggedly, the CSA clung to the logic that she had to pay the debt before she earned the money to do so. The woman had no ability to secure welfare in Australia and could not secure a credit card because all of her identity documents were in New Zealand except for her passport. She did not expect she would need them for a brief visit to Australia to visit her children.
One of my constituents has been a non-custodial parent for over 30 years. The conduct of the CSA that he witnessed in the 1980s repeats itself through the decades. How is that possible? He has dealt with various CSA officers in various locations in a number of states. The only logical conclusion is that there is a corporate culture or groupthink operating as part of the indoctrination when one joins the agency. The measures implemented—and I will detail some of them shortly—are akin to persecution. It appears the CSA staff suspend the presumption of innocence and treat the non-custodial parent as some kind of criminal who is not to be believed, regardless of how credible his or her evidence might be or how fair the outcome he or she is seeking might be.
The notion that self-support is a higher priority than child support is not considered important, if the anecdotal evidence is anything to go by. Logic dictates that, if a non-custodial parent cannot support himself, he cannot then support his children. This logic appears lost on CSA officers in many cases.
Cases of domestic violence aside, where is the logic in taking a child from the parent with the most resources or the capacity to gain those resources and lodging them with the parent who has the least amount of resources, then gouging the non-custodial parent to subsidise the custodial parent? Where is the incentive for custodial parents to work not only to support themselves but to demonstrate their work ethic to the child? Part of their income is tax free and, in some cases, the custodial parent enjoys a higher income than the non-custodial parent. Plenty of people would rail against a doubling of their income tax or even an increase of 20 per cent, but they do not see the harm in taking 20 per cent, 30 per cent, 40 per cent or more from a non-custodial parent and giving it tax-free to the custodial parent.
I have a constituent whose ex-wife is a master’s degree qualified lawyer. She has stated, ‘I will get the lowest paid job I can and you’ll top me up with tax-free child support’. And the system supports her in that endeavour. You say, ‘Ah, but that can’t happen under the legislation,’ but I tell you it can and it does. How? Let me explain. The custodial parent, the mother, is determined by the CSA to have no earning capacity, despite her master’s degree, and the non-custodial parent, the father, is determined to have an earning capacity of more than half a million dollars per annum, regardless of his actual earnings. This huge imbalance means that the majority of debt under the child support program will fall to the father. The earning capacity of $500,000 per annum is a ridiculous figure, I know, but it is a real example.
If the legislation were applied fairly, the mother’s earning capacity would be close to $100,000 per annum, and the father’s would be a similar amount. That would make the calculation of child support depend upon the percentage of access afforded to the father. If the parents could negotiate a reasonable degree of shared care, there should be almost no money changing hands. That would be a fair application of the legislation. Enter the inexperienced, incompetent, or dishonest CSA officer who determines the mother has no earning capacity and the father has a ridiculously high earning capacity. The father may challenge this determination. If he does, the officer assigned to investigate the calculation is usually the officer who determined it in the first place. If the father objects further and takes the matter to the AAT or even on to the Federal Circuit Court, he is not permitted to question the original determination, as that has already been deemed justified by virtue of the earlier investigation by the CSA. He can only criticise the CSA and AAT for not following procedure. The CSA and AAT invariably follow the procedure impeccably. Is it any wonder non-custodial parents simply give up? They are fighting a system that is not designed to be beaten, even when it is wrong. The list of examples goes on and on and on and on: all dressed up as being in the best interests of the child. Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Those who have not been touched by events such as these find it hard to believe it goes on, but it does. Every single day we are killing off our productivity as a nation and destroying the lives of the next generation. The system is corrupt. How do you fix it? Shut it down. Start again. New relationship. Trust and empathy.
I have spoken about the final example before, which is just as serious—that of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and our veterans—so I will be brief on this occasion. Our veterans have sacrificed to provide us the freedoms we enjoy each and every day. Initially, DVA was staffed by veterans for the most part and the relationship with diggers was efficient and effective. Trust and empathy. Gradually, the veterans were replaced with career public servants and the relationship changed. Public servants find it difficult to empathise with veterans and the veterans end up being treated with contempt because they get frustrated attempting to get through to someone who has no idea what it is like to be held accountable for your actions when those in the Public Service rarely are.
What do soldiers and veterans say about the military workplace? If you stuff it up, people die. They do not see that attitude in the Public Service, except that if someone stuffs up in Veterans’ Affairs then somebody dies all right—usually a veteran. We want our citizens to be shareholders in our future. Trying to do the right thing, not fighting the government at every opportunity. I will say the term again: shareholders in our future. Let that sink in for a moment. That is how you secure empathy. That is how you build trust. That is how you build a healthy relationship. That is how you build a nation. One Nation.