In the past month, the media published banner headlines generated from media releases issued by the Australian Government’s Minister for Human Services, Senator Joe Ludwig.

They included: Spies on dads dodging child support – Herald Sun, 23 June 2008, “Human Services Minister Joe Ludwig announced today that undercover surveillance of parents would commence from July 1, in a bid to collect almost $1 billion in child support debt across Australia. I want child support cheats to be caught out on camera so the courts can see the truth,”

Deadbeat dads fleeing to debt-free haven – The Australian, 30 July 2008, “Separated parents living overseas now owe around $90 million in payments to their kids back in Australia,” Senator Ludwig said.

Chasing down deadbeat dads – Herald Sun, 1 August 2008

In this article, Senator Ludwig said:

“More than 20,000 separated parents are denying their children support by fleeing the country.”  and ;

“These mostly deadbeat dads owe a startling $90 million in child support and are guilty of a double betrayal.” and ;

“Deadbeat dads don’t need a visa to enter New Zealand and governments need to  work together to identify and track down runaway parents.”

The truth

The one billion dollar debt level is a cumulative total incurred from the commencement of the child Support scheme in 1988/89. Over $500 million debt had accumulated by 1996/97. The Child Support Agency ( CSA ) has already been criticised by the Auditor General for using cumulative totals in their efforts to justify their performance.

Yet the CSA continues to do so, as well as ignoring false debts created using unsustainable or unrealistic income determinations. Neither can the accuracy of assessments be thoroughly checked when address details for 15% of clients cannot be confirmed. If the information were available it would be interesting to know how much of this debt is uncollectable because the payer is unemployed, disabled or deceased or the child’s circumstances have changed, but remain unacknowledged by CSA?

According to published CSA data, 96 per cent of all child support due has been paid.

Why is no mention made of this significant figure? Obviously, it would spoil a good rant against paying parents (mostly fathers) and the Minister would then need to find other reasons to justify toughening up the methods used to hunt down Australian fathers, who may have done nothing deliberately wrong, but find themselves unable to service the high levels of child support demanded by the Child Support Agency.

The CSA already has unprecedented powers, far greater than any other westernised country.

The Agency can garnishee salary payments directly from employers without a court order; intercept third party payments due to the payer without court order authority or raid funds in bank accounts, even from joint accounts … all without a court order or the person having an opportunity to put forward their arguments as to why this seizure of funds should not occur.

Money seizures undertaken on the whim of an overzealous CSA collection agent have resulted in interstate transport drivers finding themselves unable to refuel their truck because the CSA has rifled their bank account or intercepted their diesel fuel rebate; the self employed find themselves unable to pay their GST bill – bank accounts having been raided; employers are unable to pay wages or superannuation because bank accounts have been stripped. Other fathers find themselves unable to provide for themselves, their second family or pay the mortgage due to their bank account being raided without notice.

We agree. Parents should, where possible, provide for their children’s financial needs and their day-to-day care. However, our system of social security fortunately recognises some within our community are unable to do so. Centrelink then steps in to provide support for low income, unemployed parents who cannot support their children themselves. We don’t take a brick bat to these people, they are not expected to repay monies to the Government when taxpayers’ money is spent supporting their children. Why then does the Government ignore the circumstances of separated parents, as they do when refusing to recognise the difficulties of supporting two households on one income?

CSA powers have included the ability to deem paying parents (usually fathers) with higher incomes, often based solely on untested information provided by the other parent or based on higher incomes earned in previous years long gone. Instant debt is obviously generated when CSA ‘deems’ a higher income. It is not unreasonable to suggest a paying parent who is already struggling to cope with his payments will have little chance of meeting the higher child support demands. His available income is already fully allocated to paying rent, or a mortgage, food, clothing, transport and his child support leaving little left for emergencies.

Imagine receiving a letter from the CSA advising that the income used to determine the amount of child support to be paid has been increased by $20k, $30K or more based on previously higher earnings not available to the payer today. Deeming a higher income invariably results in substantial increases in child support payments. How can these parents be expected to come up with another $300, $400 or $600 or more a month when they are already struggling to pay their bills? Existing commitments made to a budget that included a set rate of child support based on actual earnings, do not disappear just because child support now demands higher amounts. It is little wonder that the death rate among child support payers to the CSA is twice the level found in the general population.

For the Minister and the Child Support Agency to run a campaign of this nature based on a very small percentage of parents who deliberately do not comply with the CSA demands is simply unnecessary vilification, which will result in further vindictiveness against perfectly good fathers who are doing their very best to support their children in difficult circumstances. Paying parents are treated appallingly, stripped of any remaining dignity they are required to account for every dollar they spend of their income, justify any changes to their income or employment circumstances and if the CSA does not agree they will be penalised by increased payments and late payment penalties.

This is not a life for Australian separated fathers or for the increasing number of liable mothers, though in our observation it would seem mothers are treated with more respect and leniency than fathers in a similar position. This is hardly a surprising result when CSA and the Government persist in denigrating Australian fathers who are separated from their children.

Reclassification as a modern day version of “slavery or peonage” might be in order and begs the question, when will the Government extend their power to other areas to dictate how you spend your income? Perhaps recovering the cost of caring for elderly parents might be next on their list of demands.