An excellent article from Bettina. You can use this to protest the Labour and Democrats decision to reject the minimal changes in the CSA Amendment bill. Send a copy now with your brief letter of protest to each and every Labour and Democrat member of parliament. Let them know we will not tolerate their actions and it will count against them when we are next called upon to vote.

Men’s Right Agency

It will be a tragedy if the current moves to change the child support system are thwarted in the Senate, writes Bettina Arndt .

The latest attempt to reform child support is in trouble, with Labor and Democrat senators refusing to pass key government amendments. Talks continue but it seems unlikely the Government will overcome Opposition resistance to dividing the costs of children more fairly between separated parents.

One surprising aspect of last week’s parliamentary debate was the claim by both Labor and the Democrats that there was not sufficient evidence on the costs of contact to justify reducing child support liabilities for non-resident parents who care for their children between 10 and 30 per cent of nights a year.

There was also the misleading suggestion that these costs are already taken into account in the child support formula. In fact, there’s absolutely no evidence that costs of contact are included in the formula in any measurable way. In 1987, when the formula was designed, there was no research on the costs of contact, nor much Australian data on costs of raising children. The result was a poorly documented formula based on very limited evidence.

However, major research studies are now available giving solid Australian evidence on the costs of children – which show very clearly the formula is flawed. Rather than sharing the costs of the children, as prescribed by the legislation, middle and higher income fathers actually pay the total costs of children (or more) in child support – hence the proposed amendment reducing the upper limit or “cap” on payer income used to calculate child support.

Now finally there’s solid data on contact costs, with the release of important new research which paints in graphic terms the financial burden faced by non-residential parents who attempt to maintain contact with their children. This study, due to be published next year in the prestigious Journal of Social Policy, was undertaken by Macquarie University sociologist Dr Paul Henman, and Kyle Mitchell, a Department of Family and Community Services policy analyst with extensive experience in child support research.

This research – which was made available to senators considering the legislation – absolutely nails the inequities being experienced by contact parents under the formula. It shows, for instance, that for a man who has contact with a child for 20 per cent of the year, the costs of this contact are about 40 per cent of the total yearly costs of raising the same child in an intact couple medium-income household, and around half the yearly costs in an intact low-income family.

So non-resident parents face significant financial costs from providing relatively small amounts of contact. The key issues are household infrastructure – sleeping accommodation etc for the children, and costs of transport and communication between the two households. These costs, which can preclude fathers from maintaining regular contact, are not taken into account in the formula’s calculation of child support liabilities.

Henman and Mitchell point out that the diseconomies of raising children in two separated households raises doubts about “the realism, fairness and efficacy” of arguments that child support liability levels should attempt to maintain pre-divorce living standards of children: “There is a danger that the level of child support liability may, at least partly, be at the expense of the ability to afford contact and/or compliance with child support liabilities.”

They make a strong argument that just as the interests of children place an obligation on the State to provide for sole parents struggling to survive on low incomes, there is also an obligation to ensure non-residents’ income is sufficient to meet costs of contact.

This powerful research adds new urgency to the need to restore legitimacy to our formula by addressing these glaring inequities. There are overseas countries which regularly review and update their formulae in the light of new data on costs of children. Yet in Australia, whose formula must rank among the world’s worst in terms of research-based validity, any attempt to update it in line with relevant research meets with massive resistance.

The contact proposals included in this legislation are only one small imperfect step towards addressing the problems with the formula. It is alarming that both Labor and Democrats show such resistance to any change resulting in the slightest loss of income for resident parents. Concern about the impact on low-income lone parents is understandable – although many lone parents will be supported by increased family tax benefits. But it’s a different story with higher-income parents, where giving contact fathers a little more and resident mothers a little less would result in no real hardship, but simply a little more equity.

The Government is well aware of the social costs if this package of reforms should fail. The glaring inequities in our child support system are at the heart of the widespread disquiet and alienation of large numbers of non-resident parents and their families. This alienation plays a role in the large numbers of children losing contact with their fathers, the astonishing 25 per cent of child support payers currently not in employment, the alarming rate of suicide among separated men, and the fact that more than half of lone parents receive very little or no child support. An unfair system makes for an unhappy, dysfunctional society.