Last month newly appointed Minister for Human Services, Joe Hockey, announced administrative changes to the agencies within the Department of Human Services to “reflect the Government’s commitment to improving service delivery and developing a consistent culture across the $80 billion Human Services portfolio”.

Hopefully, this does not mean extending the prevailing anti-male policy and bureaucratic bullying seen so often in dealings with the Child Support Agency. 

After a spectacular ‘dummy spit’ in response to the release of the PIR Report into the cost of CSA to the Australian Taxpayer, CSA General Manager, Cathy Argall has been moved to the Health Insurance Commission, and 2 IC Sheila Bird is now the Acting General Manager, with ex Queensland Regional Registrar Angela Tillman appointed as Acting Assistant General Manager.

Argall has a long history in the public service. Not mentioned though in Hockey’s Media Release is her time with the Property Services Group that was responsible for the ill conceived 15 year lease to the Labour Party Super Fund of Centenary House in Canberra to the National Audit Office, which cost the taxpayers $65 million. The PIR report claims the Child Support Agency has cost the taxpayer some $35 billion since inception – $15 billion during Argall’s time with the Agency. 

Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister, Dr Peter Sheargold gave an interesting speech to the Australia National Conference, for the Institute of Public Administration held in Canberra on November 11, 2004 where he outlined the government’s intention to curb the independence of some of the agencies that appear to answer to no-one. 
Using the latest in buzz words   Dr. Shergold outlined the Government’s intention to “Regenerate” the organisational framework of the public service by restructuring and focussing on “demands that we rearticulate and recommit to the carefully balanced values of public service upon which the Westminster tradition has been based i.e. on one side of the scales, political non-partisanship and, on the other, responsiveness to elected government”.

 It sounds like these agencies have been busy procrastinating and building roadblocks to prevent the implementation of government policy. Dr. Sheargold seemingly agrees with our often expressed dissatisfaction about the lack of accountability of various agencies, including CSA. Referring to the current arrangements, he said they “are complex and incomprehensible to citizens. They are the arbitrary creatures of historical vicissitude rather than strategic design. They don’t make for transparent governance even for the initiated.

 “On occasion the agencies have taken on policy work that should rest with departments. Conversely, too often policy decisions have been insufficiently informed by the real-world experience of delivery agencies.

 “On occasion the agencies operate in ways that don’t give full force to government policy and, where public servants sit on agency boards, perceived conflicts of interest can arise. Very often powers and responsibilities are opaque.”

Perhaps at last, the Government has realised how little control they have over the Child Support Agency. Over the years, they have increased their  power to such an extent that they routinely make intrusive decisions that infringe on every conceivable right, normally afforded citizens of a democratic country – arbitrary deeming of unrealistic incomes, garnisheeing of pay without court order, seizure of funds from bank accounts without proper judicial process and now third parties will find themselves involved in CSA’s debt recovery process if the Agency believes a financial connection exists with the indebted payer. It is little wonder that the death rate of CSA clients is double that in the general population. 

CSA’s original charter quite clearly stated that parents were to support their children “according to their capacity to pay” – not “capacity to earn” – a concept CSA uses frequently to increase payments by deeming incomes. After reporting on this varied concept CSA changed to quoting their charter as being “according to their capacity” only. 

The Agency was also not supposed to infringe unnecessarily upon peoples’ privacy, nor was it to affect levels of employment.

 According to the latest Facts and Figures 2002/03 the unemployed and low income earners comprise 47.0% of payers!  

CSA has become adept in manipulating the legislative process to achieve their now unassailable position that leaves their clients feeling in a hopeless position. No amount of complaint seems to resolve the arrogance and bullying displayed by CSA. Few politicians understand the legislation, so it is a simple process to create policies, refer to them for a period – then transfer them into Regulations to be presented to Parliament, either to be passed or rejected (Regulations cannot be amended) Together with long lists of seemingly minor changes listed as ‘technical amendments” which are passed without question, CSA have created for themselves legislation that is so vague it can mean anything they decide it should. 

As they say themselves to prospective new employees – “don’t regard this job as an opportunity to engage in social welfare activities, we are purely a debt collection agency”