In Australia, as elsewhere, child support continues to attract considerable policy interest. Poverty has an ugly face, particularly for children, and an effective child support system can lessen the chances of children being thrust into poverty if their parents separate.
Australia’s child support system is the envy of many countries around the world. But like all systems, it’s far from perfect. Sweeping changes were made to the Australian Scheme between 2006 and 2008, featuring a dramatically different system for the calculation of child support.
The burning policy question is: How effective have those reforms actually been?
It’s an issue that’s explored in an article co-written by Associate Professor Bruce Smyth and ANU colleagues in latest edition of the Australian Journal of Social Issues – a distillation of findings from a large four-year ARC-funded, longitudinal study.
As lead chief investigator, Smyth describes the study as ‘quintessential, hard-nosed empirical research’. With little empirical data available in this highly contested and controversial area, it is not surprising that a recent parliamentary inquiry into child support drew extensively on key ideas in the journal article.
But as Smyth notes: “While many of the parliamentary inquiry’s latest recommendations look sensible and have merit, there is likely to be little capacity or political will to act on the recommendations in the current economic and political environment.
“The power of our data point to the importance of having funding bodies like the ARC to be able to fund big-picture, independent, high-impact research in extremely contested areas of social policy.”
Smyth is also curious to see whether the loss of expertise in the Commonwealth public service in recent years might impact on the government’s capacity to implement change in this technical area of policy.
As a social scientist, Smyth says he has an intellectual fascination with child support because of its ‘fantastically complex interactions’ with other areas of family policy.
“There’s often confusion about how some particular part or element of the scheme works – even among experts.
“And no matter what governments do, it’s an area of policy that’s always going to be controversial because of the politics of competing interests.
“Everybody has a view of what should be done. But it’s like a Rubik’s cube. Each time you twist some policy element, you end up snookered.”
So were there any surprises in the data?
The short answer is ‘lots’.
“We were surprised how little knowledge separated parents had about the way the system worked and how little change there has been in compliance, given the amount of time, effort and money the government has put into the system in recent years to try to ensure that payments were made in full and on time.
“We were also surprised that even though the reforms sought to encourage shared parenting after separation – where children spend roughly equal time with mum and dad – our data suggest that the prevalence of shared-time hasn’t increased.”
In the aftermath the GFC, Smyth and his colleagues wonder whether demographic and economic factors might limit the number of families able to manage shared-time arrangements ¬ – even where policy encourages such arrangements.
He said the government was also hoping the scheme would be a lot fairer after the reforms, though perceptions of fairness were not especially high pre- or post-reform.
“This wasn’t tweaking, this was radical policy reform – as radical as you’ll ever get, where the fundamental tenets of the system were changed.”
“It took the government three years to implement the changes (2006-8), with a lot of extra money and resources allocated to do it.
“And yet three to four years post-reform, not a lot of change appears to have occurred.
“Perhaps it’s easier to change a formula or policy element than it is to change human behaviour?”