Using and ignoring evidence: the case of Australian child support reform

19 Sep 2014

Single parents in receipt of Centrelink benefits, who are overwhelmingly mothers, are compelled to seek child support from their ex-partner in order to receive above the base rate of Family Tax Benefit payments. If the single parent receives child support payments, the rate of other government payments is reduced, making child support an important part of household income and deeply connected to the welfare system. However, child support is one of the most complained about areas of social policy, and since its introduction in 1988 there have been several rounds of significant reform, with a federal parliamentary inquiry carried out in 2003 and another currently in progress. The impetus for these inquiries has been lobbying from ‘fathers’ rights’ groups, which complain that fathers pay too much, that they have to pay despite being denied contact, and that payments are not used on children. These allegations are counter to women’s claims that payments are often not made and when they are, are often of a trivial amount. Despite these conflicting accounts, the outcomes of the previous reform process benefited paying fathers almost exclusively, and resulted in low-income mothers losing on average $20 per week in combined child support and welfare income. This presentation sheds light on why reforms advantaged fathers, through analysis of the role of anecdotal and social scientific data in the 2003 inquiry process, how data were constructed and presented as legitimate or illegitimate along gender lines, and the social processes through which the voices and interests of women were marginalised.
Kay Cook and Kristin Natalier’s paper was presented at the Reform and Rhetoric in Australian Social Policy Symposium which brought together researchers at The University of Sydney on 19 September 2014 to discuss how contemporary social policy is being talked about, designed and debated, and is published in the Australian Review of Public Affairs (201).

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