Symposium: Reform and Rhetoric in Australian Social Policy

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

Kay Cook, Centre for Applied Social Research, RMIT University
Kristin Natalier, School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania

CHILD SUPPORT AS A CONTESTED POLICY ISSUE

Child support is cash or in-kind transfers made by a non-resident parent to a resident parent to contribute to the costs of raising a child following relationship breakdown (Department of Human Services 2014). These payments often provide an important part of single parent household income (Harding & Percival 2007; Skinner et. al. 2014). The goals of Australia’s original Child Support Scheme, enacted in 1988 by the Hawke Government were to reduce both single-parent-family child poverty and welfare expenditure (Fehlberg & Maclean 2009). Some early evidence suggested modest progress toward this aim (Harding & Szukalska 1999). However, the possibilities of child support have been mitigated by patterns of non-payment, partial payment and late payment. Fathers’ reports of compliance ‘in full and on time’ have never been reported above 77 per cent (Qu & Weston 2008), while mothers’ reports of full compliance have never exceeded 68 per cent (Qu & Weston 2013) and debts in excess of $1 billion have been reported (Child Support Agency 2010).

Child support is a contentious and contested issue, both personally and politically, aggravated by the emotions involved in the transfer of money to an ex-partner post-separation (Natalier 2012; Natalier & Hewitt 2014; Smart & May 2004). Child support has been ‘one of the most complained about federal statutory regimes in Australia, particularly by [non-custodial parents]’ (Fehlberg & Maclean 2009, p. 11), and has been subject to ongoing criticism and reform since its enactment.

Child support is a contentious and contested issue, personally and politically.

On 27 March 2014, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs began an inquiry into Australia’s Child Support Program. The current child support inquiry follows on from a parliamentary inquiry conducted in 2003 that examined child custody and child support issues (House of Representatives Standing Committee of Family and Community Affairs (HRSCFCA) 2003a), and a Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support (MTSC) in 2005. These previous reviews resulted in significant changes to the Australian Child Support Scheme, implemented between 2006 and 2008. These changes have been criticised by researchers and policy advocates alike, with academics suggesting that the reforms appeased the vocal men’s rights movement that instigated the 2003 review (Fehlberg & Maclean 2009) and that issues of concern to paying fathers were prioritised while the concerns of recipient mothers were ignored (Cook & Natalier 2013a, 2014). Other researchers have found that the reforms financially benefited fathers, who represent approximately 87 per cent of payers (Child Support Agency 2010), with high income non-resident parents paying less child support after the reforms, and low income recipients ending up approximately $20 worse off per week (Smyth & Henman 2010). Changes to child support, combined with welfare-to-work legislation introduced at the same time, meant that financially vulnerable single mothers found themselves significantly worse off (Summerfield et al. 2010).

Payment enforcement was excluded from terms of reference of both the 2003 and 2005 reviews (HRSCFCA 2003a; Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support 2005), which is surprising given that leading into the reforms women claimed that child support payments were of insignificant value and that both women’s accounts and government data showed that payments were often not received in full. As a result of the reforms, minimum payments were also not raised beyond inflation. At the same time, men’s claims that payment amounts were too high and that money paid was not being used on children were central to the recommendations made and the subsequent policy reforms (Cook & Natalier 2013a). Given the gendered impacts of these outcomes, our research has sought to trace the reforms back through the framing of the policy problems (Bacchi 1999, 2009) and the data used by inquiry witnesses and parliamentarians to substantiate claims for policy reform.

STUDYING THE RHETORIC OF CHILD SUPPORT EVIDENCE

Our research has focused on the submissions made to the 2003 Inquiry, the Inquiry hearings and the reports made by the Standing Committee (2003a) and Ministerial Taskforce (2005). Over 1700 written submissions were submitted to the Inquiry. Twenty-one public hearings were held across Australia, with between five and thirteen witnesses comprised primarily of academics, service and advocacy group representatives and private individuals appearing at each hearing. In addition, 181 individuals made brief statements at the conclusion of the community hearings. We analysed how issues relating to child support were talked about and defined (Cook & Natalier 2013a, 2014), how they progressed through the policymaking process (Cook & Natalier 2013a) and how arguments and data were presented and defined as valid or invalid evidence of the problems they portrayed (Cook & Natalier 2013a, 2014). Here, we summarise the findings of three studies that have been reported elsewhere (Cook & Natalier 2012, 2013a, 2013b). We present them together to highlight how the recommendations for policy change were justified and what evidence was used to support these claims.

1. Whose evidence was used?

Our analysis of the child support chapter of the inquiry report (HRSCFCA 2003a) revealed that half of the claims being made about child support were supported by references to information provided by individuals, rather than to research studies or government data (Cook & Natalier 2012). Of the 220 references made to external sources of evidence, 110 (50 per cent) were to personal witnesses and representatives from gendered advocacy groups, such as the Lone Fathers Association or the Council for Single Mothers and their Children. Drilling down further, we found that references to government statistics, agency data or academic research were much more likely to be used in sections of the chapter that focused on background information. Research data were much less likely than individual testimony or submissions to be used to support a recommendation for policy change.

When we looked closer at the 110 instances of individual or advocacy group evidence cited in the child support chapter, we found that 72 per cent of the people cited were men and 28 per cent were women. While 87 per cent of child support payers are male, we found that 92 per cent of men’s evidence cited in the report served the interests of payers. More surprisingly, while only thirteen per cent of women are child support payers, more than half (55 per cent) of references to women’s evidence served the interests of payers.

Information provided by men almost exclusively confirmed the stock story.

This was due to two factors. First, a high percentage (23 per cent) of women’s testimony focused on their personal experiences as payers of child support, even though only thirteen per cent of payers are women. Second, in 39 per cent of the references to women’s testimony, the woman in question was neither a payer nor receiver of child support, but someone with second-hand experience of the child support system, such as a new partner or parent of a payer/recipient. The ‘second-hand’ data used by the Inquiry committee to support policy recommendations were also gendered. While eight per cent of cited testimony from men came from second-hand sources, 100 per cent of these references supported recommendations that benefited payers. In all cases cited, men’s testimony supported men. At the same time, 92 per cent of the cited second-hand testimony provided by women also benefited payers. As a result, the gender-neutral language of ‘payers’, ‘witnesses’ and ‘parents’ used throughout the report masked deeply gendered inclusions and uses of information.

2. Who was heard?

Our second analysis sought to examine why some witness information was accepted as evidence of legitimate problems while other witness information was dismissed (Cook & Natalier 2014). Our findings revealed that information (data on an issue) was sometimes treated as evidence (proof of a given claim) and sometimes not, depending on the source or type of data, and whether the information presented fit with committee members’ existing understanding of the policy problems to be solved. We examined the conduct of the Inquiry hearings to illustrate how committee members responded to the personal anecdotes and scientific data presented by the witnesses appearing before them. Committee members used what we characterised as a stock story (Delgado 1995) to define witness information as either legitimate or illegitimate. The stock story matched the original calls for the Inquiry, made by the vocal men’s lobby, which had highlighted problems with excessive child support orders, mothers’ power over child contact and fathers’ relative powerlessness to renegotiate unreasonable child support claims.

Information was characterised by committee members as legitimate when it confirmed the stock story of fathers’ disadvantage and illegitimate when it challenged this account. Information provided by men almost exclusively confirmed the stock story and was most typically provided as an anecdotal account. These anecdotes were not challenged or debated in the hearings, but were taken as evidence of the unfairness of the system. For example, Independent Member for Franklin, Harry Quick, noted:

we heard evidence today that a partner uses child support for the house repayments. We also saw evidence earlier today where children come along [to the non-custodial parent’s house] with clothes that are obviously hand-me-downs and the money is not going to the kids (HRSCFCA 2003b, p. 8).

Information provided by resident mothers was also typically in the form of anecdote and often emphasised their low incomes, not receiving child support and managing relationships with ex-partners and their children. These accounts did not directly challenge the stock story, but because they did not conform to it, committee members were able to disregard such data as not providing sufficient evidence of problems requiring policy reform. Instead, women’s anecdotes were met with benign agreement, active rejection, or the conversation was directed elsewhere. For example, when domestic violence advocate Ms Brownlee suggested that she could provide empirical data to support her claim that, ‘my experience is that there are a miniscule number of women who do not want fathers to have contact with children’, the Inquiry Chair and Nationals Member for Riverina, Kay Hull responded, ‘I would ask that you might do that, because the evidence we have heard in front of this committee does not justify what you are saying’ (HRSCFCA 2003c, p. 26).

Australian scientific studies of child support were rare at the time of the inquiry (Cook, McKenzie & Knight 2011) and such data were seldom presented at the Inquiry hearings. When lobby groups described the findings in published studies, these data were differentially interrogated according to whether they confirmed or challenged the stock story. Research that confirmed the stock story was held up as evidence of the problems to be solved, despite such studies being misinterpreted by witnesses, or discredited by further witnesses. However, when witnesses presented data on the financial vulnerability of women or the gendered division of work and care time, committee members discredited statistics, with the Inquiry Chair noting, ‘I am a bit of an anti-research person myself … I figure it is time we got out of the research and get into delivering what our families need’ (HRSCFCA 2003d, p. 17).

Men presented themselves as the reasonable and rational subjects
of law.

This analysis revealed that the type of data, be it scientific or anecdotal, was less important than whether the data confirmed existing an understanding of the policy problems to be solved (Bacchi 1999, 2009). Given the committee’s existing understanding of the problems with child support, some Inquiry witnesses were more likely to be heard than others. These were primarily fathers with anecdotes about their unjust experience of child support and others who supported this view.

3. What made men’s evidence more likely to be heard?

Our final analysis illustrates why men’s testimony was so influential (Cook & Natalier 2013b). Much witness testimony presented at the Inquiry hearings expressed anger, frustration and loss, and was directed by men towards their ex-partners and the Child Support Agency. Men’s accounts typically centred on themselves and directly attributed their experiences and emotions to the deliberate and unjust behaviour of others. For example, Richard claimed:

The child support payments really are a form of blackmail. I still get blackmailed by my ex-wife, who says, ‘If you want to see them [the children] more, pay me more money’. She still gets a full family allowance and a single parent pension; she works and she has remarried. She is earning over $70,000 a year tax-free. What about us? (HRSCFCA 2003e, p. 37).

Men in the inquiry hearings used anger and despair to reinforce the importance of rationality and reason in the State’s management of post-separation parenting. Their explicit anger was in response to what they understood to be the illogical or unjust processes of the Child Support Agency, as Robert’s quote exemplifies:

Firstly, in relation to the CSA … I ask parliament: would they put the Ku Klux Klan in charge of ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission] for Indigenous affairs? That is exactly what they have done with the Child Support Agency. They put the WEL— the Women’s Electoral Lobby— in charge of the ‘I hate men agency’. That is the truth (HRSCFCA 2003f, p. 53).

Men presented themselves as the reasonable and rational subjects of law until they were pushed too far by unjust processes. Accounts of righteous anger were used by men to support their identities as rational, just, fair and accountable. This framing, the dominance of men’s experiences and claims during the Inquiry process, and the volume of men’s emotional testimony, contributed to a greater uptake of men’s evidence in the Inquiry report and thus greater support for recommendations that supported men’s interests.

We propose women’s testimony was not as evident in the Inquiry report because women tended to use more measured language, foregrounded the objectivity of their claims and understated their emotional responses. Presenting responses in this way reflects dominant cultural understandings of mothering, which are not linked to providing financially for one’s children. Decisions relating to money do not explicitly strike at the heart of women’s claim of being a good mother, and thus are unable to effectively capture the injustices women face (Fogarty & Augoustinos 2008).

Women often presented their emotions as a response to the rules and administration of the child support system, rather than the behaviours of individuals, such as their ex-partners, as the following testimony from an anonymous witness illustrates:

My husband made certain choices in his financial dealings after our separation and then lodged a reassessment notice with [the] Child Support [Agency]. It took some time for that to be processed. Child Support then had to make a decision. The decision has been made and I still have not received anything [any money]. As I understand it—and I may not have all the information—although Child Support can garnishee wages, if the employer does not sign off on that, it still may not proceed. I do not know the reasons (HRSCFCA 2003f, p. 30).

Women’s typically dispassionate evidence did not provide a sufficient impetus for policy reform.

It is likely that the women who presented evidence at the Inquiry hearings were also aware of the illegitimacy that can be ascribed to maternal love and emotion in post-separation contexts (Smart 1991). Maternal love, once valorised, can also be presented by fathers’ rights activists and the media as code for maternal rights, inequity and injustice. In this context, women’s anger, which may be re-interpreted as shrewishness, vindictiveness or hysteria, may not have been perceived to hold the same promise as a legitimate political strategy for women as it did for men. However, women’s typically dispassionate evidence also did not provide a sufficient impetus for policy reform because it failed to provide an effective (and affective) counter to men’s claims about the injustices they faced and the Committee’s stock story. In addition, when women produced social scientific evidence that countered men’s emotional claims, their evidence had the potential to generate defensive anger among Committee members, particularly male members, aligning with Lyman’s (2004) claim that dominant groups can feel angry when it is suggested that they examine their privilege. For example, when Dr Elspeth McInnes, Coordinator of the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children, cited data from Australian Bureau of Statistics to counter the Chair’s claim that mothers and fathers provide equal care for children, Liberal Member for Aston, Chris Pearce interjected:

I have detected quite a degree of cynicism about this inquiry from you and I regret to hear that … If we took the same approach that you have taken with us, we probably would not have bothered talking to an organisation with a name that has Single Mothers and their Children—[in it] (HRSCFCA 2003g, pp. 27–29).

CONCLUSION

Taken together, our analyses of who spoke, how they spoke and what was heard point to gender as a primary organising concept of the Australian Child Support reforms. Men’s understandings framed the problems to be solved and thus their possible solutions. Women’s interests and experiences lay outside the dominant stock story. This gendered framing shaped the way that information, and in particular anecdote, was received and managed as evidence by the Committee during the Inquiry process. When we examined how arguments were made and evidenced in the inquiry process, we found that the type of data (for example, social scientific or anecdotal data; qualitative or quantitative data) was less important than whether the information confirmed or challenged the Committee’s understanding of the problems to be solved.

The current Inquiry into the Child Support Program provides another opportunity to examine how data are managed and responded to in this controversial area of social policy. However, given that the new Inquiry Chair, Nationals Member for Dawson, George Christensen is described as having ‘a history of strong support for Men and Father’s Rights issues’ (O’Hara 2014), and has used fathers’ emotional anecdotes to define the policy problems, such as ‘this bloke has been victimised … by someone [the mother] stealing his kids … [and] a failed system that then goes and financially penalises him’ (The Nationals 2012), gender will likely again feature as a key organiser of how evidence for policy reform is assembled.

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Dr Kay Cook is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Family Studies and a Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow. Her work examines the intersections between social policies and family life, including how new and developing areas of policy, such as welfare-to-work, child support and child care policies, transform relationships between the state, individuals and families.

Dr Kristin Natalier is a qualitative sociologist who focuses on the ways people negotiate relationships in times of personal and social change. She has particular expertise in parents’ use child support as an expressive tool to present and manage post-separation mothering and fathering identities.