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Stuart Birks

Agenda denial and framing – the Child Support Act 1991

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An American politician, the late Eugene McCarthy, described politics as a game. It is a game where the public see the performance, but not the behind the scenes planning. Much of the politics that we see is engineered. Some of the strategies are described in academic literature using terms such as “agenda setting”, “agenda denial” and “framing”. It is not entirely accidental that some issues get a lot of attention and others are ignored. It is the result of groups competing to set the agenda. When an issue does get attention, the aim is then to frame it so that a particular view and desired solution dominates. Mike Butler referred to this in his recent column, “Framing the race debate” http://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2010/06/mike-butler-framing-race-debate.html. I described it also some time ago in a column on politics and reasoned debate.

The consequences are significant. If a particular view dominates, policies will be made and implemented according to that view. Alternative views will often have little traction. A major problem for new or minority interests is the difficulty they have in getting public awareness and support. Those in established positions have their own agendas and do not want to compete with others, especially if they go against their objectives.

There is a lot of publicity about fathers who owe child support and penalties. This is highlighted by many politicians and is presented as a problem for women and children. In reality there are many men who pay the full assessed amount, and those on wages or salaries have little choice. However, we hear little of the cases where child support is a problem for men.

As an illustration, consider a farmer who owns a family farm. He marries and they have four children. His wife then decides to move out and live with someone else, taking the children. In order to buy her out of the farm, he has to take a full-time paid job. Out of this income he has to pay child support (30% of the extra income) as well as income tax (38%), only having the remainder available to pay her. Every dollar he pays her from the income is matched by an a dollar in increased child support. The total sum that he has to pay her is effectively doubled.

He has the children with him from Friday evening to Sunday evening, or say 28 waking hours. He has to provide bedrooms and other facilities for that time. They are at school in the week, so she has them with her for five morning starts and four evenings, say 28 waking hours, but she is the custodial parent and there is no adjustment to his child support for the direct costs he incurs. Unlike him, she also gets assistance through Working for Families, the formula for which additionally favours her as it treats her tax-free child support as if it is before tax income. This case combines details from more than one real case, but indicates the sort of anomalies that might arise.

The Child Support Act was passed in 1991 and gives a formula for determining the amount of child support a liable parent should pay. There were some peculiarities to that formula. For example:

  • No explanation was given for the choice of formula, which could bear little relationship to the actual costs of the children.
  • There was no specification as to how the child support should be used, or even that it was to be spent on the child.
  • The liable parent had no say as to how the child support would be used.
  • There was no accountability to the liable parent as to how the child support had been used.
  • There was no consideration for the costs that a liable parent might incur when caring directly for the children unless that care included at least 40% of nights (146) in a year, the threshold for shared care.
  • Unless there was shared care, the recipient parent’s income or living circumstances had no effect on the child support assessment.

The Act contains a list of “objects” which outline its stated purpose. They use terms such as “equity”, the rights of children, and the obligations of parents. Paradoxically, the formula did not reflect, and sometimes clearly went against, these objects. One article pointing this out was published ten years ago – Birks, S. (2000), “Objects and fairness in family law”, New Zealand Law Journal (August), 297-299. The issues have yet to be addressed.

After nearly twenty years with the legislation, and after these problems had been pointed out many times, there has still been no change to the law. This year Peter Dunne has said that there are serious concerns that he wishes to tackle, but there is little sign that he will succeed in getting the issue on the agenda. A whole generation of children has grown up under the current regime. For many of them, it has shaped their relationships with their parents in ways that they do not even realise. The Child Support Act was one component of a body of legislation which, collectively, has had a major impact on the whole of society.

As one attempt at framing, in Australia some groups have tried to draw a parallel between the “stolen generation” and the workings of current family law. For both, there have been many cases where the relationship between child and parent is broken. For the stolen generation, the government has now apologised. For family law, which is still in place, a deprived parent is additionally forced to pay for the children. Our imaginary farmer could find himself in that position, paying for a family he never sees. This perspective has yet to gain traction. Instead, the framing of the issue is openly dismissive of or hostile to many fathers, using terms such as “sole parent families”, “feminisation of poverty”, and “absent parents”.

In part, it may be that legislation is passed without adequate analysis, and then the political timetable is too full for reconsideration. If so, then there should be general concern about the ability of politicians to do their job to a satisfactory standard. Alternatively, if the situation is the result of more deliberate action (and subsequent inaction), then it might be prudent for people to be aware of the manipulation that may be occurring.

Mike Butler wrote on race issues, where there has been a change in framing. In 2005 Ian Wishart wrote “The Velvet Underground”, describing the capture of policy and governmental power by Labour’s lesbian/feminist wing and their use of “subtle strategies… disguising the real reason for taking a particular position on an issue”. He gave the example of framing as “common sense” policies which were essentially affirmative action for women.

In a healthy democracy, many different groups would have a voice, and people would be aware of both the alternative perspectives and the nature of the game. A first step in developing and maintaining such awareness might be an understanding of the term, “framing”. At any time, the prevailing perception of issues (what they are and how they are viewed) could be considered as being the result of processes of agenda setting and framing. We then have the choice of passively accepting these, or challenging them and ensuring that alternatives are presented. This could be uncomfortable for some of those who see themselves in the dominant group. It involves challenging their “fundamental beliefs”. However, dominant groups do not dominate forever, and it may not be in anybody’s interest for some groups to be heard and others ignored.