A father, who acknowledges his failings up front, wonders why Australia’s most childish government agency continues to be commercially naïve while exercising unbridled power over individuals without legal charge, hearing or conviction. Keith Bettison tells his story…
Open letter: errant father appeals for support
9 May 2012
To whom it may concern,
I intend to describe, in as unbiased and objective way as I can, my dealings with the CSA over the last 15 years or so.
Firstly, I wish to fully acknowledge my short-fallings as a father and my errant, evasive approach when dealing with this institution. My son is 21 and allegedly I currently owe the CSA an amount in excess of $86,000. This, of course, includes penalties and is based only on their supposition of what I have earned over this period. I hope that, having read this narrative, you may be able to appreciate why I and many other fathers in Australia are, in the interest of self-preservation, compelled to avoid contact with this institution.
Before I continue; to the best of my knowledge the acronym CSA translates to Child Support Agency. I intend to demonstrate that the actual support of a child [in my experience] is the very last article on this woefully ineffectual department’s agenda.
I have been extremely vague with the information I provide to the CSA: I hope that I can demonstrate a tangible argument for my disinclination to be overly forthright. I’ll take this early opportunity to describe some of my recent interactions. Hopefully this confirms my notion that the CSA is preposterously powerful. Over the years they have consistently demonstrated the ability to manipulate my civil and probably human rights. They can effect my life to a far greater degree than the legal system, the police and the Australian Taxation Office combined. All without court hearings, mediation, consultation, audit and certainly without criminal conviction.
This dispute started in 1996; after a period of unemployment I was working at a car dealership in Sydney. From memory, I was probably earning around $700 per week. After about six months the CSA garnisheed this amount down to $110 per week [net]. At the time I was single and living in rented accommodation. I was certain that this had to be a miscalculation and contacted their Sydney office. During my one and only mediation session I was told [by an obviously ‘New Australian’ struggling with her English] that the CSA had calculated that an adult, single male could live in Sydney on $110 per week. I vehemently disputed this ‘fact’ and was informed that this calculation/decision was irrevocable. I tried to substantiate my point with some basic math.
Let us assume that the average Australian works five days a week. I feel that we can presume that having had ones salary reduced to $110 [per week] that the Jaguar would have to go back to the finance company. I think therefore, it would be reasonable to allow $8 per day for public transport.
This leaves one with $70. If I purchase one portion of hot chips per day and say two loaves of bread per week I could live [eat] for about $25 per week, leaving $45. As I am working I need to be relatively hygienic, so I’ll budget for $15 per week for soap, toothpaste, deodorant, shaving gear and shampoo etc, leaving $30. If I budget for four haircuts per year [say $40] and an annual clothing/shoe allowance of $220 this accounts for a further $5/week
I now have $25 per week for accommodation, utilities [it would be handy to have a phone] and medical expenses etc. Bearing in mind the fact that this is the Child Support Agency, how much of this money should I allocate to spending quality time with my child? …the child they were claiming to support?
I honestly believe that it is impossible to survive on $110. The general manager of the business I was working for had accompanied me to this meeting and protested that I was a good employee with a very promising future at the dealership. He, like many, many other employers, is absolutely sick of having good employees forced to leave by the CSA.
Stating the obvious, I explained that having quit I wouldn’t be in a position to pay them anything. This observation was met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders and a “thanks for coming”. This process repeated itself for the next seven or eight years: I’d get a job – and after about six months – the CSA’s ‘Targeted Enforcement Division’ would pillage my income for a couple of weeks and I’d be forced to move on.
During a recent conversation with the CSA I asked how much they had collected from me over the preceding 16 years. They couldn’t be certain, “about $6000” was their estimate. When I pointed that during this mediation process I had offered $70 per week, the result would have been, with little further effort on their behalf, accumulating about $58,000. Almost a ten-fold improvement on their performance; this was met with another [verbal] shrug of the shoulders and dismissed as inconsequential. I am certainly not the only errant father to have ended up under the auspices of ‘Targeted Enforcement’ I’m sure that there are hundreds of us.
My two biggest points of contention are:
- Due to the dogmatic, single-minded and ineffective methods employed by these unimaginative (expletive deleted – ed.) morons, they have succeeded in collecting around 10% of what I would have joyfully paid. Plus, they wouldn’t have had to tie up the undoubtedly costly resources of the Targeted Enforcement Division. They could have simply deducted it from my bank. They had no trouble deducting $3000 [I’ll explain this ‘deduction’ presently] so $70 would have been an undemanding task, to say the least.
- However, what really gives me the absolute (expletive deleted – ed.) shits is that, having wasted all that effort and tax payers money, having forbidden me from seeing my parents [explanation to follow] and ensuring that I had no chance of a sustainable career they have no idea, no concern and no interest in how the child support payment is spent by the recipient parent. And I quote: “It’s no concern of mine if the money is spent on gambling, drugs or alcohol.”
Multiply the amount of money that these wholly ineffectual techniques fail to collect by the number of us subjected to the influence of targetted enforcement and it must be entirely self-evident that this company of fools go real close to being the shittiest performers amongst all government departments.
I have digressed. Back to more recent encounters. In 2008 I was in Tasmania, helping a mate. I had borrowed $3000 from my mother to help me through a lean period. One Friday night at about 6pm I went to the ATM for cash, for food etc over the upcoming weekend. My request was declined ‘due to insufficient funds’ I knew this was a mistake on the bank’s behalf [the three grand was still in my account]. However, there was little I could do – including eat! – until Monday. I contacted the bank first thing Monday and was informed that the account was empty and they could not explain why. I found out on Tuesday that the CSA had without warning, or consultation, completely emptied my account. I called them, explaining that this was not only a loan but was all I the money I had. To cut a long and heated conversation short, they said it was ‘tough shit and while I was on the phone when can you pay the other eighty-odd thousand?’ At this stage they didn’t know what bills I had to pay, if I had other dependants or any other pressing commitments other than the need to feed myself.
All this coincided nicely with my son’s near-fatal accident. He was in a critical condition, in a coma in Sydney. I was in Launceston and – thanks to the CSA – had absolutely no chance of getting to the hospital. I had to rely on constant calls from a friend to keep me up to date with his condition. That must be the epitome of absolute excellence in contemporary CHILD SUPPORT.
For the past six years or so the CSA have imposed a DPO [Departure Prohibition Order] on my passport. The consequence of this is that I am not allowed to leave Australia. About three years ago  I approached the CSA requesting a temporary release. I have elderly parents who both live alone. I have not seen my parents for 10 years. My mother has chronic rheumatoid arthritis; a condition she has endured for almost 20 years. At this time my father had severely broken his ankle, following a fall. It had been pinned and plated. He was in pain, distressed and virtually house-bound. Neither could drive, both required frequent hospital and GP attendance. Having obtained medical certificates and documentation from both specialists and GPs supporting the fact that an extended visit by myself [say three to six months] would be extremely beneficial for them both, I forwarded the information to the CSA. They replied about six weeks later. In their opinion [I wasn’t informed whether it was based on professional medical advice or thrashed out round the water cooler], my parents’ conditions were not severe enough to warrant the consideration of the DPO being suspended. I was given the option of paying the eighty-six grand for the return of my autonomy.
I can guarantee that every single time I contact the CSA I get this bullying thrown in my face. “You know we’ll never lift the DPO until you pay us off” is the general tenor of the conversation. How can a department of seemingly unqualified clerks and administrators possibly have powers that exceed those of the courts, the state police, the federal police, probably the ATO and even the all conquering bureaus of Customs and Excise, etc?
There other points and issues that I feel need to be addressed. In all my dealings with the CSA I have found them to be reticent, at the very least. It seems utterly outrageous to me that this institution has the authority to virtually bankrupt any individual at will. It is equally infuriating that the CSA have the sanction to impose a DPO on a person solely based on what they claim is outstanding. I’ll reiterate: having never been taken to court and certainly never convicted or even audited, the CSA have canceled my passport and been able to deplete my funds.
In my opinion Australia has one of the best police forces in the world. For the most part dedicated, highly trained and professional individuals. Unlike the faceless bastards of the CSA, the police carry out their vocation in the glare of the public eye and under the excessive scrutiny of the tabloid media. How on earth can a dimwitted collection of clerks wield greater power, with less [if any] accoountability than our police?
And – given this nauseatingly disproportionate capability – they seem to operate unbridled, anonymous and entirely autonomously.
The CSA currently purloin 17% of my weekly gross. On three recent occasions I have offered $70 per week until retirement, which equates to about $58,000…once again requiring minimal effort on their behalf. For the third time, today [Wednesday 8 May 2012] they have declined. I cannot afford to pay 33% extra ‘tax’ per week. Earlier I spoke to the CSA’s Matthew [surname withheld by Matthew] and explained that once again I will be handing in my notice and disappearing.
It has taken the CSA about four years to find me: $70 x 208 weeks equals another $14,560 that I would have contributed.
So, once more, they will collect a few hundred dollars in favor of nearly $60,000. Matthew’s only salient contribution to this conversation was “You know we still have the DPO?” That was when I told him to (expletive deleted – ed.) and hung up.
I’ve been at this current job for a year now; I like it and I’m good at it. I’m reliable and effective. It’s a relatively small business but I’m not the first employee they have lost due to the CSA.
Like many other errant fathers, it’s not that I don’t want to pay. I’d happily pay a sustainable amount, an amount that [other than the penalties] would easily service my debt. I work hard and I’m not working for (“virtually nothing” – ed.) just to appease the CSA.
Thank you for reading my story. If you can help change the unbridled, excessive, unquestionable power of the CSA, for me and thousands of other fathers, please do so.