Mr. Speaker, first I would like to thank you for recognizing me today in this debate. It is an honour for me to speak first. I have been asked by my party to lead off on this second reading debate.
We recognize with Bill C-41 that the government is addressing a much needed part of our society in that there are support payments which are in serious arrears. In British Columbia, my home province, there are serious arrears and persistent arrears in some cases. We must deal with the issue and this bill is welcome in that sense.
There are a lot of divorces in which the non-custodial parent is working very hard, is making the support payments and is trying to keep in touch with his previous family. I say "his" because nine times out of ten the non-custodial parent is usually male in our society.
I feel that the bill addresses a very important concern; however, I have several reservations regarding it.
In the 1996 budget the government addressed a strategy to change the Canadian child support system, including the introduction of guidelines to establish child support awards in divorce cases. Legislation implementing key components of the strategy was tabled in the House of Commons on May 30, 1996. Both the guidelines and the new tax rules for child support are scheduled to come into effect on May 1, 1997.
Bill C-41 is a bill which will amend the Divorce Act and other acts in order to establish a federal system of aid for the payment of child support or spousal maintenance.
The bill will alter four statutes in order to do these four things. First, it will establish federal guidelines for child support. As I stated before, that is needed.
Second, Revenue Canada data bases will be open for searches in the case of payment default. This may cause all sorts of problems arising from the questions of privacy and confidentiality. These are some considerations we have to look at.
Third is the denial of passports and certain licences to individuals whose support payments are in arrears. In doing so, in denying those passports or licences, there will be a garnishee notice. The intent of this bill, as I understand it, is that the notice of intent to garnishee will no longer be there. That is a major concern. Why? We recognize that sometimes if a person receives a notice of intent, they then can be long gone if their intent is to never pay the support payments.
However, suppose the person is working out of the country, suppose they are off on the oil rigs somewhere in Iran and that notice of garnishee does not get to them within the 30 days. Suppose there is an affidavit that does not have correct information on it. We know that happens often in the legal system. Then they are at an extreme disadvantage. That is another problem.
The fourth is that it would provide for the garnishment and attachment of federal public service pensions and the wages of individuals working at sea.
The acts involved in Bill C-41 besides the Divorce Act are the Family Orders and Agreements Enforcement Assistance Act, the Garnishment, Attachment and Pension Diversion Act and the Canada Shipping Act.
Speakers for the government on this bill have already indicated that it does establish a grid of payment levels for child support as well as creating a number of enforcement mechanisms which can be brought into place should default occur. That is all it does.
It does not deal with the deductibility of support payments from income tax. It does not establish a system of required mediation. It does not improve access issues for non-custodial parents or dare I say for grandparents, and it does not address the issue of redress for the parent who pays child support but is denied access by the custodial parent without just cause.
These are only some of the matters that are important issues in family law today that this bill neglects to address. If Bill C-41 does not deal with the most controversial aspects of child support announced in the 1996 federal budget, namely income tax payment and deductions, and it does not deal with access to children or any of the other issues relevant to family law reform, why has this government called this Bill C-41 a comprehensive strategy to improve the child support system?
Comprehensive means all encompassing. This bill is a piecemeal approach at best for amending the Divorce Act. When I say comprehensive, I am referring to a working draft of federal child support guidelines issued in June 1996 by the Department of Justice where it states in the 1996 budget that the government announced a comprehensive strategy to improve the Canadian child support system, including the introduction of guidelines, et cetera. I have a problem with that because I do not see this as being comprehensive.
Canadians need a comprehensive approach. The focus of such comprehensive reform would be changes that benefit the children of divorce. We are talking here about children. As I have spoken about before in this House, when I talk about grandparent rights or any rights in the family, it is the children I am always concerned about.
A comprehensive approach would include compulsory mediation as a first step in the divorce process rather than going straight to court. A comprehensive approach would include access provisions that are enforceable. It would also include the elements of easier access for grandchildren to their grandparents. As well, the bill should include the tax payments and deductions announced in the budget.
I find the Liberal government's rationale odd when a reason given to me by the minister for his failure to support my grandparents bill in committee was that he would be doing a comprehensive family law review of the Divorce Act. Hence at some later date the grandchild-grandparent relationship would be dealt with, unfortunately though, far too late for many of our grandparents.
Yet this minister is in favour of a piecemeal approach to child support. Is Bill C-41 a comprehensive reform? No, of course it is not. It is a typical Liberal knee-jerk reaction to part of the problem. As always, when someone deals only with part of the problem they deal with the easy part first, the part that will not get them into any trouble. This is the Liberal philosophy. Play it safe, do not stick your neck out. There must be an election around the corner.
Playing it safe and delivering only half a loaf will not work in the case of family reform. There are pressing issues and they should be addressed together in one bill.
Dealing specifically with Bill C-41, we have some major concerns. We do not believe the bill takes an even handed approach to the issue of child support.
We are here to represent all Canadians, both men and women. This bill is decidedly biased against the male parent. There is very definitely a lack of equality for both parents. We all know that the much larger group paying child support are men. This bill does nothing to assure them of access rights.
There is nothing to address the issues of mediation which are so necessary if couples are going to live apart but still maintain the best interests of their children uppermost in their minds. I understand there is provision on the books at the present time that asks divorce lawyers to attempt mediation prior to going into the divorce court. I am told it is a half hearted measure at best and few attempt it seriously.
That is why I was interested to read of the Edmonton pilot project which requires people to take a six hour course before they can start action over child access or custody. The free two night seminar gives general information on topics such as the impact of divorce on children, how to reduce a conflict and ways to negotiate settlements without going to court.
Alberta justice minister Brian Evans said the program is intended to help children and to save the courts time and money: "If you have an agreement right off the bat and the parties are amicable and the children are well taken care of, there is no intention of forcing this upon people. There is some flexibility. The focus of the program is on minimizing the impact of divorce on children and avoiding future problems with the law. If they are damaged psychologically and emotionally there is a very good chance they are going to get into our criminal justice system".
The article goes on to say Alberta is the second province after Saskatchewan to introduce such a program. Manitoba is considering a similar move.
There is no similar program in B.C. according to Diane Bell of the family law section of the Canadian Bar Association in B.C: "It would be nice if it was available. If this free was around I think lawyers would use it".
The Edmonton program is a year long pilot project that could be expanded to the rest of the province. The departments of justice and social services are implementing it. Mr. Gronow, a justice official, said that 1,200 couples in the Edmonton area will go through the course each year because they cannot settle disputes over child custody or access. The parent who wants to take this issue to court will have to prove he or she has taken the course.
I have to pat the people in Edmonton on the back because I think what they are addressing is the real issue. First, no child support payment system is going to work if people are not willing to go
along with it. It is realistic because it deals with the actual facts. If we look at the fact that realistically we are going to address the needs of the child and the ability of the father to pay and that both parents who are getting divorced are involved in that mediation, then the reality is they are going to come up with something that is workable. I think that is what Edmonton has addressed and rightly so.
What the article is telling us is that there is a need for such programs. Divorce is a major happening in our country and we had better deal with it in a positive manner. I believe we cannot over emphasize our commitment to children. To invest in a child is to invest in the country.
Bill C-41 gives authority to the governor in council, the cabinet, to set the payment grid for child support and for spousal support but does not clearly indicate that judges may vary the grid if warranted by the circumstances. I think it would be all too easy for a judge in this case to just go with the grid because it will probably result in fewer appeals.
Therefore everything meaningful and important in this bill will be implemented by the order in council, and so parliamentarians will not have the opportunity to review or to comment on the child support payment grid.
Reform has difficulties with this mechanism. We always have difficulty when this government tries to bypass Parliament in an attempt to legislation through the use of regulation. This grid should be referred to a committee of this House for study before it has legal affect.
Given my recent experiences with the House of Commons justice committee I doubt whether that would be the appropriate forum. However, some committee of this House, hopefully one on which members are sympathetic to the problem of family break-up, should review these guidelines.
Clause 2 of the bill which amends section 15 of the Divorce Act recognizes that a judge in both child and spousal award situations may look at agreements made between the parties, ability to pay and matters which would be of benefit to the children. First the judge is to take into consideration the guidelines, which is the grid established under this bill.
I think the drafters here have it backwards. The judge should look first at agreements reached between the parties and only when the parties cannot agree look at the grid. As well the judge should look at the ability to pay. If we are looking seriously at mediation before divorce, as Alberta is, then the parents have already worked out an agreement which will work for them.
There will be no need to put extra stress on a couple who are already in a stressful situation. We have plenty of evidence of large awards of support and maintenance which bear no relation to the spouses ability to pay. No matter the consequences, we run into problems of the payment.
The Financial Post took a realistic look at this problem. In the article ``Getting tough with deadbeat dads won't solve the problem'', the writer states:
Deadbeat dads stand only slightly below tobacco companies in the modern compendium of villainy. Governments across North America compete to devise the toughest schemes to extract child support money from these men. Give the prize for harshness to Tory Ontario. Beginning this January 1, Ontario fathers who fail to pay court imposed child support obligation will lose their drivers' licenses, will see their credit ratings stripped away, and will soon hear the pounding of the debt collector's fist on their front door.
So, can Ontario's single mothers soon look forward to a big bump in their incomes? Hardly.
Even those men lucky enough to have full time employment are averaging only about $40,000 a year, according to Statistics Canada. But a father who moves away from his children must still pay taxes. He must still eat and put some sort of roof over his head. It's still against the law for him to appear in public naked and he must somehow get to work.
A single man earning $40,000 faces income taxes of more than $15,000 in Ontario, even after the first Harris tax cut. Grant him a frugal $1,500 per year for food, and another $6,000 a year for a cheap apartment. Budget $1,500 to finance, insure and operate a car, and $1,000 for shoes and clothes. Toss in $2,000 more for laundry, electricity, toothpaste, a telephone to call the kids he is supporting, the occasional haircut and a few other meagre incidentals.
In other words, provided that this man is willing to devote every discretionary dollar to their lives, and provided too that he never remarries and never fathers any more children, we might be able to squeeze as much as $10,000 a year of child support out of him. If we fail to make him live like a monk, if we permit him to form a new family, then the money available will rapidly tumble to a thousand or two a year. And that's not going to do very much good is it?
Here's the truth that the whole deadbeat dad discussion evades. The reason women and children usually suffer economically after the break of a family is not that some man is selfishly or punitively withholding money from them, although of course some men do. The reason women and children suffer is that the typical wage earner does not earn enough to support two households. Neither for that matter does the comparatively affluent wage earner, one of the ten per cent of Canadian workers who grosses above $50,000 a year-".