Mr. Speaker, the changes to the Divorce Act particularly as they impact the care and nurturing of children are important parts of a piece of legislation that affects all of society.
Even if we as individuals are not touched directly by the terrible stresses and strains caused in a relationship by divorce, we in the greater society are affected profoundly by it. We are affected if people who have children do not look after their responsibilities as parents. We are affected because we as the greater society then have to step in to look after and nurture those children.
We are affected by the consequences of divorce even if we are not involved in divorce ourselves because we know statistically that children who are nurtured in a two-parent home do better. That does not necessarily mean that single parents cannot nurture children, but the ideal is a two-parent home where the children are nurtured in an environment that is conducive to love, respect, a sense of family and a sense of community responsibility.
That is not to say that there are not circumstances in which people will be raised in a single parent home where single parents, female or male, are heroic in their responsibilities and in their ability to raise children to become citizens of the first order.
Having said that, we know statistically that children who are reared in a two-parent home have far less propensity to get involved in crime and do better in school.
Our legislation should speak to two particular objectives. It should speak to what we can do as a society to encourage families to stay together. Then, if in the unfortunate circumstance we find ourselves, myself included, in the throes of divorce, how can we make divorce least disruptive? How can we keep as many lawyers as possible out of it? How can we ensure that both parents, even though they have divorced, do not divorce the kids? How can we make the best of a bad situation?
The first objective is what we can do as a society to ensure the problems do not happen in the first place. We know that many divorces result from family distress brought on by financial problems. Obviously there are other reasons but we all know that a family under financial stress is far more likely to have other problems crop up than a family not under financial stress. What can we do as a government to address this problem? The first we can do is nurture families. We can make it possible for families to look after and nurture their own children. The way we can do that is to provide tax relief to families initially. We can say as a society that our future is encompassed in our children, our grandchildren and their children. Everything we do as legislators should be focused to that end.
We will be talking about the seniors benefit later today. I am absolutely amazed that as a nation we have decided to have a guaranteed annual income for seniors. That is what the seniors benefit is all about. All seniors will have tax free annual income after the year 2000 of $11,430 whether or not they need it. Then it will be taxed back very quickly for those who do not need it. That is another story.
If we as a society can afford to have a guaranteed annual income for seniors, why can we not have a guaranteed annual income or a negative income tax for children? Children are the future of the country. We as a society will get a far better bang for the buck and a return on our investment if we do everything we possibly can to nurture children. That means we should do what we can to take the financial load off families and to keep the stresses in families to an absolute minimum to make it possible for them to nurture their children.
We know that is the ideal and we know that is not the circumstance. We know families take in a whole spectrum of different models. Whether or not one person likes it does not have anything to do with it. As a society we must firmly focus our interests on children.
How do we go about protecting children in the case of divorce and the circumstances that lead up to divorce? We say in our legislation that when a couple decides to divorce it might be in society's best interest to get involved in conflict resolution right off
the bat. Rather than each party going to their lawyers and having a couple of barracudas working at it to see who is going to get more from the other, we could have some conflict resolution. They have made the decision to split up and on how they can best achieve this with the least possible damage to the children. The part of the legislation that envisions this is highly laudable and highly supportable.
We appreciate there are cases that involve spousal abuse. There is no reason whatsoever for a spouse who is being abused to stick around for a split second. This raises a whole new set of questions. Why is it always the female and the children, the abused, who have to leave the domicile and go to a shelter? It does not make any sense to me.
The reason is that we have to protect the rights of the abuser. Again the victims are being penalized and the abuser is not. We cannot just haul the abuser off to jail, keep him there and tell him that he cannot go anywhere near those people or abuse them. We usually have to take the mother and the children and put them in a safe spot, hopefully.
We are now in a situation where we as legislators have determined that we will do everything we can to prevent the break-up from happening in the first place. We know this is the ideal. We know it will not happen in every circumstance but we should be working toward the ideal.
That means we have to take financial pressure off families through tax relief focused directly at them. How on earth can we be concerned about tax relief and subsidizing Bombardier and other major corporations when we do not subsidize and nurture our children and make it possible for them to have a future? It does not make any sense. It is so completely wrongheaded that it defies reality.
Now we come to the point where families are splitting up come hell or high water; it is going to happen. This is not a holier than thou speech. I have been in the middle of it. I know about what I speak. Whose responsibility is it to look after the children who are involved? Is it the state's responsibility or is it the parents' responsibility?
When any of us decide to have children those children become our responsibility, our family responsibility, period. The only time the state should be involved is when the parents are unable to look after their responsibilities.
How do we go about making it easier or palatable for families to look after their responsibilities? First, we do not say that one person is right and the other is wrong. We do not say that either the male is 100 per cent wrong or the female is 100 per cent wrong and we will put one or the other into debtor's prison. We will make it impossible for one or the other ever to have another life.
It seems to me that we should go right into a position of joint custody and joint responsibility. We know there are situations where we will not have that. We know there are situations where one partner, usually it is men, flee from whatever the responsibilities are.
Again, we are addressing this legislation to the ideal. Our society has inculcated a culture where people intuitively know and automatically understand that, when they get married, when divorce or separation is envisioned down the road, their further responsibility is to nurture, protect and look after their children in a manner that is harmonious as it can possibly be. They know they should put marital problems behind them so that their children do not suffer further.
In my experience the number one problem that people have brought to me relates to access to children. It is not paying maintenance. It is paying maintenance and not having access to the children. That is what drives people crazy. It is kind of the chicken or egg situation.
Fathers or mothers who are non-custodial should have access to their children in a default co-parenting situation even if they split up. It cannot be said that maintenance and access are not inextricably linked because they are. If I or anyone else has a commitment to make a maintenance payment to his ex and does not do it, then obviously the ex will be enraged. The ex will be figuring out how to can get back at me.
The only way to get back is through the children. Situations come up where maintenance payments are made, but for whatever reason, the custodial spouse makes it impossible for the non-custodial spouse to have his or her regular visitation. It breaks the link with those children. Somehow we need to ensure that, when maintenance payments are to be made, they are made but it does not exacerbate the already difficult situation caused by the divorce.
It can be done in many ways. However, if the state has an involvement, it seems to me that when a custody or maintenance payment is made, it could be put into the general revenue and come back from the federal treasury to the individual who will receive it. If it can be done for GST rebates, why can it not be done for other things?
The whole idea is to somehow mitigate or lower the potential avenues for distress, for disharmony and fighting between the two. Remember, our eye is on nurturing the children. It is not getting even.
If we could, as a society, somehow inculcate the sense of responsibility so that people intuitively say: "I know we have broken up, but having broken up, we will be both responsible for nurturing our children". It is really none of the state's business why a marriage breaks up but having broken up, the default position on maintenance is 50:50.
That means the cost of raising and nurturing the children is 50:50. The tax circumstance is 50:50. I do not know why it has to go all one way or all the other. Why is it not possible, in a maintenance payment, for the person making the payment to pay 50 per cent of the tax and the person who is getting it pays 50 per cent of the tax. They are partners. It took both of them to create those children. It took both of them to get married in the first place and it took both of them to break up the marriage in the second place. Why can they not just go further and automatically have it that the default position is a joint responsibility?
I know that is the ideal. I know there are all kinds of circumstances where that is not necessarily going to happen. However, it does not have to mean that legislation cannot be framed for the ideal and the other problems cannot be dealt with as they arise.
I would like to address one more issue in this debate and that is the role of the Senate. In particular, I would like to recognize the role of Senator Anne Cools in this debate. When this legislation first went through the House Reform members were saying essentially what we are saying now, that the legislation is well intentioned but it certainly has some huge problems and these are of such major consequence that the bill should be changed.
It is government legislation so there are winners and losers. This is legislation that speaks to the future of our country and how we raise and nurture our children and how we accept responsibility for our children.
We were not able to change a comma, a period. As hon. members know, if the government is set on what it is going to do, the opposition has absolutely no role in it. As a matter of fact, I will take it one step further. If the cabinet or the Prime Minister or persons surrounding the Prime Minister want to go in a particular direction, that is way we are going to go. There will be no changes whatsoever.
This is not a democracy. This is really an place where, if you are lucky, you may have some influence and might be able to change something.
When Senator Anne Cools saw the legislation, she was able to do in the Senate, because of the precarious position of its majority, what we could not do in the House of Commons and that was to force the government to make some modifications which will greatly enhance this bill.
It is incumbent on the official opposition, ourselves and other people in opposition to recognize the courage that Senator Anne Cools has shown in standing up to the government machine. It means that she becomes the person in the room from which there emanates a faint odour. It is not a very comfortable position to be in.
I think democracy is made better when it is tested. Leadership is made better when it is tested. On this and other legislation Senator Anne Cools has shown the resolve and the fortitude to test the government when it needed to be tested and when it was impossible because of the way this House works for the opposition to be able to test it. It has had to come through one of its own members in the Senate who has the strength of character to stand up against the government machine.
This legislation will come back. The deal is done. It will be debated here. It will become law in its somewhat redefined and changed form. It is better than it was but it still does not recognize the primary problem in family law and that is that family law should not be of an adversarial nature. The family court should be unified. It is not the same as criminal law. It should not be adversarial. We should be going into conflict resolution and doing everything we possibly can to nurture the children of the future in as harmonious a circumstance as we can.