Monday, 28 May 2007
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008
In dealing with these appropriation bills, I want to first of all turn to a press release put out today by Alan Griffin, the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs and shadow minister for defence, science and personnel, entitled ‘What are you hiding, Mr Billson?’ The press release states:
The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Bruce Billson, appears to be trying to avoid public accountability of his Department by refusing to respond to a number of questions on notice from the last Estimates hearing.
I have been advised that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is the only Department to not have submitted at least one response to questions from the last estimates round.
These questions were due on Thursday 29 March 2007 and are now nearly two months overdue.
I have advice from the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade that the majority of the responses have been sitting with the Minister from at least 13 April awaiting his clearance.
This is not the first time Mr Billson has taken excessive amounts of time to respond to questions on notice. It would appear that he is more interested in playing ‘clever’ political games with these responses, rather than answering legitimate questions asked of his Department.
I would have thought that the Minister would have been very keen to have the questions answered considering they covered topics such as;
- Casualties arising from the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor
- Mental Health Programs and Research
- Suicide among Veterans
- The time taken for the Department to process claims
- The handling of complaints and correspondence by the Department
The fact that Mr Billson has not even responded to one question shows an utter contempt of the Veterans’ community who deserve answers regarding these very important issues. The question should be asked—is Mr Billson hiding something or is he just failing to handle the workload of his portfolio?
That is the press release by Alan Griffin, who is doing an excellent job. I am pleased with the way he is out there communicating with—talking to and listening to—the veteran community. The minister said on 23 May in responding to some things I had said on a veterans’ bill:
The member for Cowan purports to represent the veterans community by circulating and re-parroting very selective parts of information. He referred to a tragedy … To see parts of a psychiatric report read into Hansard and to then accuse the department of not being responsive is unfortunate. Somehow the report ended up in the hands of the member for Cowan, yet those representing the individual did not see fit to actually share that information with the department.
It is that last part of what the minister said that I want to respond to. I understand from very senior members of an ESO that this issue and the issues that I raised here were referred directly to the department and the same issues were raised at either the minister’s or the department’s own mental health forum. This minister needs to get on top of his brief. He needs to know what he is talking about.
It is unfortunate that members from our side of parliament have no option but to raise these issues in the House, because the minister, for some reason or another, as has been clearly pointed out in this press release by Alan Griffin, the member for Bruce, seems to be reluctant to answer questions or respond to correspondence. If the minister took these issues a bit more seriously and if he responded to the issues that are raised with him not only by members of parliament but by members of the veteran community then we would not have to go to such lengths to draw attention to these issues.
The circumstances I raised in that speech a couple of weeks ago were a tragedy, but the point is it is a tragedy that has been repeated too often through the lives of Vietnam veterans since they have returned home. If the minister does not understand the depth of this problem then perhaps, unfortunately, it is a tragedy which will continue to occur with the younger veterans who are coming back from East Timor and who have come back from Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq. No-one wants to see that happen.
I really do not need any advice from this minister as to how to deal with veteran issues. I have been involved in the veteran community since the early seventies. I have worked for the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. I have dealt with suicidal veterans, sometimes at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning. I do not need this minister to come into this place and tell me how I should represent the veteran community. Representations that have been made by people like me and people in the veteran community have led to change. I know that if some of the issues that have been put before ministers for veterans’ affairs had been allowed to be swept under the table, they simply would have been. The veteran community is entitled to good representation, and I am in a position to provide it—and I intend to.
I was a veteran before I came into this place and I will go back into the veteran community when I finish in this place. On the other side of the coin, ministers come and ministers go. I think this minister’s brief is to get on top of his responsibilities and to truly understand the issues of the veteran community, particularly the issues that individual veterans confront with post-traumatic stress disorder. Abusing me in this House is not going to help rectify those issues. I call on this minister to address the issue of mental health within the veteran community a damn sight more seriously in the future than he has in the past.
I understand that the states are either currently about to negotiate or in the midst of negotiating a new Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement. I understand that the states want to negotiate this agreement—it is an agreement that they all support—but I call on the states to be cautious in the way that they do negotiate this agreement.
I also call on the Howard government to stop playing politics with the disabilities sector of the Australian community. It absolutely sickens me to see the Commonwealth pitting state against state and disability sector against disability sector. I believe that this is an area that should be well above politics. I look to Minister Brough to find within Commonwealth and state agreements the same level of political bipartisanship which exists within the states. I think the level of bipartisanship within the political parties, for instance, in Western Australia in recent years has been excellent. I hope Minister Brough takes a lead from the states and injects some bipartisanship into his dealings with the states.
I understand that the money that Western Australia has been offered for the next few years of this agreement, in 2007, is exactly the same dollar amount that was put on the table by the Commonwealth in 2004. In other words, what they are offering in 2007 is money that is basically three or four years old. This offer does not take into account the incredible growth in demand and the incredible growth in cost in this sector over the years.
I want to talk about the state budget. The state budget in Western Australia saw an increase in funding to the disabilities sector to about $294 million. It is a lot of money—I understand that—but there is still a hell of a lot that needs to be done. The point is that this represents an increase over last year’s funding of some 7.3 per cent. It is also interesting to note that since 2000 the disabilities sector has seen increases of some 116 per cent allocated to it by the Gallop and Carpenter governments. As I said, it is a lot of money, but there is still a lot of unmet need out there. It is incredibly important that the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister and the minister recognise this unmet need and put some money on the table that will help the states deal with these issues.
I want to refer to a briefing note that was brought forward by the minister in Western Australia. It was actually a briefing note for federal parliamentarians. I understand that all members of parliament from Western Australia were invited into this briefing and this briefing note was made available. It is on the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement and it goes back into some of the history of this agreement. But the report makes this point:
16 years later, funding is still provided on the basis of population data from 1993 and Western Australia, along with a number of other jurisdictions, receives a much lower share of the CSTDA funding than our population warrants. Western Australians with disabilities represent 10.2 per cent of all Australians with disabilities but this state only receives 8 per cent of CSTDA funding.
It goes through a funding chart and it shows that per capita funding in the Northern Territory for people with disabilities is $610, in the ACT it is $563, in Tasmania it is $1,175, in Western Australia it is $675, in South Australia it is $1,279, in Queensland it is $820, in Victoria it is $835 and in New South Wales it is $864. We can understand why there is a concern about the amount of funding coming into Western Australia and it is for that reason—the lack of equity in funding—that I urge our state to be cautious in the way in which they negotiate this agreement.
As I have said, it is an agreement that I understand the states want but, importantly, the minister must recognise that it must have some equity and must recognise the incredible growth in costs that the states have incurred over the years. For that reason I was very disappointed to learn that the increase in the federal budget was only about 1.8 per cent. I came across a media release from an organisation called Dignity For Disabled, put out on 9 May under a big heading ‘Federal budget’, which stated:
The Federal Budget announced by the Government yesterday does virtually nothing to address the critical unmet need in the disability sector. Treasurer Peter Costello has failed to indicate any real support for the critical new commonwealth/state disability funding agreement due to be finalized by June 30th 2007. Despite the Senate Committee report released February 2007 showing massive shortcomings in previous funding arrangements and 29 key recommendations, Costello has snubbed the 200,000 Australians with serious and multiple disabilities depending on the new CSTDA agreement for quality of life.
The commonwealth’s budget forecast of funding indexation at just 1.8% and no additional funding for an enhanced CSTDA agreement where the states and the commonwealth agree to address what is fast becoming Australia’s greatest social injustice ‘Disability Services will leave the disability sector in shock at the callous lack of compassion and fairness of the Treasurer and this Government.
They are fairly harsh words but there is a great deal of concern within the disability community over the lack of funding. People with disabilities do not want to see the blame game played. They do not want to see politics played on this issue. Their needs are too great. We also do not want to see state pitted against state. We do not want to see disability sector pitted against disability sector. We want to see fairness and some equity in funding across the states and across the whole disability sector.
I call on this minister to start to respond to the cry of the states and to the cry of people with disabilities and to put some reasonable funding in place. For heaven’s sake, we are seeing millions upon millions upon millions of dollars thrown into public advertising by this government—a government that is in desperate straits and a government that intends to try to spend its way out of the predicament it has got itself into. I think it is a fair comment that perhaps if this Howard government had been less tricky, more up-front and more forthcoming with the disability sector and other groups in our community who do need a fair go, it probably would not be in the circumstances that it is in at the moment.
I also want to refer to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs which was released earlier this year. It was a very good report and I commend all members of the House to read this report—particularly those members who come from Western Australia, because I would be urging Western Australian members from all sides of the political forum to get behind the recommendations of this Senate committee. Our committees in the House and in the Senate do some great work, and it is a pity that more notice is not taken of the great work that our committees do, particularly when you have a strong, bipartisan report like this one from the Senate community affairs committee, in its inquiry into the CSTDA.
The committee recommended a number of things, but three of the most important were these: they recommended an equitable distribution formula of Commonwealth based funding; an indexation level in line with the actual costs of delivering services; and substantial additional funding to address identified unmet need. The things that Western Australia was crying out for were per capita funding equity, appropriate rates of indexation and growth funding for unmet demand.
I commend this Senate report to all members. I think it is an excellent report. Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek leave to table this report. It is a bipartisan document and I think it might be of benefit to members on both sides of the House to read it.
I thank members opposite for granting leave, and I commend the bill to the House.