House debates

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011

Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

Proposed expenditure, $3,061,446,000

11:15 am

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to present the 2010-11 Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts appropriations to the House of Representatives. As we emerge from recent economic challenges, the government is making provision to ensure that measures benefiting the environment also aid our long-term sustainable economic outlook. This means providing the assistance to Australians to adapt to changing environmental conditions to make sure that we engage sustainably with our limited resources. The key here is to be forward thinking and strategic, to show initiative, and to recognise and put in place both environmental and fiscal responsibility.

This budget provides funding for a range of environment, water, heritage and arts measures that will yield benefits throughout Australia. The implementation of a national waste policy, the development of a national plan for environmental information, and significant continued funding for the Australia Council are just some highlights of this investment. Along with the highlights of new measures, there are also fiscally responsible savings measures that support the government’s drive towards regaining a budget surplus.

Let me just point out some of the highlights in the appropriation bills for this portfolio. On waste, we are aware of the challenges of waste production and disposal and that they affect all Australians. But the question is: how do we stop landfills throughout Australia growing, and the costs and hazards of waste increasing? In these bills the government has committed some $23 million over five years for the implementation of the national waste policy, aimed at reducing waste and preserving resources. For the first time there is a strategic approach to deal with waste on a national level, to streamline and to coordinate a way forward to reduce waste, reduce hazards and re-use resources. It is clearly something which requires government leadership in this field, and the Rudd government is very willing to provide that leadership. We want to ensure that the management of waste in this country is done in a way which is sustainable, which ensures appropriate protection for the environment and which also provides sustainable economic opportunities for those in that particular industry.

Environmental information is another highlight of the budget. When it comes to Australia’s natural capital, governments, industries and communities all need comprehensive, trusted and timely environmental information to ensure that sound decisions are made. Put simply, we cannot effectively manage what we cannot measure, and so here we have a national plan for environmental information—a commitment of $18 million over the next four years—to build important foundations that will ensure better collection and management of our environmental knowledge. The Australian government will lead this strategy, making sure that our natural assets—our water, our soil, our ecosystems and our air quality—are adequately managed in a national context. The establishment of a system of information gathering and sharing is a visionary step in understanding how best to achieve these environmental results.

In this budget we provided ongoing funding to the Australia Council—this is a significant achievement for the arts sector—to support the creation of more opportunities for artists and arts organisations so that they continue to do the good work producing new creativity to growing audiences right around Australia. I am especially pleased that that provision of ongoing funding takes away any areas of uncertainty that might hitherto have applied to that funding. This government is strongly committed to funding our arts and cultural sector, and the funding to the Australia Council is ample demonstration of that.

Additionally, because environmental information underpins our ability to sustainably manage our oceans, this budget is providing $8.1 million in 2010-11 to finalise marine bioregional planning around Australia, providing clarity for industry and government on the impacts of human activity on the marine environment.

This government recognises that the challenges of protection of the environment are significant ones, and it takes those challenges very, very seriously. This budget provides ample evidence that this government is willing to and will continue the work that has been undertaken since we came to government to make sure that the environment is a priority, that the protection of the environment is something this government holds in the highest order and that we are able to do that not only in the programs we are delivering through Caring for our Country and the like but also in having a better understanding of the measures and the necessity to apply those measures in the future. (Time expired)

11:20 am

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the minister in relation to portfolio budget related paper No. 1.7—it is the portfolio papers for the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. There are three parts to my question. Firstly, what is the total number of staff within the department and what is it expected to be over the course of the next four years? Secondly, what is the average cost per staff member, full-time equivalent, which has been budgeted? I am happy for that to include salary, all personal emoluments, their proportion of building costs, travel—all reasonable allocations for a staff member. Thirdly, how does that relate when you run through the following departmental program support applications: program 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, machinery of government changes, 3.1, 4.1, 5.1 and 5.2? By my calculation that approximates to about $1.95 billion, which appears to be a very significant figure for departmental program support. I would like to understand: firstly, the total number of staff; secondly, the average allocated cost per head for full-time equivalents; and, thirdly, how that compares with a four-year $1.95 billion allocation for departmental program support.

11:21 am

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Flinders for those specific questions about microdetails of the appropriation. I would be happy to come back to him with some additional information in respect of them. I simply make the point to him that, as he would be well aware, the department has a range of activities which it undertakes which include the funding that he has identified in his question, which is central to the delivery not only of the government’s agenda but of the department’s ongoing programs and support of those programs. That is the essential component that goes to the heart of his question. As to the microdetail of that, I would be happy to come back with some more detail for him.

While I am on my feet, though, I might take the opportunity to highlight a couple of other issues in relation to the budget itself which I think are of great interest. The first of those is to point out one of the significant contributions that we are making through the provision of funding for Indigenous rangers. This is a really important program associated with the CDE reforms—in the Torres Strait, for example. I see the member for Leichhardt is here and I know he has some familiarity with these programs. Importantly, we are building on a successful Working on Country program, and providing additional significant funding, as we have since we came into government, to enable people in rural and remote communities—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—to build a skills base. These programs are about taking care of the country and being involved in natural resource management projects and the like. In so doing, people develop those skills necessary for not only doing that work well but also interacting with the wider community and taking up potential employment opportunities—with mining companies, with park managers, with resource managers, with the tourism industry and the like.

This is particularly important because it is a combination of environment, conservation and job creation. It is widely supported right around Australia. We are providing the funding for Indigenous rangers—including in the Torres Strait for some 21 Indigenous rangers. We are providing opportunities for people who know their country well—people who have connections with the elders in the community, who understand the culture of the community and who are able to build on those cultural connections and that knowledge—to specifically provide on-ground services for the protection of the environment in a region that they know very well. This is one part of the government’s investment that I think warrants a significant amount of attention, because it has been so successful, because it has worked, because it is popular and because it is seen by those in the communities as one of the most important and necessary components of our commitment not only to Indigenous people and their prospects and opportunities but also to protecting the environment.

The member for Flinders would be well aware in his shadow minister capacity of how important the government’s carriage of policy in relation to the Antarctic is. Here in this budget we are providing an additional $11.7 million, building on the previous funding of $58 million over the last five years, for the development and maintenance of the Australia-Antarctic Airlink. This is a significant commitment by this government to ensure that there is a timely transport node to enable the scientists and the researchers to get from Hobart to the Antarctic and back again in the summer seasons much more quickly and much more efficiently than before. Implementing this air link has been an outstanding success. There are a number of other countries who are now seeking to take up the opportunities that are on offer to travel in that way. Importantly, it is an affirmation of the leadership that we are showing in science and research in the region in relation to Antarctica. That is particularly important given that Antarctica is somewhat of a laboratory for climate change and that we have an Antarctic treaty which describes one of the purposes of the work that countries do there as ‘to seek to work together in peaceful cooperation for the whole of humanity’. I am particularly pleased that we have been able to provide the necessary support not only for the air link but more generally for the Antarctic program, something this government is profoundly committed to.

11:27 am

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to make a point about coastal erosion and the Jennie George report. Before I do that, whilst the minister is here I want to comment on some of his comments. One is the Indigenous ranger program, which is very welcome. Any investment in natural resource management and Indigenous employment is welcome. I would ask the minister and departmental officials behind him to remember that, if we are going to close the gap, please do not forget the largest Indigenous population is in that window on the east coast between Sydney and around Rockhampton. It worries me that we spend a lot of time focussing on Northern Territory interventions—on Cape York, on Noel Pearson. If we are serious about closing the gap, we need to consider what reform means in that window between Sydney and Rockhampton.

CDEP reform has had a mixed reception in that window on the east coast. I only last week saw a business go under called Aboriginal Connections, in South Kempsey, largely because of reform around CDEP and universal employment changes. If we are serious about this topic, it cannot all be about rural and remote. That is not the only answer. There are many other parts of the equation. I know the minister knows that. I would hope that stays part of any future policy considerations.

Likewise, I heard mention of air quality. Whilst the minister is here, I want to tell him that only last week I received a letter from the New South Wales health minister on the population health front in regard to the Upper Hunter region to say that the results have come in from the area health service study on air quality in the Upper Hunter region. The results are saying that there are comparatively high respiratory and cardiovascular issues in the Upper Hunter. They are not directly drawing the link yet to mining activity and mining expansion. They are looking at things like smoking prevalence rates. But, really, the canary in the coalmine is coughing, and that is a concern of the communities of the Upper Hunter and it is a concern that we need the alternative voices in government to be fighting about on behalf of communities. We need to make sure that people’s health has a significant place in policy development alongside royalties received by government.

I wanted to ask about the Jennie George report, which was released in October 2009 with great fanfare. I remember the Prime Minister talking, for just about a whole question time, about the significance of that report and its 42, I think, recommendations, which were seminal in trying to get the Commonwealth to engage with the problem of coastal erosion. Just last week we had further heavy seas, which saw coastal erosion working much more quickly in my patch—and, I suspect, those of other east coast members—than what was predicted. It is a huge concern. There are houses falling in the water. In fact, Ross Keys from Old Bar, whose situation was used as an example in the report, has now had two houses demolished. With the global financial crisis, he has not been able to get reimbursed. So he was hit by two storms, from two different fronts, in the one year.

We need the Commonwealth to engage on coastal erosion. I hear, through the gossip train that is Canberra, that it is getting parked until after the election. I hope that is not the case. The report was delivered in October last year. I think enough time has now passed for there to be a government response. I ask the minister for confirmation that that response is coming and for any details of that response. More importantly, if it is not coming—why not? Is that exciting work of 12 months ago yet another example, along with Landcare and Caring for Country—you name it—of the government going missing on climate change over the last six months?

11:31 am

Photo of Jim TurnourJim Turnour (Leichhardt, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is great to be here to talk about the environment, and it is good to have the minister here to answer questions. I come from a great part of the world. Cairns, Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait represent some wonderful environmental assets. They are particularly important assets that underpin the tourism industry in Far North Queensland. We have been through some tough times and we are seeing some positive results. The national tourism survey figures came out today, and they show that domestic tourism numbers in Cairns have grown. Tourists are staying longer and spending more because it is a wonderful part of the world. Part of the reason people come to the Far North is to visit the Great Barrier Reef and the wet tropics rainforests, and to experience Cape York and the Torres Strait. They are important parts of the minister’s portfolio.

I appreciate the fact that the minister has been up to the Far North a number of times recently to meet with scientists in relation to rainforest research in the Great Barrier Reef area and the Torres Strait; to look into the good work that is being done under Reef Rescue, a very good program, to tackle issues of water quality in the reef and to protect and support the reef going forward; and to look at a Jobs Fund project up in the Daintree which is also supporting jobs in my region. All are very important projects and represent not gammon action but real action on the ground to support jobs and make a difference to the environment.

Another important issue in my electorate is turtle and dugong hunting. Unlike the former government, we are actually doing something in this area. The minister has put more resources into compliance. We are working with the North Queensland Land Council and local Indigenous traditional owners. The minister has already talked about the Reef Rangers program. That program is to develop TUMRAs, traditional use marine resource agreements, and to provide rangers who can provide information and help implement, and support compliance with, those agreements. We are working cooperatively and productively in a range of different areas in the north to protect the environment; to protect the capacity of our Indigenous people to manage the environment; and to support and protect our tourism industry through protecting jobs. Those initiatives are all interlinked.

I take up the member’s comments in relation to climate change. We on this side of the House are still very committed to action on climate change. Members of the community often talk to me about this issue. I recognise that the Independents have been very supportive in this area, but we took our emissions trading scheme, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, to the Senate three times and the Liberal Party—who are now criticising us—voted against it in the Senate. The Greens also voted against it because of their right-wing ideological purity. That has prevented us taking practical action through the emissions trading scheme.

These are all very important issues in my own electorate of Leichhardt. Coastal erosion is a huge issue in the Torres Strait. We had Minister Wong up a month or so ago. We have communities that are under threat from rising sea levels. We need to take action on this issue. We are still committed to it. It is a partnership between ministers such as Minister Wong and Minister Garrett, and it is about doing real things on the ground, whether it be the jobs fund, the National Environmental Research Program reforms that are going on at the moment, Reef Rescue or the investments in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. So I would appreciate it if the minister could outline some of the things in the budget this year that are particularly related to support for environmental measures in my own electorate of Leichhardt and in North and Far North Queensland generally. I would appreciate his advice on how things are progressing.

11:35 am

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Leichhardt for his contribution, and I will happily come back and address some of those issues in a moment. I refer more generally to the issues that he raised about air quality, particularly in the Upper Hunter, and I recognise that that is a serious issue. The majority of the regulatory role on air quality and all that goes with the activities undertaken there belongs, as he would know, to the state government. But I think the member for Leichhardt’s contribution is relevant inasmuch as the potential impacts on communities—since we will see increased greenhouse gas emissions over time—needs to be considered not only by the regulators but also by policymakers generally.

I very much agree with the tenor of his remarks about the provision of support for Indigenous communities in regional New South Wales and other states. It is the case that we sometimes focus on remote regional areas, particularly those where there has been a great deal of media attention and also those where the opportunities for delivering programmes, particularly in the national research management area on-country, are fairly substantial. Notwithstanding that, we are committed to ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, wherever they may be, are given the opportunity not only to have access to and potentially be supported by our programs but also to be assisted and provided with opportunities to come away from the provision of automatic welfare over time into something which provides them with the opportunity to use hands-on skills in the work they do. That is why the Indigenous ranger program is particularly important.

I make the point to the member that it is also important to look at the declaration of Indigenous protected areas. We are now seeing declarations take place in other states, including in New South Wales. Here is an opportunity for traditional owners or people who are in the midst of the resolution of issues around native title to get support for an Indigenous protected area from the Commonwealth and, in receiving that support, to build additional skills-based resources for things such as fencing, feral animal and weed control and the like. I really do commend that not only to the member but to the House. It has been particularly important, because when the government was elected it recognised that adding substantially to the national reserve system was the most important thing any government could do to protect biodiversity—this year is the International Year of Biodiversity—and to provide the opportunity for our native plants and animals, the habitat and the biodiversity of Australia itself to be resilient in the face of the kinds of pressures they face, particularly from climate change.

I know that coastal erosion has been a matter that the member has pursued vigorously in the House. He has a keen interest in it, as do a number of his constituents. The government is aware of that. It is also clearly aware of the matters that have been raised in the report that he refers to, and the government will respond in due course.

I would just quickly add to that: the government has made provision for Coastcare. The member may be aware that, I think next week—though regrettably I will be absent, at the International Whaling Commission meeting—the Coastcare community awards will be held here in the parliament. There will be many opportunities for those who do that Coastcare work, and this government provided additional support for Coastcare communities. And I want to commend those who work in that capacity—volunteers who are provided with the opportunity, right up and down the coastline, right around Australia, to be able to go out, roll up their sleeves and take some of those measures necessary, particularly rehabilitating dune areas and the like. That has been a very successful program—well supported, incidentally, by the government—and one that I am very proud of.

Finally, I want to refer to the member for Leichhardt’s contribution and to say how much I am aware of the hard work he does in the region and how good it is to work with him, particularly given that we have provided additional support to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, particularly for Reef HQ Aquarium, which is located in Townsville, but in addition for GBRMPA, to provide it with the capacity to take up those issues that were identified in the outlook report. And this comes on top of the significant commitment, the highest ever, to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef through the Reef Rescue program. Again, I was in Cairns quite recently, speaking to natural resource management groups there, strongly committed to the government’s program and strongly committed to protecting the reef.

11:40 am

Photo of Steven CioboSteven Ciobo (Moncrieff, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Youth and Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

I am mindful of the very short period of time remaining. I have a number of questions for the minister, which I will put succinctly. I seek his assistance in providing transparency through succinct answers as well. The three issues I would like to raise pertain to the arts side of the minister’s portfolio.

Would the minister outline, for the benefit of the House and the Hansard, why, for example, the National Gallery of Australia had a funding cut, from $31,400,000 down to $29,598,000; Screen Australia had a funding cut, from $93,641,000 to $89,398,000; and the National Archives of Australia also had a funding cut, from $62,289,000 to $55,028,000.

In addition to that, would the minister also outline, please, whether or not he is supportive of the draft Cooper recommendation that self-managed super funds not be able to invest in appreciating Australian art works or, indeed, art works more broadly. Minister, will you rule it out—say that that will not in fact be adopted?

Finally, would the minister also outline what plans and proposals he has in place to, in some way, improve the very botched resale royalty scheme, many concerns about which have been expressed by all stakeholders and which has received significant media coverage in recent days.

11:42 am

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Moncrieff for taking an interest in the appropriations and in this policy area. I certainly look forward to continuing to engage with him on these issues which we, on this side of the chamber, take very seriously—the provision of adequate resources for the cultural communities of Australia, to enrich our lives and to build sustainability in their career paths—as they do.

I will return to the specific questions that the member has asked me in a second. I will first just quickly deal with his queries about the Cooper report. I have got the relevant minister, Minister Bowen, sitting right next to me. It is a draft set of recommendations. The full set of recommendations has not yet been considered by the government—

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (Prospect, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law) Share this | | Hansard source

They haven’t even been handed to the government.

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

They have not yet been handed to the government, I am advised. We will consider that full set of recommendations which, I understand, will be delivered in the next month or so. In doing that, we will be mindful of the impact that any recommendations may have on the viability of Australia’s arts sector. We will be mindful of that, and I intend to meet with representatives from the sector in the coming weeks. We want to hear their concerns. We are aware that they are concerned about it. But I would simply stress: all we have in front of us at the moment are draft recommendations, and until there is a full and formal set of recommendations in front of the government, and the government has determined its response, that would be sufficient in terms of my reply to his question.

I completely refute and reject the suggestion by the member for Moncrieff that the resale royalty scheme will not work effectively either now or in the long term. I say that as someone who has had an interest in small business over time and would recognise that any small business that is responsible for the accurate maintenance of record-keeping—in relation to whatever business it is involved in—will be able to effectively discharge the responsibilities under this scheme: that is, to log the price of a piece of work and the name of the artist and ensure that Copyright Agency Ltd is informed of such. Copyright Agency Ltd, which will be responsible for the administration of this scheme, was chosen after a careful evaluation, a tendering process conducted at arm’s length from me, and I am very confident that it will be able to effectively discharge this scheme.

It is not true, as the member suggests, that everybody is up in arms about the resale royalty scheme. In fact, artists have supported this scheme, and there is a very good reason why they should. This is the first time that Australia’s visual artists will have a royalty. Hitherto, composers, authors and photographers have had royalty opportunities by way of copyright. Why have visual artists been left out in the dark? The reason is that when the coalition were in government they refused to take up the recommendations of the Myer report, by Mr Rupert Myer, for the introduction of a resale royalty scheme. The reason is that Michael Kroger was enlisted by the galleries who had objections to this scheme to come up here to Canberra and derail that scheme. I know for a fact that there were many on that side of the House who were supportive—and, by the way, I welcome the ultimate support of the member and the coalition for this scheme. I am very confident that we are going to be able to discharge this scheme in a way which is economically effective and delivers the benefits that are necessary for Aboriginal artists as a whole.

We also have organisations like NAVA and like Desart, stakeholder organisations, peak bodies, which recognise how important it is at this point in time for Indigenous artists particularly and Australian artists as a whole to start receiving an appropriate benefit for their work. I have to say that this is one of the most important and significant reforms that this government has brought forward. I am very proud of it and I am very confident of its success.

Finally, I will deal with the question of prudence in relation to bringing down a budget. We are very supportive of what is happening at the National Gallery and have provided significant funding opportunities for the refurbishment work that is taking place at the Gallery. I think this is going to be a wonderful boon to the national capital and to that jurisdiction, which sees the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the High Court, the National Library and the like being wonderful places for the repository of the country’s culture but also fantastic places for people to visit when they come to the national capital. This government has been very, very supportive of those institutions, and that is reflected in this budget. I was especially pleased to see the success that the National Gallery had with the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition, which many Australians came to visit—a tremendous success because of the government’s support. (Time expired)

Photo of Margaret MayMargaret May (McPherson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for the debate has concluded.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Human Services Portfolio

Proposed expenditure, $3,827,233,000

11:48 am

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (Prospect, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law) Share this | | Hansard source

I like to provide plenty of time for the opposition to ask their questions in these forums and I do not propose to detain the House by making an opening statement. I commend the recommendation before you.

Photo of Alex HawkeAlex Hawke (Mitchell, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for being here today, Minister. I have a serious question in relation to the Human Services portfolio. It has more of a general nature, but it is a question that has taxed my mind for some time, looking at successive budgets and expenditure in the Human Services portfolio in particular. It is the case, of course, that human services are the largest single item of expenditure in the federal budget, and they are the fastest growing area of Commonwealth expenditure since Federation. Does the minister have a view about that growth in human services? Does the government have a view in relation to the ongoing growth in the expenditure in this area, considering that it is the biggest item of Commonwealth government expenditure?

What we are talking about, of course, in one form or another, is welfare payments, many of them legitimate, many of them needed or required. If this particular area continues to grow as it has done since Federation, it will be a significant item of expenditure in ongoing federal budgets. I wonder whether the minister has had an opportunity to reflect on that, whether the government does review how much is spent on human services and whether the growth in this portfolio can be reduced over time. If it does continue to grow, it will be the fastest growing area of Commonwealth expenditure. Certainly we are going to see a different sort of society in the future. I ask the minister to reflect on those matters.

11:50 am

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (Prospect, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law) Share this | | Hansard source

With due respect to my honourable friend, I do not think it is accurate to say that the human services expenditure is the largest and fastest growing part of the federal budget. The human services expenditure that I am responsible for relates to the administration of the Human Services portfolio, which relates to the budgets for Centrelink, Medicare, the Child Support Agency and the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service. It is not related to the direct payments to Australians. The member’s question goes to welfare and to the expenses under the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs portfolio, which I am not responsible for.

I am happy to give him some general comments. The government, of course, closely monitors expenditure in all its areas and ensures, in particular, that appropriate fraud and non-compliance initiatives are in place. But in relation to my responsibility, which is the administration of the Department of Human Services, it is not the largest and fastest growing area of government expenditure.

11:51 am

Photo of Alex HawkeAlex Hawke (Mitchell, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In relation to those comments, $114 billion, or in that order, is what we see in the federal budget, and whether it is specifically all of the minister’s expenditure is not really my concern. I asked for a general reflection on the expenditure and the growth of that expenditure over time. However, in relation to Centrelink, which I understand is in the minister’s portfolio, can the minister advise whether he has a view on the ongoing service of ministerial liaison officers, who were placed within Centrelink and who were very effective under previous governments in providing timely advice to members of parliament, like me, and to our constituencies? Will that program be extended in future budgets?

11:52 am

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (Prospect, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law) Share this | | Hansard source

I have no plans to change the current arrangements. The previous government did have in place a different arrangement. This government did make changes as part of our budgetary changes, and we make no apology for that in terms of prudent fiscal management. In addition, we took into account the fact that electorate offices received a fourth member of staff, which provided increased flexibility for electorate offices.

I do think that engagement by Centrelink and all the agencies in my portfolio with members of parliament, both sides and the Independents, is very important, and I certainly take that very seriously. From time to time, members of parliament from the opposition approach me about particular issues and I always do take them seriously and do my best to assist wherever I can. I have no changes in mind for the particular program that the honourable gentleman refers to.

11:53 am

Photo of Alex HawkeAlex Hawke (Mitchell, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

To go further on that point, changes were made to the ministerial liaison program and I have heard views expressed that that was to the detriment of the program; indeed, it was a reduction in the ability and capacity of Centrelink officers to provide advice to members of parliament. I ask again: does the government have any intention to reinstate to full service the operation of the ministerial liaison program?

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (Prospect, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Alex HawkeAlex Hawke (Mitchell, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for that answer, Minister. I wonder whether the minister has a view on funding formulas in relation to the socioeconomic status models which are given to local government for federal government funding and whether they are effective in implementing outcomes in relation to the Human Services portfolio. Much money allocated to councils ends up being spent on migration resource centres or other forms of human service related activity by councils. The Hills Shire Council area, which is a large and populous council next to the Blacktown City Council, covers my electorate of Mitchell and fares very poorly under current funding models for socioeconomic status, which relate to the indicators within those regions. Therefore, you tend to get these outcomes that are inequitable in the way they treat large bodies of the population. We tend to have the same set of disadvantages or problems. They are hidden behind high socioeconomic indicators, but the same problems are there. Does the minister have a view in relation to the funding models that are issued to council in relation to federal government money? Council and local government areas tend to provide a range of human service measures which save the federal government money.

11:55 am

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (Prospect, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law) Share this | | Hansard source

I do have some experience with and some views on this matter as a former mayor of a large Western Sydney council and a mayor of a city which had a population approaching 200,000 people and a very large immigrant and refugee population. I have the view that councils that are in that situation do need particular support but, sadly, the Department of Human Services does not supply money direct to councils, and therefore I have nothing further to add in relation to these particular appropriation discussions.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11.56 am to 12.37 am

Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Portfolio

Proposed expenditure, $1,550,896,000

12:37 pm

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

Before the Committee are the climate change and energy efficiency portfolio appropriation bills for consideration. In summary, the department will receive appropriation funding of $1.557 billion in the financial year 2010-11. That is a significant increase from financial year 2009-10, due to the addition of energy efficiency policy and programs from that area to the portfolio. By comparison, funding for the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency in 2009-10 in fact totalled $828.65 million. The 2010-11 budget reflects the government’s ongoing commitment to acting on climate change. Through this budget the government will boost existing investments in clean and renewable energy and support greater energy efficiency measures. We are giving Australians the tools to do their bit to conserve energy and create new, clean industries and jobs.

The $1.557 billion total funding comprises a number of key elements: firstly, departmental funding of $95.3 million; secondly, departmental capital funding of $7 million; and, thirdly, administered funding for programs of $1.455 billion. In addition to that, the portfolio will receive funding for the Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator of $12.3 million for 2010-11.

New funding for the budget measures for 2010-11 includes funding for the Renewable Energy Future Fund of $652 million, additional funding for the Green Loans Program of $102.7 million, foundation campaign funding of $30 million and additional funding to the Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator of $6 million. Major elements of program funding in 2010-11 include the Home Insulation Program, which includes the safety inspection programs and industry assistance programs. These are costs in respect of which there will need to be finalisation. In relation to the solar hot water initiatives, $237 million has been allocated and for the Solar Homes and Communities Plan there is $122.2 million. The Renewable Energy Future Fund is an important initiative in this year’s budget for the portfolio. That will support the development and deployment of large- and small-scale renewable energy projects such as, for example, further investments in geothermal, solar and wave energy. It will also support the take-up of industrial, commercial and residential energy efficiency measures, helping Australian businesses and households reduce their energy use.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12.41 pm to 12.52 pm

I was just adverting to one of the important features of the portfolio budget statements—that is, the establishment of the Renewable Energy Future Fund. I was observing that it would support the take-up of industrial, commercial and residential energy efficiency, helping businesses and households reduce their energy consumption. In relation to this initiative, the government is consulting with stakeholders on the implementation of the fund to ensure it is targeted in the most effective manner to drive further uptake of clean energy in Australia.

One of the other important features of the portfolio budget statement relates to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The budget in fact reflects savings from the deferral of the CPRS and related transitional measures. In particular, the delay in the establishment of the Australian Climate Change Regulatory Authority has resulted in a reduction in the department’s funding. The total savings as a consequence of the deferral of the CPRS are identified at $255.8 million for the period 2009-10 to 2013-14. On this matter, of course, the challenge of climate change has not gone away and continues to require strong domestic and international action—something that I will pick up again as I resume. (Time expired)

12:53 pm

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

In these portfolio budget estimates, my questions relate to the Home Insulation Program and the Home Insulation Safety Program. My question to the minister is in relation to the 174 known house fires recorded under the program. Is the minister aware of how many house fires have occurred in Queensland? Could the minister inform the House whether or not Queensland fire authorities are keeping separate records of Home Insulation Program house fires and whether those house fire figures have been static? The second element of this is whether or not he can rule out additional fires having occurred over the course of the last month beyond those which are currently recorded in the figure of 174.

12:54 pm

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

Perhaps it would be convenient if I provided the breakdown of fires on a state-by-state basis. I do not know the specifics on the question about the Queensland collection of these statistics. However, I can give the figures. As at 15 June, 174 fires had been linked to addresses where insulation had been installed under the discontinued Home Insulation Program.

For the assistance of the member for Flinders, as I have seen some public comments he has made in recent times, it is important to note that there can be some time between a fire incident occurring and a report being made to the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. For example, in the past two weeks—since the last update—the number of reported fire incidents has increased by 18. However, these fire incidents did not all happen in the past fortnight. In fact, in some cases those reports relate to fire incidents that occurred as far back as October last year. As the department updates the number of fire incidents, fire brigades and other authorities are also reporting, and sometimes that reporting results in an increase such as has occurred—albeit that the incidents might be many months old.

As to the breakdown of that 174 fires that the department has now recorded, New South Wales has recorded 60 incidents, Victoria 74, Queensland 29, South Australia 3, Western Australia 4, Tasmania none, the ACT 4 and the Northern Territory none. I hope that answers the member’s question.

12:56 pm

Photo of Craig ThomsonCraig Thomson (Dobell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is in relation to climate change. As the minister will be aware, my seat is particularly sensitive to changes in climate. My seat actually adjoins the minister’s seat. Has the government abandoned action in relation to climate change? What plans are there for the future in relation to action by the government on climate change? Can the minister outline details that may have been in the budget in relation to climate change, particularly for renewable energy.

12:57 pm

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

As I indicated in my opening remarks, the challenge of climate change has not gone away and it continues to demand strong domestic and international action. The government remains committed to introducing the CPRS because that is the cheapest and most effective way of tackling climate change. For example, I was speaking to a forum of CEOs of international organisations last night, and one of those companies with interests in the energy industry made the observation that the fact that the CPRS legislation was opposed in the Senate by the opposition and by the Greens has led to greater investment uncertainty in the energy sector.

Everyone knows that a market based mechanism for pricing carbon is the most economically efficient way of going about reducing emissions. It is important that we price in the externality of carbon pollution, and a market based mechanism through an emissions trading scheme as represented by the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is the most effective way of tackling climate change. It was blocked in the Senate by the coalition. It is an important economic reform. It had been supported by the coalition, of course, but ultimately, with the replacement of the former leader, Malcolm Turnbull, the policy position on the other side changed and that has led to greater uncertainty. The government has to deal with that reality now—that there is no longer bipartisan support for the CPRS. This and slower than expected global action mean that the CPRS has inevitably been delayed. It does not mean, however, that the government is not committed to a market based mechanism for reducing emissions. Contingent upon developments in the international community and the important building of public support and bipartisan support, one would hope, for an important economic and environmental reform, the parliament will inevitably be returning to this issue.

In relation to renewable energy, the government have before the parliament at present a number of amendments to the renewable energy target legislation that we anticipate will be supported—they certainly should be supported—so that they can become law. The purpose of those amendments is to divide the renewable energy target, which is for 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity to be supplied from renewable sources by the year 2020, into two categories: a large-scale category and a small-scale category of renewable energy generation. This will give greater certainty to investors in the large-scale renewable energy sector—areas such as wind power, in particular, and geothermal but also other forms of renewable energy.

A high incidence of take-up of categories of small-scale renewable energy generation had been leading to some uncertainty in the pricing of renewable energy certificates in the medium to longer term. From the large-scale renewable energy investors’ standpoint, greater certainty about how their market would operate with respect to the pricing of renewable energy certificates was necessary. We have seen support in the industry for the set of proposed changes that the government have put forward, and I think that will lead to the necessary investments in renewable energy that will see us achieve the target by the year 2020.

On both fronts, on emissions trading and on renewable energy generation, the government remains committed to making the important institutional changes that will take this country towards a much cleaner energy future.

1:02 pm

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is a follow-up to the question that I asked the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts, and I acknowledge Central Coast members also in the chamber who may have an interest in this. It is in relation to the coastal erosion issue. The gossip train in Canberra is alive and well with concerns in regard to any response to the Jennie George report from October 2009. We spent, I think, at least one question time talking about how important this report was. It was seen as a seminal moment to see the Commonwealth finally engaging in this topic of coastal erosion under the broad banner of climate change. It sat nicely alongside the moral challenge of our time and to some degree was seen as the legal challenge of our time. There is concern now that the government is not going to respond prior to the election. I would appreciate any feedback to the contrary and, if so, any details in regard to that feedback on the recommendations.

As well, just to put it in a broader context, I reaffirm from my position representing the mid-North Coast that there is a great deal of disappointment that we have seen the dropping of the ball on an affordable and secure energy mix for the future. Putting a price on carbon would have allowed for some mitigation funds in regard to topics like coastal erosion. Now that we have not done that, we are exposing ourselves on a range of issues, and the coastal erosion issue is the most obvious one for the mid-North Coast communities. Houses are being demolished right now. It does matter right now. It would be pretty cost-efficient for government to respond, I would have thought, at least before any dollars are committed. It would be extremely disappointing if this were just the latest chapter of government talking up a topic and then walking away.

1:04 pm

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

The report prepared by a parliamentary committee that the member for Lyne adverts to is a very important report. I cannot give the member the precise stage at which the consideration of the recommendations is but I will undertake to provide that to him as soon as possible. I am not directly responsible for it and I apologise that I have not updated myself on it in preparation for the consideration of the appropriation bills. But what I can say is that, consistent with the comments that I was making earlier about the government’s position on climate change—our respect for the climate science and our belief that action needs to be taken—and given the fact that the government commissioned a number of reports, prepared a green paper and a white paper, engaged in widespread public consultation and prepared very significant and comprehensive legislation off the back of the reports that had been prepared—and given also the consultations that we had undertaken with all of the key stakeholders—the member for Lyne can be assured that the government remain committed to taking action. We are very cognisant of the potential impacts and the impacts already being felt on this country, which is very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with coastal erosion being one of the significant issues. As the member for Dobell pointed out a moment ago, it is an issue of direct relevance not only to the member for Lyne’s seat but also to the member for Dobell’s electorate and my electorate and everyone else’s electorate.

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Oakeshott interjecting

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, I think we are all in it together. It does demand action being taken. The report is a very important report and its recommendations are certainly being taken seriously by the government. I will provide you with the updated information as soon as I can.

1:06 pm

Photo of Craig ThomsonCraig Thomson (Dobell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question goes to the renewable energy policies and, following some more details about what was announced in the budget, the implications: how they are going to affect meeting the targets that have already been announced and if there are any issues that might inhibit us from being able to prosecute those policies.

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

As I pointed out earlier, a very significant initiative in the budget was the establishment of the Renewable Energy Future Fund, a $652.5 million fund to support the development and deployment of large- and small-scale renewable energy projects—such as, for example, investments in geothermal, solar and wave power—and to improve the energy efficiency of Australia’s industrial and commercial businesses as well as residential energy efficiency. As I think I also indicated earlier, the broad priorities of the Renewable Energy Future Fund will be indicated in the not too distant future. They will be based upon consultation with a host of stakeholders on the best way to ensure that it is targeted in the most effective manner to drive the further uptake of clean energy in Australia.

With the opposition that has been experienced to the emissions trading scheme in the Senate, ensuring that we remain firmly on our path to the achievement of the renewable energy target of 20 per cent of electricity to be supplied by renewable energy sources by the year 2020 is especially important. However, that alone will not achieve the targeted reductions in emissions that the government has adverted to. If no action were taken at all on a business-as-usual scenario, in the year 2020 Australia’s emissions would be about 21 per cent higher than for the year 2000. It is a very significant challenge to achieve the reduction that has been the subject of, I think, continuing bipartisan support: a five per cent reduction in emissions on an unconditional basis. The member for Flinders, the shadow minister, is nodding his head, meaning that the coalition remains committed to that unconditional cut in emissions by the year 2020 of five per cent over the year 2000 levels. Alternatively, the targets are for 15 and 25 per cent levels of reductions by the year 2020 contingent upon the quality of international commitments that are achieved. But, absent further progress on that front, a five per cent reduction target is a significant one. Nonetheless, we need investments in renewable energy, but also this parliament needs to be considering the issue of the most efficient mechanism for reducing emissions over that period of time as 2020 is now only 10 years away. It is of course a widely held view—and it is the correct economic view—that the most efficient mechanism for reducing emissions is through an emissions trading arrangement. That is no longer the subject of bipartisan support. It is now opposed.

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, it is.

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Flinders indicates that it is. Will you support the CPRS? Is Tony Abbott going to support it? We continue to support emissions trading as the most efficient mechanism—

Opposition Members:

Opposition members interjecting

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Members know there is a proper way to interject if they wish to. The minister has the call.

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

It is the most efficient mechanism to achieve reductions in carbon pollution; however, what we have seen of course from the opposition after the replacement of Mr Turnbull as the leader—who spoke publicly over the weekend about this issue once more and his support for emissions trading—is bipartisan support for a set of targets but on their part absolutely no mechanism to achieve those reductions in emissions. What we have seen is an opportunist policy position adopted by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott—a proposition under the heading ‘direct action’, the description applied by Mr Abbott—that, on the analysis of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, would lead us to a 13 per cent increase in emissions by the year 2020. That is clearly not a feasible position. It is an economically inefficient proposition and it is why the government adheres to the necessity for a proper pricing of carbon in our economy as well as support in the manner that I have described for greater investment in renewable energy.

1:11 pm

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

I refer again to the Home Insulation Program and the now known 174 house fires. I note that in the minister’s previous answer he indicated that some of the most recent fires identified overnight date back eight months to October. Can the minister assure the House that the actual number of fires to date is not significantly higher than that which has now been recorded?

1:12 pm

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

My question follows on from the home insulation question with regard to broader policy direction. I am concerned that on the mid-North Coast, as an area that did not put in a lot of foil insulation, if any at all, we are now missing out on home sustainability policy funding generally. I would like to hear from the minister clearly whether, under the home sustainability banner, home insulation programs for the future are dead or whether there are still opportunities for regions such as the mid-North Coast to engage in a positive way rather than it being about audits or cleaning up decisions taken in the past—that is, whether there are positive programs the mid-North Coast can be involved with.

Likewise, the Green Loans Program: there was tremendous uptake on the mid-North Coast. As far as a cost to government, it was not that costly to get people engaged on the home sustainability issue. Yet we are once again seemingly dealing with the death of a home sustainability program rather than cleaning up certain aspects of it to make it a better program for the future. I am concerned, in all the political debate, that we are seeing home sustainability go out the window when, as a demand-side program, it is a critical contribution and therefore a necessary one if we are going to be serious about tackling some of these issues. I want to hear from you as the minister where you see forward policy in a positive sense, not just cleaning up certain issues from the past.

1:14 pm

Photo of Greg CombetGreg Combet (Charlton, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) Share this | | Hansard source

In relation to the first question concerning fires, the statistics that I have alluded to are the statistics that the government hold that have been provided through the appropriate authorities, and we stand by those. I would not speculate on whether there are other incidents that have not yet been reported. We wait upon the respective fire authorities in the states and territories to provide the department with information following the investigation of a fire incident and the proper establishment of a relationship that may or may not exist with the Home Insulation Program—that is, insulation installed under the program.

It is also important to note in relation to this issue that the overwhelming majority of these incidents in fact involve smouldering that is detected by one mechanism or another in the ceiling, without extensive damage, thankfully, to a particular home. It is important to bear that in mind. In relation to the fire issue, it is extremely important—and I heard what the member for Lyne indicated—that the government focus on the Home Insulation Safety Program, the inspection program in respect of foil insulation that has been installed and non-foil insulation, which has been installed in over a million homes.

As I think is well known now, all of the slightly more than 50,000 homes that had foil insulation installed, predominantly in Queensland and northern New South Wales, are the subject of an inspection program by the government. Initial safety inspections have been done of approximately 24,000 of those homes. Currently, the Foil Insulation Safety Program is being rolled out with the objective of having a licensed electrician inspect each of those premises and the ceiling insulation installed, doing electrical and safety testing and advising the homeowner of the best course of action, that being either the removal of the foil insulation or the installation of circuit breakers or safety switches in those homes’ circuits. That will be done in respect of each of the homes that had foil insulation installed.

In relation to the more than one million homes that had non-foil forms of insulation installed, the government have indicated that at least—and it is important to emphasise that it is ‘at least’—150,000 homes will be the subject of an inspection. The identification of those homes is the subject of an ongoing risk assessment, and it is important to emphasise that it will be ongoing. We will inspect as many homes as is necessary, as indicated by the ongoing risk assessment. The types of criteria that are considered in that ongoing risk assessment and, therefore, the identification of homes to be inspected take into account insulation installers who may have, for example, a record of a fire safety hazard. So that is work that is constantly under review and is ongoing.

It is also important to bear in mind with this issue—and this partly responds to some of the public comments that the shadow minister, the member for Flinders, has been making from time to time—that there are also a number of very reputable, longstanding firms in this industry that undertook home insulation installations under the Home Insulation Program. For example, CSR Bradford is a major manufacturer and has a network of installers—I think the program is called Comfortchoice—and those companies provide a warranty for the product and a warranty for the installation work itself. And, if a homeowner has an issue in relation to that, there is a call centre number for them to call, and CSR Bradford and their network will come out and do a check and make sure it is okay. In those circumstances, where major companies like CSR and Fletcher have done a number of installations and are standing behind their work, the government expects them to live up to their warranties and to be responsive to their particular customers. Those are all important considerations in the design of the home inspection program. (Time expired)

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Sitting suspended from 1.19 pm to 4.03 pm

Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Portfolio

Proposed expenditure, $2,369,314,000

4:03 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, I start with a question related to the increase in the order of $30 a week that the government made to the single age pension, which I must say was well received in the electorate of Gippsland. It was a major issue in the lead up to the Gippsland by-election and an issue throughout Australia. I am particularly concerned, though, with subsequent events. The Victorian state government has decided to increase rents for public housing tenants. I have corresponded with your office on this issue, and my concern is that there is one level of government giving with one hand and another level of government taking with the other hand. It really is an issue that older Australians struggle with; they struggle with the concept of it. I am wondering whether there is anything the minister can do through COAG or any other instrument to try to protect older Australians from this increased cost of living, which came at the hand of one level of government while your own level of government was endeavouring, I believe, to make things a bit easier for older Australians.

4:04 pm

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Gippsland for that question. I also thank him very much for the acknowledgement of the very considerable increase that the government has made, especially to the single age pension. In fact, if you look at the impact on the single age pension of both the increase in the base rate and the impact of the changes to indexation that the government has made, there has been an increase of around $100 a fortnight. So it certainly has been aimed at helping single age pensioners. I know the member for Gippsland was not in the parliament during the past 12 years, but it is the case that neither the Liberal Party, when it was in government, nor the National Party did what needed to be done for pensioners, particularly not for single age pensioners.

The member for Gippsland asked me particularly about the impact on public housing tenants. I very much appreciate him raising this matter also. Both the Treasurer and I have made it very clear to each and every one of the state governments that we do expect the increase in the pension that we introduced last September to flow through to pensioners and not be gobbled up in increased rent. We have made this very clear, and we do expect the state governments to allow pensioners to keep this increase in their purses and wallets. I am pleased to inform the member for Gippsland—and I am pretty sure, but I will double check—that South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland have all committed to this on an ongoing basis. Other states have said that they will do it for a limited period of time. I have made it very clear that we are not talking about a limited period of time. We think this is a very important issue. I have been informed that we have yet to hear from the Victorian government about whether or not it will be time limited. I think the member for Gippsland should join with us in making sure that all the states, including New South Wales, Western Australia and the territories, also do the right thing, along with Victoria. They all need to do the right thing by pensioners and make sure that the increase in the pension is held onto by pensioners.

The member for Gippsland also raised the broader question of cost of living. Once again, I appreciate him raising this, because another major change that we put in place in our announcements last September was a change to the indexation arrangements for the age pension. We have heard over the years from pensioners that they do not feel that the consumer price index reflects their cost of living, so we asked the Australian Bureau of Statistics to develop a new pensioner living cost index. That has been done. The pensioner living cost index has now been used to increase the pension, last September and again in March this year. I say again to the member for Gippsland that this was never done by the previous government. The previous government did not recognise that pensioners needed a separate measure of cost of living increases. We have put this in place in our first term of government, and we have also increased the wage cost index. The member for Gippsland may be aware that we have two ways of making sure that the pension keeps up with the cost of living and the overall standard of living. For some time now the pension has been pegged at 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings, and it was this government that increased it to 27.7 per cent. That too has been part of the reason we have seen the single age pension go up by $100 a fortnight. I thank the member for Gippsland for the opportunity to reinforce just how important these pension reforms have been, particularly for single age pensioners.

4:09 pm

Photo of Nick ChampionNick Champion (Wakefield, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me start by commending the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs for her efforts in this area—helping pensioners and others in her portfolio. I think she has done a tremendous job in the time that she has been minister. I would also like to point out that the housing trust issue, particularly in South Australia—I think the South Australian government was the first to sign on—has long been a point of contention for housing trust residents. I was very proud of both the Rann government and the Rudd government for fixing that issue in South Australia. It is a perfect example of how, in so many areas, we have resolved the blame game.

I want to talk about the importance of income management in my electorate. I think these are perhaps the most important changes that have been brought about by this government. They are very important for areas which have been terribly afflicted by the curse of poverty and intergenerational welfare dependency. All too often this debate is represented in a reactionary way—‘toughening up’ or ‘cracking down’. But the purpose of these laws, I think, is to give help and assistance to people, to intervene when they need that help and assistance and to give Centrelink and others the ability to intervene.

I came into contact with a young woman who had the care of her children. She was very close to losing her children to the state’s child protection agency and she then received help from a third-party group who established that her problem was not so much that she was not a good person or that she did not want to take care of her kids; her sole problem was that she could not say no to people. When people came to the door selling things, she would naturally sign up. When people rang her—telemarketers and others—she would naturally sign up. They had a look at her budget and, once they eliminated all the money going here, there and everywhere via direct debits, they found that she had more than enough to get by. She had a very simple problem that was soon rectified with the help of outside intervention. That basically put her on the right path, where she could maintain care of her children, pay her rent, buy food and go on with her normal life.

All too often we see these things in a reactionary way. I do not see them that way. I see that these interventions that will be made through the BasicsCard and income management will be of great assistance to people—and sometimes will intervene in their lives when they are in trouble or when they have made bad decisions. All too often in government we assume a basic level of functionality, which is, sometimes, not there. We have to reach out to those people in the community, not leave them hidden away in housing trust estates or suburbs afflicted by terrible problems.

The second important consideration—and the Prime Minister touched on it today in question time—is that these bills introduce the important concept of ‘one law for all’. The previous interventions in the Northern Territory singled out Indigenous people in bush communities. I do not think that is right. I think that, if we are going to have expectations and standards, we should have them for all people.

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

In Australia.

Photo of Nick ChampionNick Champion (Wakefield, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In Australia, of course. My question to the minister is: could you please explain to us what investment is included in the budget that will allow the benefits of the reforms to income management to be sustained into the future?

4:14 pm

Photo of Kelly O'DwyerKelly O'Dwyer (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have a number of questions to the minister. I will ask her those questions now in one lot given the time that is before us. The authors of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program’s—SIHIP’s—post-review report warn of waste and inefficiencies in having to perform rework on renovated houses. Why has the government deliberately decided not to fully complete each house renovation at the first attempt while tenants are moved out? My second and related question is: as SIHIP is performing essentially urgent maintenance to make houses safe and functional, are these houses being classified as renovated on the reports even though they do not meet the minimum public housing standards? The third part of my question is: how many houses that have had work performed through SIHIP meet the minimum standard? Finally, on 17 March 2010 the minister put out a media release claiming that SIHIP was on track to deliver the promised housing outcomes. Was the minister aware that that very day one of the three alliance partners had its contract cancelled for allegedly failing to meet budget and time targets and, if not, why not? And I spoke too soon—this is my final question: the COAG Remote Indigenous Housing Agreement is designed to address overcrowding in remote communities. The New South Wales government has to date purchased, not built, new houses; it purchased four existing houses under the program. How is this addressing overcrowding in New South Wales remote communities?

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Lyne—Minister, you just indicate when you would like to take the call.

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

It is all right. You can go next.

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

It is very informal. It is just a case of getting a number of questions out and the minister will answer all of those questions at once. It will give more time during the committee stage.

4:16 pm

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is in relation to one particular issue: it is a company called Aboriginal Connections Employment Services, based in South Kempsey, one of the Vinson hot spots—the top six postcodes in Australia for poverty and low-SES issues. Aboriginal Connections has just gone into liquidation. I raised previously some concerns in this transition from CDEP to universal employment schemes, and some of the reaction from the community is that this liquidation is a direct result of some of those changes. I therefore ask for either the minister or her departmental officials to provide a brief on what is happening with that company. It has a large list of local small businesses, both contractors and subcontractors, that are exposed with this company going into liquidation, and therefore I would ask for any support possible to make sure that any damage to businesses within the local community of the Macleay is minimised. But, as well, there are the Closing the Gap implications associated with what was a very high profile and what seemed to be a very successful Indigenous employment company tipping over and going into liquidation.

The second point I would like to make picks up on this issue and the move on income management from racial discrimination across to what you could call constitutional discrimination in that it is only in the Northern Territory at the moment. What is on the COAG reform agenda? Is income management for the whole of Australia part of the COAG reform? Has it been talked about yet or is it coming? People in New South Wales would be very interested to know what the future direction is in regard to income management and welfare generally.

4:18 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to take the opportunity, given that I have not had the chance to do that, to congratulate the minister on the Paid Parental Leave scheme. This scheme has been a very, very long time coming. There have been a number of us who have been in this space battling away for a long time and I know the minister has certainly been one of those. I want to put on record my thanks for such a terrific effort. I know that many families, and predominantly women, will take up the opportunity of the scheme. It will make a significant difference for working women in this country and will be one of the lasting legacies, certainly, of this minister.

I also wanted to comment that this is the second budget that contains our changes to the pension. A significant step that this government and this minister have taken is to increase the base rate of the pension. Those of us who have been in this place for a while know that, each budget night, we used to have this awful circumstance where pensioners and carers were faced with wondering whether the former Treasurer would put some money into their pensions. Each year they went, cap in hand, almost begging to get some extra money, and the then Treasurer would announce another one-off bonus, saying how terrific that was. But we knew that carers and pensioners were absolutely struggling from day to day. Those on single pensions in particular were in real trouble; single pensioners who did not own their own homes were in terrible trouble. What this government and this minister have done in increasing the base rate of the pension is a significant achievement in fundamental social justice for those who are reliant on our social security scheme. I certainly commend her for that. Both last year’s and this year’s budgets included funding for these pension reforms, but I am also aware that some elements of the government’s pension reforms are yet to take effect. What I would like the minister to tell the chamber is: how will the government’s changes to pension advance payments and pension supplements change this financial year?

I also want to take the opportunity to ask the minister to pass on to her counterpart who covers human services and Centrelink my personal thanks, not only for the terrific work that the financial information officers at Centrelink have done in assisting people to make decisions around the changes to the pension, but also for providing significant information through pensioner forums. In my electorate we had two forums. More than 500 people, for two hours, hammered away at the financial information officers for all sorts of quite complex details. They did a fantastic job, and I know they had a lot of follow-up appointments. I want the minister to also pass on my thanks to those Centrelink staff who had to implement the pension reforms.

4:22 pm

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

If I can go back to the member for Wakefield’s remarks first, I appreciate that they were very much about the importance of income management. He understands just how important it is to make sure that we are able to deliver on income management. I will take the income management question that the member for Lyne raised, and I will come to his other questions in a minute.

One of the important things that we have in this year’s budget is the money to introduce the new arrangements for income management. Of course, all of this is contingent on this legislation getting through the Senate over this fortnight—hopefully that will occur. If it does, the government will commit $350 million over the next four years to implement these changes, in the first instance in the Northern Territory.

I want to pick up another point that the member for Wakefield made—I think very well—about the importance of income management for those people who really need help with managing their finances, getting their finances together. I have spoken to a number of people in both the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where people can be referred for income management by child protection authorities. In Perth and the Kimberley, people can volunteer to be income managed. One of the things that people always say to me is how important that has been in helping them get their finances in order. Some people will say it has helped them to pay off their credit card debt, save for a car, or meet whatever other priorities they have.

In this year’s budget, as part of the $350 million, we will be allocating an extra $53 million over four years for financial counselling—in this case, just in the Northern Territory—because we do understand how important it is for those who are having difficulty managing their money to tie together the benefits of income management and provide advice so people can learn to do that for themselves. We already fund a range of money management and financial counselling services across Australia, including in remote parts of the Northern Territory. This will add to that service that we have available.

To answer the related question that the member for Lyne asked about income management, in the first instance it will be rolled out in the Northern Territory because the Northern Territory has the largest number of very disadvantaged communities in Australia. It is not a constitutional matter and, to my knowledge, it has not been discussed at COAG. We have of course discussed this matter with the Northern Territory government. The legislation currently before the Senate will enable us to start rolling out this new form of income management in the Northern Territory. We have said that, at the end of 2011, we will do a comprehensive evaluation as to how effective income management has been in helping the sort of people that the member for Wakefield talked about and, at that point, we will consider where else we will roll it out. The legislation, assuming it goes through, will enable us to roll it out elsewhere, but the budget—given this session is about the budget—enables us to roll it out in the Territory.

To go to the separate question that the member for Lyne raised about Aboriginal Connections, I would like to take that on notice if he does not mind. I am very aware of the concerns that he raised in general about the level of disadvantage in Kempsey. We must continue to expand the services that are offered in Kempsey. The member would know that we have recently made some announcements in that regard, particularly for children. I am of course concerned about any suggestion of a reduction in the availability of employment services in the area that he talks about. I am very happy to follow that up and get back to him.

The member for Higgins asked a number of questions about the Indigenous housing program in the Northern Territory, otherwise known as SIHIP. I am not sure whether she is aware that an independent review was undertaken of the Indigenous housing program, the findings of which we published earlier this year. The press release that she referred to in fact relied on the findings of that independent review. That independent review actually said that SIHIP is now on course to meet its targets of 750 new houses, 2,500 refurbishments and 230 rebuilds. With respect to all of the questions that she asked about this review, I suggest she have a detailed look at that. These matters were problems—I am the first to acknowledge that we had a number of problems at the start of this program. We also recognise that this is the largest public housing program ever embarked upon in the Northern Territory. It is true that there were difficulties at the start but, in response to the problems that were raised, the Commonwealth sent a number of senior officials to Darwin for some months and the work done by those officials, along with senior officials from the Northern Territory government, was very important in getting this program back on track.

We now have houses being built in hundreds of locations right across the remote parts of the Northern Territory and, of course, we are very pleased that this independent review found that it is on track to meet its five-year targets. I just remind the member for Higgins that these are five-year targets. That was what was agreed between the two levels of government.

She asked about New South Wales. The New South Wales government has decided that it is more economic to buy existing houses—they are much cheaper than what they could build them for. Of course, it means that these houses will now be made available to Aboriginal families to be able to address problems of overcrowding in the places that the New South Wales government has decided are a priority for it. That is a decision that it has made, recognising how important it is to bring additional housing stock into the public housing system in New South Wales, which will now be made available to Aboriginal people in those places.

The member for Ballarat also asked me some questions about both paid parental leave and pensions. She specifically asked about the issues around the changes that are going to start on 1 July. These are additional parts to our reform package that we announced last September, but Centrelink needed a little bit more time to put them in place, given the huge package of reforms that were part of the pension changes. What is going to happen on 1 July is that, first of all—I am sure the member for Ballarat will be very pleased to know—the second annual carer supplement will be paid. That will be paid in the first payment period in July. It is the case, as the member for Ballarat outlined in her remarks, that carers no longer have to rely on whether or not a government is going to pay a bonus, which was the case under the previous government. Carers can now know that, as a result of the legislation that we put in place—

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Your time has expired.

Government Members:

Government members interjecting

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Does the minister want some additional time?

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to answer the member for Ballarat’s questions.

Opposition Members:

Opposition members interjecting

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister has the call. Can I just explain to members on both sides: it is often more productive if a minister can answer several questions from people. The minister would like to complete that list of questions that have come from members. So I call the minister and I anticipate she will be finished in a minute or so. Then I will call the member for Higgins and we will have another round of questions before the minister answers.

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. Just going back to the member for Ballarat’s questions, the carers supplement will be paid. Of course, that is now guaranteed in legislation. That is an annual $600 payment. Many carers will get double that because they are on both the carer payment and the carer allowance. I am sure that will be a very welcome payment at the beginning of July.

The other changes that are happening from 1 July are changes to the advance payments. Pensioners were also very keen that we improve the advance payment arrangements. This does not just cover age pensioners; it is also for disability support pensioners, those on the carer payment, widow B pensioners and wife pensioners. Pensioners are going to be able to get up to three advance payments a year. For singles it will be up to just over $1,000 and for each member of a couple up to $758.10. That is the maximum. Of course, they have to be repaid, but it does enable people who have big bills to get advance payments.

The second issue the member for Ballarat raised was the changes to the pension supplement, and the good news about that is that we are making it more flexible for pensioners. What we did last September was create a new pension supplement and of course we increased it. At the moment that is paid with people’s fortnightly pension but what we are enabling pensioners to do from 1 July—and it is entirely their choice—is take some of that pension supplement quarterly to help them budget and pay for their quarterly bills if they would like to. So they are two additional measures that will start on 1 July which I am sure pensioners will be very pleased about.

4:35 pm

Photo of Kelly O'DwyerKelly O'Dwyer (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the minister for her attempted answer to my question. The questions that I asked were all post the SIHIP review. They were detailed questions and I would like them placed on the Notice Paper for a formal written response. I have additional questions regarding Indigenous employment to the minister. How many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders have been assisted into employment through the Indigenous Employment Program? How many have remained in employment after the 13 or 26 weeks review time?

4:36 pm

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

The second question is a question for Minister Arbib, so you are not in order with that question; that is not to do with my portfolio. That is the first thing. As far as the SIHIP review is concerned, I think the member is also confusing two different reviews that were done of SIHIP. One is called the post review of SIHIP. That was done last year and published, I think, in August. It was post that review that we made a number of changes, and then in this calendar year—I think it was around February—we also had an independent review, which we have also published, which says that we are now back on track.

Honourable Members:

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Since the minister did answer that question from the member for Higgins, I will give the call to the member for Parramatta and then to the member for Murray. Prior to that the member for Higgins—

Honourable Members:

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We will not have a debate about it. I will call the member for Parramatta, because I did give the member for Higgins the call prior to that.

4:37 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, you may remember last year I brought a busload of women down from Parramatta. They came down for the apology to the forgotten Australians. They were of course women from the Parramatta Girls Home, known at the time as the Parramatta Girls—and, as people who survived some appalling treatment in that place, they still use that title as a matter of pride. At the time I was very pleased to hear the Prime Minister recognise the work of Bonney Djuric, who is one of my local women who has worked so, so hard on behalf of these women.

I do not have to tell you what a watershed it was for those women; we were all there. But for many others in my area who actually could not make it—and it was not that they could not make it because they physically could not make it; they got up that day and were not actually emotionally ready to get on the bus—there is still great healing to come, and that goes for those who came too. Can I just ask you where we are with that process, what the follow-on has been like and what the government is doing?

4:38 pm

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, in the Budget Related Paper No. 1.8 at page 166, on the budget measures for EOWA—the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency—there were no new budget measures in the 2010-11 budget for that agency. We know there is a major problem in Australia with gender pay equity deteriorating. In the last two years it has got worse. This is a serious issue of women’s rights in Australia who on average earn 18 per cent less pay compared to men in the same work. We have recommendations that the EOWA be particularly strengthened. These came from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and in the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations following its consideration of these matters last year.

I am concerned that there were no budget measures in relation to EOWA. Do you have something up your sleeve that you are going to bring out some time soon? Clearly, the agency cannot do the work it needs to do to address the gender pay equity issues. We are very disappointed that the agency was treated in the way it was. Of course, there are lots of other concerns about the legislation itself, which is not adequate anymore in terms of making businesses report on things like pay for men and women doing the same work.

There is then the issue of violence against women, which I think we would all agree is very serious. I am sure it is of great concern to all parties. When will the government formally respond to the Time for action: the National Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children, 2009-2021? As you know, this plan was delivered in April 2009, but there has been no response. We have had a commitment to some sort of communication package around the issue, and that was made at about the time the national council presented its plan. We have not seen anything of that communication package. We do not know what is in it or when it will start. I think it is very serious if that whole area is being neglected when we know that, sadly, domestic violence against women and their children is increasing in our community.

We also want to know when you are going to deal with the problems of the MACS, Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Services, centres. They predated the CFCs, the children and family centres. Why do you have those two types of Indigenous multifunctional centres coexisting but one, the CFCs, having greater financial support than the other? It is bad luck if you are in a community like Shepparton, with a multifunctional Aboriginal centre. You are being squeezed of support, your funding is diminishing and you have had to let go a lot of your special services for your special needs children. If they had more fortuitously had one of these new CFCs, they would have had a much better funding stream. We want to know what the difference is between those two types of centres. Why do they coexist? Why is one better funded than the other when they both serve children with very special needs?

We also want to know how the MACS centres are to deal with four-year-olds, who, under the policy of your government, are supposed to have universal access to pre-schooling. As we know, the children in the MACS centres do not pay fees—that is part of the system, and it is a right part of the system. But if the children go off to a kindergarten they do have to pay fees, particularly in Victoria. So how are you going to handle in these multifunctional Aboriginal centres, and indeed in the children and family centres, the four-year-olds, who should be receiving early childhood education? Are you going to specially support upgrading the qualifications of the workers in these two centres? If so, when?

I have a number of these MACS centres in my electorate, there are six or seven in Victoria, and the women—it is almost invariably women—who organise them are most concerned at the deprivation of their children, given this extraordinary and strange government parallel policy. We want to know what your department is going to do with the introduction of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care, which is to commence in 2012, in terms of implementation and compliance for other childcare centres which are not Indigenous specific. How will this framework be implemented or relate to the Indigenous childcare or multifunctional centres? At the moment, they think they will be left out in the cold, not get special attention and not have the quality assurances relate to them. They want to hear exactly what you have to say about that.

I am disappointed with the budget. Clearly, it does not advance the needs of women in any way. I am very keen to hear your responses to these questions.

4:43 pm

Photo of Jill HallJill Hall (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Unlike the previous member, I am very pleased with the budget. I am not at all disappointed. The aspect of the budget that I am particularly pleased with is the Paid Parental Leave scheme. I would like to congratulate the minister on the role she has played. Everyone knows it was an absolutely enormous role. It is not something that started in the lead-up to this budget; indeed, it has stretched over many years.

I would like the minister to detail for the House the implementation process and the funding and payments that will be made available through the Paid Parental Leave scheme. I would like a total overview of the Paid Parental Leave program as set out in the budget papers. I think this is vital information. It is information that the constituents I represent in the parliament would like me to give to them.

4:45 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is fairly general in nature. It relates to my contention that the regional or urban Indigenous experience is not much better than the remote Indigenous experience in many cases. There is a lot of newspaper coverage about the Northern Territory and about remote locations, and the discussion here today has tended to focus on those areas too. I would argue that it is also a problem in many regional Victorian towns in my electorate, including Morwell, Bairnsdale, Lakes Entrance and Lake Tyers Beach. I know the member beside me would know about problems in Shepparton and towns like that. Problems associated with substance abuse, with domestic violence and with lack of participation in the education system, leading to poor health outcomes and low participation in full-time employment, are significant issues in urban and regional Indigenous experience, and I do not think we focus on that in this place as much as we should.

I think the key to the future for our young Indigenous people is going to come through education, from early childhood onwards, through access to better health care and through the decency of having a real job at the end of it all. While there are pockets of excellence in my electorate—people working very hard and achieving some great things—the disadvantage is still very pronounced.

I would like to know whether, within the budget papers, there are measures focusing on the regional or urban Indigenous experience. Is there an acknowledgement by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs of the enormity of the problems we face in regional towns in Victoria? I would be interested to know if there are any programs the minister is considering or if there are ways for my community to engage with the minister’s office to make sure that local solutions are being put forward that can actually deliver outcomes for us in the Gippsland region.

4:47 pm

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I will start with the question from the member for Parramatta which went particularly to money that is in this year’s budget—which I am sure she is very pleased about. I ask her to pass this on especially to those people who are known as the ‘Parramatta girls’—there is $26.5 million in this budget for the Find and Connect service. The member for Parramatta will recall that the Prime Minister announced this service when he made the apology to the forgotten Australians and the former child migrants. That service is going to provide a national website and a single online access point to help those care leavers find their past records. Some of those records are held by past care providers and some of them are held by government agencies. We want to be able to link in with state and territory indexes. Some states have more information available to them than others. Of course, it is also the case that some of the forgotten Australians have moved. For example, someone may have been in a home in Parramatta but now live in Western Australia. We want to make sure that it is nationally available and that we can link the state and territory systems.

There will be a national 1800 number for care leavers to call if they want to talk to somebody who is trained to help locate personal records. There will also be a national network of specialised case managers to help care leavers locate and access their personal records and, where possible—and we do recognise that it is not always going to be possible—to help them reunite with their family members. Case managers will also connect care leavers with counsellors and with other support services where that is required. We will also be giving priority access to those care leavers who are aged or terminally ill. It is important to be able to do this as quickly as possible for those people.

Some of this money will also be spent on new counselling support services, specifically for care leavers, with appropriately trained and skilled providers. We recognise just how emotional it is going to be for these people while they search for their families and consider whether or not they want to be reconnected. If they do want that, it could be very positive; but, of course, there may be circumstances where it is very difficult. That has been a very positive outcome of this year’s budget—a commitment that the Prime Minister made, and of course kept.

The member for Murray asked a number of questions that relate to issues that are not in my portfolio. As with the member for Higgins, she needs to go to the consideration in detail for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. That is where early childhood development is funded. All of the questions she asked about early childhood development belong with the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. She needs to keep up; those changes were made when we came into government.

The other questions that she raised about violence against women are not in my portfolio responsibilities either. We are just seeing if the Minister for the Status of Women is available; otherwise, I will take the questions on notice. But I would particularly draw the attention of the member for Murray to additional funding in this year’s budget for legal assistance. Both the Minister for the Status of Women and I are very pleased to see this additional money for legal aid. It will be very important for women who are victims of domestic violence. I will pass on the member’s questions to the relevant minister. (Time expired)

4:52 pm

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) Share this | | Hansard source

In relation to paid parental leave, can I ask the minister: when do you expect to have the payroll tax issues resolved? They are of great concern to very small businesses. I understand you have begun some negotiations with the states, so when are businesses likely to be assured that the problems have been resolved? We are concerned that discrimination against women might be the outcome in some cases, where payrolls have to reflect the second income—with a person on maternity leave and someone on paid parental leave. As you know, we are concerned that this unfinished business should have been resolved a very long time ago. We are concerned to know how those negotiations are going. When are we going to know just how that particular issue will be dealt with?

In relation to the six months you have already built into the legislation as a moratorium time when businesses do not have to act as paymasters for their employees on paid parental leave, we are keen to know if you would consider extending that six-month moratorium. I know you are saying that the government will continue through the Family Assistance Office to act as paymaster for casual, contract and other employees who do not readily have someone they can nominate as an employer; so can you consider extending that six months to allay some of the fears of small businesses who are most concerned about the red tape and the increased problems with their payrolls. At this point in time they have nothing to guide them, other than being told: ‘Well, it’s a bit of a mess. We’ll give you six months while we sort it out.’

We also have a problem with the Fair Work legislation in relation to the eligibility—under which you can return to your position or a like position—and that particular eligibility not matching the paid parental leave criteria, which is 330 hours, ten months work over a 13-month  period and so on. How does the government intend to align these two criteria so that we can be sure that the woman—the primary carer is usually a woman—returning to work after 4½ months leave can be secure in the knowledge that there will be a job waiting for her if she has not in fact had 12 months of continuous employment with that employer making her eligible for that special entitlement?

On the question of safety of women and children, as you are aware, new settlers—particularly women who are in family reunion categories, humanitarian refugees, refugees who come through the front door and people from a non-English-speaking background—need very special support in learning the English language and in preparing for job training and entry into the workforce. We are concerned that these funds have been restricted or cut back while there is unfortunately a huge diversion of funds that were previously able to be spent on new settler services going to the crisis with the boat people on Christmas Island. A billion dollars has blown out there. Can you inform us of what is happening with those new settler services, in particular on the safety of women and helping women understand the cultural context of Australia? Where they can go if they are abandoned or need to leave an abusive relationship. For example, if you have a woman who has come to Australia on an overseas spouse or fiancé visa and she is not from an English-speaking background, as you know, at the moment with Centrelink she does not have any automatic rights to immediate support from our welfare services sector if she leaves her marriage.

What is the government doing about that particular problem? Have you got some policies in mind, given that the overseas spouse visa categories are growing? The issue of abuse in those relationships is serious and in some parts of Australia it is worse than others. We were not able to discern any special additional—or, indeed, any support in particular—for those women, particularly in accessing Centrelink support, which would give those women a chance to be financially independent and escape an abusive relationship.

4:56 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Housing) Share this | | Hansard source

I believe that there were two questions asked earlier by the shadow minister that related to my portfolio responsibilities for the status of women. I believe they related to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency and the review of the act and to the social marketing aspect of the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

Firstly, on the review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act and the agency, the review was designed to examine the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing legislation to make sure that it is cost effective and well targeted. The review has been progressing very well. One of the reasons that we pursued the review was that we were concerned about the continuing issue of the gender pay gap. We also wanted to look at the current reporting arrangements to see how they support changes in this area. A consultation report has been released and the findings of that report are being considered by the government at the moment. The findings are also being considered in the context of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations inquiry into pay equity. Both of the reports are being considered by the government at the same time. I believe you asked why there was no funding in the last budget for these measures.

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, I was concerned about whether there is additional support for EOWA to deal with the gender pay equity issues in particular.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Housing) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no change in the budget allocation for this because the government is considering its response to the report. We have not made an announcement of any changes in policy, so it would be strange to change the budget allocation without actually announcing any of the policy changes.

I think the other matter that the shadow minister was asking about related to the social marketing campaign that was announced as part of the response to the report from the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. I believe that you asked where the money was in the recent budget for that social marketing campaign.

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Could I just advise the Main Committee that I have been advised that there are going to be divisions very shortly, so I would like the Minister for the Status of Women to conclude. It is five o’clock. The Minister for the Status of Women has the call and the Leader of the House does not have the call.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Housing) Share this | | Hansard source

If questions were asked of the appropriate minister, I would not have to qualify what the questions are. The social marketing campaign was funded as part of the $42 million initial announcement that we made. There is a $17 million allocation for that social marketing campaign. We said that we would release the social marketing campaign in 2010. We are in 2010 at the moment. You will see the social marketing campaign in 2010.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Portfolio

Proposed expenditure, $1,569,504,000

5:01 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

There are, of course, major budget commitments in the Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy portfolio. The National Broadband Network is the largest infrastructure project in Australia’s history, one that this government is very proud of. It will drive future productivity and growth across the economy and deliver high-speed broadband to all Australians, no matter where they live. The government has made an appropriate provision for the NBN in the 2010-11 budget, subject to a response by government to the NBN Implementation Study.

When the government announced the NBN in April last year we also announced that a detailed implementation study would be commissioned. That study is now complete and was released by the minister on 6 May. After months of detailed analysis, the study confirms that high-speed broadband over a wholesale-only network for all Australians is achievable. It can also be built on a financially viable basis with affordable prices for consumers. The government will provide a formal response to this report in the coming months, after reviewing public submissions received on the study.

The 2009-10 budget made provision for the government’s initial investment of $4.7 billion towards the NBN. So far, the government has made equity injections to NBN Co. totalling $312 million, and shareholder ministers will continue to make equity available to NBN Co. as required. Our equity injections are also made public as they occur through the notices tabled under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997.

In the 2010-11 budget the government will provide a further $1.8 billion to the portfolio to deliver its priorities. It will provide the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy with funding of $501.6 million. This is an increase of $106.9 million from the previous year. This reflects the rollout of the Regional Backbone Blackspots Program and the acceleration of the switch-over to digital-only television transmission. This will be offset, in part, by the completion of the NBN Implementation Study and termination of the Connect Australia program in 2009-10.

The government will also provide the ABC with funding of $972.6 million, an increase of $40.6 million from 2009-10. The Australian Communications and Media Authority, with funding of $123.7 million, has an increase of $19.9 million from 2009-10, and the SBS, with funding of some $217 million, has an increase of $3.9 million from 2009-10 levels.

The government will also provide $375.4 million over 12 years under the digital television switch-over program. This funding will assist commercial and national broadcasters to provide a digital television satellite service for those Australians who are unable to receive digital terrestrial transmission. It will provide for transmission of digital free-to-air television services for commercial and national broadcasters from a new satellite platform, the Viewer Access Satellite Television service; assist a number of communities to upgrade existing analog self-help transmission facilities to transmit national broadcasting services in digital; and provide for assistance through the Satellite Phone Subsidy Scheme for the installation of satellite reception equipment to eligible households currently served by analog television self-help retransmission sites that will not be converted to digital.

The Digital Switchover Taskforce has been working effectively and cooperatively with broadcasters to undertake the planning needed to switch off analog TV. We are just 14 days away from seeing the first region in Australia—the Mildura-Sunraysia region—switching to digital-only TV. In conclusion, the measures that were announced in the 2010-11 budget will encourage a vibrant, sustainable and internationally competitive digital economy in Australia, which will assist in securing our prosperity into the future.

5:06 pm

Photo of John ForrestJohn Forrest (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased that the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government made reference to the switch-over being only 14 days away. I would like to put some proposals to him in seeking further information. There is still an enormous amount of work to do, which I hope the minister is aware of. I express some disappointment because it has been over 18 months since, in November 2008, the government first produced the schedule for switching off analog. I was in the chamber when that happened, and I groaned. But after thinking about it through the Christmas period I thought, ‘This is a great opportunity for my region.’ We have had nothing but problems with television broadcasting for the 15 years I have been the member, so I saw it as an opportunity to work cooperatively with the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. To his credit, he has heard the responses that I have been making, which have come from my constituents, about the inadequacy of the digital signal: it nowhere near offers the geographic spread that analog did.

I live in fear, still, for what will happen in 14 days time, because a large number of black spots have been revealed. Some of those have been addressed, although I express some disappointment at the time it has taken to get the message through. I have been warning the minister since before Christmas about the problems my community of Robinvale has been having with its digital signal. After all this time, we still do not have a solution for Robinvale. It has been promised, but we will probably not have the digital signal delivered into the township of Robinvale until the 25th, when there will be five days to go until the switch-off. That means the people of Robinvale will not have the opportunity to take the time to make the right decision about which transmitter they want to point to.

That is one complaint. I ask the minister to explain, via me, to my constituents why it has taken so long—18 months. We realise that when you are the first there are a few hiccups that have to be worked out, and we are the guinea pig. But the government has to understand that it has to do much better for the rest of regional Australia than it has done in Mildura. I hope that the lessons that have been learnt there are cemented in and that, in future, these things will be done much earlier than they have been in my part of the world. For example, the government announced last year that it would assist people on pensions with the full cost of any technical work they might need to have done to guarantee that their digital signal was to their satisfaction, such as replacement of the aerial or the set-top box. Yet the letters that came out from Centrelink were not sent until this year, and some people had already invested in a digital box and, in doing that, prevented their access to the subsidy. In the future, that has to be done much earlier. The government has seen fit to appoint a local liaison person. That is Kellie Boyce, and she has done a great job. She is a local person and knows the networks. But her appointment did not occur until early this year, which left the public relations sweep that has had to happen as a crunch in the last weeks before the switch-off.

I continue to ask the minister to consider deferring the deadline. There is absolutely no reason why 30 June is the absolute deadline for Mildura. The minister argues to me, ‘Well, if you don’t have a deadline, there’ll still be people who’ll never do it.’ That is not true in my area. There is a thirst—a real thirst—to have the services from digital TV. People want it because there are more channels to watch and there are additional services that can be operated through it. We are going to have a crunch in the last four or five days. There are still communities whose only opportunity now is to access via the satellite. We have done the legislation. In my speech, I asked: when is the satellite signal going to be available? I asked the minister to please inform my constituents when all of that is going to occur. I may have some subsequent questions, and I hope he is going to address these one by one.

My constituents are being cheated of the opportunity to make commercial decisions. The government is asking them to invest substantial amounts of funding, up to $1,000, for a new satellite dish, cabling and all the rest of it. They need to do that in a calm, considered environment where they can see the options available to them, look at the terrestrial signal and get some advice about its unreliability, have a look at what the satellite will offer and make a commercial decision. They are being asked to invest significant funds. They are going to be cheated of that because the satellite signal is still not available to them in Mildura. I say it is a very bad performance from the government on this, and I plead again to allow—(Time expired)

5:11 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I note that the member for Mallee says that his constituents will benefit from this—as they will. The new government funded satellite service is transmitting right now, well in time for the small number of households in the area that will need it to replace the analog terrestrial services. The VAST service commenced testing on 7 June and is available to all households in the Mildura-Sunraysia area that require satellite access to digital TV in time for the switch-over on 30 June. VAST set-top box receivers arrived in Mildura today, with retail and supplier orders also filled today. In fact, the first installation was completed today. Arrangements for the installation of a satellite dish can be made at any time. However, the majority of households that are likely to need the satellite service in Sunraysia are already using the existing Aurora satellite service. The new digital transmitter for residents of Robinvale was expected to commence services on 15 June 2010. Unexpected fumigation carried out at the site of the new Robinvale transmitter, which is a grain silo, has meant that this service is now scheduled to commence on 25 June 2010.

The member for Mallee should stop his relentless campaign of fear about the digital switch-over in Mildura-Sunraysia. I know it is difficult for the member to accept that a Labor government has succeeded in bringing to regional and rural Australia television services equivalent to those that I get to enjoy living in Sydney. It is something that the Nationals failed to deliver for over a decade. But, for the sake of his constituents, he should get on board and stop fearmongering. He should welcome the initiative and leadership shown by Minister Conroy and the government. Minister Conroy has already assured the member for Mallee that the people of his electorate are very well prepared for 30 June.

Almost 100 per cent of households in Mildura-Sunraysia have converted to digital. The last of the new towers will be up and running next week. The small number of households who will move from terrestrial reception to the new satellite system is being connected as we speak. The member for Mallee’s claims that hundreds of people will lose their television are just plain wrong. The member for Mallee says he is worried about people moving from the old analog satellite to the new digital satellite, but he knows that we are not turning off the analog satellite for another three years or more. The government is providing all necessary assistance to ensure that people are ready for the switch-off of the terrestrial analog signal. We have staff from the Digital Switchover Taskforce working around the clock in Mildura, installing set-top boxes, assisting people with information and connecting some homes to the new satellite service. The member for Mallee is causing confusion in his local community by calling for a delay in the switch-over, which is ready to go.

The government intends to keep its time frame for the switch-off of analog TV in Mildura. It is important that people know what the deadline is and that it will not be changed. We are turning off the analog television signal in Mildura-Sunraysia at 9 am on 30 June. I congratulate the people of Mildura for their enthusiasm for this project and embracement of this fantastic new technology, bringing this regional community the same quality of services as that enjoyed in our major capital cities, and I look forward to a successful switchover on 30 June.

Photo of Arch BevisArch Bevis (Brisbane, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will call the member for Maranoa. I am tempted to give the member for Mallee an opportunity, but I think the general principle that has been applied in the past in these matters—

Photo of John ForrestJohn Forrest (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Forrest interjecting

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Mallee will resume his seat.

Honourable Members:

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The cross-chamber discussion will now cease. I would explain to the member for Mallee that the custom that I think has been generally followed is to enable those who have not previously entered the debate and are seeking the call to have that opportunity. I have no doubt the member for Mallee wishes to have the opportunity to receive the call to make some comments following the minister’s comments, and I will endeavour to give him that opportunity. But his colleagues might also like to consider that.

5:15 pm

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will be very quick. I want to talk about those self-help communities, of which there are 600 in Australia. I understand 100 of those communities will be receiving support by commercial operators to convert those signals from analog to digital, but I am worried about the other 500, particularly those small communities where it is planned to put a satellite dish to receive the signal as the way of receiving digital television. My concern in relation to that is for not only the individual households but also the motels or the individual cabins in tourist centres. Will they all get a dish or will that be a responsibility of the commercial operator?

What will happen, say, in a caravan park where they can now receive the signal terrestrially? Obviously, they will not be able to have a satellite dish on their caravan or the individual cabin. How will people in those situations be able to receive digital television when the plan is to put it on each and every home in those communities which are now serviced by a self-help scheme? I would appreciate it if the minister could answer this question—or perhaps the department can give me an answer to that.

The parliamentary secretary for Northern Australia will understand that outback tourism is a very important aspect of the economy. As you would appreciate, Mr Deputy Speaker, there will be many people, grey nomads, out in those rural communities and in the outback tonight wanting to watch Queensland make history in the State of Origin. How will they see it if they are in a situation where they do not have a dish and there is no longer terrestrial transmission? Will they be denied access? The minister spoke earlier about equity of access. I would like to think that there will be equity of access for those caravan parks, individual cabins and the motels where each room receives it terrestrially now. How will they get on? Or will this be a cost to those small businesses and those micro-small business in rural Australia?

5:18 pm

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I understand that Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy announced on 5 January 2010 that the government will fund a satellite service to deliver digital television to viewers in remote Australia and regional black spots. I am aware that $375.4 million over 12 years was provided in this budget to fund the satellite service, to fund ACMA to undertake the necessary planning work, and to provide a subsidy to viewers in communities reliant on self-help transmitters which are not upgraded to digital.

The satellite service will be available to any viewers who cannot access digital TV via terrestrial means. It is also great to hear that the new satellite service will carry all current free-to-air digital television channels—I know many people around the country will be very pleased about that—including the original three commercial and two national channels as well as the new digital services, such as ABC2, ABC3, SBS, 7TWO, GO! and One HD. This will finally bring to viewers in regional, rural and remote Australia the same number of channels as is available in the capital cities. As I understand it, the VAST service will also feature a dedicated local news channel, giving viewers access to their local news, which I know is very important to a lot of people around the country.

I also understand that the broadcasters have agreed to upgrade a substantial number of existing analog self-help retransmission facilities and that, where the broadcasters do not upgrade a self-help site or viewers are otherwise unable to access a broadcaster’s digital terrestrial signal, then viewers will have access to the new satellite in time for switchover. My question to the minister or the parliamentary secretary is this: can you explain why the government has decided to fund a satellite solution for reception black spots rather than continue to fund the community operated self-help transmission towers?

5:20 pm

Photo of Bob BaldwinBob Baldwin (Paterson, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to ask three ranges of questions. The first is in relation to digital terrestrial transmission. I wrote a question on notice to the minister, being No. 1178, to which Minister Albanese responded. In it one of the sites in my electorate that was pointed out was that of Mount Douglas, which services the area of Vacy. That has an ABC and SBS transmitter only. Given that the government has given a fee rebate of $250 million, why isn’t the government pushing the broadcasters to install digital transmitters on sites such as that? That is given, Minister, that you will be paying, as I understand it, around $400 per satellite service in subsidy, given the people who are there, that would far outweigh the cost of putting in a digital transmitter.

The second issue relates to the self-help services. Under the previous government’s television black spot program there were transmitters installed at Stroud, Booral, Forster, Elizabeth Beach, Smiths Lake and Nelson Bay. Taking the sites down in the Pacific Palms area, where the Smiths Lake transmitter and the Elizabeth Beach transmitter are, only one of those will be upgraded to digital—not the Elizabeth Beach one. Again, the subsidy that the government will be providing for digital satellite services will actually cost more than the $75,000 to $80,000 to install a digital translator. How do I know it will cost between $75,000 and $80,000 per translator? Because the very person who installed all these self-help transmitters has had the pricing done to put it in. This is the same person that worked on the digital self-help translator that was put in at Nelson Bay.

The other thing that the minister failed to address in the answers was the directional aspect of the transmitter put in at Nelson Bay on Gan Gan Hill. It was originally to be an analog service but, because of the point of convergence with the interference of a range of signals, that was not able to be achieved. So they had to put a digital service in there, which took an extra period of time. That was originally an omnidirectional transmitter. That has now been wound back to be a digital transmitter—so we have people without television services.

On the issue relating to satellite reception, for the life of me I cannot understand why people are now going to have to put a second satellite dish on their roof because the one that they may have there goes to Optus. Local government planning laws provide an exemption for a development application for one satellite dish. If you are going to put a second satellite dish on, then you will be required to submit a development application which will have to go through the normal scrutiny—and costs—involved. And of course internally you will have a second set top box, so there is another box inside. The government, with its failure to plan and failure to negotiate, did not see fit to actually work with people like Foxtel and AUSTAR to reduce the number of boxes and reduce the number of satellite dishes. The government has said that this will provide local television. But while receiving local news is one thing, receiving local advertising is an entirely different matter.

There are small businesses in local communities that invest in advertising on those regional broadcasters because they can get their message out to their local catchment area and encourage people to spend and invest in their local area. But I say this to the minister, in his failure to understand the requirements of a small regional community: if the ads are coming out of Sydney, Canberra or Melbourne for the major part of the day and people are seeing specials in Sydney or Melbourne when they are living out in Gloucester, Dungog, Vacy or Pacific Palms and receiving satellite transmission, it is taking income and opportunity, and therefore jobs, away from local areas. I accept that, with the general geography and topography of an area like mine, not all areas can be serviced by terrestrial means. But the areas that are currently being serviced by terrestrial means, including the self-help transmitters, should all be upgraded so that they can receive local programming and local ads, which will provide local opportunities. (Time expired)

Photo of Arch BevisArch Bevis (Brisbane, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Under the notional allocation, we have four minutes left of the time allocated for this debate. Obviously the parliamentary secretary needs to get the call. I did indicate to the member for Mallee—and I thought some of his colleagues might have taken my hint—that they present me with a problem in standing, given the convention of allowing someone to speak who has not already had the call. I understand that the member for Mallee wants to make a brief contribution, so I am going to depart from the normal arrangements and give the call to the member for Mallee.

5:26 pm

Photo of John ForrestJohn Forrest (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Just briefly, I want to respond to the pathetic response from the minister asserting that I am running some kind of fear campaign in my constituency. It is absolute nonsense. The reality is that I am spending more time in people’s lounge rooms than the task force is. Every time I go down the street, someone is complaining about the lack of reliability of the signal. No-one has cooperated more in a non-political sense to get this right—and I want to get it right. The minister’s response was pathetic, political and completely unnecessary, and I refute it. I am simply conveying to you what my constituents are telling me. It is not a fear campaign. There is no need for 30 June.

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I am going to call the parliamentary secretary. The notional allocation of time for this debate is nearing an end. In doing so, I should just point out that it is not possible to ask questions of the parliamentary secretary, but the parliamentary secretary is at liberty to make whatever contribution he wishes to.

5:27 pm

Photo of Gary GrayGary Gray (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

There are a number of questions which I must respond to. I will pick up some of the points made by the member for Mallee. I do note that in the preamble to his questions he mentioned the amount of work he had been doing in the Sunraysia-Mildura area in support of the switch-over. That is both understood and appreciated. But we also know that under the new system 16 channels will be available to people living in that area. With regard to television reception and coverage, as has been conceded by the member for Mallee, the new system does really provide a better footprint than the former analog system, which created inconvenient black spots and made reception difficult for many regional television viewers—and families. But it is also necessary for us to be aware as members of parliament that the way in which we address these issues in our communities is critical and that the service provided by TV is an important one for all communities across Australia.

The member for Maranoa raised questions about caravanning and camping and the capacity of grey nomads to receive acceptable television signals on their trips around Australia. We will get back to him with a detailed answer to those questions. I appreciate his interest in that area.

The member for Kingston raised a matter to do with satellites and black spots. I would like to get to that answer as quickly as I can. The current government is funding a new satellite service that will deliver vastly improved content for self-help communities in the remote areas of Australia. Communities will have access to a modern and adaptable delivery platform with virtually universal coverage, supported by the government. Not only will this provide a solution for today’s self-help communities and release them from the cost of maintaining terrestrial facilities; it also allows for future expansion of communities around Australia, avoiding the need for multiple new transmission facilities to be installed at local community expense.

The use of satellite also achieves an increased level of access and content without the use of scarce broadcast spectrum and so has no impact on the digital dividend which flows from the switch-off of the analog systems. The proposed sale and subsequent use of the digital dividend for new wireless and other services will have an ongoing positive impact on the entire Australian community into the future, which is a key factor to be considered against any proposed expansion of current terrestrial television. It should be noted that, of the self-help sites not included on the published list of candidate sites to upgrade to digital, there are over 480 which currently retransmit the remote area broadcast services, meaning that those communities only receive the four analog services and news, advertising and other local material relevant to remote parts of Australia.

Moving to the satellite service will, for the first time, provide these communities with the same level of services that are currently provided in metropolitan areas. In addition, some of these communities are actually in regional licence areas but are too isolated to retransmit their local services. The availability of local news on the satellite service will, for the first time, provide local regional news to these communities.

The initiatives taken by the government in the area of the digital economy since 2008 have been genuinely revolutionary. In my home state of Western Australia we see that work has already begun on the new fibre optic link from Perth to Geraldton. It is a critical link that links our universities in Perth with research centres in the north. It is not only important for current university activities but critical, given the advent of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope and the opportunities that are presented by this $2.5 billion investment in our science future and in infrastructure in regional Western Australia. The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will sit in concert in a rapidly growing area due to resource developments in the mid-west iron ore province, which will also take advantage of the new digital spine that will extend from Perth to Geraldton. I note that the mayor of Geraldton, Ian Carpenter, has spoken many times of the importance of this link and of the cooperation from the state government of Western Australia in the development of the proposed Square Kilometre Array. The support of it both in Western Australia and internationally is critically important to the science future not just of our nation but also of Western Australia.

Photo of Arch BevisArch Bevis (Brisbane, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time agreed between the government and opposition for consideration of this portfolio has expired.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Defence Portfolio

Proposed expenditure, $23,519,162,000

The Main Committee will now consider the Defence portfolio under Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011. It will first consider the Defence segment and then the Veterans’ Affairs segment of the Defence portfolio.

5:33 pm

Photo of Bob BaldwinBob Baldwin (Paterson, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

The first area that I wish to raise with the minister relates to Australia’s program LAND 121, phase 4: the $1.5 billion for the acquisition of around 1,300 vehicles. I note with great interest that in a press release, on 26 May, the Minister for Defence Materiel and Science announced:

“Three Australian based companies will be awarded up to $9 million each for the development of protected mobility vehicle prototypes, putting them in the running to land a manufacturing contract for up to 1300 vehicles …

I am happy to announce that Thales Australia, Force Protection Europe and General Dynamics Land Systems are the three companies that will be given a shot.

Minister, if I can take your mind back to Wednesday, 29 October 2008: at the 10th Land Warfare Conference in Brisbane, then defence minister Fitzgibbon put out a press release and in that press release was the initial announcement of becoming engaged with the JLTV program. In fact, in that press release—which shocked many in Australian defence industry—it was announced that Australia was becoming involved with the technology demonstration phase of the US joint light tactical vehicle program, and that we were spending around $40 million investing in that program. The part that the Australian defence industry was most shocked at was the penultimate paragraph in this press release, which quoted Mr Fitzgibbon as saying:

“Should the JLTV be selected, it is anticipated that there will be opportunities for Australian industry in the manufacturing of associated vehicle trailers and ongoing maintenance support for our fleet …

So the question that I have to you in relation to this, Minister, is: why did it take your government so long—it had to be dragged, kicking and screaming—to provide equality of opportunity for the Australian defence industry?

In fact, during one of the annual report inquiries by the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Vice Admiral Tripovich was asked, ‘Would Australian industry be disadvantaged by the fact that they had not been provided investment nor been approached initially to be engaged in the program?’ and he said words to the effect that it would be very difficult for Australian industry to catch up and to be involved. So we are glad that you have made this investment. But the question that you need to answer to me, please, and to the Australian defence industry and people at large, is: given the success of the Thales Bushmaster as a high-quality product, a product in theatres of operation in which—touch wood—no-one to date has been killed and one which many can thank for the continuation of their lives because of the success of this vehicle, why is it that Australian defence industry was excluded from the initial inquiry and investigation?

It is fine to come to the table and say, ‘We have now given this money,’ but the bigger question is this: your government was prepared to sacrifice Australian jobs and home-grown technology—which is now being exported globally—for the sake of giving money to US contracts. And, Minister, could you also answer the following question. Not one of these prototypes being developed in the US has been able to meet the specifications put forward by the Australian Defence Force, and the fact that these vehicles weigh more than the specified seven tonnes means that they are not meeting the criteria for being slung underneath a Chinook. Where does this now place Australian industry? Could you also answer the following questions. When do you expect a decision to be made as to when the prototypes in Australia will be finished? When do you expect final complying prototypes from the USA? And where will this money sit in the forward budget estimates for the acquisition program? Minister, it is Australian defence industry and the people that work there that hang in the balance, on your decision.

5:38 pm

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to ask you, with your defence service personnel responsibilities hat on—and I understand there were some portfolio changes only recently and I congratulate you for taking on this issue—some questions. I have raised this issue in other forms but I do think it is one that goes to the heart of what I consider to be cultural issues, within, particularly, the Defence Materiel Organisation and the human services and governance aspects of the DMO. In particular, I wish to raise the question of the Jane Wolfe case that has recently been before the Federal Court.

Jane Wolfe’s employment was ended, according to the Annual Report of 2008, by the Department of Defence. However, Federal Court action was taken and, only last month, she was reinstated with a very clear ruling from the Federal Court that any issues that were raised either through the Australian Government Solicitor or through the CEO of the DMO were completely unfounded and she was to be reinstated immediately. My understanding is that she is back at work in the SES. She was a senior executive service employee and continues to work there.

The question is: how on earth did we end up in a situation where the CEO of the DMO, within four months of the employment of Ms Wolfe, sought advice from the Australian Government Solicitor, using the Public Service Act over the subsequent period and using former employers to write affidavits, and the Public Service Commissioner using that information to trigger a termination notice? We ended up with court action taking place and questions being asked around the Financial Management Act, with regard to when legal advice was received that said there was no case. Yet the CEO of the DMO and the DMO in general knowingly continued, either with their internal counsel or with outside legal advice, to spend taxpayers’ money to run what was, essentially, a dead case.

From all accounts, $2 million worth of legal expenses was racked up. This is a significant cost to the taxpayer that is worthy of an explanation from the minister and the government. How on earth could it happen that someone employed at the SES level for only four months had what on the surface looks to be a vendetta run, and allowed to be run, against them within the culture of the DMO and the Public Service in Canberra? I ask the minister to explain, and I have asked this in another form, the implications of that Federal Court ruling. Is a code of conduct inquiry now going to take place against the CEO of the DMO? If not, why not? If so, what form will that code of conduct inquiry take? In relation specifically to the Financial Management Act and to the Public Service Act, what are the implications from the point of view of the minister’s confidence in the DMO executive team and the way they run their governance structures, their human resources and their duties?

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 5.42 pm to 5.56 pm

5:56 pm

Photo of Bob BaldwinBob Baldwin (Paterson, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

The issue I shall now raise with the minister is that of defence family healthcare clinics. Minister, you would be aware that on 12 November 2007 the then shadow minister for defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, and Kevin Rudd, our now Prime Minister, stated:

A Rudd Labor Government will invest $33.1 million to extend free basic medical and dental care to spouses and children of Australian Defence Force personnel.

Federal Labor’s four year plan will extend free basic medical care to 12,000 ADF spouses and children by funding 12 Defence Family Healthcare Clinics.

                        …                   …                   …

… priority will be given to the establishment of Defence Family Healthcare Clinics at remote and major regional bases.

That was one of the early promises to be broken. I want you to take this question on board given that your government has a package of 36 GP superclinics, of which only three have been delivered. In the last budget you promised another 23 GP superclinics. You promised 12 clinics would be located at Lavarack Barracks at Townsville, Robertson Barracks at Darwin, Cairns, RAAF Edinburgh, Elizabeth North, RAAF Amberley, Jerrabomberra, Williamtown, Shoalhaven, Singleton, East Sale, Karratha and Pilbara. So why isn’t your Defence portfolio team—whether it is your Minister for Defence, your previous minister for defence personnel, or you in your role—strongly advocating, because you recognised in your pre-election manifest that access to GP and dental services for defence families who by nature of their posting cycle are rather transient, and pushing for these GP superclinics to be established in those areas because that is where the need is?

Minister, you would be aware that your government decided, in breaking the promise, that it would put out a funding trial which made up the gap payment between whatever the GP was charging and the Medicare rebate, and that you provided vouchers for access to dental care —I think it was $200 vouchers, a long way from your promise. And you have rolled that out to Lavarack Barracks at Townsville, Robertson Barracks in Darwin, Cairns, East Sale, Karratha, Pilbara and, in addition, Katharine and Puckapunyal, but also Singleton.

I ask you to take on board this scenario. We have an army base at Singleton and we have a RAAF base at Williamtown. We have defence housing right across that region. In particular, we have defence housing in and around the Ashtonfield-Maitland area. So there may be two neighbours in defence housing—one may be posted to Singleton and the neighbour posted to Williamtown—living side by side.

Minister, can you tell me where the equity is when the one that is posted to Singleton gets the gap payment paid to them on the GP and gets the voucher for the dental rebate, but the person living next door—serving their nation, serving at Williamtown—gets nothing. Where is the equity in that? Minister, given that your government decided that you were going to embark on 12 family healthcare clinics and that you acknowledged that Williamtown and Singleton were both areas of need, why is it that your rollout of a so-called trial—which was just handing a bit of cash and a couple of vouchers out—is restricted? Where is the trial required in handing out cash—something your government seems to do so well on a broad range of things? Why wasn’t it provided to all of those people you originally identified? Minister, could you answer these questions: when do you propose to end the trial—are you listening, Minister?—and roll the program out across all of those that are in regional and remote locations? What is going to be the future financial limit of their benefit under this scheme? How much has your government allocated for this scheme in 2010-11, how much funding will be made available for this in the forward estimates and, Minister, will you commit to pushing your own government to develop some of these promised GP superclinics in areas in and around these Defence Force bases where access to medical services is much needed?

6:01 pm

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

The 2009 white paper says that reserves will be brought closer to the regular force. Can the minister explain what actions have already been undertaken to achieve this? One of the key areas that need to be discussed is: what future actions will be put forward to achieve this and when will the approved Reserve future force implementation plan be released? I know that Army has submitted its Rebalancing Army plan and its options to the government. The government has had it for over 12 months. It has said it is looking at the implementation plan for the Rebalancing Army and an integral part of that, says the government, is the approved Reserve future force. But the question is: why is it taking so long? The government has had options for 12 months. It knows what the options are to rebalance the Army. It knows what options Army has given it to find the 1,721 Army positions that are needed to notionally rebalance the Defence Force.

May I suggest, Minister, that one of the key problems is that the options may be unpalatable. Even though those options may be unpalatable, it is still worthy of you to let the community and, indeed, the reserve force know what the options are because, right now, over 20,000 reservists are thinking that you intend to pull out 400 ARA CATA staff—a reduction of 40 per cent—so you can use those positions to rebalance the Army. Right now, they believe you are looking at disbanding the Federation Guard, that you are looking at combining Pilbara and NORFORCE and that you are looking at converting a regular squadron of air defence down at Woodside to an Army Reserve squadron. Army Reserve units believe that you will be looking to close Army Reserve units. The government has given no indication that it will keep Army Reserve units going and active, and the units are looking for that commitment from the government.

The previous government put in place the High Readiness Reserve. In this government’s last budget—for the current year, 2009-10—it committed to a High Readiness Reserve of 1,360. Without any fanfare and without any discussion with the reserve community, the current budget has reduced that to 800 and then 900 through the forward estimates. The question is: why the change? Why the reduction in the High Readiness Reserve? You committed to six company-sized forces, with all the ancillary of the High Readiness Reserve, but the budget shows you are not prepared to fund it. Minister, the white paper says the reserves will be brought closer to the regular force. All of the actions, all of the rhetoric, all of the failure to release the reserve future force plans and to release what you are doing with rebalancing the Army—all of that is at odds with your stated aim that you will bring the reserves closer to the regular force.

6:05 pm

Photo of Bob BaldwinBob Baldwin (Paterson, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, I would like to address the issue of the ADF gap year, a program which was initiated by the Howard government. In its first year, it was planned to have 700 people in the program, with a split of 100 Navy, 500 Army and 100 Air Force, and that target was achieved. In fact, the coalition thought that program had great benefits not only for recruiting prospects, but also in providing a taste of military life for those who may go on to university and want to come back to the military.

Minister, I note that the budget papers of 2008-09 showed that you dropped from 700 to 623 participants. Further, when I look at the 2009-10 budget I note that you are down to 549; 2010-11, 509. This is a long way back from the original 700, and indeed nearly half of the original 1,000 participants the program was supposed to grow and develop to.

Minister, I would like to point out some numbers which I am sure you would be aware of that show how positive and successful this program is, despite recruitment being an issue from time to time. In the financial year ending 30 June 2009, from the 647 people involved in it, 187 had transferred to the permanent services which was made up 41 to the Navy, 125 to the Army and 21 to the Air Force; 278 had transferred to the Reserves which was made up of eight in the Navy, 231 in the Army, and 39 in the Air Force.

Minister, given the amount of money that is spent on recruitment advertising, wouldn’t you agree that having those numbers come together out of such a program is a relatively inexpensive way by comparative standards to attract recruits? Wouldn’t you agree that not only do these young people get the opportunity to observe and experience military life, but, more importantly, the military get a chance to observe those young people and pick out potential star recruits for ongoing training and development?

My question overall in relation to this is: why, when your government talks about employment opportunity and, in particular, the rhetoric about the importance of ADF personnel, are you cutting back on a very successful program that has led to great recruitment into permanent and Reserves? I have heard my colleague, the shadow parliamentary secretary for defence, raise questions about Reserves and sustaining those reserve forces. It appears that your government has a very strong track record in saying one thing, but doing something entirely different when it comes to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. Minister, could you please answer those questions. And I would also ask you—if you cannot answer it now, then I would ask you to take it on notice—to deliver to me the exact economic benefit from having people in the ADF gap year and what you would consider the number of people transferring into the Reserves and permanents saves you in your recruiting budget?

6:09 pm

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, but as the member pointed out, there are some issues which we will need to get back to you about. A number of issues have been raised. Given the time lines that we have got available to us, I will try and address all of them to some degree. I would also say to members that—the member for Paterson is now not listening to me—if you are of the view that you want any follow-up beyond the answers that I give today, and I suspect on some matters you will, please feel free to get back to me. I am happy to do that on a verbal basis or a follow-up in order to get you some additional material, if that is of assistance.

Firstly, I will try to assist in that process with the member for Lyne. He raised some very serious issues around the question of a personnel issue relating to the Defence Materiel Organisation. As he understands, this is a very sensitive matter and it relates to both an individual’s circumstances and their employment and a range of matters which in some respects, as I understand it, are ongoing. I am happy to take it on notice and to get back to him. I know this is a matter that he sees as being very serious and I want to assure him that I also view it as being a very serious matter. That is with respect to that particular issue.

With respect to the member for Paterson, he raised several concerns and I will endeavour to address them quickly in the minutes that I have left. As I said I am happy for him to come back to me and say if he wants further information on those particular issues subsequent to today.

Photo of Bob BaldwinBob Baldwin (Paterson, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

The questions I asked are specific. If you can’t answer them now—and I appreciate the time frame—you can take them on notice and respond.

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I am happy to do that. The points I would make in relation to JLTV are that the government is happy with progress with respect to this particular initiative. The shadow minister outlined a process that had been undergone with respect to developments in this area. The points that I would like to focus on in particular are that in 2008 when the then Minister for Defence announced our participation in this program, he stated that parallel to the joint light tactical vehicle program, Defence will also engage with Australian industry to explore other options to provide protected light mobility vehicles.

In March 2009 the government announced that the Defence Materiel Organisation would release a request for a proposal for a manufactured and supported in Australia option, which following subsequent consideration by government was released by the DMO on 12 June 2009. Last month my colleague the Minister for Defence Materiel and Science announced that as a result of the DMO evaluation of responses received to the request for proposal, three companies will be asked to continue the development of the manufactured and supported in Australia option for government consideration in mid-2011. The parallel process of US and Australian options will ensure that all viable options available for the delivery of light protected mobility vehicles have been considered. This approach is consistent with Mortimer review recommendations and will ensure that taxpayers receive value for money and that Army and Air Force personnel receive the best equipment and protection possible.

The three companies funded under the manufactured and supported in Australia option will be given around six months to produce two test drive-ready prototypes each. These JLTV prototypes will be delivered in the second half of this year. The 2009 public Defence Capability Plan has details of LAND 121 phase 4 and it indicates that the acquisition costs of this project will be in excess of $1.5 billion.

The next issue that was raised by the member for Paterson relates to the question of defence family health care. This is obviously a key priority for government. The government originally made an election commitment to deliver 12 defence-specific clinics to provide services to approximately 33,000 Australian Defence Force dependants. This was estimated to cover about 47 per cent of the ADF dependant population at a total cost of $33.1 million over four years. The model and funding for this commitment was revised. In May 2008 the government revised the original election commitment to allow for a more flexible healthcare system which provided better access and choice to Australian Defence Force families. The current ADF Family Health Trial model provides eligible dependants with unlimited access to a range of medical practitioner services at no cost. Services are accessed from doctors from within their community. Eligible dependants will also receive $300 per calendar year towards non-cosmetic dental treatment. These services can be accessed by registered dependants anywhere in Australia. In revising the commitment, the government has committed approximately $62 million over four years to the ADF family healthcare trial. Under the trial approximately 16,000 dependants or 22 per cent of the ADF families are eligible to access basic health care in some of the most rural and remote locations in Australia. That trial is ongoing and an interim evaluation is currently being conducted. (Extension of time granted)

With respect to the issue of gap years, from the 2010-11 financial year the gap-year intake will be reduced as follows: for the Navy, a reduction from 267 per year to 100; for the Army, no change and maintained at 317 per year; and the Air Force has suspended participation in the program. This reduction in gap-year targets from 700 to 417 from the 2010-11 financial year reflects the need to ease the pressure currently being experienced as to the training and operational capability of the ADF. When the gap-year program was originally proposed there was greater spare capacity in the recruiting and training systems. With strong recruitment achievement for all three services, continuing to conduct the program meant recruiting more people than Air Force could accommodate and it was adversely impacting on core training for both recruits and other personnel in the Navy and the Army.

The gap year program is not intended to be a direct recruitment program but there are some participants who have continued with some form of ongoing service. As at May 2010, 406 of the 1,328 participants from previous years’ programs were serving in the permanent force and 433 were in the Reserves. The reduction of the gap year intake does not reduce Defence’s commitment to engaging with young Australians. It is important that young people be aware of the career possibilities available in the ADF. Offering a smaller number of high-quality places will do more to promote ADF careers than a larger number of positions that cannot be well supported. I am rushing because I am conscious of the time, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I apologise for my stilted and stunted delivery in that respect although some members would say it is better than normal!

Reserves and the associated circumstances was the subject of the question raised by the member for Fadden. He raised a number of concerns with respect to that. There are a couple of points that I would make for starters. He mentioned, I think, options around the question of rebalancing the Army and that the review in relation to the Reserves was with government and awaiting decisions. I am advised that it still with Defence and actually has not come to government. That is what I have been told but I am happy to seek further advice with respect to that if his view is that it is otherwise.

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister, to a question on notice, says it was with government.

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Please say that again.

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

The minister announced, to a question on notice, that it was with government.

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Then I stand bemused and will look further into the matter with respect to that. The point I would make in the context of the Reserves is that the Reserves play an incredibly important role within the modern ADF in terms of what they provide as part of the overall matrix of service provision across the ADF. That is acknowledged quite clearly in the Defence white paper. The government has committed to a better integration of part-time and full-time service in the ADF and to removing the factors which can impede the contribution that part-time forces can make to ADF capability. There have been some reports—and I think this was mentioned by the member for Fadden—about funding cuts to the Reserves. They are, in my view, misleading. In fact, the Reserves salary funding for 2009-10 has increased from 2008-09 for all three services. It is true though that in the past the Reserves have been able to exceed their allocated training budgets due to a necessity to backfill permanent roles. Due to improved recruitment to and retention in the permanent ADF—outcomes that I am sure the House is very pleased with—there are in fact fewer opportunities to do this. As a result some of the Reserves have had their training budgets limited. But the government is committed to ensuring that every reservist deployed overseas undertakes all the required training prior to the deployment, and we do not apologise for prioritising funds for this purpose. The government considers the Reserves an essential element of defence capability and is committed to ensuring effective funding for the Reserves into the future.

6:18 pm

Photo of Louise MarkusLouise Markus (Greenway, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

As the minister would be aware, I have already spoken in parliament about a number of specific measures relating to the budget and of course this House has already dealt with legislation affecting measures relating to the re-review of the Clarke review. The budget provides $55 million for workers on the F111 deseal/reseal program operated by the Royal Australian Air Force between 1973 and the year 2000. The government’s response follows a parliamentary inquiry report tabled in June last year. I recently met with the F111 Deseal/Reseal Support Group, which is well known as the Goop Troop, who raised with me a series of issues which emerged after the government’s response was released.

In response to questions in Senate estimates earlier in the month, the secretary to the department indicated that the government was aware of specific concerns and was working through these concerns with the group. Although I am pleased that this is happening, it is worth asking why these issues were not worked through prior to the government’s response. Was there consultation between the report being released and made public and then the government bringing about a formal response?

Specifically, there are concerns about the number of documents that former workers are required to provide to the department in order to verify their involvement in the program. Fact sheet F111-05 guidelines for the use of statutory declarations in applications for tier classifications require claimants to provide two statutory declarations, one from the claimant and the other from a co-worker or a commanding officer who has already had their claim accepted.

When asked in Senate estimates how many claims had already been accepted, the department conceded that at that point there were none. Further, the fact sheet notes that evidence is tested for plausibility. When asked about this, the department indicated that this was an issue they were working through with the support group. Of course, what we would have liked to have seen was an explanation to the Senate committee of—

Honourable Members:

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Danna ValeDanna Vale (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for Greenway is entitled to be heard in silence.

Photo of Louise MarkusLouise Markus (Greenway, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

the basis for the requirement existing, as was requested. Despite it being an offence to make a false statutory declaration, clearly decision makers may have some doubt about the veracity of the two statements made by former members of the Australian Defence Force. Is that the case?

In the inquiry’s report on page 103 the following is recorded:

One of the difficulties encountered by many claimants was the lack of maintenance records held in relation the F-111 maintenance workers.

Any of us who have spoken to any of the people affected are aware of this. It continues:

Defence advised that after an exhaustive search by RAAF, including interviews with former 1 and 6 Squadron personnel, aircraft maintenance records prior to 1992 were unavailable.

It goes on to say:

Many contributors to the Inquiry have commented on the fact that individual aircraft maintenance records, which would have proven their involvement in the formal DSRS programs, are unavailable.

That is also well known. The inquiry’s recommendations on statutory declarations were accepted with modifications by the government. The accepted recommendation was modified to require two statutory declarations. Understandably, there is concern within the ex-service community about these requirements. There appear to be, on the face of it, serious concerns with the way the government has developed its response to this particular area and too little consultation between the inquiry’s report being tabled and the government’s formal response. Now it appears to be being mopped up after the fact.

I ask the minister to explain the lack of consultation with affected ex-service people prior to the government’s response. I also ask the minister to brief this House on the extent of his further negotiations on the package and what areas remain of concern to the affected individuals. Further, I ask the minister to detail for the House the time line for the establishment of the claims unit inside this department to manage the expected increase in claims as part of the government’s response. What will the target claims-handling times be? How many staff will be engaged in the process? Also, given that the parliamentary inquiry recommended extensive training for departmental staff, what training has begun and how will the staff training be reviewed and assessed?

6:24 pm

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on an issue that we have previously put before this House and I know the minister is fully aware of in regard to military superannuation as part of the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio. Last month—

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Griffin interjecting

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

But it would still be worthy of consideration and any response, please. I am happy to hear otherwise if you are going to push it across to Treasury.

Last month a notice of motion was supported in this chamber, in what I would hope was a bipartisan way, that identified military service as a unique type of service within the public sector. The motion also acknowledged that CPI was not an appropriate index for superannuation generally and for military superannuation particularly in this instance—and that does, I understand, fall in line with the Matthews report findings that CPI was not an appropriate indexation mechanism for the future. What Matthews did say, I understand—and I stand to be corrected—was that, until a more appropriate indexation is found, CPI is it. The motion before this place last month, rather than just leaving that as the end of the story, sought to change the way military superannuation is indexed and asked the parliament and, by association, the executive and the minister to consider the option of twice a year pegging military superannuation to the CPI, to male average weekly earnings or to the new age pension index, whichever is the higher, as an interim measure until some oracle finds a new indexation of cost of living that is a more appropriate model.

My question is: how has that been received by the department and the minister; and has any costing of options been done? Has any costing at all been done on changes to military superannuation indexation outside of CPI? And, Minister, have any submissions gone either to you from the department or from you to the cabinet on this very important topic of improving the way a unique type of public service is recognised by superannuation into the future?

6:27 pm

Photo of Louise MarkusLouise Markus (Greenway, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

The government raised a great number of expectations before the last election, and it is not the first time I have said that. I note that the government intend to issue further discussion papers on reviews of advocacy funding in the veterans community and that this will follow a discussion paper on pharmaceutical costs for war-caused disabilities. There seems to be a lack of action by the government with regard to these issues. While consultation is important, the government do appear to be delaying making any hard decisions on matters that they indicated would be addressed before or close to the next election.

I would like to read something the current Minister for Veterans’ Affairs said in 2006, which was basically what he thought of the then minister:

Decision making in veterans’ affairs should be as free of politics as you can make it. That will not always be possible but it ought to be an objective we strive for. But independent reviews are rarely an answer in themselves. You have to be prepared to accept their recommendations or have good and clear reasons not to. … At times governments have used independent reviews as a mechanism to divert criticism and to try to put a hold on things while they cool off politically.

Veterans on disability pensions were deeply disappointed when, after the Treasurer said on Brisbane radio on 12 September 2008 that disability pensions would be considered in the Harmer review, that did not eventuate.

Minister, as you would be aware, there is also concern in the veterans community that legislation supported by the Labor Party in opposition in 2007 was later undone by the Labor government. The government legislation which was passed by the parliament last year—specifically, legislation enacted to increase some veterans pensions—did not deal with veterans who were disability pensioners. The legislation explicitly broke the link between the pension MBR factor established by legislation of the previous, coalition government, which you supported and which was passed last year.

Veteran disability pensioners are concerned that they are going backwards and are now worse off under this government than they were under the previous government. The explanatory memorandum accompanying the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007 stated:

The changes contained in this Bill will also increase the general rate of disability pension and introduce a new method of indexation for general rate disability pension. The 5 per cent increase to general rate disability pension will increase the rate to $338.94 per fortnight with effect from 20 March 2008. General rate disability will then be indexed immediately with reference to both CPI and MTAWE with effect from 20 March 2008. This will be achieved by indexing general rate disability pension by applying the pension MBR factor, which is the same proportional or percentage increase as applies to service pension. This figure is obtained by dividing the newly indexed maximum basic rate of single service pension by the previous maximum basic rate of single service pension. This methodology is the same as that used to index above general rate disability pensions in accordance with subsection 198(5E) of the VEA.

However, the explanatory memorandum accompanying the Rudd Labor government’s Veterans’ Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Pension Reform) Bill 2009 says:

Step 1 of the Method statement requires that the amount substituted under section 59LA for the amount specified in point SCH6-A4 of Schedule 6 on 20 September 2009, be worked out as usual. It should be noted that the operation of 5 section 59LA on 20 September 2009 is also affected by item 7 of Schedule 2. Item 7 is a transitional provision to ensure that the pension MBR factor is calculated as if the amendments made by Part 1 of the Schedule had not been made. The effect of this is that the pension MBR factor determined under section 59LA will not be distorted by the statutory increase to the maximum basic rate of single pension. That is, for the purposes of section 59LA on 20 September 2009, the “current single pension MBR amount” is to be calculated as if the statutory increase of $1,560 provided for under new subsection 198FB, had not occurred. (Extension of time granted)

It appears from these two statements that the intent of the Rudd Labor government’s 2009 legislation was to undo the previous, coalition government’s legislation passed with Labor’s support in 2007. I note in this regard that material the minister is providing to promote the government’s efforts in veterans affairs takes credit for passing on pension increases which were legislated for by the coalition government just prior to the 2007 election. I note that, were it not for changes enacted by the coalition government, disability pensioners receiving a special rate would not have received anywhere near the $44 increase they received this year.

Madam Deputy Speaker, through you I ask the minister to justify the breaking of the nexus of the pensioner MBR factor for all veteran disability pensioners legislated by the previous government. Further, I ask the minister to explain the cost provided by the department this month that re-establishing the nexus would cost $583 million over four years. How is this cost broken down? What are the costs per year? How many people will be affected? Thank you for the extra time.

6:34 pm

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

There are three main areas that have been raised and I will try and go through them in some detail. I will try to do them in the order they were received.

First off, on the issue of the F-111 deseal-reseal, this was a government response to an inquiry that the opposition, when in government, refused to do. The day I made the commitment the then minister, the member for Dunkley, refused to make a commitment. He said that as far as he was concerned the position with respect to compensation and support for the deseal-reseal people was over, finished, kaput—that was it. So what we have here is a package of some $55 million, and every single dollar of that is in excess of what the previous government was prepared to do. That they have an interest in it now I think is laudable but late.

On the question about consultation, this was a response to a parliamentary inquiry that involved both sides of the parliament, that involved submissions from interested parties, that involved a series of hearings. As a result of that process, which was loaded up with consultation, a series of recommendations was made. In fact, there was then quite a deal of comment publicly about those particular recommendations. The government then considered those recommendations and that report and responded to them. The key reason there was not consultation in the final stages in the consideration of the response to the parliamentary inquiry report was that there were budgetary issues involved; it was part of a budget process. But in fact it was the consideration of a set of recommendations which had come out of a process which had involved extensive consultation.

Having said that, there was no doubt—and there was no doubt from the government’s point of view—that there would need to be discussions about the implementation of the system, because once we introduced what we were planning to do we would need to talk to parties with respect to the detail of implementation. And that is what we have been doing. The secretary of the department, I and others met with representatives of the deseal-reseal group in Brisbane a week or two after the budget to go through some of those concerns. Frankly, the reason we did it then was to give them some time to consider the question of what was there and for them to develop up their questions so that we could actually have a real discussion about how we go forward on this. The government is committed to working through those concerns and the intention, as the deseal-reseal group representatives know, is to have regular meetings with them to go through any of the particular questions that they might have in order to endeavour to resolve them.

As I said in the House at the summing up on this, one of the representatives there, Kathleen Henry, who had had a long involvement on this issue, said to me on that day that she thought we had got ‘90 per cent of this right’. That was subsequent to the discussion we had at the DVA office in Brisbane. Does that mean all the concerns have been addressed with respect to those who have concerns in this area? No. Frankly, they never will be, because of the nature of some of those concerns and the circumstances around them.

The shadow minister asked the question about when the implementation unit is going to be up and running. The answer is that it is. We are currently advertising the position for the key person who will be in charge of the unit, but the unit itself was established just before the budget in order to be available to take concerns and considerations from that time on. The commitment from this government’s point of view and from my point of view as minister is that we will work with those groups to resolve those concerns, to ensure that we have a system which gives those people who have developed conditions with respect to their exposures a fair shake, a fair go and compensation where it is appropriate as it is outlined under the legislation.

There are concerns about the operation of the administration in this area, and those concerns go back some time. This government is committed to working those concerns through. Again I stress that it is admirable that there is now concern on the other side of the House about how we might deal with the estimated $55 million additional support that will go to these people. But when all they were asked to do was to commit to hold an inquiry they would not even do that.

The next issue I will go to is the one raised by my good friend the member for Lyne, who has done his best today to test that friendship across a couple of issues—but that is okay. (Extension of time granted) Military superannuation is an issue of enormous concern within the wider ex-service community. There is no question about that. I think members are aware of that. But I think we also have to remember that it has not been a concern just now; it has been a concern for a long time. It has been a concern for a long time and it is an issue on which the previous government refused to take action. They refused to take action over more than a decade when it was a concern and when, frankly, the budgetary position of the government was such that they had a good deal more flexibility than we currently face as a result of the global financial crisis.

This government made a couple of commitments, and the issue of commitments was something that was raised by the shadow minister, and I will pick up on that in this process. Several commitments were made around the question of military superannuation. In the context of this particular issue, there was a commitment to have a review into the indexation method. That became the Matthews report, which came down with a set of recommendations that the government accepted. It is quite clear that the recommendations Mr Matthews came down with are at odds with what the ex-service community would have liked, wanted to hear and believed was appropriate. I understand that concern. I could go into justifying that in the context of the difference between a superannuation payment versus an income support payment versus a disability compensation payment. I have done that on other occasions but, given the shortage of time, I do not know if that is appropriate at this stage.

The issue that the member for Lyne was particularly interested in was where we are going from here. As I have said on the public record, the overall position of the government with respect to military superannuation is an issue which has been vexed for some time. We had the Podger review from the previous government, and when we released it and consulted with the broader ex-service and defence communities it became clear that they did not want it. That has been an issue for government to consider. We have to consider that and we will be making announcements with respect to how we go forward on this issue in the weeks ahead. I am fully aware and understand that there will need to be a firm decision from the government prior to the election, and I undertake to ensure that there will be.

On the indexation issue, though, I am not going to stand here and say that I believe that that is necessarily in any way going to deal with those concerns. Frankly, post-Matthews, the government faced a choice: can we suggest this issue is live at this time, or is it frankly fairer and more reasonable to make the point that in this environment and at this time it is not? We took the latter view, and we have been panned for it. I understand those concerns. Frankly, this is an issue which has been under consideration for quite some time by both governments, and it has not been acted upon. That point needs to be made. I know that ex-service organisations are going to continue to push with regard to these issues. I certainly am going to be engaging with them about these matters in the weeks and months ahead. But I am not going to lay out false hope that I think we are likely to resolve those concerns quickly or easily.

In terms of the question of submissions and where they might have gone, there has been a range of work done on this because we know it is an issue of concern. The question of that information is something we are still considering within government. As the member would understand, in those circumstances I really cannot discuss those details. But I do want to assure him I understand the significance of the issue.

I will move on to some of the other points made by the shadow minister. He made a couple of points. One suggested that this government had taken credit for certain initiatives taken by the previous government around the question of, for example, indexation around disability pensions. Guilty as charged. I do take responsibility for it. I take responsibility for it based on the fact that the key decisions that were taken mirrored, to a large extent, policy announcements that were made by me, as shadow minister, just before the 2007 budget. I accept that; I am guilty as charged. Ex-service organisations told me at the time and subsequently that there would not have been a change if we had not moved. I do that again on the basis that essentially the government of the day made a change in the 2007 budget but clearly had no intention of moving on this issue and did not move on this issue until September at the RSL Congress in the lead-up to the election because they felt they had to move because we had led the way.

I would also add that the policy document that the shadow minister refers to actually says that these were initiatives implemented in legislation under the previous government with mutual support. That particular document has some 42 commitments in it, and of those 42 commitments, as I score them, something like 32 have been implemented and nine are in the process of implementation. Some of those are things like the Vietnam veterans family study: the funding is there; it is just taking time for it to be done. (Extension of time granted) There is only one action that has not been taken up, and that was blocked in the Senate. So, in fact, action has been taken on the Commonwealth Dental Health Program, but it has been blocked in the Senate. I am sorry, I have not been able to get a commitment up, and the reason I have not is that the opposition opposed it.

On the issue of disability pension rates and the issue there around the MBR factor: the key commitment made before the last election—and it was mirrored in the debate for the legislation—was about the link to male total average weekly earnings. That was what the previous government promised; that was what we supported; that was what we did. The MBR and the formula associated with that is a mechanism that was utilised to achieve that outcome. The Harmer review of pensions, of income support payments, actually led to a change in the base rates. But the real point there was maintaining the intention of the formulas, which was to link the disability compensation payments to MTAWE or CPI, whichever is the greater.

The Treasurer’s comment in relation to the consideration of disability compensation payments in the context of the Harmer review has been taken out of context, because it was about considering the overall situation of what people were facing in terms of their income circumstances—the point being that those who were on compensation payments invariably have access to income support payments in addition to their compensation payments, as they should. The point with respect to that is that those Harmer increases went to those disability pensioners who were in the lower financial situation because they were accessing support payments and they therefore got those increases. But the key point in relation to the disability compensation payments was maintaining the link to MTAWE, and that was done. The formula alteration was to ensure that that was done into the future. It was necessary because of the nature of the mathematical formula employed to ensure that an outcome was achieved.

If you go to the debate—if you go to what the previous minister said when that legislation was being passed in the first place to increase the disability compensation payments prior to the last election—you will see myriad references by the previous minister to standards of living and male total average weekly earnings. The reason he referred to that was that that was what the debate was always about, that was what the link was always about, and that was what Labor’s commitment was always about. And that was clearly understood.

The debate subsequently has been to draw a link to the service pension. The service pension is an income support payment. The link was never about that when it came to the question of disability compensation payments; the link was always about maintaining their value within the broader community. It has been suggested that disability pensioners in the veterans affairs area have gone backwards. They have not gone backwards. The value of their compensation payments has been maintained to MTAWE, which was what they had always asked for in the past. And those disability pensioners who were on lower levels of income were in a situation where they also gained the increases from Harmer for their income support payments.

I am very happy to provide details to the opposition with respect to what that impact has meant for individuals according to their financial circumstances. The government’s commitment through Harmer, and the government’s commitment through what it supported at the last election in relation to disability compensation payments, has been maintained and has been honoured. In the process, some people have misinterpreted it, and some have attempted to make out that our commitments were something different from what they were at the time. That is unfortunate but it does not get away from the key point, which is that the government did what the government said it would do, and the government maintained the value of those disability compensation payments according to male total average weekly earnings, which was always what the argument was about.

The final point I will make is this. The shadow minister wanted some figures around the question of the actual cost with respect to what it would take to re-establish that percentage nexus, as outlined in her speech, with respect to increasing disability pensions to take those points into account. I do not have those details with me but I could give you a couple of basic points. What you can say is, in very rough terms: 29,000 TPI pensioners or thereabouts and that is in excess of some—I will get a figure on total disability pensioners yelled to me in a second. But the point in relation to that is that the figures that have been on the net around this have suggested that it would involve an increase of in excess of $110 per fortnight with respect to the TPI payment. So, as a starting point: take $110 per fortnight; multiply that by the number of fortnights; multiply that by the number of TPI pensioners—that will be one of your core components. Then, when you go to the question of the general rate disability pensioners, it will be according to what rate they have got and a similar adjustment according to the value of that payment on a percentage basis, which I think has been named as being in excess of 10 per cent. (Extension of time granted) On the issue of other disability pensioners beyond the special rate, figures from around March 2010 indicate that there are some 93,000 pensioners beyond the special rate, bringing it up to a total of about 123,722 as of March. That is the basic core of it. But I am happy to provide additional information to the shadow minister, outlining the detail of what that means in terms of the payments.

Photo of Janelle SaffinJanelle Saffin (Page, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the proposed expenditure for the Defence portfolio be agreed to.

Proposed expenditure, $23,519,162,000

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Attorney-General’s Portfolio

Proposed expenditure, $3,992,303,000

6:50 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today is 16 June, not a particularly special day in a lot of ways, though it is my brother Simon’s birthday, but the literally-minded might know that it is Bloomsday. Those who struggled through Ulysses would know. Anyone from Queensland or New South Wales would know it is State of Origin night—even Victorians would know that. The Attorney-General and I are keen followers of rugby league. Whilst we have our differences on State of Origin night, we both know that we want a good game. I have always been a strong follower of State of Origin and used to love this night until my wife spoiled it for me many years ago. She has worked in child protection for 20 years and she gave me some horrible data. On State of Origin night, the state that loses experiences a significant spike in incidents of domestic violence. It has spoilt the game for me in a lot of ways because I want every State of Origin game to be a draw. Obviously that does not happen. On nights like this, I do think of what is going to happen after the game, after the final whistle has blown.

The women’s legal service in Annerley in my electorate provides free legal advice and information to women in Queensland, particularly those living on the south side of Brisbane. Unfortunately they might encounter some of the people who suffer after the final whistle in tonight’s game. The legal support they offer is often provided at the most vulnerable times for women, when they are facing domestic violence or at risk of homelessness. The women’s legal service is run by women for women. They offer an advice hotline, legal information sessions and individual legal advice and referrals. They rely on the generosity of lawyers, who offer their time to provide legal support. Thankfully, even though lawyers receive a hard time, there are plenty of generous lawyers throughout Queensland and throughout Australia. I started my legal career in 1997 and my first boss Michael Quinn taught me that it is important that every lawyer do pro bono legal work for the community. It is good for the community and good for the soul, but it is especially good for the community.

The Commonwealth government has also provided further funding to the women’s legal service to support this vital community service. The people who work in the legal service in Annerley help to save lives. They help to change lives also. Could the Attorney update the House on what the government is doing to improve access to justice, including funding for legal assistance services?

6:53 pm

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the honourable member for Moreton for his question. I hope one of us at least wins tonight. Pleasingly, departmental representatives are here tonight because I would like to acknowledge their work. It is as a result of their work that the government has been able to invest an additional $154 million over four years into legal assistance programs, legal aid commissions, community legal centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal centres. This is the largest injection of funds into the sector in well over a decade. The investment is going to play a key role in ensuring that disadvantaged Australians have the means to resolve disputes early before they escalate and before they become entrenched. I will say a few words shortly about domestic violence, which is a particular concern.

Consistent with the government’s Strategic Framework for Access to Justice in the Federal Civil Justice System, which the government announced in September, the funding will focus on early intervention and reinforce the shift away from expensive and lengthy litigation wherever possible. From 1 July, an additional $92.3 million over four years will be provided for legal aid, $34.9 million over four years will be provided for Indigenous legal services and $26.8 million over four years will be provided for community legal services programs. In fact, this will take the Commonwealth’s total funding for legal assistance services to over $1.2 billion over four years, and we believe the funding injection will make a real difference.

The Rudd government has allocated an additional $92.3 million over four years, as I have mentioned, to legal aid commissions across Australia. This additional funding will mean that legal aid commissions will be able to help disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians, including—in response to the member’s question—women and their children at risk of violence in respect to their legal issues and what is necessary to protect them.

The new funding will underpin the new National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services which is currently being negotiated with the states and territories. The new partnership will include revised guidelines for greater flexibility so that Commonwealth funds can also be used for state family violence and child protection matters where there is an overlapping Commonwealth family law matter. This is be the first time since 1996 that Commonwealth funds will be able to be used and dedicated specifically to domestic violence issues.

Funding will also increase the availability of legal assistance in a range of other areas, including consumer credit and debt and for civil law matters which, if left unresolved, not only impact on individuals but also ultimately lead to ongoing social problems. The government has allocated an additional $34.9 million over four years to Indigenous legal aid services, which will mean that these services will be able to be provided to Indigenous Australians. These services will include duty lawyer services and casework services in a whole range of matters. The services we are providing to Indigenous Australians are not limited to federal matters.

In the area of community legal centres we have allocated an additional $26 million over four years to the Commonwealth Community Legal Services Program. The additional funding will be allocated to over 80 centres. It will focus on areas of Commonwealth priority—among which are legal assistance to support areas of family law, including domestic violence—and ensure that people are able to get early and targeted legal advice and information to avoid litigation.

The Rudd government is committed to ensuring access to justice for all Australians. I am proud of the Rudd government’s record in this respect. The $154 million in additional funding, along with the $70 million that we have injected into legal assistance programs over the last three years, demonstrates our real commitment to making an accessible justice system.

6:58 pm

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs) Share this | | Hansard source

It seems that, when time is limited, running through all the questions I want to ask is a process that works. After I have done that, perhaps the Attorney-General and the minister could respond to questions. If they would nod and accept that, it would be great, and we could then proceed on that basis.

Question 1: in the 2009-10 budget, it was stated that funding arrangements for the Air Security Officer Program, otherwise known as the air marshal program, would be reviewed in the 2010-11 budget. Can you confirm whether the government has scrapped this program; and, if so, when will it end? If there are plans to continue it, will the Attorney-General or the minister—whichever they prefer—detail the amount of funding?

Question 2: as part of the government’s announcement to spend $69 million over the next four years to introduce biometric data checks for Australian visa applications, does the government have any plans to initiate biometric data sharing arrangements with Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia?

Question 3: will the Attorney-General—or, probably more appropriately, the minister—give a breakdown of the government’s 2007 election promise of 500 extra sworn AFP officers? How many have actually been recruited and sworn in; and, since December 2007, how many staff have been made redundant?

Question four: will the minister identify what allocations have been made for the purchase of the new Bay class vessels for Customs? We understand an allocation was made in the budget, as it was announced, but we understand that due to ongoing negotiations with the possible tenderers the final costings of the vessels cannot be revealed. However, given the Prime Minister’s intention of bringing the budget back into surplus in 2014, and therefore that no new major budgetary measures could be announced, can the minister identify exactly where in this budget funds have been allocated to cover the cost of these vessels?

Question five: with reference to the R18+ classification for computer games public consultation, given that submissions have now closed and the government has received approximately 60,000 submissions, will the Attorney now confirm whether the government will be supporting an R18+ classification for computer games?

Question six: with reference to a report in the Australian on 15 June this year, despite only one per cent of border detections occurring at our ports yet resulting in 80 per cent of the cocaine, MDMA and amphetamine-type stimulants coming into Australia, can you explain what is being done to combat the flood of illicit drugs coming through our ports?

The final question: with reference to the Western Australian government’s recent moratorium on people smugglers being processed in Western Australia, will the Attorney confirm whether the government will stop using Western Australia as a dumping ground for people smugglers and distribute the burden of detaining these criminals across all states?

7:01 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Given that there were about eight questions, I am not sure whether we can get through all of them. There were a few rhetorical ones thrown in—I think, about 12. In relation to the air security officers, they are funded out of the $759 million that funds the Australian Federal Police at our international airports. This is a very significant initiative and, of course, the government are doing everything it can to dedicate resources to our airports. They are areas where terrorists would like to pose threats to the community. Complementing that $759 million, I recently announced the proposed changes to criminal offences that would apply to serious hoaxes made to airports, or to our aircraft, or assaults that may be made to aircraft crew. I hope the opposition supports those proposed amendments.

In relation to the security officers themselves—the sky marshals that are flying—the program continues and there has been no cut to the funding. In relation to the numbers that are used, we and indeed the previous government have never disclosed the number of officers. For accountability purposes, I want to make it clear to the House that the reason we do not disclose the number is for security purposes, but I can assure the member for Stirling that we have maintained the program and not cut the funding.

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs) Share this | | Hansard source

I did not ask for that.

7:03 pm

Photo of Janelle SaffinJanelle Saffin (Page, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask the Attorney-General if he could—

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Keenan interjecting

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy Speaker, on a point of order. I understand there is an ultimate convention in this place that, whilst you may have foreshadowed the seven questions you have, other members have a right to ask questions of ministers and the Attorney.

Photo of Danna ValeDanna Vale (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for Page has the call.

Photo of Janelle SaffinJanelle Saffin (Page, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I ask the Attorney-General to please turn his mind to issue of serious and organised crime, but before I get him to do that and come to my question there are some comments that I would like to make in this particular area. I was astounded when I found out that organised crime—and it is a significant security threat—is estimated to cost the community more than $15 billion each year. That is an alarming amount of money that it costs us. I would posit that it is even more than that.

I also note that in November 2009 the government launched the Commonwealth Organised Crime Strategic Framework. It made sense to have a comprehensive strategic framework to bring a more effective approach to tackling organised crime. As organised crime is just that, it requires an overarching response. The measure forms part of a national response to organised crime that includes the biennial Organised Crime Threat Assessment and Response Plan, and there have been some legislative steps to implement that.

Today the Minister for Home Affairs gave a ministerial statement about the Australian Federal Police. It was interesting to hear, because the Australian Federal Police play a large and significant role in responding to and trying to lessen organised crime and serious crime threats in Australia. The government’s five-point plan, which the minister referred to, included a comprehensive federal audit of police capabilities, now known as the Beale audit, which we have all heard about in this place. The audit, authored by Roger Beale and released in December last year, set out a road map for reform to meet modern policing challenges. We know that over the last 30 years, and in particular over the last 10 years, the Australian Federal Police have become quite a different force to the one they were all those years ago.

One other comment I would like to make about the Australian Federal Police—and this is something of which the Attorney-General and the Minister for Home Affairs may not be aware—is that when I worked in Timor-Leste in 2006, when the Australian Federal Police were deployed there along with the Australian defence forces, I got the opportunity, probably a rare opportunity, to work very closely with them on the ground, and they are playing more of that role in the region. The role is not specifically to do with serious and organised crime but rather to do with peacekeeping and law and order functions, helping our regional police forces to reorganise and get on their feet. But it also gives them a broader understanding of our region and how to tackle organised crime, because organised and serious crime is not just in Australia; it goes beyond our borders. The AFP in Timor-Leste were led by Steve Lancaster and I worked very closely with him and all the other police from different states and territories in liaison and in assisting them with functions on the ground.

One of the best books I have read about organised crime is by Bertil Lintner. It is about organised crime in South-East Asia, which involves Australia, and it has some very significant information and, I would say, lessons for us. My question is to the Attorney-General: what are we doing to combat it?

7:08 pm

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the honourable member for her question and her interest in this matter. Organised crime costs the Australian community in the order of $15 billion a year. It impacts on all Australians. Whether it be crime on the streets from things such as car rebirthing, narcotics on our streets or the distortion of legitimate markets, which impacts upon decent Australian businesses, organised crime has a very significant effect indeed. For that reason, in his national security statement at the end of 2008 the Prime Minister recognised organised crime as a national security priority.

Among the measures we have taken is, firstly, the establishment of the Organised Crime Strategic Framework. That was announced last November by me and the Minister for Home Affairs. It is the first of its kind. It allows us to better identify and prioritise the threat that organised crime possesses so that we can best direct our resources to dealing with it.

The framework comprises three elements: a routine threat assessment that provides a point in time assessment of crime types and prioritises according to the level of activity in Australia and the potential for harm; the response plan that aligns law enforcement resources according to the priorities identified in the threat assessment; and multiagency approaches to ensure that joint operations between law enforcement agencies will continue on identified priority threats. The framework is in addition to some significant legislative measures that the government has taken earlier this year. The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Serious and Organised Crime) Bill No. 1 and bill No.2 introduced amendments to strengthen our existing criminal laws, including criminal asset confiscation laws, new criminal offences targeting those involved in organised crime and enhanced police powers to infiltrate organised crime networks. The government is committed to ensuring that there are no safe havens for organised criminal activities in Australia.

In terms of measures in this budget, as a key pillar of our domestic framework I recently announced, again with the Minister for Home Affairs, that the government would invest $14.5 million to establish the Criminal Intelligence Fusion Centre in the Australian Crime Commission. This will be a significant new tool to assist Australia’s law enforcement agencies to combat organised crime. The establishment of the Criminal Intelligence Fusion Centre is a key capability identified in the Commonwealth Organised Crime Strategic Framework. The Criminal Intelligence Fusion Centre will enhance the Commonwealth’s ability to link financial intelligence and data with criminal intelligence to identify the highest threat criminal targets. Investigators and analysts from Commonwealth agencies, such as the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink and the Australian Federal Police will be co-located within the Australian Crime Commission to establish this capability. The Criminal Intelligence Fusion Centre will provide law enforcement agencies with real-time intelligence, optimising their prospects for disruption, laying criminal charges and capturing the proceeds of crime and unexplained wealth. Funding of $24 million over four years will also be provided to AUSTRAC within the Minister for Home Affairs responsibility for new analytical technologies to improve its targeting of serious and organised crime. Following the money trail has been shown to be one of the most effective ways of investigating organised criminal activity.

Commencing 2011-12, AUSTRAC will recover for its regulatory activities in accordance with the government’s cost-recovery guidelines, a cost recovery for the regulatory activities, which of course is in the interests of those businesses and industries that are regulated, because the viability of those systems is clearly in their interests.

In terms of international cooperation, the attorneys-general of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand and I have met in person twice in the last 12 months, and we have agreed to progress strategies for working together to combat organised crime in recognition of the increasingly borderless nature of organised crime. In fact, in the last month we signed a declaration to combat organised crime, and that provides important framework for our countries to work together to combat organised criminal activity extending beyond our borders.

7:13 pm

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

My first question is probably best suited to the minister. It is in regard to a newspaper article appearing in the Knox Journal on 27 February 2008 on page 13. This is an issue regarding my electorate of La Trobe. It says:

For a moment last week the office of Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus—

I note it is the current minister’s predecessor—

promised the Federal Government would contribute $150,000 for crime cameras in Boronia.

But confusion ensued on Monday when Mr Debus’ office said the promise was actually for closed-circuit television system in Berwick—

which is also in my electorate. So my question to the minister is: will Boronia or Berwick be getting closed-circuit TV cameras? I will go on to further questions, though.

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I have got a couple of other questions, too, Jason, to deal with. We have got a number of other matters on notice that you want me to answer.

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs) Share this | | Hansard source

You have had an opportunity to deal with those. You answered one and sat down.

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Okay, do what you like.

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

I believe I have the call.

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Keenan interjecting

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Brendan O’Connor interjecting

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for La Trobe has the call. If the member for Stirling would like to have a further opportunity there are opportunities after other questions have been asked where he can have another five minutes.

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

I am happy to table that newspaper article too, Minister, if you want to have a look at that. The second question is regarding the Safer Suburbs Plan. Every single grant has gone to either a Labor electorate or a marginal Liberal electorate. The safest Liberal electorate to receive funding was Cowan, with a 1.7 per cent margin. The following four Liberal seats received funding: Bowman received $500,000, with a margin of 64 votes; Swan received $1.4 million, with a margin of 0.1 per cent; Stirling received $1.6 million, with a margin of 1.3 per cent; and Cowan received $2 million, with a margin of 1.7 per cent.

The following 12 Labor seats received funding: Robertson received $680,000, with 0.1 per cent margin; Solomon received $2.25 million, with 0.3 per cent margin; Hasluck received $1 million, with a 1.3 per cent margin; Longman received $1 million, with a 3.6 per cent margin; Franklin received $495,000, with a 4.5 per cent margin; Wakefield received $2.725 million, with a 6.6 per cent margin; Lindsay received $300,000, with a 6.8 per cent margin; Macquarie received $70,000, with a seven per cent margin; Makin received $75,000, with a 7.7 per cent margin; Corio received $300,000, with an 8.9 per cent margin; Richmond received $200,000, with an 8.9 per cent margin; and Lingiari received $300,000, with an 11.2 per cent margin.

I just want to know what the actual selection process is, apart from favouring Labor or marginal Liberal seats. Is there a selection process? How has it worked out that the Labor seats greatly outnumber the Liberal seats? And how much is left in that funding pool? Just to remind the minister: the first question was about the status of closed circuit TV cameras in Berwick and Boronia, and the second question was about the funding of the Safer Suburbs Plan, which appears to be strongly skewed in favour of government seats or very marginal Liberal seats.

7:17 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

In response to the first question asked by the member for La Trobe, I am advised that there was no commitment made prior to the election on that matter. I am advised that my ministerial predecessor in the previous government did not make a commitment on lighting. I do understand that the local member, who happens to be the member before me and who asked the question, may well have been lobbying for this initiative. I am sure it is a very important initiative. I have to say that he obviously failed to get that infrastructure in place under the previous government. But I can confirm, given the advice I have received, that there was no decision by this government to provide infrastructure. That is not to say that they are not legitimate claims.

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

It’s from your government.

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

What the member for La Trobe is referring to is a newspaper report. I am sure he speaks to that newspaper more often than my predecessor did. All I am saying is that I saw that report prior to the member referring to it today. I have sought an answer as to whether commitments were made by this government on that initiative and the answer is no. My point is that there has been no commitment on that matter but that does not detract from quite possibly legitimate claims about needed infrastructure.

I am very happy to look at the issues that the member for La Trobe raises about those communities because I am concerned if his electorate and communities are in any way less safe because of infrastructure that was not put in place by the previous government or because of something that we have yet to commit to. But I can confirm that there was no decision made by my predecessor on those matters.

On the second question, I will take on notice the comments he has made about the types of seats that have received funding. I can only say that the Safer Suburbs Plan is a very important program. It brings together the federal government, state police and local municipalities, working very closely with local communities, including Neighbourhood Watch and other organisations, to ensure that we not only reduce crime in our streets but reduce the fear of crime. I am very proud to be associated with this very important initiative. The member for Brisbane is in the chamber, and I want to acknowledge the work he did prior to the last election on that very important initiative.

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Wood interjecting

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Therefore, it is somewhat ironic that the member for La Trobe, who is in a marginal Liberal seat, is now complaining that Liberal marginal seats are receiving the funding. I am happy to look at the cross-section of seats but, more importantly, I will be looking at the reasons for which the decisions were made and the advice I received from the department to provide that funding. I am sure the member for La Trobe is not suggesting that some of those communities should not be in receipt of this infrastructure. But I am happy to take on notice his concern in relation to the nature of the electorates that have been provided that support.

7:21 pm

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs) Share this | | Hansard source

Earlier I had the chance to ask a series of questions which the government has refused to even acknowledge. The minister did respond to the first question that I asked, which was about the air marshals program. It seems remarkable to me that two ministers cannot walk into this place and just answer questions on their portfolio areas in the 35 minutes that have been allocated for scrutiny. Surely for ministers of the Crown it is not that difficult to come in here and answer questions for 35 minutes on areas within their portfolio without going through this ludicrous parody of government members getting up and asking dorothy dixer questions and the minister then reading a prepared answer.

I know there is a great tradition in this place of subverting any measure of accountability, but quite frankly I think that this process today is a farce. I have seen ministers come in here and just answer questions, without having to get dixers from their own side, because they feel confident addressing areas within their own portfolio.

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Do you want to ask a question? Which one do you want me to answer?

Photo of Michael KeenanMichael Keenan (Stirling, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs) Share this | | Hansard source

I have actually asked a series of questions which I am happy to repeat for you now. You had the opportunity to answer some questions before but apparently you were not competent enough to be able to do that. So for the minister’s benefit I will repeat those questions. Question 2: as part of the government’s announcement to spend $65 million over the next four years to introduce biometric data checks for Australian visa applications, does the government have any plans to initiate biometric data sharing arrangements with Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia?

Further, I ask: will the minister give a breakdown of the government’s 2007 election promise for 500 extra sworn AFP officers? How many have actually been recruited and sworn in? Since December 2007 how many staff have been made redundant? I also ask the minister—and I will give him his full five minutes to respond to these issues, which I assume a competent minister would actually be able to do—about the budgetary allocation for the Bay class vessels within the budget. Given that the government has said that there are going to be notified expenditure announcements, that would of course change the calculations in relation to the surplus in 2014. Can he direct us to where in the budget the allocation for those vessels is?

Question 5, and I think this one is for the Attorney: referring to the public consultation on the R18+ classification for computer games, now that submissions have been closed and 60,000 submissions have been received, will the Attorney confirm whether the government will be supporting an R18+ classification for computer games?

Furthermore, I ask, referring to reports in the Australian on 15 June 2010: despite only one per cent of border detections occurring at our ports, yet resulting in 80 per cent of the drug importations coming into Australia, can the minister explain what has been done to combat the flood of illicit drugs coming through our ports?

Finally, I ask: given the Western Australian government’s recent announcement that they were not going to house people smugglers in Western Australian prisons, will the minister confirm whether the government will stop using Western Australian prisons or whether they will evenly distribute the burden of detaining people smugglers across all states? He now has five minutes to answer those questions, and I am sure he should have all those facts to hand.

7:25 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

In relation to the first question asked by the member for Stirling, the Australian government do take our border security seriously. We announced in the budget an investment of $1.2 billion, of which there will be—not $65 million—$69.4 million over four years for the introduction of biometric checks of international passengers in overseas posts. This will strengthen Australia’s capacity to verify the identity of foreign nationals. This is a very important part of our border security efforts, using 21st century technology to protect our borders and make our citizens safe.

Of course, the shadow minister should know, firstly, that the matter really should be directed to the minister for immigration—although I am happy to take it. Also, at the time, the immigration minister and the foreign minister said that, for security reasons, they would not speculate or comment on which countries are in or out of the biometric technology. We have made it clear that this technology is needed. We have said that a number of countries will undergo risk assessments in terms of biometric technology, but it would undermine the initiative to disclose publicly those countries. Therefore, I am quite surprised by the comments of the shadow minister suggesting that I should do so. It is an important initiative and it is certainly an important part of the weaponry to protect our borders.

In relation to the commitment of 500 new Australian Federal Police officers, I am very proud to say there was a five-point plan clearly enunciating the government’s commitment to enhancing the numbers of sworn officers. We have a commitment and a time line in place. I am happy to inform the member for Stirling that, to enhance the number of sworn officers in our police force, in our first budget we allocated $191 million and, in this year’s budget, we have allocated a further $23 million. As of today, there are 280 extra officers and the Australian Federal Police is already 220 sworn officers ahead of the number in the time line outlined before the election. In relation to redundancies, I am not aware of any significant redundancies and will take this matter on notice.

In relation to the Bay class vessels, it is true that there are commercial-in-confidence issues and, for that reason, the precise amount allocated for these vessels is not disclosed. This is a very important enhancement of our capability. The vessels that we are looking to purchase will provide greater capability for our personnel, who, as I think everyone in this chamber would agree, do very dangerous and difficult work in challenging circumstances and to whom we need to give the best assets we possibly can. I am very happy to say that we have taken that into account in the decision. Of course, we cannot go to the precise number, but I can inform the member for Stirling that the amount that is to be allocated in the budget will be in a contingency reserve until after the tender. The tender is about to be announced, and there will be a very rigorous process to ensure that we get value for money. We want to make sure that we spend well and receive the best possible results for Customs and border protection. That is the answer—it is within the budget documents, but it is in a contingency fund. I can refer the shadow minister to the budget but I think he understands why we cannot disclose the actual sum.

The classification of R18 video games has been a matter of significance for a significant proportion of our community. Nearly 70,000 people have put forward their view as to whether we should equate a classification level for video games to that which exists for films. This is a complex issue. It was discussed at the last attorneys-general meeting about a month ago and there was an agreement that there will be further discussions. Whilst overwhelmingly the number of those who were asked their opinion indicated that they wanted to see an R18 classification, we said we would look at the weight of the arguments and not just the numbers and we would have to reach agreement with the attorneys-general. (Extension of time granted) We are working very closely with the attorneys of the state governments on this matter. I made very clear that, whilst the overwhelming number of petitioners were in support of the introduction of an R18+ classification rating for video games, we would listen to the weight of the arguments and we would also get evidence from academic studies to really determine the social impact that these games may have. I believe everyone around the table at the attorneys meeting—the Attorney and I and the state attorneys—believe it is an important issue and do not want to be rushed. We have not made a decision and we will be having further discussions with state governments at the meeting following the next meeting. That is our position.

I might go to the port security question first. Customs and Border Protection employs an intelligence-led, risk based approach to inspection and examination of air and sea cargo. This was a change. We believed that we needed to make sure that we assessed cargo based on risk and not just assume that each piece of freight was as risky as the next. Customs and Border Protection should be applauded for that approach. In my view that has led to a far more effective approach to detecting illicit drugs coming into our ports. We will continue to work very hard to ensure that we do detect these illicit drugs.

In relation to the West Australian government raising concerns about people accused of federal offences, by convention the states where the alleged offences occur have been the place where federal prisoners have been sent. The shadow minister may know that it is a constitutional obligation for state governments to receive federal prisoners, whether it be drug trafficking, people-smuggling or other Commonwealth offences. Federal governments do not house prisoners. We rely upon not only the correctional facilities of the states but also the courts to process these matters.

I am, of course, aware of the WA Attorney-General’s concerns about accommodation. There have been decisions made by the agencies of the Commonwealth and state governments to disperse some of those accused of people-smuggling offences to other states, including Queensland. But, as for a moratorium, there is a constitutional obligation for the states to receive federal prisoners. There is no obligation for the federal government to fund those states to house those prisoners, but we do so under the Grants Commission. I am happy to continue to talk with Christian Porter and other attorneys about how we deal with this challenging issue. I am sure that no state government would say to us that that they do not believe we should be tough on people smugglers. I am yet to hear a government suggest that we should be doing anything other than prosecuting people smugglers, because of the consequences that arise because of that trade. We are dealing with the issues and I will continue to talk with state governments so that we can properly process these people who have been accused of Commonwealth offences. As for any moratorium, as I say, there is an obligation on state governments but we are looking now to disperse those accused of breaching Commonwealth laws so that we can share the load. I know the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department has had those discussions with the Attorney-General of Western Australia only last week.

Photo of Dick AdamsDick Adams (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I am informed that this section started late so I will extend the time for five minutes. That will be taken up by the member for La Trobe asking questions. There may be no time to answer.

7:35 pm

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

Mine are pretty straightforward questions regarding the home insulation scheme. How many AFP investigations are underway at the moment? How many AFP officers are on those investigations?

Government Members:

Government members interjecting

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

Do you want me to continue or do you guys want to have a chat?

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The honourable member will make his contribution. The honourable member for La Trobe has the floor.

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

How many investigations have been referred to the state police? As the Attorney-General, are you aware of state police investigations? How much money has been spent or allocated in the AFP’s budget to investigate matters relating to the home insulation scheme. I know there are two levels. The first level I am looking at is when you have fraudulent installers going to houses. They have defrauded the Commonwealth, for example, when they have said they have met a contract for installing pink batts in a house but in fact they have ripped them in half or supplied very few. At the other level I believe we have had international groups using call centres to make completely bogus claims on properties which do not exist.

7:37 pm

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I will answer in the time available. Obviously, the investigation of criminal matters by the Federal Police is a matter dealt with by the Minister for Home Affairs. Can I say that the government takes any suggestion of fraud of a government service very seriously. I was stopped by a schoolteacher of my daughter, the other day, to point out to me that on a schoolteacher’s income he would not have been able to afford insulation of his home. He has had his first winter quarterly bill and it is considerably lower.

Photo of Jason WoodJason Wood (La Trobe, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Public Security and Policing) Share this | | Hansard source

How is this relevant?

Photo of Robert McClellandRobert McClelland (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

It is directly relevant because of the consequences of fraud that have ultimately damaged a program. Poor work performance and fraud have damaged a program that would have resulted in many working-class families, who would not otherwise have had access to these resources, having lower power bills in the first quarter of this year. Obviously the second quarter, in winter, will also reflect lower power bills on an ongoing basis.

The government takes the issue of fraud very seriously. With respect to other matters, the Australian Federal Police is aware of allegations of fraud and is investigating those. You surely do not expect either me or the minister to have the numbers of officers that have been allocated. In terms of operational matters, you know and I know that those matters are not disclosed. I can tell you that the matters are being investigated by the Federal Police. I am not telling you, because you would not expect me to know, how many officers have been allocated to the purpose. I can tell you that the government takes any allegation of fraud with respect to this program, and indeed any fraudulent access to Commonwealth programs, most seriously. These matters are being investigated by the Australian Federal Police.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Debate (on motion by Dr Jensen) adjourned.