Thursday, 2 March 2006
Community Affairs References Committee; Reference
The Democrats also strongly support this inquiry. I will not go into our views in detail about the way the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement is operating, beyond saying that I believe it is timely to examine how that agreement is operating, how effective it has been to date and, as the terms of reference show, to examine not just the effect of the three agreements to date dealing with disability but also the other current joint funding arrangements including analysis of levels of unmet needs, including the unmet need for accommodation, services and support—an area I have spoken about in this chamber a few times. I believe it is also timely to examine the ageing-disability interface and possible alternative funding for jurisdictional and administrative arrangements.
I would have thought that that is a highly relevant area for the Senate committee to examine. It is obviously an issue of significance, of major public importance and of major impact on the lives of many Australians—not just those with disabilities but also their families, their friends and their carers. So there would be millions of Australians affected by the issues that this inquiry seeks to cover.
There is also the wider issue of the Commonwealth and state interface, who has responsibility for what and how effective the funding mechanisms are. These issues have been in the public domain and have been the subject of debate for some time. Indeed, the health minister, Mr Abbott, has regularly mused aloud about whether we need to look at restructuring the way health works in this country—who has responsibility for what and how it is funded. Disabilities is clearly another area that is linked to that where we would all benefit from a re-examination. Again, it is an issue that goes much further than political positioning and ideological views. It is a basic issue of the adequacy of how public funds are spent that is under consideration and, clearly, this is a timely moment to endeavour to do that.
I would be extremely disappointed—mortified might be a slightly strong word—if the government again fail to justify their position on this, particularly as the relevant minister in this case is actually in the chamber. I would be appalled if he did not at least give an indication as to why the government believe there is no value in the Senate inquiring into this matter, either now or at a later date. If there is some view that it should be put off for a little while then let us hear it, but surely they could not seriously suggest that this would not be a valuable inquiry.
One of the downsides, as the Democrats have noted from time to time, with the various COAG arrangements that have developed in Australia is the way that they can tend to lock out parliaments and the public. It is good to have state and federal governments meeting together and coming to agreements and arrangements, but the problem can be and has been in the past that the governments get together and come to an agreement that suits them. The parliaments are pretty much stuck with having to then pass legislation which they may be concerned about or may just think could be improved in some particular way, but, because the agreement has already been locked up by all the state, territory and federal governments, that becomes very difficult.
Oftentimes complementary legislation needs to be passed through all parliaments, and if you change it in one parliament then it can affect the operation of it at a state level. That puts the parliament in a position where it is much more difficult for us to change agreements after they have been reached, even if there are clear areas where there would be major public benefit in doing so. Of course, it not only locks out the parliament but the public, because the meetings are secret. They are not public debates like this one in the chamber; they are not committee hearings; they consult who they feel like consulting, they ignore everybody else, and they come out the other end and say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ It is a less than perfect process.
One way of reducing the problems with that approach is to have these sorts of inquiries into the issue beforehand. That is exactly what is proposed in the area of the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement: to examine some of the issues that are around now, how things are developed, where things could go, and inform the development and finalisation of the next agreement. It would be not only disappointing but even negligent for the government to frustrate an attempt to do that, and to do that without even putting a justification on the record would be a clear sign of monumental contempt for the Senate.
The Prime Minister has been making lots of noises around the country in the last week as he has moved towards the 10th anniversary since he was elected, which is today. He has talked about how he is not arrogant, how the government is not drunk on power and how it is very important that he and his government colleagues make clear to the public that they are remaining humble and not being arrogant. Yet, if you look at the actions rather than the words, there could not be a clearer example of total arrogance and total contempt for the Senate, the parliament and the public. They have not only knocked back three important inquiries—inquiries that are clearly not just political point-scoring exercises but important opportunities to explore areas of major public interest and significance—but they have knocked them back without even opening their mouths and saying why, certainly in the first two cases. I hope Minister Santoro proves me wrong in this case at least and puts some case on the record, because it is monumental contempt for the Senate and the public to simply dismiss genuine attempts to have valuable inquiries without even bothering to make a statement.
We saw some of that on a few occasions towards the end of last year, and it is a very bad way to start the new year. It is bad enough that we are barely sitting: the parliament is sitting for only one more week before the May budget. There are three sitting weeks, 11 sitting days in total, from the first part of the year through to the second week of May, and then there are only another three days until mid-June—that is, 14 sitting days until we get to mid-June. Not only is the parliament barely sitting in the first half of the year, but the government is even preventing Senate committees from doing work in that period of time by frustrating committee reference after committee reference. I quoted some figures at the end of last year in debate on another reference that was knocked back. Twelve references were knocked back and only six were agreed to. I am not sure whether others have been agreed to since we started this year—I have not looked at that—but if we add the three that have been knocked back today then 15 have been knocked back and only six have been agreed to. That is a pretty poor record.
I am not saying that every reference has to be agreed to—senators knocked back references in the past as well, prior to when the government had control—but the ratio has gone through the roof. We have more than double the number being knocked back compared with the number being agreed to. I think it sends a very clear signal that this government just wants to neuter the Senate in every way possible, not only by dramatically reducing the number of sitting days but also by preventing us from having committees doing work and having inquiries. We have seen examples in Senate estimates hearings where, even when we have inquiries, the government prevents answers from being given in areas of significant public importance.
The attempts to avoid scrutiny are growing day after day. The performance by the government this morning, in refusing to even speak and put their cases as to why they are knocking back these inquiries, I think is contemptible. It is a clear sign of contempt. Whatever the Prime Minister might say about his government not being arrogant after 10 years in power, let us look at the record rather than the rhetoric. The record shows 15 Senate committee inquiry references being knocked back, including important ones this morning. No-one could say that the disability agreement is not important; no-one could say that air safety is not important; no-one could say that settlement assistance for migrants is not important. They are all important. They are all areas that involve significant public expenditure, they are all areas that affect millions of Australians directly in important ways, and they are all areas in which we can do better. If the government are so scared of scrutiny that they will just knock back inquiry after inquiry then, seriously, I do not think they can credibly suggest that they are not anything other than filled with total arrogance and contempt for the parliament and the Australian people in the way that they are conducting business in this parliament.