Thursday, 2 March 2006
Community Affairs References Committee; Reference
Today we have seen some very interesting events in this chamber, and we have seen, on a number of occasions, the government not bothering to turn up to explain why. However, I am happy to move my motion. I move:
- That the following matter be referred to the Community Affairs References Committee for inquiry and report by 17 August 2006:
An examination of the funding and operation of the Commonwealth-State/Territory Disability Agreement (CSTDA), including:
- an examination of the intent and effect of the three CSTDAs to date;
- the appropriateness or otherwise of current Commonwealth/state/territory joint funding arrangements, including an analysis of levels of unmet needs and, in particular, the unmet need for accommodation services and support;
- an examination of the ageing/disability interface with respect to health, aged care and other services, including the problems of jurisdictional overlap and inefficiency; and
- an examination of alternative funding, jurisdiction and administrative arrangements, including relevant examples from overseas.
It is a timely reference for a number of reasons. As we know, the Commonwealth State/ Territory Disability Agreement is in its third iteration and we are now leading into negotiations for the fourth agreement. However, the CSTDA has, over time, been subject to a range of criticisms.
It has been criticised, and I think quite rightly, by people with disabilities. They regularly advise parliamentarians—some on the other side, I am sure—of the lack of clarity in the intent of the agreement and that it has changed over time. Because of those changes, people with disabilities and their advocacy organisations and services are unsure and unclear about what the detail of the agreement actually entails. People with disabilities say there is a lack of consistency in the application of the agreement, not only state to state but within states and territories. That needs scrutiny. That needs to be unravelled so we know why that is occurring.
Given the passage of the so-called Welfare to Work legislation last year, we are aware of the potential impact on the services delivered by the states and territories to people with disabilities. That needs clarification and understanding. We also know that people with disabilities are not involved in the negotiations between the states and territories and the Commonwealth. That has been the case for some time, but people with disabilities and their advocacy groups have much to say about what they think should occur through this agreement process. We also know that there is no portability of disability funding and support between the states and territories if people with disabilities want to move.
The big issue that is starting to get some understanding nationally is the interface between the ageing portfolio and the disability portfolio. People with disabilities are ageing. That is fantastic; that is wonderful. But what happens to a person with a disability as they age? We always end up with this dispute between the states and the Commonwealth: is the person a person with a disability and therefore should be state funded or is the person ageing and therefore should be supported through the federal government’s funding processes? Those are just some of the criticisms that I am sure the government has heard from people with disabilities, and that surely supports the idea that this inquiry is timely.
We have also received criticisms of the agreement from the states and territories. It has been said to me that the agreement has changed from its original intent. We can all remember back to the so-called negotiations for the third agreement when the minister at the time eventually got to an absolute stalemate with the states and territories and basically said, ‘There you go: take it or leave it.’ That was the state of negotiations at the time. This inquiry will give clarity to the way the Commonwealth and the states negotiate about people with disabilities and their services. This inquiry will give clarity to people with disability about what the intent is of both parties so that they can understand what will be delivered.
We have also seen criticism from the Commonwealth itself. The Australian National Audit Office recently undertook a performance audit of the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement. The report was, in my view, quite damning. They said that there was no monitoring of the effect of the expenditure that was delivered through the agreement. They said there were no systems available to collect data. There was no analysis of the unmet need—the need that was not being delivered through the CSTDA. They also said that there was a lack of coordination within Commonwealth departments about policy for people with disability. They said that the disability section of the Department of Family and Community Services had no ongoing relationship with the section that is devoted to housing. They had no ongoing relationship with the people in the transport department or in Health. And they particularly identified a lack of negotiation and coordination between the Department of Family and Community Services—especially the disability part of the department—and Indigenous affairs. In fact they noted that back in the nineties there was some sort of notion that we would have a committee between Indigenous affairs and the disability sector, and that committee has never met.
So we have had criticisms of this agreement from all sources. That is why having this inquiry at this time is particularly timely. The Community Affairs References Committee is very close to completing the inquiry into toxic dust. There are no more hearings required for that inquiry and so, to all intents and purposes, that inquiry has completed its task and it is simply a matter of writing up the report. They have another ongoing inquiry into petrol sniffing. There are some hearings but, by and large, that inquiry is well and truly on track and will report in the middle of the year. There is no expectation from the committee of a heavy hearing schedule for any other inquiry. There is no further reference on the agenda. The committee cannot say that they have got too much work to do—as we have heard in the past, quite legitimately. There are times when the Senate provides references to committees that have too much to do, but that certainly is not the case in this instance.
This reference is supported by many agencies and many advocacy services. It is actually supported by people with disabilities themselves. In the correspondence I received from those sorts of people and organisations following the government’s refusal to adopt this reference late last year, they expressed their astonishment. They support the idea of this inquiry in the lead-up to the fourth negotiations. They support the idea that it is timely.
I am not going to speculate as to why the government is not going to support this reference. It is up to the government senators to explain why this reference cannot be supported. But I will be very interested to hear what they have to say. Going on what happened here earlier today, they may not come and tell us what is wrong with this inquiry. We did not get any government response to why they did not support the inquiry into aviation. The government did not bother telling us why they could not support an inquiry into immigration. But let us get them to change their pattern. Let us see whether someone from the government has got something to say about why this inquiry cannot be supported today. I will wait for that explanation and I will have a listen to it. I will finish my remarks during my right of reply.
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.