Thursday, 2 March 2006
Community Affairs References Committee; Reference
I would like to add the Greens’ support for this motion. It has been clear for quite some time that the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement needs some review. When I came new to this portfolio I very quickly became aware that there were significant problems in this sector. In Western Australia alone there is still a vast amount of unmet need for carers in this sector. In fact, we do not really have an understanding of the unmet need in Western Australia because people have actually given up asking. They are so sick of filling in complicated forms that they do not apply anymore. Many carers have said to me that they feel like it is a race to compare how bad your situation is before you can get attention. People are so demoralised by this.
I have heard many disappointing and distressing stories. Just recently I was in Albany and met with a well-known person in Albany who told me the story of what had happened with her husband who suffered from dementia and how hard it was for her to get respite care. They found that what was happening in Albany was that places that should have been reserved for people for short-term respite—to give carers of people some respite—were being filled by long-term patients because it was more economically viable for the centres to fill their places with long-term patients. While that of course is good for the long-term patients and meets a need there, unfortunately there are many people who are missing out because all they need is respite for short periods of time—and they are not getting that.
I have also learned of a change in service provider. While I am not in any way disparaging the service provider it was changed to, what was explained to me was the complicated nature of trying to get service there now and that people are confused about where to go for service. There was not a seamless changeover. I understand that is happening in other regional centres—that there have not been seamless changeovers of care providers who have contracts to provide some of the services. I also understand that there is very little idea of the unmet need for care providers in other states.
I have looked at the first, second and third agreements between the states, and I think there has been a definite shift of Commonwealth responsibility onto the states. To tell you the truth, I am absolutely sick of hearing issues being batted between the Commonwealth and the states: ‘Oh, that is not a Commonwealth responsibility; that is a state responsibility’ or ‘That is not a state responsibility; it is a Commonwealth responsibility.’ Carers and people in need are the ones who suffer. Access Economics produced a report late last year that showed the benefit of carers in the community. Millions and millions of dollars worth of care is provided by carers for people in need of care. The report highlighted the absolute value of the care that is provided for people in the home and the work that carers do.
The report also highlighted the fact that if we as a nation do not get our act together and look at what is happening, long term and into the future, we are going to have an even bigger problem than we have now with the needs of carers and the needs of people who require care. It is absolutely essential that we look not only at how we can meet the needs of carers right here and now but also at what our long-term problems could be. As I have highlighted in this place on a number of occasions, I believe there are a number of clauses in the agreement that give the Commonwealth clear leadership responsibilities and provide the mechanism for the Commonwealth to provide leadership and show the way in trying to get to the bottom of this issue.
There are ongoing issues with people who are on carer payments or carer allowances and the discrepancies between the two and how hard it is to access one and the other. These are all unnecessary burdens on people who are only doing good for our community. Even if you do not want to pay attention to the fact that they are supporting our community, on an economic basis alone, one can see that they are making this country a better place. I absolutely endorse this referral motion. I think it is high time that we looked at this agreement. It is clearly not working in a number of areas. We need to look at what is working and what is not working, learn the lessons and fix this area—because it is the people in the community and the carers, who unselfishly give hundreds and hundreds of hours to this community, who are suffering. So let’s get our act together, let’s review it and let’s move forward into the future instead of backwards.
I rise to indicate that I do not support this motion and to indicate the reasons for that. Let me say at the outset that I do not necessarily disagree with the comments that have been made in this debate about problems with the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement. Various manifestations of this agreement have been long standing, but there is still some dysfunction in the way territories, states and the Commonwealth share the load of determining an appropriate response to the needs of those in our community with disabilities. For example, in the inquiry that the Senate Community Affairs References Committee conducted into the needs of disabled people lodged in Australian nursing homes, we saw very clear evidence of that dysfunction.
Having said that, however, I do not believe that the process that is at work here is appropriate to deal with this question at this time. Looking through the Notice Paper, I note that there is no other committee of the Senate—standing or select; references or legislation—which appears to have as many matters currently before it as do the community affairs committees, in either the references or legislation manifestations. On my reckoning, there are something like eight separate matters before the community affairs committee at the moment. They include the inquiry into toxic dust, which was to have reported today but is now reporting in May. Only yesterday, I think, another bill was referred to the committee. That was on top of an inquiry to be conducted today into aged care bond bills. There is a report to be produced on the additional estimates hearings last month; budget estimates are also coming up very soon. A major inquiry into petrol sniffing is presently in train, and members of the committee travelled only last week to the Northern Territory for that inquiry and will travel to Queensland next week. Tomorrow there is a further hearing—a roundtable discussion—on gynaecological health issues, and there is also an annual reports report to be prepared. That does not provide for a number of other matters which I know or suspect are in the pipeline.
The committee had informally discussed a process for dealing with the workload, and there was some informal discussion about having a meeting where the committee would assess what issues were pressing on it for consideration in the course of this 12-month period. Members of the committee and participating members may be aware of other issues that are being considered or will be considered by the committee, and I think those issues deserve some consideration as well. However, I think that a proper process should see these issues examined in a different process from the one that has been proposed by Senator McLucas, and for that reason I do not support the motion before the Senate.
I have got to say that I appreciate Senator Humphries having the courage to come into this chamber and at least express a view on why the government will not support this reference. I think some of his reasons are fairly hollow, and I will go to those in a moment. But I do acknowledge that Senator Humphries at least tried to give some sort of reason why this reference would not be supported—unlike for the previous two references, which have gone through completely on the numbers, without any expression from the government as to why they would not be supported.
Senator Humphries said that he did not disagree with the expressions of complaint. Certainly the whole community is aware of the complaints that have been levelled at the problems in the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement. That is why an inquiry is appropriate. That is why it is timely, at this point, to investigate why the level of complaint is so high, why there is misunderstanding or lack of clarity of the intent of the agreement and why there is a continual rub between the Commonwealth and states about their levels of responsibility. This is why there is a continual problem that affects older people with disabilities, and why there is a fight between the Commonwealth and the states over who is responsible for the provision of their care. That is the sort of meat that this inquiry would get into. But this government is going to stop it occurring.
Senator Humphries said that he acknowledged that the agreement was dysfunctional. Surely that is an argument in support of an inquiry, rather than an argument against. He then said that on his cursory examination—and I am glad he used that adjective, because it was a fairly cursory examination of the Notice Paperhe saw eight pieces of work that the community affairs committees had to do. That is somewhat misleading. There are three pieces of work that the Senate Community Affairs References Committee has to undertake, and I talked about them in my initial address. The toxic dust inquiry has completed its hearings. It simply has to write a report. I say ‘simply’: that is an understatement. It is a piece of work that has to be done, but it is possible to begin a new inquiry while the conclusion of another inquiry is occurring. The inquiry into petrol sniffing has done a lot of its work. It has a very organised plan for the rest of its hearings, and it too can be completed while we call for submissions for this new proposed inquiry. That would mean that we would complete the first inquiry and move into the second. That is normal practice in this place. To say that the community affairs committee is overloaded is an absolute furphy.
Senator Humphries said there were eight pieces of work that the committee had to do. No, there are three; and on Friday there will be a roundtable into gynaecological issues affecting women in Australia. That is a one-off event. I commend the committee for doing something so creative, but it is a one-off event that will take one day and then there will be a report to be done. It is wrong to say that this committee is overloaded.
Senator Humphries said that this committee has more work to do than other committees. You can well understand why that is the case when you see the number of inquiries that people who sit on the other side of the chamber have not allowed this Senate to undertake. I am very sorry that I have to follow Senator Hill’s excellent address, because he described the value of this place and the Senate committee system beautifully. But that is being undermined very significantly and we have had absolute evidence of that today.
This Senate’s agenda is not being set by the people who sit in this room. This Senate’s committee inquiry agenda is being set by the executive of the government. That is an undermining of what I think is one of the powerful roles of this chamber. We now know that any decision about any inquiry that is going to occur in this place has to go through the Liberal and National party room. We have never done that before—not in the six and a bit years that I have been here. We have been able to control our own agenda and determine the important pieces of work that need to be inquired into—not the leadership of the Liberal and National parties. That is a real shame.
I commend this motion to the chamber. It is a timely reference and one which is supported by the sector. That is the most important thing. This is not a political inquiry; this is an inquiry that people with disabilities, their service organisations and their advocates want. They want to be part of the discussions that will lead up to the fourth agreement. Otherwise, we will be here in three years time saying that the CSTDA is dysfunctional. We will say that it is not working and there is lack of clarity in the intent of the agreement. Let us take the opportunity to help people with disabilities to navigate the difficult and complex bureaucratic processes that they have to go through. Let us use this opportunity to peel back the complexity of service provision for people with disabilities. But I am afraid that the people on the other side of the chamber are saying, ‘No, we just want to leave it like it is.’ They are saying, ‘Let’s not use the Senate processes to assist people with disabilities in getting the services and assistance they in fact need.’ This is a sad day for this Senate. At least Senator Humphries had the courage to tell us why he thinks it is not timely. But, as I said, I think his arguments are pretty weak. I commend the motion to the chamber.
That the motion (That the motion () be agreed to.