Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Matters of Public Interest
I rise today to speak on a matter of public interest: the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, NPAH, which has been in operation since 2009. NPAH funds a range of innovative programs supporting homeless people with mental health, drug and alcohol or correctional issues and is supporting people who have been sleeping rough; it supports them into accommodation. Across the country, there are around 180 community services and 3,000 staff supporting 80,000 clients relying on NPAH funding. In Western Australia, there are around 80 NPAH-funded organisations.
I want to mention two of those organisations, St Pat's in Fremantle and St Bart's in Perth, both of which do amazing work with homeless people. Both operate as hubs, offering meals, food banks, health services and referrals to other organisations. In the case of St Pat's, they have a wonderful choir that meets every Monday morning and has also produced a CD. These services are welcoming and busy. There is a vibrancy about them. They are critical to the wellbeing of people who have fallen through the cracks, and they play a vital role in the lives of vulnerable people.
COAG agreed to negotiate a new long-term agreement and, in the meantime, put in place transitional arrangements to extend funding to 2014 while the long-term agreement was being negotiated. Both the transitional agreement and the desire to negotiate a long-term agreement were agreed by state governments and the Commonwealth government, and they were entered into in good faith. But this agreement is not being honoured by the Abbott government. The Abbott government has undertaken no negotiations and given no guarantees to states about this very important and successful program funded by NPAH. In fact, what we are now seeing across the country is that community organisations providing services to the most vulnerable in our community are reaching a crisis point, as their funding will cease in just 12 weeks and they have no certainty about their ability to continue to support homeless people.
When the question was put directly to the PM recently, he said his government 'will not let people down'. But we have heard similar words before. There was a 'unity ticket' on school funding, yet the government has let the Australian people down by backflipping on school funding. Again, despite promises, Mr Abbott, our PM, cut Indigenous legal services after saying he would not do so. So why would these words, 'We will not let the people down,' be of any comfort to homeless people or homelessness services in Australia?
Mr Abbott went on further to say the sector will get 'an answer on budget night'. If the PM does indeed let the sector down—and letting the Australian people down has been his track record, as we have seen with school funding and legal aid for Indigenous Australians—it gives services just six weeks, if they wait until the budget, to absorb any changes. This will leave vulnerable people relying on those services in a precarious state.
Undeterred, Mr Abbott went on to say on Fairfax Radio that he had 'given them what I think are important words of comfort.' He also said:
There is no need to be agitated on this.
But of course we need to be agitated. There is no certainty or commitment to the current NPAH funding for the future. The sector's peak body, Homelessness Australia, saw no comfort in those words and, indeed, reiterated that the sector needs to know the government's plans right now, not later.
They are not alone in expressing this view. Mr Abbott seems to want to emulate the WA Liberal government. He wants to be like the Barnett government in WA. We know what they are about. They are clearly about cuts: cuts to education, cuts to health. They are unable to manage the budget, and this is what Mr Abbott wants to emulate. But the WA Liberal government has been very clear and very firm with the Prime Minister that certainty is needed for WA's 81 services that provide services under NPAH funding—services like St Pat's and St Bart's, which are hubs that provide absolutely vital services to homeless people in Western Australia.
To me and to my colleagues on the Labor side, this demonstrates that the Prime Minister and WA senators in this place have no regard for vulnerable people in Western Australia. They have no regard or respect for the 80-odd service providers in Western Australia who in just 12 weeks will be left stranded by the Abbott government.
It is not as if the NPAH service has not been reviewed. The state department with responsibility in Western Australia reviewed the NPAH services, and the reviewers spoke not only with service providers but also with some 345 clients, who shared their stories with the reviewers. The review, as I said, was undertaken by the WA government and came through with flying colours. The report states:
The NPAH has been an important catalyst for improving integration with mainstream services. NPAH services have provided clients with intensive case management, including linking clients and their children with mainstream services such as education, training, employment, mental health and drug and alcohol services.
In Western Australia not only do those organisations provide services for homeless people in the city; they provide services for remote Western Australians. And they go further than that. They provide services for children. Let's not forget that children are also part of our population of homeless people. They provide services on domestic violence outreach. Certainly the Prime Minister would like us to believe that that is something he really cares about. Domestic violence is a critical issue in Western Australia. We have seen some tragic deaths of women at the hands of their violent partners, and yet the very funding that supports them, enables them to leave their unsafe homes and provides them with safety is now under threat because of the lack of commitment and care of the Prime Minister of Australia and the Western Australian senators in this place.
There are programs about keeping children safe. There is rental tenancy advice. There is housing support for people with mental illness and housing support for people with drug and alcohol issues—clearly services that are vital, working and a very important part of the kind of support that we provide in Western Australia.
Ms Stevens, the CEO of Homelessness Australia, in a recent ABC Radio interview said 'service providers need to know as soon as possible if a new agreement will be put in place'. She went on to say:
Already we're seeing a great deal of stress amongst service providers, staff are actually looking around and leaving and finding other employment because they're uncertain as to whether their job will still exist in a few months' time.
Here we have workers who have built a rapport with clients and who have been able to do very good work in supporting homeless people now moving on, leaving those clients in a much more vulnerable state because the person they had a relationship has had to leave because they have to feed and provide for their own families and because of the uncertainty of the Abbott government in not getting on board with NPAH funding. It is playing out right now in communities in Western Australia. Of course, when trusted and respected staff leave, that impacts on clients. They are not receiving the support that they would from the trusted worker they have learnt to work with. Again I remind the Senate that Ms Stevens was talking on behalf of 180 services, 3,000 staff and 80,000 clients across the country.
These NPAH services are the difference between life and death, between hope and hopelessness. They are the lifeblood of those doing it tough, of those sleeping rough, of those with mental health issues, of those with drug and alcohol issues, of those clients who have recently been released from correctional facilities. These are people who do it tough every day, but it appears that the Abbott government and Western Australian senators simply do not care.
It is a human right to have food and shelter. It is a human right to be respected and treated with decency. It is not okay for these services to lurch from year to year, wondering if their funding will be renewed. It is not okay for women attempting to flee domestic violence to be trapped in that situation because there is nowhere to go. It is not okay for the children involved and caught up in domestic violence to continue to witness that day after day, night after night, week after week, because the Abbott government refuses to give certainty around the NPAH funding. This is a basic human right. It is a human right for people in our community who are struggling every day with a range of issues to be treated with respect, to have some certainty about being able to get on with their lives and do the best they can every day in difficult circumstances.
Service providers have no idea whether the service they are providing today will be able to be provided in 12 weeks time. That is a disgrace. It is an absolute failure by the Abbott government. The vulnerable people in our community who front up every day to organisations like St Patrick's Community Support Centre and St Bartholomew’s House have no idea whether in 12 weeks the workers will be there, the health service they relied on will suddenly be gone or the support they needed fleeing a domestic relationship will suddenly be pulled out from under their feet. It is an absolute failure of the Abbott government to leave those services in the dark and not provide certainty around the NPAH funding.
The Abbott government should be concerned about the wellbeing and the future of vulnerable people in our community, and about the wellbeing in the future of community organisations. It is not okay for vulnerable people to have to wait on the whim of a new minister in a new government. And it is not okay for homeless people and community organisations to wait on the dry recommendations of business leaders, who sat as commissioners on the government's secret Commission of Audit report, to see whether NPAH funding survives the cut of the audit commission—a report that the government will keep secret until after the half-Senate election in Western Australia. It is a shame on the Abbott government. We need certainty around NPAH funding now and Western Australia will not be silent about this.