Senate debates

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Indigenous Affairs, Indigenous Health, Budget

3:09 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs (Senator Scullion) and the Assistant Minister for Health (Senator Nash) to questions without notice asked by Senators Cameron, Sterle and Collins today relating to funding for Indigenous programs and to the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Action Plan.

Question agreed to.

The first issue I would like to turn to is the response to Senator Collins' question on Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, which is a huge problem in Indigenous communities—as it is in other communities around this country. The response that we had from Senator Nash was that the funding for that program had not been put in place. I want to indicate to the minister that the public release of the 2013 election commitment costings by the Department of Finance and Deregulation and the Treasury—I do not think you can do much better than that in ticking off your commitments—clearly indicate that there was a proposal that had been costed to the amount of $20.2 million for this program to deal with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. It is really about time the coalition were a bit honest about some of these issues. Instead of looking back and saying, 'It's all the problem of the Labor Party.' It is not the truth.

The issue here was that there was a clear commitment, and we have a minister standing up, once again, misleading the Senate in relation to her answers. I hope Senator Nash comes back, apologises for misleading the Senate once again and corrects her response. I will draw her attention to the Department of Health background document that went out, released on 5 August 2013. The department had clearly indicated that new funding of $20.2 million over four years—that is for this Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder issue—would be in place. You should never be surprised about any response or lack of response either from Senator Nash or from the opposition ministers, when they get up to deal with questions from the opposition.

I thought Senator Scullion was a bit confused in his response today. I am glad that he clearly identified some areas of change to his original answers and clarified the issues that were before us. I am very pleased that the Indigenous Women's Legal Program will be funded. I am very pleased the legal programs generally will be refunded, because they play a huge role in rural and regional Australia in helping some of the poorest Australians deal with the issues that they are confronting.

As a result of the government's budget, the issues that some poor communities and individuals will be facing will be magnified because of the cruelty of the government's budget cuts against the poorest people in this country. I am pleased that there will be a 12 month expansion. I hope it goes further than that. As I said, I thought Senator Scullion was a bit confused. I thought he was a bit unconcerned about the $500 million cut, trying to justify the $500 million cut and trying to justify this austerity program against some of the poorest communities in our country. The problems that Indigenous Australians have are magnified more than the problems for ordinary Australians. It is about time the Prime Minister and Minister Scullion were a bit honest about the problems that Indigenous Australians face. Stop trying to set yourself up as some kind of supporter of the Indigenous community, when you cut over $500 million out of support programs. The chief adviser to the Prime Minister is saying that there would be another $600 million cut. There is a proposal to cut more. This is over $1 billion of cuts against some of the poorest people in this country.

3:14 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to respond to some of the assertions that have been made by Senator Cameron in relation to foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. I reiterate that on 25 June the government announced that it would provide $9.2 million to the National Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Action Plan, to address the harmful impacts of FASD on children and families. As some may know, FASD and FAS describe a range of cognitive, learning, behavioural and developmental abnormalities caused by exposing the developing foetal brain to alcohol during pregnancy.

The government is committed to addressing this problem. A FASD technical network will be established under the guidance and chairmanship of Professor Elizabeth Elliott AM, who brings a wealth of experience in clinical service, research, technical and translation of policy regarding FASD to this very important role. Prevention of FASD is a key goal for the future. It is something that will require a multifaceted approach, including community and professional education, treatment for women who misuse alcohol and evidence based strategies to minimise risky drinking.

I will make some comments in relation to Indigenous issues and, again, correct some of the assertions that Senator Cameron has made. It is disappointing to see this sort of attack in this area because Indigenous affairs has traditionally been an area that has been removed from sharp partisan attacks in the past. The reality is that more money is not necessarily the answer to bettering Indigenous disadvantage. If this were the case, we would have dealt with these problems and closed the gap years ago.

For the record, I quote from an article that was written for The Australian by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Mr Tudge, who has special responsibilities for Indigenous issues. He states:

During the past decade, funding on indigenous affairs has increased by 80 per cent in real terms.

That translates to average government expenditure of $44,000 per Indigenous person, and that is according to the Productivity Commission. In practice, this funding has been reflected in a proliferation of programs in the Indigenous communities, some of which have now demonstrated, as an Auditor-General's report last year found, that a typical Indigenous community is serviced by one government program for every five members. Often you see a whirlwind of activity and government services providers driving or flying in and out of these communities, but, regrettably, the social and economic indicators stay the same, year after year.

Today, questions were asked in relation to programs. The government is amalgamating a plethora of programs in this space and shifting the Indigenous specific programs from eight government departments into one department, the Prime Minister's department, and then, in the budget, reducing the 150 programs into five broad, flexible ones, similar to the broadbanding that is also happening in the area of social services in the Department of Social Services. The important thing is to devolve decision making to the local level, where it will have greater impact. (Time expired)

3:19 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I also refer to the foetal alcohol spectrum disorder discussion that we have had both yesterday and today. I have to say that Senator Fierravanti-Wells standing up and restating the comments made by Senator Nash does not make them true. The truth is that the public release of the 2013 election commitment costing says very plainly that $20.2 million has been allocated by the former Labor government in order to address this—I think we are all in agreement—very serious issue. Standing up and restating it is not going to make it right. What Senator Nash announced in response to a dorothy dixer in question time yesterday is more than a 50 per cent cut in this program. There is nothing more plain than that. To restate it, I am sorry, is not going to make it right.

Let me move to the answers given by Senator Scullion today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being left in limbo. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister said he was going to be the Prime Minister of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Great expectations were raised. People were thinking, 'It's going to be different.' What we have seen since this budget came down, with a cut of half a billion dollars—$500 million—from Aboriginal programs and services, is nothing short of disgraceful. These are the people in our community who need the best thinking, the most work and, frankly, the most funding. I do not disagree that we need to do it in the best possible way, but you do not start the work by cutting out half a billion dollars worth of services.

We have asked questions at Senate estimates about where these cuts will fall. We have received very little information. Senator Fierravanti-Wells talked about how we need to streamline things and I do not disagree with that, but do not start by cutting and then work out what you might do later. Senator Fierravanti-Wells said that we have moved eight departments into one; that is not actually true. At estimates we would ask a question of Health and be told, 'No, that's Prime Minister and Cabinet.' Then we would go to Prime Minister and Cabinet and be told, 'No, you should have asked that in Health.' Then we find out today, when we talked about the Deadly Choices program: 'It's not in my portfolio.' So this idea that 'We're going to streamline everything into one place' is simply hollow words. That is not what has happened. We still have the same problem of tracking where funding is going, not just asking the senators. More importantly, the people who are actually trying to deliver the service cannot work out what is happening. So why is it surprising that we come into this place, two weeks away from the end of the financial year, with specific requests for information because people are concerned about what will happen in not even two weeks time. These programs are potentially being finalised. These people who are delivering these programs need to know what is happening.

Senator Scullion himself said with respect to the Indigenous Women's Legal Program, 'It's a bit confusing.' It is a bit confusing, Senator Scullion, and, if it is confusing to you, it might be confusing to me. But what about the people who are running the program? What about the Aboriginal women who might want to get a legal service on 1 July? Is that pretty confusing to them? Do we get a service? Can we fund this service? Does it fit within these parameters? Who knows what is going to happen? You cannot leave people hanging out like this. But with the machinery-of-government changes that, I am afraid, is what it has resulted in for the most vulnerable people in our community. It is simply not fair and should not happen.

As I have said, we have had half a billion dollars cut out of Indigenous programs. But let us also go to the other cuts in this cruel budget that will affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The one that I have been talking about since the budget is the $7 GP tax. Who will that hit? I have been saying it will hit the sick and the poor, including sick and poor Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We have had no clarity. What will happen with Aboriginal medical services? We just do not know. And, if we do not know, then AMSs do not know, either.

How is the $7 GP tax going to work in an Aboriginal medical service? I will tell you what will happen. They will have to charge it and, if they don't, they lose their bulk-billing incentive. Senator Nash says over and over again— (Time expired)

3:24 pm

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I must admit I thought that Ms Macklin was the champion of politicising and multiplying red tape for vulnerable people. But it would appear that the entire opposition has now jumped on the scaremongering train. I am not quite sure how Senator Scullion could have been clearer when he said that the funding for community legal centres had been extended for 12 months. That includes the Indigenous Women's Legal Program, which is one of the community legal centres. That seems fairly clear. I am not quite sure how he could have been clearer on that point. He also said, 'There will be no cuts to front-line services.' The opposition said that there had been a $530 million cut in services to Aboriginal areas. That is completely inaccurate.

We have perhaps two issues here. Firstly, the propensity of the former government to think up a figure and stick it in the budget and to not provide the funds to go ahead with it, because they were so desperately trying to pretend that they could come up with a surplus sooner or later, which of course we all know was never going to happen under them. And, secondly, to also pretend that they actually cared about the policies that they put in place.

In terms of the FASD program, I do not know how Senator Nash could have been clearer in making the point that, whilst the opposition put up a figure on the day that they went into caretaker mode, of $20 million for the FASD program, there was no backup for this and there was no intention to go ahead with it. It was not in PEFO; it was nowhere else. To suggest that our government are not determined to do as much as possible about the problem of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is completely inaccurate. It is a gross misstatement, a gross inaccuracy and it plays politics with the needs of the most vulnerable people in Australia.

The entire effort from the opposition in this area is, in my view, despicable. I think it is worth repeating some of those statistics that Senator Fierravanti-Wells gave us, from the Auditor-General, that under the former government there was in fact one government program for every five members of the Aboriginal communities in Australia, that we were spending $44,000 per person on Aboriginal services—'services' is the wrong word. They were not services; it was just money that was spent. There is no issue around whether there will be assistance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia from this government—absolutely none. We are devoted to it. If you cannot see the point of the Prime Minister taking on that ministry per se, as demonstrating how important we see it, then I do not think there is any hope whatsoever for the opposition at all.

But what we are not devoted to is continuing to featherbed the Aboriginal industry that built up more and more under the former Labor government. So few of these funds in fact ever go to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They go to organisations, many of which do good work, many of which could do their work far more efficiently. You have only to go back to that statistic of there being one government program for every five members, which is one organisation.

I was in Port Hedland recently and, for a population of 500 people, we were told there were 14 government programs. Putting some efficiency into this system, getting money out of inefficiencies and actually getting it back into services that actually benefit the people we are trying to benefit would seem to be an extremely good use of government funds. But, unfortunately, the opposition continue to want to play politics and to laud the red tape that they put in place in this area and so many other areas. (Time expired)

3:29 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It does give me pleasure to follow on, not from Senator Boyce's rambling diatribe of five minutes, but from Senator McLucas's magnificent contribution. Senator McLucas, unlike Senator Boyce, does know what she is talking about. Unlike Senator Boyce there are a lot of us in this building who do have a passion for doing everything we can to close the gap in Aboriginal disadvantage. We have to just tell the truth. I am not one that will play politics with Aboriginal—

Senator Abetz interjecting

Through you, Mr Deputy President, Senator Abetz shows his ignorance. Coming from Tasmania I do not know how much he knows about remote Aboriginal communities, but his scoffing and laughing at my commitment to Aboriginal disadvantage in closing the gap I find abhorrent. In fact, through you Mr Deputy President, it would probably do Senator Abetz very well to get out and familiarise himself with Aboriginal disadvantage issues, because they are huge in this nation.

We have to tell the truth, and the truth of the matter is that half a billion dollars has been taken out of Indigenous programs in the budget. We cannot deny that. I have to say very, very clearly that Senator Fierravanti-Wells—and I do not know how much she has got out of Sydney or Newcastle and gone into remote Aboriginal communities to see how they struggle—said that more money is not the solution. Taking half a billion dollars out of the budget will be a national disaster.

In the very short time that I have I welcome any interjections, if they are coming, because I speak from a basis of knowledge on this issue. We have found that some of the funding cuts in this cruel budget go to children and family centres. As a Western Australian I want to just mention five of them: the Roebourne Children and Family Centre; the Swan Children and Family Centre; the Fitzroy Crossing Children and Family Centre, which I have to admit was a wonderful opportunity that I had to open it with previous Minister Macklin; the Halls Creek Children and Family Centre, including the Little Nuggets Early Learning Centre; and the Kununurra Children and Family Centre. There is no more funding. It is as simple as that.

There is a bigger issue, and I say it is a bigger issue because I am one that supports remote communities. I know why Aboriginal people want to live on their country and why they live in remote communities. That side over there, back in the Howard days, had the view that Aboriginal people should all be herded into huge centres, particularly in the Kimberley, where they should all live in Derby, Broome or Kununurra. I remember the previous minister, Mr Turnbull, who was the environment minister at the time, being interviewed on Lateline and was asked a question in relation to the intervention. He said, through ignorance rather than anything else,—I do not think he meant to be spiteful—that all Aboriginal people should go to the big centres because that is where the jobs were. Fortunately, he is not the Aboriginal affairs minister.

Here is a very, very important fact. Senators on that side can fib as much as they like, but they cannot hide from this: in the 2013-14 budget the Labor government provided no less than $44.1 million to provide over 340 Aboriginal remote communities with a funding package that addressed municipal and essential services. For those of us that are fortunate enough to live in the leafy suburbs of cities where our rubbish is collected every day, our sewerage is at the end of a button and our power is at the end of switch, may not realise what happens in remote Aboriginal communities. They do not have that luxury. It has to be funded. I say it quite clearly here, now, that that funding has disappeared.

The Commonwealth have been responsible for funding these essential services for 50 years. They now no longer want to do it. I have to say that my fear is that, if there is no Commonwealth funding in these 340 remote Aboriginal communities for these essential services, where the heck is the money going to come from? I speak with some authority as someone who has spent a heck of a lot of time in remote Aboriginal communities particularly through the Kimberley region of WA. The state governments will not pick up the bill. It is as simple as that. In my state—that once engine room of the economy as everyone likes to refer to it, which I still think it is—now, unfortunately, after six years of the Barnett Liberal government has lost its AAA credit rating. It has its priorities wrong. It is building monuments to itself on the Perth foreshore. So, where the heck are these essential services going to be funded? I wish I could extend my speaking time.

Question agreed to.