Monday, 1 September 2014
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Answers to Questions
That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.
Question put and passed.
Since taking office a year ago, the Abbott government has shown its profound hostility to science and the role of scientific advice in public policy. This is a government that demonstrates no understanding of the importance of science to the industrial and social transformation of this country. This is a government that has no effective science strategy, no commitment to science research infrastructure, no commitment to a scientific labour force strategy and no interest at all in scientific and industrial collaborations. This contrasts with the previous government, which had a comprehensive 10-year innovation strategy and which increased support for science and research by 35 per cent during our time in office.
This is a government that has, in fact, cut the budgets of the CSIRO and our other national science agencies, and it has threatened just recently to further cut university research because it cannot get its way in regard to its vandalism of the Australian university system. But the most blatant display of contempt we have seen from this Prime Minister is his refusal to seek advice from those who are given the task of advising him on science. The Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council has not met since the election. Since it was formed in 1989 as the Prime Minister's Science Council, the council has played an indispensable role in policy formation under both coalition and Labor governments. It provides a whole-of-government approach, coordinating advice from a range of agencies and experts.
You can contrast this Prime Minister's attitude with that of the Labor Party and the Labor government, but I do not think this government would take much notice of that. What you can do is contrast sharply the attitude of this Prime Minister to that of the previous Liberal Prime Minister, Mr John Howard. He understood the importance of this council and treated the council's work with great seriousness. I am led to believe that he took the responsibility for expanding the functions of the council during his tenure and gave it much greater resources. It hardly ever missed a meeting throughout the period of the previous conservative government.
This is in sharp contrast to the action of the Abbott government. He prefers to take the advice on scientific matters not from scientists but from ideologues and business leaders such as Maurice Newman or Dick Warburton. These are people who are climate change deniers or climate change sceptics and, of course, ideologues in the war against science. It is strange indeed that the position appears to have been undermined so dramatically under this government. Sadly, on critical issues we see that the government is in the grip of the merchants of doubt—the merchants who, of course, have been championed by the former member for Indi, Sophie Mirabella, when she was in fact the shadow minister for science, who took the view that there had to be a vendetta against the CSIRO, that there had to be an attack upon the very principles of evidence based research and that there ought be a war against science because scientists in this country had the temerity to actually suggest that we had to have a meaningful response to climate change.
This is why this is a government that has cut the budget of CSIRO by $114 million and cut $120 million from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and $16 million from Geoscience Australia. This is a government that has taken the better part of $2 billion out of the innovation programs that assist industry with transforming itself by taking advantage of scientific discoveries and new technologies. In total, this budget has cut some $836 million specifically from scientific programs. We have seen the better part of 1,000 scientists lose their job, yet this is a government that claims it is interested in a cure for cancer. How can you have a cure for cancer when you have so little understanding of the fundamentals of science? (Time expired)
It is extraordinary to hear Senator Kim Carr and how he could not contrast this government's performance with that of the previous government. He had to look back on and praise the conservative Howard government, celebrating it. For once in my life, I wholeheartedly agree that Prime Minister John Howard was an exemplary Prime Minister. He was the man who, with Peter Costello and the rest of the team, left Australia with zero debt.
But what I find startling is that the highlight of the tenure of the former minister for science was to send Twitter messages into outer space, waiting for some aliens to respond. That was a policy of the previous government. It was an extraordinary farce, but Senator Kim Carr as science minister championed it and is still waiting for some answers.
I would like to reflect on the current Chief Scientist, who said:
… over the years, really - and I'm not just focusing on the very last budget - but over the years—
so you could presume the last six or seven years—
… we've had short-term policies, we've had stop-start policies, we've had trimmings here and cuts there and all of those sorts of things…
That is what Senator Carr presided over as science minister. He is talking about the alleged failure of the Prime Minister to meet with the Chief Scientist thus far, but I would like to make this single point: when the former Chief Scientist, Penny Sackett, appeared before Senate estimates prior to her resignation, she was asked how many times the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd met with her. The answer, of course, was zero—not once, nada, zilch. He did not bother to meet with the Chief Scientist once.
So you have the science minister sending Twitter messages into outer space and you have the former Prime Minister jetting around the world, whipping up obscure programs on the back of coasters with Senator Conroy, and they say that they were focused on doing the right thing by the country. It would be a joke if it were not so serious.
What is serious is the amount of money that this government is investing in science. There is $8.6 billion this year alone in science, research and innovation, but it is targeted. It is focused. It is not being squandered like so much of taxpayers' money was squandered under the previous administration. It is being spent in a methodical and important manner. We are investing about $5.8 billion over the next four years for science and research in the industry area alone. It is a substantial amount of money, particularly given the state of the finances that the Labor Party and those in opposition.
I remind the Australian people and the Senate that, when Labor came to power in 2007, there was zero debt for this country—no national debt. When it left power in 2013, there was nearly $200 billion worth of debt—$200 billion worth of spending that has been put on the taxpayers' credit card.
Senator Conroy is interjecting, of course, because he is appalled at his own legacy—that he could cook up a $90 billion broadband policy on the back of an envelope with Mr Kevin Rudd, who failed to meet with the Chief Scientist, and then take the holier-than-thou approach that they were responsible economic managers. It is a worry.
What is extraordinary is the delusion that resides on the other side—that somehow they had saved the world from some catastrophe. They have not. What they successfully did was put Australia in a much worse financial position than it otherwise has been in in our country's history. We know that. We know there is a lot of sandbagging going on on the other side. They have written eight books about their tumultuous government, for which they told us repeatedly everything was splendid. They are ripping each other to shreds. It is extraordinary. I read one book in which they were demonising Senator Wong, who holds herself up as saving the country. You have Wayne Swan sandbagging: 'It's all everyone else's fault.' I can't wait for the Senator Conroy book. He doesn't like anyone because no-one likes him, and so he is going to be bagging everybody! It will be a very thin book, I suspect, if it is built around policy support.
Senator O'Neill interjecting—
Senator O'Neill, I am delighted that you like Senator Conroy. That is a very rare admission. I ask anyone else— (Time expired)
Today, 1 September, marks the beginning of national Dementia Awareness Month. Nothing was made more stark than when, in this chamber today, it was said to the community that we need a minister for ageing. The Assistant Minister for Social Services, Senator Fifield, refused to answer the question that I put to him today. Not only did he refuse to answer my questions today; he could not even answer his own dorothy dixer when it came to dementia care in this country. He failed yet again to tell us what the government's policy is, and then he accused the shadow minister for ageing, Mr Neumann, and me for skulking around aged care facilities. I have got news for you and the people on that side, and that is: I am never going to apologise for going out and listening to the sector. I am not going to apologise for speaking up for people who are suffering from dementia. I am certainly not going to apologise for speaking up for those people who care for those suffering from dementia. And I certainly will not stop coming into this chamber and showing the inadequacy, the lack of heart and the lack of respect that this government demonstrates towards the people of Australia.
This is awareness month for people suffering from dementia. This month Alzheimer's Australia, an organisation which I have a tremendous amount of respect for, want to highlight the importance of breaking down the barriers and reducing the stigma associated with dementia and the social isolation of those people suffering from and diagnosed with dementia. One of the friendliest things that Senator Fifield and Mr Abbott can do is to not only tell the Australian community but also demonstrate to them that they are prepared to put money back into supporting those people who are suffering from dementia. But what we get yet again in this chamber is nothing from the minister.
We now know about this issue—we did not know at that time—because of the advice we have been given. We set out a dementia supplement, which was obviously needed in this country, to assist those people in aged care with severe behavioural issues. The new incoming government would have been briefed as to what was happening in that area, along with everything else. But what did they do? They did absolutely nothing. They sat on their hands and waited until after the budget and then on 26 June—unfortunately my wedding anniversary—the minister skulked into this chamber and made an announcement to take away that supplement, without any consultation at all with the sector, without going around and listening to the sector—and then he condemns us for going out and listening to the sector!
Every Australian, unfortunately, will know in the coming decades that a family will be directly affected by this terrible disease. We now have the opportunity to sit down with you, Minister. We are quite prepared to sit down with you and with the sector at the table and come up with a new policy. We are going to be very sensible. We want to see a solution to this issue because, despite your actions, despite what you say in this chamber, I have no doubt that you do have sympathy for people who have been diagnosed with dementia. But we do not want just sympathy. What we want is a vision. We want a policy. So I am inviting you to join with us in trying to bring that about so that those people who are suffering from dementia and those people who are caring for them are given the support to have the extra training and the extra programs that are going to help these people with their severe behavioural problems. This is a good month to do it, Minister. I urge you to take the opportunity this month to do something about it, to demonstrate your support for those people. For you to condemn the shadow minister and the Leader of the Opposition for visiting an aged care facility is outrageous.
We went out to the Kangara Waters aged care facility in Belconnen here in Canberra. They look after 16 people with severe dementia issues. They have had to cut the services that they are providing to those people. These are real people—16 people who have unfortunately been diagnosed with dementia—and they met all the relevant criteria for the supplement that was given to them. All they are asking from you, Minister, is to go out and listen to and consult with them, without making these decisions on the run because they suit your budget agenda. The people who are suffering from dementia and the providers who are caring for them deserve better. They really do deserve better from this government.
You have broken so many promises that perhaps, Minister, you would like to share with us when you are actually going to announce your policy. (Time expired)
Members opposite have made a lot of comments today about consultation and engaging with the sector, and I think in this example it is a good example of where we do need to listen to what the sector has been saying. I would like to come to Mr Ian Yates, Chief Executive of COTA Australia, and to his comment on this issue. He said:
COTA Australia agrees with Stephen Judd that termination of the supplement was inevitable. Many providers were receiving very substantial extra funds without validation and with no guarantee of better outcomes for people with severe dementia symptoms
Mr Stephen Judd from HammondCare said:
Its cessation had to happen … There is still a place to have a supplement but it has to be focused and targeted to that small group with severe behaviours …
And my emphasis there is on the word 'severe'. Mr Bernie McCarthy, a clinical psychologist and dementia educator, said:
Claims were being made for people who were not eligible for the supplement. Some providers had as much as 60 per cent of their resident group on the supplement and this was a clear abuse of the supplement.
So the coalition does consult. We listen to people who are expert in the industry. Clearly, what they are telling us about this supplement is that it was poorly targeted; it was not actually a good use of taxpayers' money to meet the needs of those people who do have severe behavioural issues associated with dementia. The figures speak for themselves in that, when you looked to try and understand how large that small group with severe behaviours was, the forecasts that came out were budgeting some $11.7 million in the first year.
It was introduced in 2013—it had never existed before. Around 25,500 people ended up receiving the supplement, which is far beyond the 2,000 people that were estimated to be covered. That meant that targeted funds did not go to the areas most in need. Every portfolio is under funding pressure—it does not matter from which side of politics. We, as the people who are given the responsibility by taxpayers to make good decisions about the use of funding, need to make sure that available funding is spent effectively and meets real need.
The program was designed to reach 2,000 people, but, because of poor design, is being spent on nearly 26,000 people. That is why over the forward estimates—the four years beyond the budget—it was to cost $780 million and over 10 years it was to cost $1.5 billion. How can we say that we are going to be good stewards of taxpayers' money if we, instead of making good use of that $1.5 billion over a 10-year period, are putting it into a program that has been so poorly constructed that experts from the field say, 'The supplement must be stopped.'? I will quote Mr Yates again:
Many providers were receiving very substantial extra funds—
that is the $1.5 billion we are talking about—
without validation and with no guarantee of better outcomes for people with severe dementia symptoms.
This government is saying, 'We will continue to provide support through the aged-care funding instruments to make sure that people—whatever their needs—get support.' Particularly when it comes to dementia, we are committing some $200 million in additional funding to dementia research in order to understand dementia through advisory services, the national pensioner support program and dementia training study centres. We are investing in the sector to improve the quality of treatment and any programs we put in place to specifically deal with dementia. That is the sign of a good government. A good government looks at a problem, consults with the sector, puts in place funding to research and understand the problem and then makes sure that its programs are measured so that it knows how effective they are, and only on that basis does it continue to put taxpayers' money into the problem. (Time expired)
I stand to take note of Senator Fifield's and Senator Johnston's answers on questions related to the government's gutting of the Dementia and Severe Behaviours Supplement, and also of the potential withdrawal of funding from the regional universities removing themselves from the regions. There are more than 330,000 Australians living with dementia, and their carers should also take note of the senators' answers here today, because they reveal the perverse priorities of this government. We have just had the senators talk about 'most in need', and one senator claimed that 26,000 dementia patients were not in need of this assistance. I ask him: if he were speaking to the families of those people, would he have the gall to say that to their faces?
This is a government determined not to care for Australians in so many ways—in this instance, not to support people with dementia or those who spend their lives caring for others but to forgo all those things for the sake of saving dollars. This government worships at the altar of the dollar. It has forgotten that taxpayers' money is supposed to serve the interests of the people. The people never figure in the responses that we get from this government. The Assistant Minister for Social Services, Senator Fifield, today defended his sudden decision to axe the DSBS without consultation, warning or notice to alternative aged-care providers. The Senate was treated to the usual speech: 'It has become the blame game and the government's going to be responsible.' Responsibility means looking after people. That is what this government has forgotten. It is completely disgusting to think that a government would so quickly and willingly rip support payments away from people living with dementia and severe behavioural needs and their carers—money that goes to the training and recruiting of very specialised dementia staff who provide the best care to residents with severe dementia. The minister went so far as to say that this money is not 'core funding', as though it makes it okay that it has been ripped away from these people and from the services and communities that are providing the care. It is an utterly heartless and short-sighted decision that will hurt more than 300,000 people now and many thousands more as our population ages.
We need to do more for dementia not less, as this government would have us do. The minister and his colleagues are burying their head in the sand, trying to walk away from a condition that affects so many Australians. This small payment went a long way to supporting carers for people with dementia and in managing and assisting people with severe behaviours. Sadly for Australians working with, caring for or loving people with dementia and severe behaviours, this is yet another example of Tony Abbott's cruel and unfair budget. It is hurting the most vulnerable Australians. It is always the same target. The previous Labor government did a lot of the heavy lifting in the aged-care sector to make it more sustainable and fairer for the whole community. This government that said, 'There will be no surprises,' is continuing to give us a series of nasty surprises, so often that it has almost become normal for them. I am certainly not surprised that this government has cut this important payment, because that is what it does to everything that is of value to people, the people who drive the Australian economy and need the care of this government that is abrogating its responsibility at every turn.
I want to make a few remarks in the time that is remaining to me about the disgraceful response that we got from Senator Johnston today. I come from a regional area that has benefited, like all regional areas that have acquired a university in the last 20 to 30 years. Universities like the University of Newcastle, and its outreach to the Port Macquarie campus and the Central Coast campus, have transformed satellite communities, bringing investment, research capacity, innovation and, dare I say, science into the fields of ordinary people in those regional communities. It has brought money; it has brought jobs; it has brought expertise. Right now, we are seeing the greatest existential threat to universities in this country. The University of Newcastle, the University of Tasmania, and Charles Sturt University—three that I am very passionate about and familiar with—are now under threat from this government who wants to wreck access to universities and wreck the regional economies that thrive and grow around them. This government knows no bounds to its heartlessness. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.