Senate debates

Thursday, 4 February 2016


Community Affairs References Committee; Government Response to Report

6:05 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the government's response to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report on the inquiry into the Department of Social Services, or DSS, grants. The report was completed in September 2015 after three public hearings and almost 100 submissions. As a member of this committee, I had a very strong interest in this issue and in the government's response, which was tabled out of session a couple of weeks ago.

As we know, based on evidence given to the inquiry, the committee concluded that the 2014 tendering process was poorly planned, hurriedly implemented and resulted in a loss of services. Combined with cuts to the sector of $270 million, the impacts on services for the Australian community were devastating. Furthermore, the process does not appear to have been equitable and transparent, with an apparent inherent bias towards larger providers at the expense of local knowledge and expertise that smaller providers have developed in response to their clients' needs. Some of the decisions that were made were plain disastrous, utterly inexplicable, and have had devastating impacts across our communities.

I would just like to take a few moments to highlight one of the ridiculous situations that the committee was informed of. In the first public hearing in Canberra, we heard from the Chief Executive Officer of Volunteering Tasmania, Ms Adrienne Picone. Here is what Ms Picone told the hearing:

Volunteering Tasmania has been chosen to be the preferred service provider in two very tiny pockets of Tasmania. In the south it is greater Hobart and the Brighton and Sorell areas, and in the north it is three small towns in Ulverstone, Devonport and Burnie.

The vast majority of Tasmania will have funding received by a consortium based in Queensland. This consortium, we understand, has never worked in Tasmania. They are without community connections in Tasmania. They have no local knowledge or an understanding of the unique Tasmanian experience. We have on several occasions asked for the rationale behind this decision but have been consistently told that nobody seems to know why this decision was made, and we are really at a loss to understand the logic behind this decision. These actions are at odds with DSS's stated objective of providing a foundation for integrated, community led program delivery that understands and meets local needs.

I think the government needs to listen carefully to the words of Ms Picone, because what we have seen from this government in so many areas of public policy is an overwhelming desire to smash small, local organisations that are in touch with their communities. They keep the funding to larger organisations and peak bodies but seek to destroy the smaller organisations. It is quite clear that the government has not been listening to the concerns of the sector, as we can see from this disappointing response.

It seems that the government ignored most of the evidence given to the committee and, disappointingly, only agreed to four of the recommendations. They did not agree with one recommendation and noted the remaining nine recommendations. I am pleased that the government have agreed with a recommendation for a five-year contract cycle. However, it is disappointing that the government did not agree with the committee's recommendation that the Department of Social Services publish its recent analysis of service delivery gaps to promote transparency and to encourage informed discussion of the strategy that will ensure that vulnerable people are properly supported right across Australia with no gaps.

The committee noted witnesses' concerns that service gaps had not been fully identified and addressed. It is clear that the government needs to respect the not-for-profit and volunteer sectors more because they do wonderful work serving the needs of the community. The NFP sector contributes $107 billion to the national economy and $4.9 billion to the Tasmanian economy, and employs over one million Australians. So I call upon the Prime Minister and the Minister for Social Services to take another look at the committee report and to commit to more of the recommendations. This sector is too important to destroy through random, wilful cuts and misguided ideological decisions. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

6:09 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Community Affairs References Committee report Grandparents who take primary responsibility for raising their grandchildrenand the government's response in regard to that. In doing so, I would like to reflect briefly on the history of the committee and talk briefly about the government's response, and then end with a quote about the significance of this.

This inquiry began back on 9 December 2013 when this place moved a motion to establish the inquiry into grandparents who take primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren. I was pleased that that committee reference was endorsed by my fellow committee members: Senator Siewert, Senator Moore, Senator Brown and others.

It received over 173 submissions from around the country. Of the 173 submissions, 63 per cent were from individuals detailing their personal stories and the real-life struggles that they endure taking on the responsibility of raising their grandchildren. I was pleased that 36 of those submissions came from my home state of Western Australia and particularly pleased that fellow senators allowed the committee to travel not just to Perth but to Albany in the far south-west of Western Australia, where we heard some very powerful accounts from grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. The committee held seven public hearings around the country and, of course, one of those was in Perth and one of those was in Albany.

The inquiry focused on the unmet support needs of grandparents who raise their grandchildren and how to address those needs. The committee tabled its final report in October 2014.

I am pleased that in the government's response they do acknowledge the important role played by grandparents who take primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren and the challenges frequently associated with this caring role. The government's response does recognise that governments at all levels may need to improve existing information resources and channels to ensure that grandparent carers are more aware of the supports and services that may be available to them.

I was also pleased that the government is prepared to commit some additional resources to the grandparent advisers program, which was an element of our recommendations. The government has committed to expand the program from this year on a trial basis with two additional grandparent adviser positions and funding for outreach activities. Under the trial, the number of grandparent advisers will increase from six to eight. In addition, the eight grandparent advisers will conduct outreach activities with grandparent advocacy groups and organisations to promote the grandparent advisers role within the community.

I want to reiterate that this is the beginning of raising the awareness of grandparents who are raising their grandchildren; this is not the end. I will continue to work, as I know other senators will, with the government, with particular non-government organisations, grandparent groups, grandparent carers and their families to provide the support and important recognition that this worthy group of Australians so justly deserve.

But a note of caution: the government's response is heavy on process. Those processes are important. It is important that governments work together. But a word of caution: if the government thinks that this is a static issue in the Australian community or the government thinks that this is an issue that is receding then I disagree and I disagree very, very strongly.

The reality is that since this issue was first raised in this Senate back in 2013, the issue has got more pronounced, more prominent in the Australian community. And when we talk about the affliction of ice, when we talk about drug and alcohol abuse, we cannot ignore the fact that where those issues end is with grandparents having to take primary responsibility for their grandchildren because the parents of those children are afflicted with the scourges of drug abuse and alcohol abuse.

You cannot invest money in strategies to deal with ice and drug and alcohol abuse and not give attention and, indeed, funding to the important issue of grandparents raising grandchildren. A word of caution: this issue is not going away. It is, unfortunately, a modern feature of our community. Fortunately, it is one in which grandparents are stepping up to the challenge. Their first instinct is that they will meet these demands themselves rather than call on government, but the harsh reality is that the government does have a role to play.

On a positive note, the government has not been ignorant of these issues, and I am pleased that the new Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter, announced late last year that the government will exempt grandparent carers from the changes to family tax benefit part B. This means that grandparent and great-grandparent carers with a youngest child aged 13 to 18 years of age will be eligible to receive family tax benefit part B at the standard rate. That is, they will be exempt from any changes to FTB part B.

I am also pleased that my colleague Senator Simon Birmingham, as the Minister for Education and Training, announced late last year that grandparents who are the primary carers for their grandchildren will be exempt from the childcare subsidy activity test. In short, this means that grandparent carers will be eligible to access up to 100 hours of approved child care fortnightly. The measure as announced by the government will go some way to providing much-needed respite for grandparent carers and give grandchildren the opportunity to enjoy learning and playing opportunities with other young children.

These measures recognise that grandparent primary carers provide a vitally important role in our community, often stepping in to look after the grandchildren when these children have been in stressful and other adverse circumstances. These two announcements from the government are a small but important recognition that grandparent carers are doing it tough. As I said, this is the beginning of an important issue in our community, one that will not go away. It is one that federal governments of all colours will have to face up to. They will have to step up to the challenge of meeting this very modern dilemma in our community.

In closing, I want to share from page 16 of the report of the Community Affairs References Committee. It was a contribution by Dr Jan Backhouse, a social researcher based at the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University, who I thought eloquently put this modern community challenge in its rightful context. She said:

The grandparent-as-parent experience is marked by both deep pain and pleasure. The many challenges faced by grandparents who take on the primary care of their grandchildren include financial issues, legal battles, physical and emotional health problems (their own, as well as those of their grandchildren), social isolation and lifestyle changes, parenting problems and conflict with the children's parents.

Nevertheless, grandparents are totally committed to the care, safety and happiness of their grandchildren, often at the expense of their own lives. They routinely place their grandchildren's financial needs before their own, often drawing on very meagre income to provide for the children's health, education, out of school/sporting activities etc. in an attempt to give their grandchildren the same opportunities available to other children.

Research also reveals the significant loss of the traditional grandparent role by grandparent carers. Instead of the 'mythical' grandparent role involving 'pleasure without responsibility', they must now take on the parenting roles of disciplinarian, provider and authority figure. This shift to the grandparent-as-parent role has impacted on grandparents in a number of different ways, including provoking feelings of being unrecognized, disadvantaged, misunderstood and isolated within the community, together with a strong sense of injustice in relation to their experience.

It is a very, very powerful account of the modern challenge, the modern dilemma, that the Australian community faces—one that will not go away. The government's response is an important first step. It is the beginning; it is not the end. I am pleased that the government has been able to match its response to this report with some real benefits to people in terms of changes to the family tax benefit.

6:18 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

On the same report, I take up Senator Smith's statement about the response being an important first step. Indeed, it is just that: an important first step. Consistently through our inquiry we heard from grandparents across the country, and there is no specified area where this issue is most evident. Grandparents across this country are taking full-time care of their grandchildren. Too often people think that the issue of grandparent care is about grandparents helping out after school or in some way giving parents some immediate aid day to day. But, no, this particular inquiry was focused on the real issue of grandparents who are the sole guardians of children—many of whom have significant issues—from birth or from the time they are very small babies through until they are young people.

What came out in our inquiry was that the young people who are being cared for by their grandparents are often extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable. In fact, many have severe disabilities—and that is one of the ongoing pressures for the families. They are being forced together into a family circumstance for which there has been no planning. Indeed, some of the personal stories that came out in our inquiry were extraordinarily confronting. As always in our Senate inquiries, we were amazed and humbled by the openness with which people came and shared their lives with us and pointed out the problems that they are facing and by the great resilience that so many have.

I know that Senator Smith used the term 'a point of caution' in his contribution, and certainly there are several points of caution in the government's response. Senator Smith talked about the issue of increasing the current Centrelink grandparent carer program—and we had very, very positive responses about the way this service operated to allow grandparents to try to balance their Centrelink entitlements with their new-found responsibilities as carers and about the reference point that the service can provide to other services in the community—and we welcome that increase. The core point of caution that I want to bring to the attention of the Senate is that, whilst the government response has come up with some very welcome first steps, I would have liked a slightly greater increase—but any increase at this stage is welcome. Also welcome is the acknowledgement that that service will create a better database in terms of keeping information on the grandparents and their needs so that we can build up better knowledge and awareness within our system as well as in the wider community.

But my major point of caution about the response is the fact that, whilst the government has said that they do acknowledge that this is an issue which must have the engagement of ministers and governments at all levels of government, at no point in the response did the federal government say, 'We will lead on this issue. We will take this issue to our state counterparts so that we can ensure that the kinds of responsibilities which have been identified will be shared and will be planned. We, as the Commonwealth government, acknowledge that, whilst we may not have the primary responsibility for child care or for after-school care or any of those other elements in the system, it is such an important element in our community that we will take it to the COAG discussions, and we will ensure that the various ministers across all states and territories who look after issues around families will have this on the agenda.' I am sure we as a committee will be following up with the government to say that that is what we expect. In fact, if you go to the recommendations we put forward from the committee, you will see that that is what we asked for.

We want the federal government to identify the issues we had raised in terms of the particular needs of grandparents and the pressures that they have, often at a time when they are most vulnerable. We consistently heard stories of people in quite straitened financial circumstances and reliant almost exclusively on the pension who suddenly—and very often incredibly suddenly, like overnight—had the care of two or three children. This was often the result of tragedy in their own family. We identified that grandparents took over the care of their grandchildren often because there were significant issues of drug or alcohol dependence by their own children—the parents. So that is a double pressure on the grandparents. They had the stress of having to make decisions around their own circumstances in order to take on the care of these young people while at the same time there was quite overwhelming guilt about the fact that in many cases they had not been able to effectively parent their own children. They had an ongoing concern that their own parenting skills had been challenged by their own children and were now again going to be challenged by these very innocent young people, many of whom had seen things that were quite distressing in terms of family violence and dissolution of family.

We need to understand that there are significant psychological issues, often around mental health, that need to be identified in these cases. The kinds of services needed are not just financial. They are also things like access to trained personnel who can provide support around child mental health and developmental issues in schools. Many of the young people needing care have missed long periods of school and have fallen behind in their education. These are identified problems that needed a response. We should surround the grandparents with support when they take on their new roles.

Certainly we welcome the response from government. We welcome any response from government in community affairs. Sometimes we have to wait quite a long time to get responses, but to have one, we celebrate. In terms of this process, we acknowledge that the government has responded to a number of our recommendations. Whilst acknowledging that these people will need support from all three levels of government, particularly at the state and federal levels, I call on the federal government to take leadership, take the necessary direction and gather together the information resources from both state and federal levels so that this will be a priority when ministers meet. Then we will be able to use the valuable evidence that we gathered in our committee and we will be able to have the professionals who want to be involved in looking at the results of the work. We will be able to ensure that grandparents will not be as isolated as they felt when they came to our committee. I ask leave to continue my remarks later so that this issue can remain on the agenda.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.