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Community Affairs References Committee - 21/04/2015 - Impact on service quality, efficiency and sustainability of recent Commonwealth community service tendering processes by the Department of Social Services

FROHMADER, Ms Carolyn, Executive Director, Women with Disabilities Australia

SANDS, Ms Therese, Co-Chief Executive Officer, People with Disability Australia

[12:18]

CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for appearing today. Do you have any comment to make about the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Sands : I am appearing on behalf of the Australian Cross Disability Alliance.

Ms Frohmader : That is the same for me. I am also appearing on behalf of the Australian Cross Disability Alliance.

CHAIR: Thank you. We have your submission. I would just like to check that you have been given information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence?

Ms Frohmader : Yes.

Ms Sands : Yes.

CHAIR: I would like to invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Ms Frohmader : As you know the Australian Cross Disability Alliance was successful in being selected by the DSS public tender process as a preferred model for representation of organisations of people with disability for people with disability to advance the human rights of people with disability in Australia. Before I begin the substantive content of our opening statement, I would firstly like to thank the committee for the opportunity to speak with you today, and secondly clarify that our role here is to provide the committee with the context to the need for reform of the national disability peak representation model and funding arrangements by successive Australian governments.

In doing this, our aim is not to discount the achievements or expertise of other disabled people's organisations; rather, our main purpose today is to ensure: that the committee recognises that the Australian Cross Disability Alliance is a valid, credible model of representation to address the need for reform; that the committee discounts media and some disability sector commentary that may lead to a view that the alliance is in some way government imposed; and that the committee's recommendations do not negatively impact on the establishment of the alliance as a model which was conceived, designed and supported by people with disability themselves.

As highlighted in our written submission to this inquiry, the need for reform of the disability sector peak representative sector in Australia is not a new phenomenon. For more than two decades, the sector has been calling for significant reform of the way that Australian governments have conceptualised, structured and funded national disability peak representation. These calls have been backed by many independent reviews of the national disability peak representation model and its funding arrangements. Without exception, all of these reviews conducted over nearly three decades have called for the creation of a new funding model that better represents the realities, experiences and complexities of the lives of people with disability, that better reflects both community and government needs, that is more logical and easier to function and administer, and that reduces duplication and inefficiency.

Prior to the reforms in the 2014 DSS open tender process, the Australian government funded 13 national peak disability organisations. The funding of these organisations was effectively an historic arrangement whereby the majority of the organisations were funded by disability type or by diagnosis. Because there had never been any clear or transparent framework or guidelines for the selection and funding of these organisations, governments could provide no logical or coherent rationale as to why some organisations were funded at the exclusion of others. This approach to funding national representative organisations by disability type became extremely problematic for both the disability sector and governments alike. Successive Australian governments found themselves in an impossible situation. They either had to find every disability type or diagnosis to be represented by its own national organisation or they had to act on the calls from the disability sector itself and reform the way disability peak representation was funded. This is a very salient point which cannot be overstated.

For more than 25 years people with disability have demanded they have the right to speak for themselves and to run, govern and manage their own representative organisations. Gone are the days where people with disability will tolerate experts speaking for and about them. Gone are the days where people with disability are told that they do not have the capacity to speak for themselves or to manage and constitute their own representative organisation. And gone are the days where people with disability automatically accept that their families, carers and/or their advocates will always act in their best interests.

The Australian Cross Disability Alliance is a model which we put forward to address the need for reform in representation of and for people with disability. The central tenet of such a model is that it is a human rights model. It is user led and it recognises that women with disability, children with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability and people with disability from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds all experience multiple and unique forms of discrimination, disadvantage and violations of their human rights. We ask that in your consideration of issues for this inquiry and in your recommendations that the Australian Cross Disability Alliance is not undermined. We thank you and we welcome your questions.

Senator MOORE: I am very interested in your last comment. Can you indicate how an inquiry into the funding process would undermine the future process of consultation and engagement with people with disabilities?

Ms Sands : I think what we are concerned about is that since the announcement of the result of the tender process has been made, there has been media commentary and some disability sector commentary that has indicated that somehow the result of the tender has led to a government imposed model, that the alliance is not a model that is in line with the convention on the rights of persons with disability, that it is lacking in particular expertise or that it is not representative of particular groups of people. Our main claim here is we vehemently disagree with those comments. Our concern is that they may lead to a view. Certainly in our membership we have had concerns from members calling us and asking: does that mean that we are not going to be represented properly or what does this mean? I suppose some of that commentary is called concern in our membership and constituency.

We have not publicly at this point, until this committee inquiry responded to those claims or stories because we have not really wanted to engage in a situation where there might be public criticisms between disability organisations. We have tried to avoid that. But when the inquiry was announced, we thought it appropriate and pertinent that we make our claims and that we put forward a model in that open tender process that has been supported by organisations of and for people with disability. It has been a model that has been discussed between cross disability organisations for some time and we put it forward as a way to respond to some of the concerns that have been raised historically and outlined in our submission about representation, fragmentation, inequity and funding that have been around in the sector for some time. Our only real concern was that the committee understand that there may well be positions put to you that indicate or support some of that commentary which we disagree with and we would not want it to the impact on our particular choice or the choice of people with disability to be represented in a cross disability way.

Senator MOORE: My understanding of any kind of tender process is that people put forward their claims, an assessment is made and, as a result of that, a decision is made. I have never heard a comment about a tender process which indicates there could be some undermining by working through a Senate committee. I will work through the questions I have on that basis. In your submission, it is clear that there have been ongoing discussions in the field about the best way of representation. Leading up to that, was there an agreement around the best way of having consultation and was that inclusive of all the organisations that were then receiving funding?

Ms Frohmader : First of all, I feel quite well placed to be speaking to you given that I have been in this position for nearly 20 years now. We have a significant amount of evidence to demonstrate that successive Australian governments have tried very hard over many years to encourage the sector to organise amongst itself to come up with proposed models and ways of addressing some of the long-held concerns in the sector. As I said, there have been many government reviews into this whole area. So there have been lengthy consultation processes with government over many years to try and come up with a better way forward. One of the problems is that there are historical arrangements where you have organisations that have fought very hard to have their issue recognised or to be funded in their own right and this is always problematic because people do not want to let go of something that they have.

We went through a similar situation in 2007 under a Labor government in the women's sector. I remember back in the 80s or the early 90s we had something like 86 national women's organisations funded at some point or other by government. It was an unsustainable approach and model. In the women's space, for some reason it was a bit easier. We were also charged with the same task of coming up with proposed models to look at a way forward and a very similar process was conducted in the women's sector where the government of the day put out a model to tender. The women's organisations organised amongst themselves and we ended up with six funded national women's alliances. These things are not new but they are problematic and we have had extensive consultation over many years amongst the sector, definitely with the organisations that were funded previously and also with organisations that were not funded.

Senator MOORE: It would seem to me that there is never going to be a process in this area or in any other that would please everybody?

Ms Frohmader : Exactly.

Senator MOORE: The indication in the submission you have put forward is that through the consultations that happened over many years there had been a view that the process, as determined in the tender document of 2014, was one with which everyone was familiar?

Ms Frohmader : Yes, I would agree with that because it was not by any means a surprise. Again, we have extensive evidence that I am willing to provide the committee in relation to all of the history around this. As a sector, we have been paid for by governments to attend forums, workshops, residentials—all sorts of things—to try and come up with different ways forward. The alliance model itself was hardly a surprise nor were any of those criteria. The criteria within the tender document itself around the national disability representation were determined by people with disability themselves, by the sector itself so it was certainly not a surprise. For many years the sector has been calling for a move to a human rights model rather than a medical based model.

Senator MOORE: This inquiry is looking at the process of the tender document so we are looking at the implementation. Has the communications process from DSS in this area, from your perspective, fulfilled the needs of any formal tender process?

Ms Frohmader : To be honest, there were certain aspects of the process itself that were difficult. I am talking here particularly about the time when organisations were notified of the outcome of the tender process, which I think was a few days before Christmas. There were aspects of it that were poor in the way that information was communicated. There were hiccups with documentation coming out of the tender process. There were various versions. Some of that was problematic.

Senator MOORE: I am wanting to find out what these issues were. None of this was in your submission. In the terms of reference that went out for the inquiry, you could see that we were really trying to find out how the process worked. In your submission, there is nothing in there. If there is anything you can share with us about how the process worked, we would like to know it because this is the kind of information we are gathering. Your submission related to the background and the feelings you had about the outcome of the process, which is fine. By reading this submission, it would seem that you were completely satisfied with the whole process. Is that not true?

Ms Sands : We cannot say that we are completely satisfied but we did make clear in our cover letter that we were only as an alliance addressing the issues around the background and the outcome. However, as Caroline said, there were issues around the announcement time, the lead-in time and in being able to obtain information that was accurate and consistent. There were some inconsistencies in that some information was being provided to some organisations and then perhaps slightly different information was being provided to others. They then had to go back to seek clarification. There was certainly a problem in the fact that all tenders were due on a particular day and the system clearly could not handle it. There was obviously no recognition of the number of submissions that would be provided and submitted online on that particular day, which caused the system to not be able to upload. Of course, that creates great angst when you are trying to meet a deadline. We certainly know that that is the case because we had conversations and we were told that by people and had some of that experience ourselves, and we were very concerned that the unsuccessful organisations in this particular tender process were notified two days out from Christmas. Obviously, that was very distressing and we felt that was not good planning and it was not good for those organisations, or any organisation, to be trying to deal with having to notify people over that time and to be considering their future over a period which is obviously a shutdown period for most organisations.

Senator MOORE: Reading the submission, there was no indication about the process. Just one other point, I am interested in the analysis regarding the issues with the women's secretariats. From the position of your particular organisation, what is the process for linking the kinds of feedback into the department? Regarding the way that your organisation is going to work, you are very clear on what happened before and how organisations were funded and what groups they represented. With the organisations that you are now working with, from your perspective, it would be very useful if we could get some more information in terms of how your particular group is going to represent the issues around disabilities back into the system. In this submission you could only give us a couple of pages in terms of an introduction, more or less. But, with the experience you have of the way the system used to work and your expectation of how it is going to work, you are very confident that the new way is the way that will reflect the human rights aspects, of which we are all concerned. Could we get some more information from you, perhaps on notice, about your plans for how you are going to do this work and how you are going to implement this change in consultative processes that will best fit the new features of the new model?

Ms Frohmader : I am happy to provide more information on notice, but I think there are also some things that we can speak to now.

Ms Sands : I can certainly kick off on that. We are in the process at the moment of planning and coming together to work through some of these issues and to discuss them. But all of us have always worked together previously, and this is formalising that arrangement. We also have strong networks across the disability sector and other civil society groups in the human rights space, and we would expect that we would continue and maintain those relationships and ways of working. In terms of the alliance members, we already come together to work on priority areas and to work jointly on submissions or representations to governments and to other organisations on key issues for people with disability. A recent example of that was coming together in terms of putting a submission in to the Senate inquiry into domestic violence, but there is also our work of putting in letters and representations and undertaking advocacy for a Senate inquiry into violence against people with disability in institutions. So we will build on those, and I think it is important that we need to be looking at our own key issues that we will work on together jointly to put forward through government and non-government mechanisms. But building on those is preliminary at this point because we still will be undertaking further planning in relation to the specifics of that. Carolyn, did you have anything else to add?

Ms Frohmader : Yes. I would just like to—

CHAIR: Sorry, Carolyn—we are going to run out of time, and I do need to go to Senator Sinodinos. Could you either keep it short—and I do not mean to be rude—or we can put it on notice.

Ms Frohmader : I will be very short. I will provide more information to you, but I just wanted to add very quickly that the organisations that have been funded under this alliance model are only receiving $300,000 a year. That is not earth-shattering money when you look at, for example, Carers Australia, who were given a direct selection to the tune of $12 million. We are talking here about organisations that are receiving $300,000 each through the tender process. There is no question that there are some issues around how poorly this sector is funded. Obviously, you have to be realistic about what can be done with that sort of money—$300,000 per organisation. That is all I needed to add.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.

Senator SINODINOS: I am fine, thank you, Senator Siewert.

CHAIR: I have a couple of questions. Going back to the point that you made earlier about the model being under discussion for a considerable period of time: had the model been resolved by the time the DSS granting round started?

Ms Frohmader : Yes, the alliance model was formally developed by Women with Disabilities Australia and presented to Minister Macklin back in 2013.

CHAIR: Sorry, I think I misphrased my question. You do outline that in your submission. I should have been more clear and said: had it been agreed by the sector?

Ms Frohmader : No. It had been agreed by disabled people's organisations, which are those organisations run and constituted and governed by people with disabilities. Trying to get consensus on any model in the disability sector is near on impossible, which is why it has taken almost 25 to 30 years to get to this point.

Ms Sands : I would just clarify that it was a discussion between the cross-disability groups that form the alliance for many years about working together as a cross-disability alliance. Even before there was any question of tenders or funding, we had been talking about that and we consistently work that way, but perhaps in a more ad hoc way. It was a model that we were familiar with, that we knew and were certainly in favour of. It was certainly also put to a whole range of other organisations in their discussions, and through that process around looking at a new model that was taking place in 2013. There were workshops and discussions around that, so it was largely the alliance members that had been talking about that model and putting that forward.

Ms Frohmader : The model itself was made available for in all the consultation processes that government funded for the sector. It was not as if it was a surprise model, in a sense.

CHAIR: I think I understand. Are children with disabilities now part of the alliance?

Ms Frohmader : Yes.

Ms Sands : Yes, they are. Because we are still in the process of formulating processes and procedures and we have a planning workshop coming up, Children with Disability Australia has opted to have some internal discussions in relation to its organisational procedures before it formally wanted to join up to that letter. Children with Disability Australia has been part of other submissions and processes, but for this they have opted to wait until our planning workshop.

Ms Frohmader : And also for the formal posting of contracts.

Ms Sands : Which is why the four organisations wrote the submission on behalf of the alliance.

CHAIR: I just wanted to be clear about that, because I noted their name was not on the submission.

Ms Sands : Yes, that is right.

CHAIR: I have a question on notice that follows on from questions Senator Moore asked about the tender process and the contract process. We have had a lot of feedback through submissions and elsewhere—and today—about the contract process and how that process is going. Would you mind taking on notice how, for you, that process has worked and fill out a bit more detail, from what you articulated earlier, on how effective that has been and on the time lines?

Ms Frohmader : Yes, you mean since the announcement of the—

CHAIR: Yes.

Ms Sands : We can take that on notice.

CHAIR: That would be very much appreciated. We will be in touch about the questions on notice and the time lines. Thank you, and thank you for the teleconference.