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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 658

Senator TIERNEY (4.45 p.m.) —Along with my colleagues, I wish to support the legislation and will later move an amendment. The bill amends the Student Assistance Act to create a proper legislative base for a number of Aboriginal assistance measures. The current Abstudy and assistance for isolated children schemes are under administrative guidelines. This legislation gives these a proper legislative base.

  For quite some time I have been aware of the existence of Abstudy and of the assistance for isolated children scheme, but I find it absolutely amazing that we have come this far in time without a proper legislative base. One would wonder what the department and the minister are doing to allow this situation to continue for so long. That is surprising when we consider the effect of the changes, which I will outline in a minute, and the fact that these sorts of facilities under the act have not been available until now.

  The proposed legislation includes three other Aboriginal educational assistance schemes within the act, particularly for the recovery of overpayments. It also ensures that provisions relating to criminal offences are in the act and not in regulations. This is another aspect I find amazing—that aspects relating to criminal offences can be governed by regulations and do not come under the very close scrutiny of the parliament as a piece of legislation does, and that these for so long have been outside the purview of the act. The change the government has put forward to put these things on a proper legislative base is very welcome.

  The thing we should be drawing attention to, apart from getting the legislative base right, is perhaps getting the finance and programs right for this area of government activity. For quite some time the government has been putting an enormous amount of money into the improvement of the conditions of Aboriginals in this country. Given the amount of money that has been spent each year, I never cease to be amazed at how ineffective it seems to be in producing real results. Last year, I had the opportunity to join the shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs in visiting a number of communities in northern New South Wales. In the areas of housing, health and education, as processes for improving the standard of living of people, we have not—from my observations on the ground in those three communities—come very far at all.

  When we consider the outcome of all this government action and expenditure over the years, we do not seem to have achieved a great deal. People in the Aboriginal communities are still in a considerable degree of poverty. The most heartbreaking aspect of the lot was probably the very high degree of unemployment in these areas—in particular, youth unemployment. In some communities this can get as high as 90 per cent of the population. One could well ask why, with the funds spent under the program of the act we are considering here, it is not far more effective than it could be.

  This legislative change, in tightening up the provisions, will make the act function far more effectively. This, in particular, is needed because of the very sloppy way funding has been administered in this area over many years. To the credit of the department, and ATSIC in more recent years, this has been tightened up and improved, but there are still quite a number of glaring anomalies in the way funds have been administered in recent years.

  Two years ago a scheme called TAP, an educational program for Aboriginals, had $80 million spent on it. The government assured us that this money had been spent properly, but the paperwork and acquittals were not in order. Our having been assured that the money had been spent quite properly, there was no way in any accounting sense that this could be proved. That brings me to the other worry about what is being proposed in this legislation. That is the reason my colleague Senator Teague will move an amendment to the legislation.

Senator Schacht —Is that the same amendment you referred to at the beginning of the second reading debate?

Senator TIERNEY —No, not my own. I was referring to an amendment by the opposition.

Senator Schacht —You have no individual amendment?

Senator TIERNEY —No. This amendment will be introduced by Senator Teague. It relates to the health care card fiasco, of which we became aware when we questioned DEET officials earlier this year. There was a scheme where Austudy applicants could have assets tests waived if they held health care cards. This seems to be a good idea which the opposition supports. Indeed, the government thought it was a good idea because it was part of the 1993 budget measures.

  Having put it through the budget—and all the proper administrative arrangements were put in place—DEET issued a press release stating what it was going to do. We learned that people who had these health care cards would not have to have an assets test, and could therefore move through a lot more quickly into the program. It put out a guide for this—the Austudy guide. Application forms were printed and distributed, and a number of people with health care cards applied for this assistance for students.

  Given that we had thought the administration of DEET was slowly improving, it was surprising to see the way in which that department handled a change in this arrangement. In late December and early January it was discovered that this arrangement could be quite a costly measure, and that there could be quite a lot of people—a lot more than the government thought—coming on to the scheme in this way. So the government changed its mind. There is nothing wrong with governments changing their minds; they do it all the time. But it was the process which this government went through that was quite amazing. Having been on the estimates committee and having questioned officials, I found it incredibly difficult to get any sensible sort of answer out of the people involved in this process.

  The DEET staff were informed in February that the assets test must apply to health care card holders. But the next process was quite astonishing in that no public statement was made that this change was going to take place. I repeat that no public statement was made. Here we have a government that brought in a change to an arrangement for students to apply for a particular benefit and, having decided to make that change, did not tell anyone about it.

  In estimates we questioned the government on this. We asked, `Why didn't you let people know?' The answer was, `We didn't want to confuse people.' That is no way to run a government. The government should have been quite up-front about it, let people know, admitted its mistake, and then things would have been very clear. The problem came to light only when a lot of people started to go through the procedures that were set up and suddenly discovered that the rules had been changed.

  In estimates when the government was further questioned on this matter, a number of very suspect figures were revealed. When asked how many people were affected, the government said that 100 health care card holders had been awarded Austudy at the cost of $300,000. This seemed to be a remarkably low figure. We found the next figure even more remarkable. The government said that only 20 people had missed out as a result of its reneging on the original arrangement. I found that amazing then, and I still do find it so. When we go back to estimates, I will be questioning the officials more completely on this matter. The government having made such a switch and an arrangement that affects a considerable number of people across the whole of Australia, it is very difficult to believe that the figures we have been provided with are correct.

  Evidently what happened, and the reason the switch had taken place, was that the Department of Finance was worried that many more people would apply through the health care card arrangement and this would blow out DEET's budget. That department has a pretty big budget, and if the expenditure were $11 billion the expression `blow-out' would mean that a fair bit of money was involved. But the figures we have been given so far seem to indicate that not a lot of money is involved, and we will be pursuing this further later this month.

  With that proviso—and that is the reason why Senator Teague is moving the amendment to the motion—we will be supporting the bill because, at long last, this arrangement will be put on a proper footing. Our amendment will ensure that the government honours its commitment to all health care card holders to waive the assets test for Austudy applications. This was the original intention in the last budget. The government should be held to account and should put this promise into place.