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Tuesday, 25 March 1997
Page: 2455

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(11.33 p.m.) —Let me be brief in my contribution to this important second reading debate on the Commonwealth service delivery agency bills. These bills establish a new agency or one-stop shop for the delivery of Commonwealth services. The services of Social Security, Veterans' Affairs, the Commonwealth Employment Service, some Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, and Health and Family Services services will all be accessible through this new agency.

It is important to point out that the Labor opposition does not have a problem with the concept of a one-stop shop. We did make this clear in our minority report on this legislation. We do see the advantages in customers dealing with a single agency to access a range of Commonwealth payments and services rather than a number of different departments. But that is not what is going to happen now.

The one-stop shop that this government is setting up is one that is very different to the one that was envisaged by Labor. These bills are a cover for the slashing of Commonwealth services, in particular the gutting of comprehensive services of the Commonwealth Employment Service. It is part of the government's agenda to sell off vital job services to private sector providers for profit and send us back to the era of fee charging employment agencies.

Under this legislation, the new agency will provide only very basic registration, assessment, referral and self-help services to job seekers. Other essential employment assistance previously universally or freely available from the CES will not be provided by the new agency. Instead, it will be limited to particular classes of job seekers.

We also have grave concerns about what exactly the agency will do in the future. The government says that the agency will deliver social security payments and services, Austudy and child-care assistance. But the definition of `Commonwealth service' does not limit the agency to the delivery of cash transfers. The agency could, for example, become the payment agency for Medicare or the regulating body for the aged care sector. We have formulated amendments to address these concerns by limiting the nature of the service arrangements which the agency might enter into.

Other concerns we raised in our minority report went to the issue of specialist knowledge held by staff. We are very concerned that Labor's initiatives when in government to develop specialist service centres—for example, for families and older Australians—may be jeopardised by the creation of a single service delivery agency.

At the same time, we fear the quality of services in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia may be compromised. While Senator Newman has claimed that `the agency will improve the services to rural and remote Australia', we know the reality is that the CES offices all over regional Australia are being shut down, along with the slashing of funding for regional employment programs. At the same time, regional unemployment figures are skyrocketing.

There is nothing in this bill that gives assurances or guarantees that services to regional Australia will not be compromised—let alone improved. Senator Newman's only assurances are that:

In regions where there are currently no social security offices, the Agency may—

`may', not `will'—

take over some offices that are part of the Commonwealth Employment Service Network.

This is not only about the withdrawal of services from regional Australia but also about the loss of job opportunities.

The quality of service delivery for working families will be jeopardised. The decision to pay child-care assistance directly to families, rather than to child-care centres as it has been, is supposed to empower parents with more choice in the type of child care and which centre they use. While the issuing of child-care payments through the agency is, in itself, a seemingly logical and sensible proposal, the government's proposal is part of a package of savage cuts to child care: abolishing operational subsidies for community based child care; placing a 50-hour cap on the hours per week for which parents can claim child-care assistance; means testing the child-care cash rebate; abolishing the additional income allowed for additional dependent children; and freezing all child-care payments for two years. Paying child-care assistance directly to families through the agency, rather than directly to child-care centres, jeopardises the high quality and standard of child care that families have come to expect in this country.

It is also important to point out that this bill allows the agency to employ staff outside the Public Service Act on terms and conditions set by the board. The critical issue here was pointed out by the CPSU and highlighted in our minority report: we could have people within the agency under different categories of employment performing the same levels of work for different pay and condition outcomes.

We certainly do not buy the arguments that have been put forward by the Department of Social Security, during the committee hearings and through their submission, that the present Public Service Act in any way hinders their capacity to employ temporary staff to deal with peak period workloads. The department already has to deal with peak workloads, and the agency should be able to do so under the same terms and conditions. We will be moving amendments to omit the provision relating to the authority of the agency to employ staff outside the provisions of the Public Service Act.

Let me close, in this all too brief contribution, by making two critical points. Firstly, Labor shares, I hope with the coalition, concern that people using the social security system and other Commonwealth services be treated with the respect and the dignity that they deserve. The government claims that the agency will provide a better service for all Australians, and I sincerely hope that it does. Let me assure you, and let me assure the minister, that we will be watching these developments very closely.

Secondly, we on this side of the chamber know that there is a vast gulf between the government's rhetoric and the reality of government policies. We saw it in the last budget; I have no doubt that we will see it in the next budget. The creation of the agency should not be about downgrading the Commonwealth services that you have an obligation to provide, and if you, the government, use it to this purpose, then the Australian people will hold you accountable.