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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1336

Senator MESSNER(9.48) —The Supported Accommodation Assistance Bill has the support of the Opposition, although at the Committee stage we shall be moving an amendment which would have the effect of bringing into the area of parliamentary disallowance or otherwise the guidelines which will be used by the Government in the course of its negotiations with the various States, and through, them with the voluntary and non-government organisations in determining the share of funding that they will receive under these various programs. I shall come to the reasons for that a little later. I start by setting down some of the history of this legislation.

The origin of this Bill lies in a review of existing emergency and crisis assistance for homeless men, women and youth initiated by the Hawke Government upon its election in March 1983. Previously the three programs being administered by the new SAAP program-the youth supported accommodation program, the women's emergency program and the general supported accommodation assistance program-had been administered on an ad hoc basis. They had grown over some years, each in its separate way, and with different arrangements via the States. In the past the main arm for Government assistance in the area has been grants made under the Homeless Persons Assistance Act 1974. Under this program the Commonwealth makes grants towards the capital and operating costs of non-profit voluntary welfare organisations and local government bodies which provide temporary accommodation, meals, welfare and services for homeless people.

In 1979, following a meeting of welfare Ministers, the Fraser Government initiated the youth services scheme. This program provided funding for emergency accommodation and related services for adolescents aged up to 18 years. Funding under the scheme supported youth refuges, family boarding services for adolescents, accommodation, referral and information services, detached youth workers and bond and loan schemes.

The third arm of government support in this field was the women's emergency services program which was established in July of 1983. This was designed to assist women's refuges, half-way houses and refuge referral services. The announcement last year of the new SAAP program resulted from a Government review of all those services, including an evaluation of a report on youth emergency accommodation services entitled 'One Step Forward-Youth homelessness and emergency accommodation services'. I believe that some of the thinking that emanated from that report may have stemmed initially from a previous report of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare, of which the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) was a member, which dealt with homeless youth. Last year the Minister, then Minister for Social Security, informed the Parliament that the review had found that there was no logical basis for those arrangements then pertaining whereby some programs were administered and funded by the Commonwealth and others administered and cost-shared by the various States. There is no overall planning and programs are unco-ordinated and unnecessarily complex.

The review recommended that a new Act provide funding to the States and Territories and embody a five-year Commonwealth-State agreement covering such matters as guidelines for the operation of programs, including protection for youth and women's refuges, funding arrangements, including a matching and guaranteed base level of funds from the Commonwealth, and the establishment of Commonwealth-State co-ordinating committees which would also include representatives of the relevant non-government organisations.

The Act as proposed by the review would incorporate three proposed new programs. These would be administered by the States and again the costs would be shared with them. These programs comprise a youth supported accommodation scheme, the women's emergency services program and a general crisis accommodation program. They would cover the whole range of crisis accommodation needs in the community. While new funding arrangements were to be hammered out with the States, that was an area of considerable concern as far as the States were concerned and it remains so as the States will be taking on an increased share of that burden.

In November last year the present Minister for Community Services, Senator Grimes-then Minister for Social Security-made a joint ministerial statement on behalf of himself, the then Minister for Housing and Construction and then Minister for Education and Youth Affairs. In that statement the Minister said:

The major objective of the Commonwealth's involvement in crisis accommodation programs is to provide a range of services to meet the needs of the homeless, and those facing other crisis accommodation situations such as eviction or domestic violence.

He went on to say:

Arrangements need to be logical and practical to assist non-government sector involvement, to ensure needs are met in a cost effective way, and to help the co-ordination of Commonwealth and State action.

The Opposition agrees totally with the general thrust and direction of that statement and with the thrust and direction of the supported accommodation assistance program. Nevertheless, we are concerned about a number of points.

First and foremost, I am not at all certain in my own mind-I look to the Minister for an explanation of this-why the legislation is being introduced before the full details of the operation of the program and the various sub-programs have been finalised. It is fairly clear from the questions that were asked of the Minister on this matter at Estimates committee hearings about a week ago that there are many unresolved matters involving the Commonwealth and the States. Many of those matters bear directly on the concerns of those in the welfare area who are providing services for people in this category. Indeed, even the Minister would acknowledge that there is widespread concern amongst service providers as to the future direction of the programs as a whole. The Bill authorises the payment of some $27.2m specifically for these three programs and it represents, as far as the Parliament is concerned, a blank cheque insofar as arrangements between the States and the Commonwealth in respect of the various grants to be made available to the non-government sector have not yet been completed.

In particular, too, we are concerned about the status of some 67 services which are funded under the present homeless persons assistance program and which were to be included in the new supported accommodation assistance program but which apparently have been excluded at this time. This surely demonstrates that point we are making-that the Parliament is being requested to authorise payment of some $27m without the details of those projects to be excluded having been finalised. I understand from the Minister's comments at the Estimates Committee hearings that the 67 projects were left off the list of suggestions which came forward from the States, although this remains subject to negotiation by the States and the Commonwealth. The Minister did provide the Estimates committee with a list of the various bodies and projects comprising those 67 organisations which at the moment are being weighed in the balance, if that is not to put too fine a point on it, in the determination of final funding. The Minister, to his credit, did say that there would be carry-on finance for these organisations pending final determination. The point I make is simply that that is not good enough in the circumstances such as we have where these organisations have no guarantee as to their longer range funding.

The organisations are listed and many of them have been involved in the support of homeless persons over a long period. They have vast experience in the field. I refer to organisations such as the Wesley Central Mission, the Salvation Army at St Peters in Sydney, the Salvation Army Foster House, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Matthew Talbot Hostel, the Sydney City Mission, Swanton Lodge Homeless Persons Hostel, Our Lady of the Sorrows and so on. A number of organisations are well established and well recognised in the community for their good works. As I say, they have enormous backgrounds and experience in dealing with the problems of homeless persons. Indeed, they perform a magnificent service to the community. It is to the credit of the Minister--

Senator Grimes —Are you worried that their funding is actually at risk?

Senator MESSNER —I will come to that point. To the Minister's credit, he displayed evident concern about this matter at the Estimates Committee meeting the other day and he made the point that their funding was not under threat in any way for the time being. I think I have him right.

Senator Grimes —They are not at risk. They are Commonwealth programs. The States do not want to accept them. I think I explained that.

Senator MESSNER —Yes, the Minister is continuing the funding under the old program for the time being, as I understand it. The point we are concerned about is that the Minister was unable to say to us what the situation would be when arrangements were finalised between the States and the Commonwealth. It is here that the doubt lies. Looking forward to what I understand to be the eventual subsumption of the present program into the new supported accommodation assistance program, we have the doubts and concerns about the operation of these traditional organisations to which I have referred. I hope that the Minister may be able to assist us with his view of this matter because it is not at all clear that there is any longer term commitment to the operation of these organisations beyond the point at which determination of the final agreement with the States will be concluded.

That brings me to the point as to why the Liberal-National Party Opposition is concerned to move the amendment that I will be moving during the Committee stage of the Bill. Its aim is to seek to have the Government table in the Parliament the guidelines by which the funding arrangements to non-government organisations will be made by agreement between the States and the Commonwealth, thereby making them subject to disallowance by the Parliament. I believe that to be a thoroughly proper way of attacking the problem and I will develop the argument about accountability and so on a little later.

Let me go on with some of our other concerns about the new program. The anxiety expressed by a number of other service providers, particularly the women's emergency area, that their funding may be totally subsumed or even lost in the large program, is one that comes through time and again in discussions with community organisations in the field and in delivering services in this area. Again, we sought assurance and information on these points during the hearing of Senate Estimates Committee B last week but the final points I reiterate which are of concern are that the national guidelines are agreed but not finalised and that the sub-program guidelines are obviously still to be finalised. The inclusion of these 67 services to which I have just referred, which are presently excluded from SAAP, will depend on those State guidelines being established and the outcome of joint reviews in each of the States.

The Minister spoke at some length in the Estimates Committee about these reviews but was unable to give us any final conclusions as to how those reviews will result in payments to various individual organisations or otherwise. I think he did go so far as to say that there may well be some organisations included while others are excluded. It is that very real concern that I voice on behalf of organisations generally receiving funding at the moment. They need some security in terms of the Minister's guarantee on this matter.

I must say that it does seem there has been a very considerable muddle in the handling of the Commonwealth Government's negotiations with the States and in dealing with various non-government organisations over the introduction of the new program. There certainly is confusion in the minds of the State governments and the organisations of which I have spoken as to what the Government's intention is and how it will achieve the objectives that it set down. In the most general of terms the objectives that it has stated, which are that it seeks to co-ordinate and obtain better administration of the various programs and bring about efficiency in this field and deliver better services to the community, are laudable aims which we, in the Opposition, support undoubtedly. But our concerns still remain following the Minister's answers in the Estimates Committee and his lack of commitment to funding arrangements beyond the finalisation of certain funding agreements still to be concluded.

I return to my original point I need to make about this series of programs: Why do we need this legislation now? As the Minister has stated, the guidelines have not yet been concluded by agreement with the States and there is not yet in place a final method by which the distribution of the funds to various non-government organisations will take place. The Bill seeks a blank cheque for $27.2m without any conclusive statements at all as to where the money will end up. Why is it that the Government needs the legislation now? In many ways the situation is similar to that of the new home and community care program which is still on the drawing board with the Government. Again, it is conducting negotiations with the States over the introduction of that program. That particular program had the support of the Opposition when it was originally announced in the Budget last year. But now we find a similar muddle in the negotiations with the States and the non-government organisations.

I must say that this is generating very considerable and widespread concern right across the community. In the case of HACC, there is an even deeper concern; that is, that people were misled as to the original arrangements about the funding and consequently feel let down by the Government's finally bringing to reality a program which is considerably shorter in terms of new money than people were originally led to believe. As with HACC, I believe there is very widespread concern about the supported accommodation assistance program. I will quote the legislative time-table for the home and community care program which was referred to in the Estimates Committee by Ms Scott, the Assistant Secretary of the Community Care Branch in the Department of Community Services. She said:

We propose to conclude agreements with the United States so that the program can be introduced from 1 July.

There will be a proposal for the introduction of legislation which would be expected to be passed during the Budget session.

At that point I intervened and said:

Is that different from the supported accommodation assistance program insofar as you need legislative approval ahead of expenditure for the next year?

Ms Scott said:

There is an appropriation item at the moment that permits expenditure under the home and community care program. That will be maintained until the legislation is in force.

The point I make here is that that pertains also to the question of the supported accommodation assistance program and, indeed, money is available under the various sub-programs as they exist at the moment, and that can continue. I cannot see what is the rush for this legislation.

I come now to the point about accountability. The Government, in this legislation, has left the Opposition with very little room to manoeuvre in the interests of service providers. I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that, with such a fundamentally changed program as this one represents, there will be a great deal of concern and confusion in the community. It really has to be handled like eggs in order to ensure that people properly understand the whole program.

We believe that, for that reason, there is a very effective case to be made in favour of providing for parliamentary scrutiny of this situation along the lines of the amendment I shall move later. Obviously, if we sought to delay the passage of this legislation, which is a blank cheque at this point, it is possible that the Government would argue, rightly or wrongly, justifiably or not, that the Opposition was holding back, restricting the development of the program and denying benefits to people who need them. We do not want to be seen in that light at all. Indeed, I make it quite clear that, as I understand it, money can already be made available under another head in the appropriation legislation. Short of taking that kind of drastic action, we are unable to control the situation from the point of view of how those organisations may be protected in particular cases.

Therefore, we will be moving to have the sub-program guidelines subjected to parliamentary scrutiny and disallowance if necessary. That is the point of the amendment I will be moving later. I think this is quite a reasonable thing to ask for in the circumstances, bearing in mind that community groups are very concerned about the new program and its developments and that this represents such a fundamental change of direction. Consequently, it really should be handled with the greatest of care. This new idea of parliamentary disallowance would be merely an audit check. It would act as a brake on any rush towards a sudden change of direction without the power actually being utilised in any way. It might be that the disallowance would never come to pass. The point is that it would act as a brake so that the Government would be able to think carefully about the distribution of funds and know that, if it decided to take action that was not in the best interests of the community, it could be prevented from doing so by appropriate action in the Parliament. Indeed, it is a question of restraint.

Accountability of that kind is present in many different pieces of legislation that have been passed by this Parliament over very many years. It has proved a very effective way of ensuring that the best interests of the community are served. I believe that this amendment, if carried, would take with it a certain audit, a certain accountability, that would be built into the legislation and would ensure that the guidelines of these new programs were drawn in such a fashion that all community interests were taken care of and expressed in terms which would lead to solid community support for the whole of the supported accommodation assistance program rather than for individual parts of it. Consequently, it would carry with it a great deal of credit, even for the Government at this time.

I suppose that only in the most extreme circumstances, if I am permitted to use that language, would such legislation be disallowed by this Parliament. It certainly would not be done in any sense of spite or in a recalcitrant way. Rather, it would be done in circumstances where there is proper consideration of the issues, in conjunction with discussions with the Government and other parties in the Parliament to ensure that the best interests of the community as a whole were served. It is not the intention of the Opposition to be obstructive in any way. Rather it is the Opposition's intention to help the Government to develop an appropriate piece of legislation which will have wide community support.

I conclude my remarks by merely reiterating that, in general, we support this legislation. We believe that its main aims, which are to better co-ordinate the programs that are currently being operated by the Government for the assistance of homeless persons, will be more effectively carried out on such a proper basis. We believe that that will prove to be so, notwithstanding what we see now as some very real difficulties as the Government moves into a transition phase for the institution of this new program. Clearly, it will have significant advantages in many areas, but I repeat that the widespread community concern about this new program should receive the deepest and most proper consideration by the Government. I hope that it will see the sense of our very modest but, generally, very commonsense amendment which we will be moving in the Committee stage to ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny of the eventual guidelines under which funds will be distributed.