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Tuesday, 7 May 1985
Page: 1442

Senator PETER BAUME(4.48) —I, like some of my colleagues, was drawn into this debate by representations which were made by certain women's groups and by conversations which I had with those groups which led me to conclude that at least some of their concerns had some substance. I wish to place those concerns before the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) for his consideration. As Senator Messner, who led the debate for the Opposition, said, we certainly are not opposing this legislation. We welcome an interest in the need for this kind of accommodation. But I support the amendment which Senator Messner foreshadowed, for reasons which I will set out a little later.

I have two concerns about the areas which have been mentioned. I do not intend to take up the time of the Senate in setting out again how great is the problem of homeless youth or of the need for refuges for women for emergency accommodation. But I will spend one moment on the question of youth homelessness and draw to the attention of the Senate the experience and work of organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul Society in the western suburbs of Sydney. I have had the occasion to work with Mr Theo van Gestel, who works at the Parramatta office of the St Vincent de Paul Society. You will know, Mr Acting Deputy President, that this Society is very active in the area of homelessness. The Matthew Talbot Hostel in Sydney, of course, is its most famous refuge. Out in the western suburbs at Merrylands near Parramatta it has a facility known as Sienna which, whenever I visit it, is always full. When I ask the people in the St Vincent de Paul Society how great is the unmet need in this part of the western suburbs of Sydney, the estimate that they give me is that on any night of the year probably 100 young people are sleeping rough under bridges or in the parks in that area of Sydney. Some of these people are very young and many have been thrown out by their families.

It is not my intention to try to give a comprehensive picture. However, I just want to say that the human misery is acute and very distressing. If this program can help those kinds of people we will support what is being done. If people like those in the St Vincent de Paul Society who are actually in there helping where need is the greatest can be assisted in what they are doing, I will be well pleased.

As I said, I have been approached by some members of the women's refuge movement who have asked me to consider some of their concerns. I want to place those concerns before the Minister. It seems to me that to some extent this legislation is a machinery of government measure. It seeks to rearrange certain programs. Government always has the right to introduce machinery measures. Such legislation represents the judgment of government as to what is the right way to go. I do not question the fact that Senator Grimes has decided that this kind of structure is the most appropriate and that it will confer the kind of benefits that he set out in his second reading speech. However, I ask the Minister to accept that whenever one makes a rearrangement like this, one has at least to consider the possibility that that new arrangement will have costs as well as benefits and that those costs may in fact leave some participants in the program worse off under the new arrangements than they were under the old arrangements. That is the problem that is being put to us by some of the groups.

It is true that the people concerned can argue about inadequate consultation and this problem was referred to by several previous speakers in the debate. I think the Minister, to do him justice, has acknowledged in certain letters that there was inadequate consultation at a certain stage. But that is water under the bridge at this point. I am asking whether it is possible that certain groups which are offering emergency accommodation for women are going to be worse off under the new arrangements than they were under the old. If that is not the intention of the Government, I ask that Senator Messner's proposed amendment be examined because this may be one way of reassuring some of these groups that in fact their interests would be looked after.

When the development of a women's refuge was proposed for the lower north shore of Sydney where I live, I was able to recruit and enlist my colleagues in the Rotary Club at St Leonards to lend professional support. There was no way in which we could build, pay for or financially sustain the new women's refuge. But we were able to provide all the legal and banking support and give real estate advice. By drawing upon the skills of our Rotary Club members we were able to play a very significant role in helping that refuge to get going. As a result we developed an interest in that facility in terms of what it was trying to do and some of the difficulties it faced. It became clear to us just how great are some of the difficulties under which refuges operate. One example is the need for secrecy in respect of the address and location of a refuge for reasons which honourable senators understand.

Some of the women's refuges are concerned that when they move from individual operations, from operating as single autonomous units, and become part of a system they will lose many things. The first thing they are concerned about losing is the confidentiality and secrecy of their addresses. They believe, for example, that a Senate Estimates committee could properly say: 'Give us the addresses of all the supported institutions'. That information would then be published in the Hansard and as a result that confidentiality would be lost. Some of the refuges have said to me that they regard that as a grave disability to their operation. One of the problems which they face continually is the threat of assault or forcible removal by husbands who are anxious to find where they are.

Senator Crowley in her contribution referred to some of the concerns and dissatisfaction which women's groups had expressed with the legislation. It was Senator Crowley's view that all the problems had been overcome. Maybe some of them have been overcome but I suggest to the Minister that quite recently some of the women's refuges expressed genuine concern. I accept that some of the concerns are about whether they are going to get more or less money; whether the formula is going to be as good; and if they are from a State which has low funding, such as Victoria which makes a fairly low contribution, whether under a matching funds formula they would be worse off than they would be if they were from another State such as New South Wales which has a fairly high contribution of funds.

But it is not all just a matter of cash. There are genuine concerns about autonomous operation, particularly in respect of some of the refuges which have operated as collectives and absolutely autonomous units and which believe that part of their success derives from that form of operation. Some of them find it very difficult to undertake interaction of the kind which they have had in the last few months even where that interaction has been with well intentioned Public Service officers who often talk a different language and look at the operation from a different point of view. Having said that, some of the refuges still have some significant funding concerns. Some of the refuges have expressed a concern to me that they may in fact be worse off under the new arrangements or become progressively worse off as time passes than they are under existing arrangements or than they have been in the past.

I just wanted to place those concerns before the Senate. I believe that the women to whom I spoke were very genuine in terms of the task they were trying to carry out. They were very concerned about the community they were trying to serve. They are very worried that the arrangements that have been developed with what they thought was inadequate consultation would leave them in a disadvantaged position.

As I understand the position, Senator Messner's proposed amendment will in no way lessen the capacity of the Minister or the Department to make decisions as to how the program should operate. It only asks that certain decisions be put before the Parliament where they can, if the Parliament so wishes, be disallowed. I take it that that is the purpose of the amendment. All the amendment proposes to do is to give us the capacity to say to the particular groups that feel that things are not right at present: 'As an earnest of the good faith of the Government, there is this disallowance power in existence and if anything does happen your matter could be brought back before the Parliament for review upon its merits'. I merely endorse the arguments which Senator Messner put in his opening contribution when he led for the Opposition. I add my comments which have resulted from representations which were made directly to me. I hope that the Minister will accept our amendment. Otherwise, I wish the legislation well.