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Tuesday, 7 May 1985
Page: 1453

Senator MESSNER(5.57) —I move:

Page 3, after clause 4, insert the following clause:

'4A. (1) In this section, ''agreement'' means an agreement or a further agreement of the kind referred to in section 4 between the Commonwealth and any State or States entered into after the commencement of this Act.

'(2) An agreement shall be such that guidelines of the kind referred to in sub-clause 8 (2) of the form of agreement contained in the Schedule shall be required under the agreement.

'(3) Section 48 (except paragraphs (1) (a) and (b) and sub-section (2)) and section 49 of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 apply to guidelines approved under an agreement as if the references in those sections to regulations were references to guidelines and the references to the making of regulations were references to the approval of guidelines.'.

I thank the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) for his comments at the end of the second reading debate because I think he put into context some of the real concerns that exist in the community and highlighted some of the deficiencies of his approach. The very point he made right at the outset that the program was evolutionary highlights the particular concerns out in the community and amongst those organisations providing the variety of services that are covered under the principle of the legislation. As I indicated during the second reading debate, the Opposition supports the objective of setting up various rationalised programs, if that is the correct word, under one general heading such as this represents in order to achieve far better services-I think Senator Haines referred to it as 'levels of care available to those in the community'-rather than talking about costs and community commitment in terms of taxpayers' money in this regard. I believe that that is a very significant issue in the outcome that will result from the introduction of these programs. The point has been made consistently that there is a need for flexibility not only between the States but also within the States as to which way the various sub-programs will be administered. Those are important issues which we believe should be taken into account by all care givers and those who will be providing services under the various sub-programs.

During the second reading debate some concern was expressed about the 67 so-called traditional agencies which may be excluded from funding as a result of the legislation, or as a result of agreement by the States. Without going into that matter too deeply, I acknowledge that it is not only what might be termed traditional care givers who have been involved in the provision of services for the homeless over a long period, but also individual sub-programs within those overall organisational programs which may be the subject of change as a result of the new sub-program guidelines that may be introduced.

The Minister, in the course of his remarks, referred to the national guidelines and those which were established by agreement with the States and which set out the general framework of the administration of the programs as a whole. He made the point that they were brought to account before 1 January this year at the commencement of the program. I had not seen a copy of those guidelines until the Minister presented them to us halfway through the second reading debate the other night. I believe that it would have been useful for them to have been provided at an earlier time, especially during the Senate Estimates Committee inquiry into this matter. Nevertheless, it is not so much the guidelines that are at issue. What I drew attention to during the second reading debate-it is quite clear from the remarks that I made at that time-is that the issues that will be exposed as a result of the introduction of the sub-program guidelines are of real concern to the community. It is those which will form the basis of the agreements between the States and the Commonwealth. When the Minister says that the Commonwealth will not have control over those guidelines I believe credibility leaves him. It is certainly not within the ambit of the legislation that that be so. Let me quote to him the Schedule to the Bill which sets out the agreements with the States. Clause 8 (2) of Part IV reads as follows:

A program shall be administered in accordance with guidelines from time to time jointly approved by the Commonwealth Minister and the State Ministers and published in the Commonwealth Gazette.

Firstly, the guidelines have to be agreed between the Ministers. Certainly I understood the Minister to say in the Estimates Committee hearing on this matter that he had a very real role and that there would be some final acknowledgment of his determination and his ideas on the distribution of funds and the guidelines under which that would happen. I am surprised now to hear from him that that is apparently not so and that the decisions will be in the hands of the States entirely. Secondly, the wording of the Schedule says that the guidelines that apply from time to time are relevant. That being so, it indicates that there must be capacity for change. Indeed, change may be contemplated. In the light of the Minister's more general remark that it is an evolutionary program it seems that that is so.

The point needs to be made that there is considerable room for movement over which there is concern on the part of the individual non-government organisations that are involved in and concerned about this matter. There is room for change to the programs. Individual operators may find themselves disadvantaged or inequitably treated by the State governments, or perhaps by the Federal Government by acquiescence to State government demands in certain circumstances. That surely applies across the whole range of services that this Bill will authorise. It is a very real concern to the many people in the community who selflessly give their time and energy, many for little or no remuneration, as has been pointed out in the debate by Senator Zakharov. As a result we can expect real concern about the direction of those services.

I pointed out during the second reading debate that I believe that with such a fundamental change to the program as has been evidenced in this legislation the Government should handle the issue like eggs and endeavour as much as possible to make sure that all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed. Consultation must occur in such a way that people understand fully what has been going on. The Minister acknowledged that to some degree by saying how difficult a job it was. I agree with him; I believe it must have been. But there were some deficiencies in the ways in which the guidelines were established and sold to various community organisations. The Minister's proposition that it is necessary to have the passage of this legislation in order to authorise agreement with the States heightens my personal concern and moves me with even more conviction to the amendment that I have now moved. It sets down the need for the Government to provide for the guidelines under which the sub-programs are to be drawn up to be tabled in the Parliament and made subject to disallowance under section 48 of the Acts Interpretation Act. Those guidelines, I believe, are vital to an understanding of the way in which the Government will determine priorities and how funds are to be distributed amongst the various operators in the non-government sphere, other operators, perhaps from local government, or in other directions.

My attention has been drawn to a problem in the understanding of some groups within the community. It seems that some groups representing homeless youth and women's groups within Victoria have been misinformed as to the effect of the amendment which I am proposing. In fact, it has been reported to me that people in Victoria who are concerned with this matter have suggested that my amendment will stop funding and any progress with the program and that the Opposition is opposed to the legislation. I make it clear that that is not so. We support the general objectives. By moving this amendment and with its carriage by the Senate and, it is hoped, by the House of Representatives we are merely trying to ensure the means by which non-government organisations can make their presence felt in negotiating with the Government and discussing their funding entitlements. They will be able in flexible situations, if they see it as necessary in individual cases, to make their presence felt through the parliamentary process.

The Schedule to the Bill, as I pointed out earlier, envisages the possibility of change from time to time in those guidelines. Those changes could occur rapidly, and could be in duration for short periods or longer periods. Who knows? That is in the hands of the Government. All we are doing by moving this amendment is trying to ensure that the people in the community who are affected will have an opportunity to express their views clearly and to get the Parliament to act on their behalf, if need be, through approaching the Parliament and asking that the guidelines be disallowed.

The sub-programs basically cover the needs of the community as far as we can establish from the sketchy information that is available at the moment. We on this side of the chamber acknowledge the very real concern of the women's movement in relation to the funding arrangements that the Government has entered into. We are concerned ourselves that those organisations which are providing appropriate services in this area should continue to receive funding and to provide those services adequately. We do not seek in any way to undermine their capacity to do so. What we seek is proper accountability of the States and the Commonwealth Government itself in administering these various arrangements. Surely it is not too much to ask that the guidelines by which these programs are administered and which are, as the Minister acknowledged, capable of change, be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and made the subject of disallowance if need be.