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Tuesday, 7 May 1985
Page: 1457

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(6.19) —I cannot on behalf of the Government accept the amendment moved to the Supported Accommodation Assistance Bill. First of all I say that I believe Senator Messner misheard what I said concerning the sub-program guidelines in my reply to the second reading debate. I said that, where the States and service providers wish, sub-program guidelines may be developed to take into account special circumstances in those States. There may be differences from State to State. For historical reasons there may be differences in application procedures because of administrative procedures in a State, and there may be different Commonwealth-State committee mechanisms as well as all sorts of other reasons.

The State sub-program guidelines certainly must be consistent with the national guidelines. However, they cannot be finalised before the national guidelines are agreed to following the signing of the agreements which are to be authorised by the Bill. Any sub-program guidelines developed in a State must have the agreement of the relevant State Minister and the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is not excluded from the consideration of these State sub-program guidelines. I think that that is an important point to make. I also make the point that the State sub-program guidelines are not considered in clause 8 (2) of the Schedule to the Bill. I do not believe the amendment would require the sub-program guidelines to be tabled or disallowed in this Parliament, if that is one of Senator Messner's main concerns. I have said that we will certainly table the national guidelines. I cannot see any objection to tabling any State sub-program guidelines. My concern is the power of the Parliament to disallow.

The amendment seeks to provide the Parliament with the authority to scrutinise and then disallow those guidelines which are required under clause 8 (2) of the Schedule to the Bill, as Senator Messner's amendment points out. As I said, we will table the guidelines in the Parliament. What Senator Messner argues is that the amendment will be a sort of audit check, that it will act as a brake on the Government if it is decided to take action that is not in the best interests of the community. That, I think, is the gist of what Senator Haines was talking about, too. Senator Messner also said that it would be used only in the most extreme circumstances.

I think certain things have been overlooked by the Opposition in putting forward this amendment. Under this program the Commonwealth cannot introduce and cannot amend guidelines for the program without the agreement of all of the State and Territory Ministers. The guidelines are the result of an agreement between the States, the Northern Territory and the Commonwealth Government. Senator Messner's amendment will not necessarily act as a brake on the Commonwealth Government. It will give the Parliament the power to veto over the Commonwealth Government, acting in concert with the six State governments and the Northern Territory Government. We believe it is inappropriate that the Parliament should exercise or even seek a power of veto in this situation. We believe that the Commonwealth does not act in this way in any other similar situation.

Senator Messner argued that the amendment will act as a brake so that the Government will be able to think carefully about the distribution of funds. Senator Haines talked about her concern about budgetary cuts, et cetera. But the guidelines do not stipulate how the funds should be distributed. The Schedule to the Bill sets down the method for allocating Commonwealth funds to States. The distribution of funds to the services will be a matter for joint Commonwealth and State ministerial decision. The amendment will not achieve what it is said it will achieve in this area. Those funding and budgetary decisions and the decisions as to the distribution of the funds are decisions to be made by the State and Commonwealth governments.

Senator Messner made reference in his speech on the second reading of the Bill to the fact that accountability of the type proposed in this amendment is present in many different pieces of legislation. The Parliamentary Counsel has made a pretty detailed search of relevant Commonwealth-State agreements which are authorised by legislation. He has been unable to find a disallowance provision of this type, along the lines suggested by Senator Messner, where there was an instrument not created under the Act and, in particular, where there was a State government involved. The guidelines are established under the agreement; they are not established under the Bill. They have to be flexible and subject to change to keep pace with changes in the community. I think the amendment would have the effect of reducing this flexibility and making the process of approving and amending the guidelines cumbersome and potentially unworkable.

Should the guidelines be disallowed by parliament, the Commonwealth would then have to re-open negotiation with service providers and each of the State governments. The status of services approved under the disallowed guidelines would then be in doubt and then we would really have uncertainty. But an interesting situation would arise if the State parliaments adopted an approach similar to the one proposed by this amendment. The guidelines, having been allowed by the Commonwealth Parliament, would then be subject to disallowance by six State parliaments and the Northern Territory Parliament. So we would have a very interesting time in that regard. The potential for confusion caused by this sort of disallowance provision, which, I repeat, is not contained in any other form of legislation, would be quite extraordinary.

I can understand the concerns of people like Senator Haines and Senator Messner. This is a new program which is conducted under a Commonwealth-State agreement and Commonwealth-State guidelines. There are other programs like this one. I dare say there will be plenty of others in the future. I agree with the honourable senators that those guidelines should be made available. These were available publicly from January. In future, changes to those guidelines should be provided to members of this Parliament. In fact, I declare that I will put such changes before the Parliament. But there is a very real difference between allowing parliamentary discussion and allowing disallowance and the confusion that that disallowance might provide. These are agreements between the Commonwealth and State governments. The situation that Senator Haines was concerned about, whereby some ideological maniac in the Federal Government could come along and change those guidelines willy-nilly, does not exist. There must be agreement between the States and the Commonwealth. Added to that, there are many vigilant non-government organisations which will be keeping a hawk-like eye-if that is not an unfortunate phrase-on these agreements.

It is for all of those reasons that I think we should oppose this amendment. I make the final point, as I said before, that I do not think the amendment achieves exactly what Senator Messner thought it would achieve. The Parliamentary Counsel has some doubts about its legality, but I do not take very much notice of lawyers. I think that what Senator Messner was trying to introduce into this legislation is an unnecessary restriction and therefore I am afraid that I must oppose it.