Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 78

Senator REYNOLDS (11:01 AM) —Madam Deputy President, I want to speak about issues that were, in one way or another, highlighted or mentioned in the Governor-General's speech yesterday. I want to speak about job opportunities, particularly job opportunities in the public sector. I want to focus on the massive cutbacks in public sector jobs in this country over the last 2½ years. I want to speak on the goods and services tax. I want to speak on Telstra and its community service provision. I want to speak on health, particularly women's reproductive rights and their health services. I want to speak on the environment, and I want to speak on reconciliation.

Many of us would have assumed that the massive cutbacks in public sector jobs over the last 2½ years would have seen the end of the government's slash and burn approach to the public sector. But, no, just this week, on top of the 90,000 Public Service jobs that have already disappeared, 5,000 more jobs at Centrelink are to go. This is going to mean more hardship for those seeking information and entitlements through Centrelink and more hardship for those who are being retrenched.

Today's announcement of 5,000 jobs lost at Centrelink will mean less service, fewer jobs and more hardship. The government has said that between July 1997 and 2002 at least 5,000 jobs will be cut. That is about 20 per cent of Centrelink's total staff. Twenty-one hundred jobs have already been cut this year, with the total for the financial year expected to be 2,700. The government's estimates for the next three to four years is for 2,300 further jobs to be cut.

Notwithstanding the commitment given in the Governor-General's speech yesterday, I ask: how many regional offices will be affected? How will people who have been trying to get through the telephone services get through? At the height of the youth allowance debacle, of the million calls attempted on a single day, only 90,000 got through; 900,000 got an engaged signal. What is going to happen with this further reduction in staff? Looking at Queensland, I note that in 1998-99 there will be a reduction of 40 jobs from North Queensland and 80 jobs from Brisbane. The total reduction required in the next two years will be 105 jobs from North Queensland and 180 jobs from Brisbane. That is in addition to the previous numbers that I quoted.

I can only agree with the Canberra Times editorial of today entitled `Centrelink plan is hard to justify'. The editorial states:

The news that up to 5000 jobs (800 of them in the ACT) will be cut from the Commonwealth service delivery agency Centrelink over the next three years should concern every one of the six million Australians who are in receipt of some kind of government assistance.

I would add `entitlement'. It continues:

How ironic that the announcement of the planned cuts should come in the same week as the Commonwealth Ombudsman tabled his annual report, in which he listed Centrelink as far and away the most complained-about government agency in the country.

The second issue I would like to raise is that of the concern that we on this side of the chamber have about the impact of the goods and services tax as proposed in the Governor-General's speech and which was the focus of the recent election campaign. The St Vincent de Paul Society agrees with the concerns that have been addressed by so many on this side of the house. A press release by Mr John Moore—not the government's John Moore but the National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society—states:

"Where is the compassion and concern for the welfare of low income earners in this country?" . . . "Not only has the promised six month consultation period on the impact of a GST been replaced by a 17 day examination of existing papers but the committee has a limited agenda".

The Society of St Vincent de Paul does not oppose a GST or a value added tax system because that decision is properly one for elected politicians. "But it is simply unjust and un-Australian if a new regime is introduced which leads to a deterioration in the well being of the 30% of Australians who are on low incomes".

I seek leave to table the letter that was written to all parliamentarians by St Vincent de Paul which details their concerns for the people they provide assistance to: 35 per cent of whom are single parent families; 20 per cent of whom are families with children; 40 per cent of whom are unemployed, including migrants, refugees, people with disabilities, young and old; and five per cent of whom are age pensioners. I understand from a discussion with the whips that this has been approved.

Leave granted.

Senator REYNOLDS —The third area of concern I want to raise in this speech today is the community service provision that has been guaranteed by Senator Alston in relation to the further sale of Telstra. Just last week we had a classic example of how neither the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts nor this government—no-one in this place—can guarantee community service provision by Telstra. Telstra has gone ahead to cut back the number of service centres which provide 000 services. The 000 service is the most important service that Telstra provides.

Instead of having a service centre based in all capital cities, we will have just two—one in Sydney and one in Melbourne—and, surprise, surprise, a backup service in Hobart, which I am sure Tasmanians will welcome. But I am not convinced that the people of north Queensland, the people of Darwin, the people of Broome, the people of Western Australia and the people of Alice Springs will be particularly impressed with the fact that, for whatever reasons, Telstra has decided to give a backup service to Hobart but is not prepared to give backup services in northern and other more remote areas of Australia.

I asked a Telstra employee why this was the case and I was told, `Hobart is more vulnerable; Tasmania is more vulnerable.' `Vulnerable from what?' I asked. `Vulnerable geographically because it is an island.' Hobart is closer to Melbourne than north Queensland and Hobart is closer to Melbourne than Western Australia, yet the backup service is being provided in Hobart and not in other centres.

I have a special concern because of the approaching cyclone season in north Queensland. I have asked a number of questions of Telstra about the cost of the existing service and the cost of the new service. What are the savings? How many people will be employed in the new service and how many in the old? What will be the staffing cutbacks? Will Telstra guarantee appropriate numbers of staff to ensure there is no occasion when there are services that are not adequately staffed? Has Telstra calculated the numbers of staff required for an average time and during a national disaster—again, with my special focus on what will happen to 000 services at the time of a cyclone—and how was this differential calculated? What special provisions will be made to accommodate 000 calls from north Queensland during the cyclone season? Why does Hobart need a backup facility? Will Telstra be conducting education awareness campaigns throughout regional Australia? How will Telstra staff be able to recognise the extent of geographic locations throughout Australia?

I am sure that Telstra staff are extremely competent and that they have a certain amount of training but to recognise in an emergency situation the immediate location of any centre anywhere in Australia is a very tall order indeed. I would like to have some answers on those questions from Telstra.

The fourth area that I wanted to speak on today is health because the government does refer to health services in the Governor-General's speech but it does not refer to health services in relation to women's particular needs. In the election campaign we had an excellent example of how this government is not prepared to identify the special needs of women. We had the approval, proudly announced, of the drug Viagra. I am not going to argue about whether or not Viagra should have been approved. It seemed a perfectly natural thing that that particular drug would be approved for men.

Let me detail the reproductive drugs that are still awaiting approval through the Therapeutic Goods Administration of the Department of Health and Aged Care. There has not been speedy passage of these reproductive health drugs for which Australian women have particular need. They include new fourth generation contraceptive pills; the vaginal ring laced with progesterone which acts like a diaphragm; the Norplant implant, which is effective for three to five years; injectable contraceptives, other than Depo-Provera; new, safer IUDs; the contraceptive sponge and female condoms; the purpose packed emergency kits of the morning-after pill; and RU486. As we know from previous debates in this chamber, we had to have special legislation and special approval by the minister for RU486. There is a double standard in relation to how this government is considering reproductive sexual health for men and women. Viagra has been approved for men—and that is fine—but all these drugs are still waiting for approval by the Therapeu tic Goods Administration. These drugs do not have the ministerial fast-tracking process because they are only reproductive drugs for women—that must be the government's view.

The next issue that I wanted to raise is my concern about how this government is treating the environment. Yesterday we heard that the government gives a high priority to the environment. Why is it then that on Monday top marine scientists called on world heritage authorities to send a field mission to the Great Barrier Reef to help avert the `slow death' of a priceless ecosystem? Their confidential letter to the World Heritage Bureau in Paris is highly critical of the Commonwealth and Queensland governments and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and is asking for urgent action.

Finally, I want to speak very briefly on reconciliation. I would like to put on the public record that David Buckingham, Executive Director of the Business Council of Australia, has a much more appropriate and progressive view to reconciliation than does this government. In a recent speech he gave on 25 October at a meeting of community leaders, he said it was vital to understand what reconciliation was about, that it was not just a matter of granting Aborigines full citizenship rights such as adequate health services. That is taken for granted because as citizens they are entitled to those services. Ultimately, he said that reconciliation was about indigenous rights, issues of indigenous law and custom, that reconciliation involved a willingness to seek understanding of what obligations might be associated with such law and customs and might eventually lead to having to consider the possibilities of sovereignty and, in the final analysis, indigenous self-government. He said that for some the real issue will be whether there is scope for a nation within a nation.

As I have said on a number of other occasions, I urge this government to send Senator Herron and a team of representatives of indigenous Australians to Canada where sovereignty, indigenous rights, indigenous law and custom and the question of nationhood of the first peoples are taken for granted; they are incorporated into Canadian law and practice. That is the basis of what true reconciliation should be about into the new century.