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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5283

Senator O'BRIEN (2:34 PM) —My question is to Senator Vanstone, the Minister for Family and Community Services. Is the minister aware of the promise made on 19 September this year by the Minister for Agriculture that interim exceptional circumstances welfare assistance would be—and I quote him—`immediately available' to farmers in Bourke and Brewarrina? If so, did the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Truss, discuss this promise with the minister before he made it? Can the minister advise why there was a delay between Mr Truss's promise of immediate assistance on 19 September this year and the availability of the necessary Centrelink application form on 10 October this year? How many farmers have now received Mr Truss's promised payments?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Senator, I thank you for the question. I have had no discussions with Mr Truss about this matter, but it may be that people from his department have had negotiations, either with officers of my department or, more likely, directly with Centrelink, to contract them to deliver a service. As you know, Centrelink is the magnificent government services delivery agency created by this government and it will deliver services on behalf of a wide range of departments, including this one. I have not personally had a discussion with Minister Truss about it, but I do not rule out there having been other relevant discussions in relation to this. You say that Mr Truss said the payments would be immediately available; I will take the opportunity to look at the press release. I am not disputing what you say, Senator; I simply want to confirm that he did not say they would be immediately available from a certain date. I will make inquiries with Centrelink about the availability of the forms, which you advise me were not available when they should have been available.

I will also get from Centrelink such information as I can, and as quickly as I can, on the number of people who have been able to access this assistance. I am reluctant to apportion any blame in advance because Centrelink, like any organisation or any person, do make mistakes, but you do give me the opportunity to put on the record that, given the number of people they service— about 6½ million—and given the number of different benefits that they deliver and the number of agencies—some 20, I understand—on whose behalf they deliver those benefits, Centrelink do a tremendous job. We have very few complaints from Liberal, Labor or Democrat senators or members about the way Centrelink undertake their work. They treat people who need assistance as customers who are to be respected and assisted at every possible turn. That is, I think, a dramatic improvement on the service that people in need of assistance used to receive. I do not rule out that they have made a mistake; I hope they have not. I do not hope it is in another department either, but I certainly hope it is not in Centrelink. If it is, it will be a rare occurrence and I am sure they will have attended to any problem as quickly as they could—as I will get you an answer as quickly as I can.

Senator O'BRIEN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I note the minister's praise of Centrelink and I wonder whether the minister was aware that Minister Truss has blamed Centrelink for the government's failure to deliver immediate assistance to drought-stricken farmers from 19 September, as promised by Mr Truss. I advise the minister that Mr Truss's promise was made twice in the Hansard on 19 September and on 25 September—

Senator Knowles —The parliament, not the Hansard.

Senator O'BRIEN —He made it in the parliament; it is recorded in Hansard—you are right. If it is correct that it is the fault of Centrelink, do you, Minister, accept responsibility for the bungle?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Senator, I thank you for the question. I have just been handed an answer from my colleague on income support delays. I do not think I will have time to give it in the one minute available to me, but I will give it to you straight after question time and perhaps I will incorporate it when I have had a chance to have a look at it. If Mr Truss has been critical of Centrelink and Centrelink have made a mistake, then Centrelink would not be concerned about that criticism because, if they have made a mistake, they expect to be criticised. It is an organisation that works on the basis that it must always try to do better; it is an organisation that in fact welcomes criticism to try and do better next time. It is quite an unusual organisation in terms of government service delivery. It does a tremendous job, and it welcomes any criticism because that gives it the opportunity to get better. If Mr Truss has inappropriately criticised Centrelink, I will have a quiet word with him.