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Monday, 26 February 2007
Page: 79


Senator SCULLION (Minister for Community Services) (5:10 PM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

ACIS ADMINISTRATION AMENDMENT (UNEARNED CREDIT LIABILITY) BILL 2007

The Australian automotive industry is recognised worldwide for its innovation, its quality standards and its expertise in design and engineering. The Government provides significant support to the industry through the Automotive Competitiveness and Investment Scheme (ACIS). ACIS is a transitional assistance scheme which encourages the industry to become internationally competitive through investing in its own future at a time of phased tariff reductions. Through these arrangements, the Government has provided the automotive industry with a “Decade of Certainty”.

The participants in ACIS number about 250 and they include the four motor vehicle producers, automotive component producers, automotive toolmakers and automotive service providers. ACIS delivers assistance to participants through the issuing of duty credits and it will provide over $4 billion in assistance during the period from 2006 to 2015.

Assistance is provided up front - that is, duty credits are issued on receipt of a quarterly claim by a registered ACIS participant. A subsequent audit process ensures that claims are legitimate and that they relate to eligible expenditure. If items of ineligible expenditure or other errors are identified an Unearned Credit Liability (UCL) is issued to the participant and this is offset against their future ACIS credits.

A recent decision of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal has important implications for the Commonwealth’s ability to issue UCLs under the ACIS Act, other than in very limited circumstances. That decision has raised the prospect that claims of participants may have to be fully assessed as to their eligibility prior to any credits being issued. It would be unacceptable from a financial management perspective for the Commonwealth to be issuing credits unless it is certain that it has the ability to recoup any credits issued to which a participant is subsequently found not to be entitled.

The up front assessment of all claims would result in lengthy delays in the issuing of duty credits - delays which could impose significant financial hardship on members of the automotive industry. The industry has long accepted that the approach of issuing credits up front then issuing UCLs should ineligible expenditure be identified, is the best way for them to receive credits in a timely manner and the Commonwealth is keen to ensure that approach can continue.

This Bill will confirm the Commonwealth’s ability to issue UCLs. It will ensure that the industry can continue to receive credits as soon as practicable after they submit their quarterly returns and it will ensure that the ACIS scheme can continue to be administered in the manner agreed by all parties when it was established.

In summary, the amendments I am introducing today are designed solely to restore to the Commonwealth the power to administer the ACIS scheme in a manner that best meets the needs of the Australian automotive industry.


AGED CARE AMENDMENT (SECURITY AND PROTECTION) BILL 2007

On 27 July 2006 Minister Santoro announced a $90.2 million package of reforms aimed at further safeguarding older people in Australian Government subsidised aged care from sexual and serious physical assault.

Minister Santoro foreshadowed at that time that the reforms would include the creation of a new Aged Care Commissioner, new complaints investigation procedures, a regime of compulsory reporting of certain types of assault, and legislative protections for whistleblowers.

I am very pleased today to be introducing a Bill which amends the Aged Care Act 7997 to achieve these ends.

Before I describe the reforms in detail, it is appropriate to first like to thank the older Australians and their families, together with approved providers, who have provided Minister Santoro with invaluable advice over the past year, and who have been instrumental in the development of these reforms.

Since announcing the proposed reforms, Minister Santoro has listened closely to numerous older Australians and their families. He has met with as many people involved in the aged care sector as possible - nurses, managers, care workers, residents, their families and, most importantly, some of the victims of abuse. He has also received and responded to many emails from the public, and held face-to-face meetings with a wide range of people.

These communications have been critical to the Minister's understanding of the needs of the sector, and to how best implement appropriate reforms, including through the Bill which

have the pleasure of introducing into the Parliament today.

Minister Santoro has also worked very closely with the sector to ensure the nature and degree of regulation is reasonable. At this point it is appropriate to acknowledge the contribution by members of the Aged Care Advisory Committee, especially the peak aged care bodies for their cooperation and assistance in the development of this legislation. All have worked closely with Government to ensure that this legislation strikes a good balance between the needs of both residents and industry.

As the Minister has said on many occasions, the vast majority of aged care providers give excellent care, and most aged care workers regard their duty of care to our vulnerable, frail and older Australians as sacrosanct.

But the Government must have the capacity to deal with those rare but distressing incidents of alleged sexual and physical abuse in residential aged care that came to light earlier last year. Like the Minister and all caring Australians, I was shocked by these incidents.

As a new Minister, Minister Santoro acted as quickly as possible to improve the system and make it more effective in combating physical and sexual abuse.

Today, the Government honours the Minister's commitment to older Australians and their families by introducing legislation which achieves three main purposes:

  • it establishes a scheme for compulsory reporting of abuse;
  • it includes protection for people who make disclosures about abuse; and
  • it establishes a new and independent Aged Care Commissioner. This is one component of several very broad reforms that enhance the Department's capacity to respond to complaints about aged care services.

Each of these initiatives is proposed to take effect from 1 April 2007. I would like to take a little more time to describe these reforms in more detail.

Compulsory reporting

First, the scheme for compulsory reporting of abuse.

When the issue of physical and sexual abuse became a public issue last year, the major stakeholders within the aged care sector, namely the residents and their families, urged the introduction of a formal system of compulsory reporting as an obvious response to the issue.

Minister Santoro listened very carefully and consulted widely, and today the Bill that I am introducing establishes a requirement for approved providers to report allegations or suspicions of unlawful sexual contact, or unreasonable use of force, on a resident in a residential aged care service.

The report must be made to both the police and to the Department of Health and Ageing. It must also be made as soon as possible, and not later than 24 hours after, the allegation or suspicion comes to the attention of the approved provider.

While it was the Minister's original intention that all allegations of abuse be reported, the Minister for Ageing, Senator the Hon Santo Santoro received strong representations from the sector in relation to the very sensitive issue of assaults carried out by residents suffering from dementia or other forms of mental impairment. In these limited circumstances, the Government is therefore proposing that there be a discretion not to report.

In such a case, the focus should be on ensuring that there is in place an appropriate behaviour management plan to ensure both the safety of that resident and their fellow residents.

While the discretion not to report to police and the Department will exist in these very limited circumstances, it is important to note that this is no way obviates the need for all approved providers to, at all times, provide a safe and secure environment for residents and to take appropriate action if critical incidents occur.

Under the changes, approved providers will also be required to ensure that there are internal processes in place for the reporting, by staff, of all incidents involving alleged sexual or serious physical assault.

Staff members will be able to report to the approved provider or the approved provider's key personnel or other authorised people. The Bill also enables staff members to report directly to the police or the Department. This may occur where, for example, a staff member does not feel comfortable reporting alleged incidents to the home.

Failure to have the necessary systems and protocols in place, and failure to report incidents, will indicate regulatory non-compliance, leading to the possible imposition of sanctions.

Protection for those who report

The Bill underpins these new compulsory reporting arrangements with protection for people who report abuse.

It is obvious to me that people will be more likely to report incidents of assault where they do not fear reprisal from their employer, or indeed other staff. Protections will therefore be introduced as part of the compulsory reporting requirements.

Approved providers will be required to have policies and procedures in place to ensure that the identity of staff who report is protected and that they are not unfairly treated as a result of making a report.

The legislation expressly provides that staff members who make disclosures about assaults, must have their identities protected and must not be victimised. The legislation also protects disclosers from civil and criminal liability in relation to the disclosure and, amongst other things, enables a Court to order that an employee be reinstated or paid compensation if their employment is terminated because of the fact that they made a protected disclosure.

Aged Care Commissioner

The third main purpose of the Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007 is to establish a new and independent Aged Care Commissioner, replacing the existing Commissioner for Complaints.

In his consultations with residents, their families, approved providers, aged care staff, and the previous Commissioner, Mr Rob Knowles, it became clear to Minister Santoro that the existing scope for investigation and action by the Commissioner for Complaints is too limited.

The Minister is therefore implementing broad reforms not only in relation to the role of the Commissioner, but also to the whole way that complaints are handled.

For example, a new Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance will be established within the Department of Health and Ageing, that is responsible for investigating any information about possible non-compliance by approved providers.

The new Office will have the power to investigate all complaints and information, have nationally structured intake and prioritisation of all contacts by high-level, specifically-trained staff and have the power to determine whether a breach of the approved provider's responsibilities has occurred. Where a breach is identified, the Office will have the power to require the approved provider to take appropriate action to remedy the breach.

Importantly, the Office will have the capacity to issue Notices of Required Action to providers who have breached their responsibilities, and take compliance action where the provider fails to remedy the issue.

The Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance will have greater capacity to take action than the Complaints Resolution Scheme it is replacing. The experience of the latter has provided the Government with much guidance in terms of these reforms.

The new Aged Care Commissioner will play a critical role in these new arrangements. The Commissioner will provide an independent mechanism to hear complaints about action taken by the new Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance in the investigation of complaints, and also about the conduct of the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency and its assessors.

The Aged Care Commissioner will also have greater capacity to undertake "own motion" reviews.

These reforms significantly enhance the Government's capacity, and that of providers, to deal with information and complaints about the quality of care and services, including abuse, in aged care services that are directly subsidised by the Federal Government.

They place the Government, providers, residents, families, advocates, indeed the entire community, in a much stronger position to respond to, and deal with, the issues and also to be proactive and effective in identifying areas of risk.

Implementation

As I noted in my introductory remarks, these reforms will, subject to the agreement of Parliament, take effect from 1 April 2007.

Prior to that time the Government will be developing comprehensive Principles which will be made under the Act, and which will provide extensive detail about each of the elements of the reforms.

The Department will also be issuing approved providers with information and guidelines on the new requirements.

It is imperative that we get these reforms right, and that we continue to listen closely to the views of all stakeholders. The time the Government has taken to develop the reform package, and to talk extensively with all concerned parties, has paid dividends. The Bill before us is well thought out, appropriate, and adapted to the challenges that face us.

It gives even greater confidence to the people of Australia about the already high-quality care that is provided in our aged care homes today.

I commend the Bill.


FAMILY LAW (DIVORCE FEES VALIDATION) BILL 2007

This Bill amends the Family Law Act 1975 to validate retrospectively the imposition of an unauthorised filing fee for divorce matters in Western Australia.

In July 2005, the filing fee in the Federal Magistrates Court for divorce applications under the Family Law Act was increased from $288 to $334. The fee in the Federal Magistrates Court for divorce applications applies to all divorce applications throughout Australia, except Western Australia. In 1976, under section 41 of the Family Law Act, Western Australia established the only State family court in Australia—the Family Court of Western Australia.

The filing fee for a divorce order in the Family Court of Western Australia is set by regulations made under the Family Law Act. Subregulation 11(1A) of the Family Law Regulations 1984 prescribes the filing fee for a divorce order in the Family Court of Western Australia, whereas the equivalent fee in the Federal Magistrates Court is set by the Federal Magistrates Regulations 2000. 

To ensure consistency in the treatment of applicants across Australia, the filing fee for a divorce order in the Family Court of Western Australia matches the equivalent Federal Magistrates Court fee. However, due to an oversight, when the filing fee for a divorce application in the Federal Magistrates Court was increased in July 2005, a corresponding amendment to subregulation 11(1A) of the Family Law Regulations to increase the fee in the Family Court of Western Australia was not made.

The Family Court of Western Australia assumed the necessary amendment to the Family Law Regulations had been made and mistakenly began to charge the increased fee. It raised the fee from $334 to $352 on 1 July 2006 when the Federal Magistrates Court fee was subject to a routine biennial increase.

Steps were taken to rectify the oversight as soon as it was realised. As of 9 October 2006, subregulation 11(1A) was amended to bring the divorce fee in Western Australia into line with the rest of Australia.

It has always been the Government’s intention to have a divorce fee which is consistent throughout Australia, and this was in fact the case from 1 July 2005 until 9 October 2006. During that period, the Family Court of Western Australia charged applicants the correct fees but did so without legal authority. The purpose of the present Bill is to validate the fees which were charged during that period.

This is a straightforward, technical amendment to correct an honest mistake, and one which will ensure equality of treatment for all Australians who paid this fee during the period in question.

I commend this Bill.


SUPERANNUATION LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (SIMPLIFICATION) BILL 2007

This Bill is a related Bill to the Tax Laws Amendment (Simplified Superannuation) Bill 2006.

The purpose of the Bill is to make consequential legislative amendments to implement the Government’s Simplified Superannuation reforms.

The reforms will sweep away the current raft of complex tax arrangements that apply to superannuation, improve incentives to save, increase retirement incomes and strengthen incentives for older Australians to stay in the workforce. At the centre of the reforms is making superannuation benefits tax free, if paid from a taxed superannuation fund to someone aged 60 and over.

The superannuation taxation law has also been rewritten from the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 into the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 as part of the reforms. The rewrite will streamline the law and provide a clearer picture of the taxation of superannuation savings. It will cut the number of superannuation related pages in the assessment Acts by over a third.

This Bill repeals the old superannuation taxation law, including reasonable benefit limits, and updates cross references to superannuation taxation law contained in other Acts.

Updating cross references to superannuation taxation law contained in other Acts will clarify policy intent in a number of areas going forward. This includes how superannuation will be treated in the event of bankruptcy, for child support purposes and social security purposes.  

Amendments in this Bill will also improve arrangements in respect to lost and unclaimed superannuation.

The Australian Government will now take full responsibility for the management of unclaimed superannuation, which means that in future, unclaimed superannuation money will not be paid to the states or territories. This is consistent with the arrangements for lost superannuation and will provide a single access point for individuals searching for lost or unclaimed superannuation and a simpler national claims process going forward. As a result, individuals will be able to seek advice directly from the ATO, instead of having to contact numerous government agencies.

This Bill also makes some minor additions to the Simplified Superannuation law to clarify policy intent and, in some cases, to address industry and community concerns raised.

These amendments include clarification of transitional arrangements for employers and individuals with substituted accounting periods and relaxed arrangements for people contributing amounts related to personal injury or small business capital gains tax concessions up until 30 June 2007.

As a package, the Simplified Superannuation Bills represent a substantial investment by the Government in the standard of living of Australians in retirement and the country’s future economic prosperity.

Full details of the measures in this Bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum.


INCOME TAX AMENDMENT BILL 2007

This Bill is a companion Bill to the Superannuation Legislation Amendment (Simplification) Bill 2007 and a related Bill to the Tax Laws Amendment (Simplified Superannuation) Bill 2006.

The purpose of the Bill is to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act 1986 necessary due to the Simplified Superannuation reforms.

Full details of this Bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum already presented.


INCOME TAX (FORMER COMPLYING SUPERANNUATION FUNDS) AMENDMENT BILL 2007

This Bill is a companion Bill to the Superannuation Legislation Amendment (Simplification) Bill 2007 and a related Bill to the Tax Laws Amendment (Simplified Superannuation) Bill 2006.

The purpose of the Bill is to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax (Former Complying Superannuation Funds) Act 1994 necessary due to the Simplified Superannuation reforms.

Full details of this Bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum already presented.


INCOME TAX (FORMER NON-RESIDENT SUPERANNUATION FUNDS) AMENDMENT BILL 2007

This Bill is a companion Bill to the Superannuation Legislation Amendment (Simplification) Bill 2007 and a related Bill to the Tax Laws Amendment (Simplified Superannuation) Bill 2006.

The purpose of the Bill is to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax (Former Non-resident Superannuation Funds) Act 1994 necessary due to the Simplified Superannuation reforms.

Full details of this Bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum already presented.


INCOME TAX RATES AMENDMENT (SUPERANNUATION) BILL 2007

This Bill is a companion Bill to the Superannuation Legislation Amendment (Simplification) Bill 2007 and a related Bill to the Tax Laws Amendment (Simplified Superannuation) Bill 2006.

The purpose of the Bill is to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Rates Act 1986 necessary due to the Simplified Superannuation reforms.

Full details of this Bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum already presented.

Ordered that further consideration of this bill be adjourned to the first day of the next period of sittings, in accordance with standing order 111.

Ordered that the ACIS Administration Amendment (Unearned Credit Liability) Bill 2007, the Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007 and the Family Law (Divorce Fees Validation) Bill 2007 be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.