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Thursday, 17 October 2002
Page: 5402

Senator FORSHAW (2:55 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Vanstone, the Minister for Family and Community Services. Minister, I refer to a meeting being convened by state and territory ministers for disability services in Canberra tomorrow— Friday, 18 October—to attempt to finalise funding for the new Commonwealth, state and territory agreement on disability services before the current agreement runs out in 14 days time. Can the minister confirm she has rejected the invitation of her state and territory colleagues to attend that meeting? Minister, if that is the case, when in the next 14 days do you plan to sit down with your state and territory colleagues to negotiate a solution to this funding crisis and return some certainty to the disability sector?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Senator Forshaw, you cannot understand how grateful I am for that question. There is a meeting of state and territory disability ministers in Canberra on Friday. The meeting was set by the state ministers without consulting the Commonwealth as to dates that might suit me to attend. On that day I had already made a commitment to launch an Indigenous project in my own state. I have not the slightest intention of breaking that commitment because the state ministers have chosen a time that suits them as opposed to anybody else. I do not see why the Indigenous community should be told that they do not count. I will tell you why in particular I am not going to cancel that. It is because I have consistently said to the state ministers that I am willing— in fact, keen—to meet with them as soon as they are prepared to outline their five-year funding commitments to disability.

The Commonwealth has already put its money on the table. We have outlined our five-year commitments. None of the states has outlined their five-year commitments to the disability sector—not one of them! So my position remains the same as it was at the end of June, and that is that I am very keen and willing to meet with the state ministers to finalise a new Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement. But that cannot happen until the states finally recognise that they must give the disability sector the same certainty that the Commonwealth is prepared to give them. So I am afraid, Senator Forshaw, you have been misled. Some whacker has told you that this meeting is to finalise the agreement, when I know and you know—or should know—that not one state or territory minister intends using the meeting on Friday to finalise the agreement at all. All they are doing is coming over to have another whinge at the Commonwealth and hoping that there is no-one in the gallery here smart enough to ask them, `What's your commitment for five years?' That is what I am expecting from the state and territory ministers.

We have always put our money on the table five years ahead. We have offered them an increase. They say, `It's not enough.' But we have also said they must give the disability sector the certainty that the Commonwealth gives. We have gone a bit further than that and said that we require transparency from the states. I will give you a couple of examples. New South Wales told one Commonwealth authority they had spent one amount of money and told another they had spent a different amount of money, and there was a $39 million difference. New South Wales—again—in the last financial year had not allocated moneys out to services after the end of the financial year. That is more than 12 months late. I could go on and on about the states but, in the spirit of cooperation, I will leave it at that.

Government senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senators on my right will come to order.

Senator FORSHAW —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for her answer. Minister, isn't it the case that you received letters from state and territory ministers for disability services not on one but on two occasions, dated 21 August and 12 September, indicating that they were prepared to travel to Canberra at any time to meet with you to sort out this issue? Isn't it the case that those requests have been made and you have yet to respond and indicate when you are prepared to meet with them?

Turning to the second part of my supplementary question: given that you have said you have made a generous offer to the states and have put an offer on the table, isn't it the case that Dr Ken Baker, head of ACROD, has estimated the cost of meeting unmet demand for disability services at $500 million—more than four times the amount that the government has offered? Minister, when will you meet with the states and do something about—(Time expired)

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senators on both sides of the chamber will come to order.

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Perhaps `Lucky' is the name that comes back to mind to have this job. Yes, it is true that on two occasions the states have tried to meet with the Commonwealth without giving their five-year commitments. The states will simply have to understand that the Commonwealth makes a five-year commitment. We will be willing to meet with them as soon as they make their five-year commitments. They can make as many requests as they like, but until they give us their five-year commitments there does not seem to be much point.

Senator Forshaw, you mentioned Ken Baker. It is also true that Dr Baker, the CEO of ACROD, has written to the state ministers—and I do not know why he did not mention this—and told them that it is appropriate for them to make five-year commitments. While we are on the subject of unmet need, $500 million required for unmet need would of course be met by just a $100 million contribution from the Commonwealth, because if you understood disability funding you would understand that we put in only 20 per cent. (Time expired)