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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 31

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (2:35 PM) —My question is also to the Minister for Family and Community Services and the Minister representing the Minister for Human Services. Can the minister confirm that her colleague Mr Hockey has sought legal advice to ascertain precisely what powers are available to him as Minister for Human Services? Isn’t it the case that Mr Hockey and his department are being increasingly frustrated by Minister Patterson’s refusal to cede powers that would assist the new department to function as the Prime Minister intended when announcing his new ministerial arrangements? Hasn’t this caused Minister Hockey to make the extraordinary threat to particular agencies to withhold funds if they do not let him exercise what he sees as his authority? Minister, don’t Australians have a right to demand effective and efficient delivery of government services; and, therefore, can the minister now explain why Australians should have any confidence that that is occurring, given her failure to resolve with Mr Hockey exactly what it is that each of them is responsible for?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues) —This explains why Labor are where they are, because what they do is rely on newspaper stories and take them as fact. That is the level of the performance of this party on the other side that pretend to want to be in government. They fail to deliver policies. They fail to develop policies. All they can do is read an article in the newspaper and believe that it is the truth.

The arrangements and the changes to the machinery of government are important because we are delivering more services to families through Health, through the Medicare safety net and other measures; more assistance to older people through the utilities measure and through the payment to self-funded retirees; and more assistance to families through measures that are delivered through the services for which Mr Hockey is responsible.

One of the benefits we have already seen of bringing all those services together—I do not know whether senators on the other side have noticed, even though they have been told by Mr Hockey, because they are so busy trying to trawl through and find stories that they might be able to beat up—is that members and senators, be they Independent, Liberal or Labor, now have access to a single point of service for all the services delivered by the Health Insurance Commission and Australian Hearing Services through Centrelink.

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, on a point of order which goes to relevance: the minister does not make any attempt anymore to answer the questions; she just reads from a particular brief. I ask you to draw her attention to the question, which was about ministerial responsibility, not about liaison officers. It was about what she is responsible for and what Mr Hockey is responsible for. I ask you to direct her to answer the question rather than just rave on.

The PRESIDENT —With regard to your point of order, you know, as I have said many times, that I cannot direct a minister how to answer the question but I can remind her of the question. I remind the minister also that she has 2½ minutes left to complete her answer.

Senator PATTERSON —I was saying that already Mr Hockey has streamlined services for members and senators so they can better service their constituents. They are some of the benefits of the change in the machinery of government. There are some issues about access to information as a result of the changes of responsibilities. We want ministers to be able to work within the legal authority and access records and comply with all the measures, including the privacy legislation. We may need legislative changes to allow this to happen. They are the issues, and I think it is only appropriate that Mr Hockey would make sure that he is operating legally when accessing information. The story in the Australian was an absolute beat-up. It is very important for Mr Hockey, now that he is in charge of delivering an increased number of services that assist the Australian people. It is going to now mean that we see more streamlined services. One measure already has seen services more available to constituents—but the Labor Party, on the other side, would not acknowledge that. I must say that I have a very good working relationship with Mr Hockey and we will achieve great things together.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The interest in this issue stems from questions asked at estimates, where officials of the minister’s department were unable to explain which minister was responsible for what task. The minister, while conceding there were problems, did not address the central issues. Didn’t the Audit Office conclude last week, for instance, that Centrelink’s 6½ million customers either did not know that feedback and review systems were available or did not use them because they fear retribution from the agency? Why has neither Minister Patterson nor the Minister for Human Services made any response to this scathing report? Is it because they do not know whose job it is? Doesn’t this failure to respond to the Audit Office report reflect the failure of the new ministerial arrangements and the lack of focus on the delivery of government services to those 6½ million Australians who use the services of Centrelink every year? Isn’t it clear that you do not know who is responsible for what and therefore you are losing the focus on the needs of the Australian people?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues) —The answer to that other part of Senator Evans’s question is obviously no. Let me say that we have indicated—and I stand to be corrected, but I think I mentioned the ANAO report last week—that Centrelink values the information it gets back from its customers. I know that Mr Hockey is aware of the report and Centrelink is responding to each aspect of the ANAO report. It is about delivering better services. Compared with the sort of service that Australians got under Labor through the old social security system, there are light years of difference in the services that Centrelink is now delivering. If Senator Evans wants to criticise the thousands of Centrelink officers who are out there on a daily basis working face to face with their customers then he can do that. But Mr Hockey and I value what they are doing and will always try to improve what they are doing. Mr Hockey will always be trying to improve what they are doing but he will not criticise those officers in the way that Labor does. (Time expired)