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Tuesday, 19 March 1985
Page: 436

Senator MESSNER(9.47) —The Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney) will be moving an appropriate amendment to the Address-in-Reply later in the debate. There are a number of matters which the Government has failed to address over the two years during which it has occupied the treasury bench. This is a significant time to bring to the attention of the people of Australia the Government's omissions and errors of commission. I wish to concentrate on matters related to three particular areas: First, the question of social welfare generally and its place in the Government's set of priorities; secondly, the question of taxation and the lack of development of any kind of coherent principle of integration of social security and taxation; and thirdly, some general matters concerning the economy and, in particular, the economy of my State.

I start by congratulating the Government on the establishment, at the time of its re-election last December, of a new department-the Department of Community Services. This was done by the splitting of the old Department of Social Security into two parts. The new Department of Social Security, which has been in existence since about mid-December 1984, will handle the Government's income support programs, while the Department of Community Services will pay particular attention to the development of services for the aged, the disabled, children and the homeless, and to a number of other areas of great significance to such people.

It is important to note that this move, which heralds a changed approach towards the development of services for the needy, followed a very persistent campaign for such a split on the part of the Liberal and National parties in the course of the election campaign and in the period preceding that. Our policy quite clearly states that, firstly, we would institute a similar splitting of responsibilities between a Cabinet-level Minister responsible for the individual and the family, and the development and administration of a comprehensive holistic social policy; and secondly that the department would be established in such a way as to better rationalise income security and taxation. Both those ministries, we believe, are essential parts of the total social welfare area. We congratulate the Government for having adopted our suggestions and will encourage the Government to get on with the job as quickly as possible. I shall turn to some of those matters a little later.

I also congratulate the new head of the Department of Community Services, whose appointment has recently been announced. Mr Michael Codd is a former head of the Industries Assistance Commission and before that was permanent head of the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations. Having worked as Deputy Secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the previous Fraser Government, he has a background in and a wide knowledge of welfare matters, having had charge of those matters in that role. We wish him well and hope that his appointment will herald a new era for the needy, particularly in the development of services for the needy.

Since the election, which is now almost four months ago, it is true to say that there has been very little action apparent to the clients of the new Department of Community Services. This is particularly so in terms of improvement in the delivery of services and any progress towards the attainment of certain goals that were announced in the Budget of 1984. I turn to a couple of those goals. First, in the Budget of 1984, there was much trumpeting on the part of the Treasurer (Mr Keating) when he announced that a new program for home and community care was to be established in Australia. He said that something of the order of $300m would be spent over three years on the establishment of a program for looking after the aged and disabled in their own homes. The Opposition greeted that announcement warmly on the basis that it would seek to deinstitutionalise care for the aged and the disabled. It would provide assistance which would allow people to stay in their own homes, in environments which they had known for many years, so that they could enjoy their lives without being necessarily forced into a different mode of living. That followed suggestions made by the Expenditure Committee in the all-party McLeay report 'In a Home or at Home' presented in the House of Representatives some four or five years ago, and it showed a definite trend in the right direction.

It is fair to say that, at the time that announcement was made in the Budget, the programs which it was thought would be incorporated within the new health and community care program, involving such things as domiciliary care, Meals on Wheels and so on, would have been a significant part of that program, but by no means was it suggested that they would have occupied the whole of it. The impression that most people who are interested in this matter got at the time was that significant additional money would be coming from the Federal Government to increase the total amount of resources available to State and local governments and perhaps to voluntary organisations to develop the HACC program. It has come as a bit of a shock since then to find that the Federal Government intends to spend only an extra $10m other than the amounts which have already been transferred from other programs and which, as I have pointed out, would total some $300m over three years. Whereas many people were led to believe that there would be a brave new world following the establishment of this program for the development of new services for the aged and disabled, it seems likely that that will not come to fruition.

There are various concerns in the community about that, and I will refer to one or two of those in a moment. Let me say particularly that it is of very great concern that the matter was allowed to become a dominant feature of the Labor Party's election campaign in order to attract votes from aged people and to offset the disadvantages the Labor Party was suffering at the time as a result of its ungainly and ill thought out assets test measures, superannuation tax and income test on the over-70s pensioners. That particular program was a step in the direction of conmanship on the part of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) when he announced proudly at the Opera House in Sydney in his policy speech that there would be a brand new $300m program for the aged. Now we learn that it will amount to a mere $10m extra.

Let us see what one or two of the Labor Government's colleagues in the States have had to say about this matter. I quote from the South Australian Legislative Council Hansard for 21 February 1985, page 2724. Dr J. R. Cornwall, the Minister for Health in South Australia, was asked a question by a Liberal member of the Legislative Council as to progress on the HACC program. In winding up his comments on this matter, Dr Cornwall said:

While there will be significantly more money available in the next three years, it will be necessary for the State progressively to pick up an increasing amount of the tab. It is an attractive programme which has the ability to provide some important and new services. Unfortunately, I believe it may have been oversold significantly in the pre-Federal election climate. I think that expectations may have been unduly raised. It will be a significant programme but it will not be a massive program. It will certainly not be the answer to all of our problems.

That is a highly significant comment in the light of the remarks I have just made. It is true that there will not be a significant amount of money in this program, other than that which will emanate from the State. Of course, the State of South Australia will receive something less than $1m out of the estimated extra $10m that the Federal Government was going to hand out so lavishly as part of that $300m campaign. Other moneys will have to be found by the State itself. Again, and I think the Minister in South Australia acknowledges it, that was a strict election gimmick, something to trick the voters to get the assets test off their minds when the Prime Minister made his policy speech at the Opera House. The Labor Minister in South Australia acknowledges that very clearly. He also makes the very important point that expectations have been unduly raised. I point out that aspect because it is that which is the real problem that arises in the community today. It is not so much a question of politics, although the Government stands condemned for the breach of its own promises, but the fact is that the Government is fooling around with people's lives. It has undertaken to do things but now it is to renege on those promises. It certainly gave the impression of providing to the community something quite different from what has subsequently been delivered.

That point is significant because it is not only typical of the HACC program which has come into existence in recent times but also typical of the supported accommodation assistance program which the Government has been setting up since the presentation of the Budget last year. This program again draws together the many service delivery programs for homeless persons and others in need of accommodation assistance. Again, though, in the course of the last several months the Government has given the impression that significant sums of money would be available for improvements in these programs. Now, in the cold hard light of day following the election campaign, we find that there will not be significant extra moneys for these programs and the States again will be called upon to help fund the programs.

Following Dr Cornwall's criticism of the Federal Government, when he indicated that expectations had been unduly raised by the Federal Labor Government, we have to note that at the moment something of a crisis is developing in the area of the setting up of accommodation for the needy because no final decisions have been taken. Negotiations with the various States are described as being in a muddle, no new money has been made available and some decisions have been made to allocate money to programs in South Australia, as I understand, but not in any other States. There has been a total collapse of confidence on the part of the clients of the welfare industry and the advocates who serve those clients and, I believe, a very serious onset of depression amongst those who have been delivering services in this area over many years. The Government should face up to its responsibilities, establish lines of communication with community organisations and groups which are very concerned about the progress of negotiations on that program at present and seek to alleviate their concerns about what it has in mind.

It is very difficult to get an overall picture of what the Government intends. Certainly there have been negotiations with the States for the establishment of certain programs, but we have unclear definitions of exactly which programs will end up in the hands of the States and be controlled by the States and which will remain with the Federal Government. The funding arrangements, including the direction of funding, are unclear. Will funds go to State, local government or other organisations? It is best described as an unholy muddle at present and I believe that the Government owes it to community organisations to take immediate steps to clarify its intentions and to communicate directly with community groups and State governments to ensure that they get far better assurances as to the progress of the implementation of the new program.

I mention as an aside that that is in no way a criticism of the incoming head of the Department of Community Services, Mr Codd, since he has not yet taken office, or of the officers of the old Department of Social Security who have been carrying on the work of the Department during this muddled period. It certainly indicates that the Government leapt deeply into this area without thinking through its objectives and without giving a clear idea as to what it intended. Certainly, as Dr Cornwall in South Australia has demonstrated, the Government has created expectations far beyond its capacity to deliver.

A further area of great concern is the apparent lack of action by the Government in regard to the handicapped persons programs review. I think that was set in train getting on for two years ago and the Government has promised that its report will be made available very soon. We expected it during the election campaign, before Christmas, but we have not heard anything of it since. The latest leaking of information from various sources seems to indicate that we will not have that report before April. Time is running on and community groups interested in the problems of the disabled and the aged are getting very concerned about the Government's lack of action. Indeed there appears to be something of a paralysis in the Government which stops it making decisions about such matters. We on this side are anxious to see the report ourselves because, as the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) has pointed out in this place, a very extensive inquiry has been undertaken amongst community groups over the last couple of years and a great number of submissions have been received, both informal and formal, from many organisations. We believe that the undertaking of that review has been a significant step forward and we congratulate the Government for having done that, but we would now like to see the fruits of that inquiry and see some action on behalf of the disabled in the community.

Suspicions on these matters are certainly raised to a very high degree when we consider the statement in the Budget Papers last year in relation to this current year's Budget that $12m would be allocated for capital and new project funding under the Handicapped Persons Assistance Act. In early 1985 the Minister announced that there would be just over $1m in urgent funding. He issued a Press statement to that effect. On 10 March this year, though, the Minister announced that a further $3.97m worth of new project funding would be provided and that that would amount to an overall expenditure of some $5m. I understand that funding for some States has not yet been announced. What concerns us is that here we are, getting towards the end of March, nine months of this financial year having passed, and less than half of the total money voted in the Budget under that head for handicapped persons assistance has actually been spent. That means that if the Government is to catch up before the end of June it will need to spend something over $6m in the next three months or so. Many community organisations are alarmed that it is not the Government's intention to spend that $6m and that the Government sees it as some kind of saving in this year's Budget. No doubt it is trying to keep the deficit down to meet the trilogy of promises which it announced, rashly, in the course of the election campaign several months ago.

The point remains that the Government has failed in its obligations to handicapped persons and in the extension of these new programs. We want to know what has happened because it is certain that any numbers of community organisations are applying for grants and assistance and consequently the Government has no shortage of people who can be helped in these circumstances. I would like to know how many applications have been considered by the Department, what would be the value of the subsidy if all the applications that it has received were approved, how many of these applications have actually been approved in each State and what is the value of the approvals in each of the States. I think that is quite a sensible question to be asking, in view of the very lateness of the financial year, and I would like the Government to answer it in the course of this debate. No doubt it will not and I shall, of course, be putting forward a question on notice on that particular matter.

Another matter affecting the care of the disabled is the management of various sheltered workshops and other institutions caring for the disabled throughout Australia. I am certain that the Minister for Community Services, Senator Grimes, knows about this matter and has concerns about it because he has spoken of it many times in this place. On many occasions he has drawn attention to the shortcomings in management performance of such organisations. The Government announced in the August Budget that a management support scheme was to be introduced and that $400,000 was to be allocated in order to provide backup and services to administer that particular scheme. However, we find that, whereas 16 extra staff were to be sought to administer that scheme, in fact those positions have not been established, as I understand it. In fact, no action has been undertaken on that matter at all. It seems to me that this is a fairly vital area of concern. The Minister has expressed grave concern about this area over many years, as I recall it, in various debates in this place. Yet, when put into the position where he can do something about it, there has been practically no action.

There are various ways in which sheltered workshops and other organisations can compare their performances with others. There is the capacity to run inter-firm comparisons. I think it is important for people who are running organisations to care for the disabled to be encouraged to take part in such inter-firm comparisons to find out how their management compares with that of other organisations. Yet the management support scheme has not been put into place in order to encourage that development and to assist in the better understanding of the management problems of various organisations.

There are a number of other outstanding matters, with which I will deal very quickly, which the Government will need to look at further. The aids for the disabled program was previously administered through the Department of Health and the States. The expenditure for this program, which is administered by the States, has almost dropped to a trickle. The Minister for Health, who formerly administered this program, has told the various States not to expect any more money. We have known that there has been a very significant growth in that program. It is one which encourages the disabled to be independent and one which all of us support. Last year it almost went bankrupt, but the Government bailed it out in the last few months of the financial year. I do not know why it now is that the Government has decided to restrict its expenditure on such an important and very useful program.

The further matters that are outstanding in the area of the disabled are, of course, numerous. There is the attendant care pilot program, which is yet to be reported upon and which, I understand, has another 12 months to run. The disability allowance is also subject to a pilot study which has some considerable time to run before being completed. There is a growing concern, which we pointed to during the election campaign, about the handicapped children's allowance and its very tight and restrictive conditions of eligibility which, I believe, should be alleviated as promptly as possible. In the course of the election campaign the Liberal and National parties undertook to review that area immediately in order to alleviate the problems of families caring for their disabled children. It is important that the burden that falls on the parents of handicapped children be recognised and that the saving which consequently flows to the community be recognised. As a result, we would encourage the Government to review that situation as soon as possible.

Let me conclude on the question of taxation. We are facing a period when taxation obviously will be a very high profile matter. There are certainly a number of myths in connection with the problem of indirect taxation and some other areas, such as capital gains tax. It seems to me to be terribly important to recognise one thing: Most of our taxation problems-that is, the incentive for people to avoid taxation, or in some cases to evade taxation, or to arrange their affairs in order to get around the laws, or to go off-shore, or to get involved in all kinds of schemes-come from one single factor, which is the very steep rate of progressivity in income tax. It is something which is at the core of all our problems; we have to recognise that. The question of what might be done to alleviate that situation is, I think, very much in the front of the minds of the members of the Opposition, as we made clear during the election campaign. We will be reviewing that matter as the Government goes forward in the next several months.

There is one aspect which demands particular attention, and that is how the Government might handle indirect taxes, as well as its apparent attempt to introduce special kinds of taxation on fringe benefits. I notice that is one area that the Government is looking at closely at the moment. It is a very significant area. I believe, if the Treasurer is really serious about it, he will have some problems in dealing with it. From this side of the fence, we wish him all the best in handling that aspect. There is one vital element which is a problem in that area, and that is the valuation of those fringe benefits.