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Monday, 14 October 1985
Page: 1146

Senator COATES(3.33) —The Government acknowledges that, for a change, the Opposition has raised a matter of real public importance, namely, the wellbeing of our poorest Australians. But I reject the accusation by Senator Peter Baume of failure to provide adequate emergency relief by this Government. Whatever is provided, of course, it will never be enough. There will always be the need for more. But how can Senator Peter Baume say it is inadequate when his Party promised only half the amount that Labor has proposed and has delivered? Of course, he carefully made sure that he did not come down on the side of one government or the other. That would have spoilt his argument. He refused to deal with the principle. He said that the matter needs fixing, but he came up with no solution whatsoever. He knows it would not be appropriate for the Commonwealth to do one thing in New South Wales and not in other States. It would probably be unconstitutional, anyway. I emphasise too, that there is not a confrontation between Ministers. Senator Grimes, as Minister for Community Services, has been publicly very gentle with New South Wales. I emphasise that in no way did Senator Peter Baume commit himself to saying whether Senator Grimes was right or wrong. He would not say whether the State or the Commonwealth was right. He, of course, did not want to enter the argument.

Many things about the matter of public importance that has been raised by the Opposition amaze me. The first is its timing. Why does Senator Peter Baume select the first sitting day after the responsible Minister, Senator Grimes, has left for overseas on government business? The issue has been around for some time. It has not suddenly arisen today. Yet the Opposition waits until the Minister is away. It is quite strange that it should do that. Perhaps it is because the matter finally got a mention in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday and in an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald today. Mainly, I suggest, it is because Senator Peter Baume did not want to hear Senator Don Grimes's calm and reasoned reply.

I think it was particularly inappropriate to leave it until today when the matter began on 1 October and was known to be coming up some time before that. I am also amazed at the Opposition's cheek in raising this matter. The Opposition has never been much concerned in the past about poverty. Its interest in poverty and the people hit hard by disasters and chronic difficulties is very recent. It would seem to have begun only when it looked at the weekend's papers and today's papers. For the last two years, the Opposition has wept tears day after day about the plight of the upmarket pensioner. The only so-called poor people it has worried about are the property owners and trust investors who had arranged things so as to get their hands on some supplementary pocket money from the Government namely, pensions which had been intended only for those who could not otherwise provide for themselves. We had the Opposition's tears for the people who had their own cakes and the Government icing, and none for the unemployed, the single pensioner and their children who faced bare cupboards.

In government, Liberal and National Party members were no better. (Quorum formed) My words were obviously stirring the Opposition, because I was saying that in government the Liberal-National Party members were no better than they are in opposition. Their freezing of the unemployment benefit and allowances for children and single parents was callous and disgraceful. It was their actions in holding down those payments far below the poverty line that began the emergency relief explosion which is concerning all of us. They knew what they were doing to punish poor people for their poverty, but they did not care. They ignored all the evidence of the need to provide more, and of the consequences of their ruthless policies in the Fraser years. Only in the 1977 election campaign did they attach enough importance to emergency relief to promise half a million dollars, a promise it took them another two or three years to deliver. It was not at any time a matter of public importance for the opportunist present Opposition. It only becomes important if it thinks it can make a political quid out of it following a newspaper story.

The Senate will remember the panic in 1983 in the last days before the Fraser Government was wiped out, when there was a paper snowstorm flurry of promises. Senator Chaney, a great contributor to the volume of panic promises, guaranteed $2m for emergency relief. It was quite blatant. There was a longstanding neglect of the poor, but there was a sudden realisation that the poor might have votes. That $2m concerned clinging to power, not alleviating poverty.

I have some contempt for the Opposition in bringing up as a matter of public importance the question of emergency relief. However, as it has chosen to bring the matter up, senators opposite may as well actually learn something about it. Extra help for the poor, apart from the fixed statutory entitlements to defined pensions and benefits, has primarily come from State welfare departments and voluntary agencies. The Commonwealth has come into the field much more recently-as I said, only five or six years ago-and has come in by assisting voluntary agencies to get cash or other in-kind grants out to clients, not by grants to State departments but through voluntary non-government agencies. It is not a matter of calling on the Commonwealth to take up again some long existing responsibility.

The policy of the Commonwealth is to help the voluntary agencies do their job. We give $6m a year, more than double the amount that the Fraser Government promised, to voluntary agencies and charitable groups. Disbursement is a matter for judgment by committees in each State consisting of representatives from the Department of Community Services for the Commonwealth, State welfare or community services departments and State and Territory Councils of Social Service. Recommendations then go to the Minister, Senator Grimes, for approval. Most of the traditional agencies, except St Vincent de Paul which declined to work within our reporting guidelines, receive and disburse this relief, which is in addition to their own resources and which was always meant as an addition.

Other agencies, apart from the Salvation Army and the Smith Family, include local benevolent organisations, some Aboriginal aid organisations and federations of ethnic groups-in short, where people in trouble would normally go for help. They do not have enough resources and there never will be enough resources. It is not the sort of enterprise that will show a surplus at the end of the year, but it does mean that voluntary groups which were in danger of closing-in one case for the first time in a century-can now continue to help distressed families through times of crisis. That is what emergency relief is-a crisis payment, whether that crisis is a rent bill, a power bill or a fine which can mean the difference between a family staying together or not staying together. Mostly the payments are for a circumstance which most of the complacent Opposition senators could not even comprehend. Money may be stolen, a natural disaster can wreck a home or sudden retrenchments can find a family without the next rent or electricity payment. People can travel in search of work and find there is none and find that they have spent their last dollars on buying petrol to get there. People who are hit by these disasters are traditionally the clients of State governments and voluntary agencies.

The officers of the New South Wales Department of Youth and Community Services are extremely concerned about these clients whom they are now being required to turn away as a result of this unfortunate policy by the New South Wales Government. Because New South Wales has done more than most other States in the past, the absence of its funds will be all the more significant. The people on the Department of Youth and Community Services counters in New South Wales-and there is a very extensive network in that State-often know the families. Those officers know that a small payment can often prevent a family from being thrown out of their house because of overdue rent which has been caused by an unexpected crisis or illness. They know that unless they can keep families together, the falling apart could result in a totally inappropriate shelter or institutional solution. There is a good deal of evidence that these New South Wales public servants are appalled by the problem in New South Wales at present. Mr Walker has suggested that his Government could be up for $500m or $600m a year. This is preposterous. No-one expects that there is an indefinite amount in any public purse for these disaster and emergency situations. We have simply asked that State governments hold to their present spending levels.

The Commonwealth is holding to its emergency relief payments and at the same time is increasing the social security payments to the most vulnerable of all welfare clients-the unemployed, the single parents, the private renters and to their children. Money is being directed where the need is greatest. New South Wales has asked us to increase pensions to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. The hundreds of millions of dollars that this would take is hundreds of millions of dollars that this Government should be spending, and it will reach that target. However, in terms of this week's problems, it should be emphasised that it would go in the main-around 99 per cent of it-to families not actually in crisis. It would not be directed to the users of emergency relief and there would still be a need for a system of emergency relief.

It may come as a surprise to Senator Peter Baume that only 1.1 per cent of pensioners and beneficiaries in New South Wales receive emergency relief. Overwhelmingly they are not aged pensioners. The Government believes that emergency relief should be targeted at the people with sudden problems and the people most at risk. Even if the value of social security payments were to rise by $5 or $10 a week-at huge expense and not the sort of expense the Opposition would suggest should be outlaid-this would not lessen the demand for emergency relief which is associated with inadequate savings to meet large bills, particularly after meeting rent commitments.

The survey of Department of Youth and Community Services cash relief recipients in New South Wales found that electricity bills-that is, New South Wales Government electricity bills-were the main purpose of relief for 27.4 per cent of its clients and for 37.8 per cent of its expenditure. This means that about $3.1m of the New South Wales 1984-85 expenditure could have gone to pay Electricity Commission of New South Wales bills. The same survey found that 49 per cent of its clients rented privately, 21 per cent rented from the Housing Commission, 4 per cent lived in a refuge or were homeless and 3 per cent lived in caravans. I should mention here that New South Wales currently spends the least per capita of any State on public housing. This is significant when it is realised that half of the private rental applicants for emergency relief spent more than 50 per cent of the income on rent. That is a statistic that the Opposition ought to take note of in raising this matter.

A more startling figure is that the New South Wales Department of Youth and Community Services underspent its emergency relief appropriation by $1.28m last year. We do have sympathy with State governments which cannot meet all the demands of applicants, as we have sympathy when this happens to the Salvation Army, for example. However, we have less sympathy for this action when we learn that New South Wales inflated last year's expenditure of $11m to this projected figure of $500m or $600m when not even all of that $11m was spent last year. It is well known that most States would like to see the Commonwealth write cheques for any program that they decide is too difficult or expensive. This cannot be done responsibly and nor is it responsible for States to abdicate suddenly their responsibility to poor and desperate people in their own States. Most States recognise that.

The Commonwealth believes that it should accept responsibility for the level of income support. The greatest contribution we have made to that is the extraordinary improvement in the employment situation. When this Government was voted in, there were 633,000 people on unemployment benefit. Last week there were 530,000 people on unemployment benefit. We have reduced the ranks of those unemployed by more than 100,000 through our economic policies and we have reduced their misery and need for welfare and, more than the Opposition could ever say, we have given them hope. As well as that, we have increased payments to the children of pensioners and beneficiaries and we have increased pensions above indexation, increased supplementary rent allowance and we are in the process of extending it to beneficiaries for the first time. In times of economic difficulty we have spent consistently on the people with the greatest needs. The Opposition continually wants us to cut our Budget but at the same time it claims our spending in specific areas is inadequate. Of course, since it wants to abolish the assets test at the same time, it is hardly consistent; but then we have come not to expect consistency from the Opposition.

As far as the specific problem in New South Wales is concerned, Commonwealth officials are discussing with New South Wales officials at the moment some way in which the present state of affairs in New South Wales can be resolved. It is not in any government's interest to subject people already under stress to a refusal by the relevant government department to give help. The Commonwealth is not in the position of giving discretionary cash grants over its counters in the form of emergency relief. It gives statutory entitlements only. Senator Peter Baume knows that. Realistically, no other way exists than for New South Wales to continue the level of support to its citizens which enables them to function in society. Realistically, if a State decides that it does not want to continue to spend in an area it cannot expect the Commonwealth to send down that amount by the next post. The Commonwealth does not write those sorts of cheques for State government departments. As I have said, it is not appropriate for the Commonwealth to provide specific assistance for one State and not do it for the others. We do not believe that States can abandon financial help for poor people.

The Commonwealth, under this Government, has increased social security payments. It has more than doubled emergency relief payments. It has not stopped any program. It has certainly not pulled the rug from under the poor. Senator Grimes has asked New South Wales to defer its withdrawal of this assistance, at least until May, when certain Federal Budget measures take effect. It is very regrettable that New South Wales has chosen to take this unilateral action. By continuing discussions we hope that the matter will be resolved soon. Emergency relief is an important matter. I still hope that New South Wales will agree to a moratorium on its cutbacks. It gives me no pleasure that a Labor Government in New South Wales has so far rejected that request.

There are problems that ought to be sorted out. The Opposition acknowledges that it would not come down with any firm position as to whether it was the Commonwealth or the State that was responsible. One needs to look at why the demand per capita varies so much from State to State and why no other State has announced its withdrawal from this field though, as is known, State Ministers collectively expressed such an intent earlier this year. It re-emphasise that in 1979-80, under the Fraser Government, $0.5m was provided by the Commonwealth in this area. In the current year the Labor Government is providing $6m, of which $2.375m is to be spent in New South Wales. I do not particularly like the connotation involved in the use of charities for this distribution, but it is not appropriate to use the Department of Social Security for these sorts of ad hoc payments. Senator Peter Baume did nothing to suggest an alternative.