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Wednesday, 13 November 1974
Page: 2316

Senator BAUME (New South Wales) - Mr Temporary Chairman,I wish to raise for the consideration of the Committee some questions relating to the Australian Assistance Plan. This matter was discussed in some depth at the hearings of Estimates Committee E, and part of that Committee's report adverts to matters arising out of answers that we were given. I have checked with the Chairman of Estimates Committee E to ascertain whether he would rather introduce this matter today, but he has suggested that I might go ahead and raise the doubts that we have. The major potential problem with the Australian Assistance Plan is the question of access to allow people to participate in the functionings of the Plan. The Plan operates through the establishment of interim regional councils for social development which, after a period, can be converted to regional councils. These regional councils eventually can become eligible for a capitation grant of $2 per head of population. This can enable large amounts of money to be made available to these regional councils which can spend the money in the provision of welfare services.

I remind the Committee that the shadow Minister for Social Security for the Liberal and Country Parties praised the concept of the Australian Assistance Plan, and anything that I say today is purely directed towards certain problems that we see in the procedures which have been laid down for the functioning of the Plan. We are seeking to have the Plan improved to ensure that access for all interested people is possible and is made likely. The problem as it arose was that we could see no way in which there was any guarantee that all those people in the community who were likely to be interested would become aware that an interim council was to be established, or no way of ensuring that they would become aware that it was proposed to convert an interim council to a permanent council. In other words, they may not know that there is to be held a meeting which they should attend if they wish to participate.

Most people involved in the functioning of these councils are people who are very well motivated towards the social aims of such councils. But it is conceivable- we are just looking at possibilities- that there could be groups of people who became involved in an interim council and who were anxious not to encourage other people to participate in the formation of a regional council. The prize at the end is the availability of very large amounts of money which are to be spent on welfare services for a region. If the Australian Assistance Plan is to succeed it is necessary that the Councils themselves should be absolutely impeccable in the way in which they are set up and that there should be no chance of people claiming that access for all citizens is not possible.

The report of the Estimates Committee E stated:

The Committee considers that there is a need for adequate procedures to be laid down to ensure that the regional councils are genuinely representative and that the fullest opportunity is provided for public participation in them.

I should like to mention the steps that were taken at the hearings of Estimates Committee E to ascertain the facts about this question of access, to find out how much publicity is insisted on, and to outline some of the answers that we received. The Minister for Repatriation and Compensation (Senator Wheeldon) will remember what he said at the hearings of Estimates Committee E. At page 201 of the Hansard of 17 October 1974 he is reported as saying:

I would agree with Senator Baume that if there were a regional council established and nobody knew it had been established, this would not be very helpful.

This is really the crux of the issue before us. Do people always know that interim councils are being formed? Does the whole community know? Do people then know that the interim council is to proceed on to become a regional council?

We questioned the departmental officers fairly closely, and they were most co-operative and helpful in the information that they gave us. It occurred to me that we were raising a problem which had not previously occurred to them, that we were raising an issue which they had not previously seen as a problem. Mr Colliver, who gave evidence, is reported at page 204 of Hansard of 17 October 1974 as follows:

The normal process would be to identify existing groups, that is social welfare agencies, groups of citizens who have been interested, local councils and others, and invite them to various kinds of sub-regional meetings to gain their interest in the Australian Assistance Plan generally.

Of course, it is a very desirable thing that they should do it. Mr Colliver then went on to say:

The experience has been that they move from this to a larger meeting when people are involved in interaction and discussion about the Australian Assistance Plan and its possibilities. This then leads to a setting up of an interim council. At this point an interim council would need to draw up a constitution and have this approved and would then make application for a further grant which would be the $20,000 or, as it will be in future, $40,000.

So interim councils are entitled to receive money, and they use this money to appoint various staff who will assist them in the specialist duties that they have to perform. We then asked Mr Colliver about the possibility of giving capitation grants of $2 per head of population for some regional councils. On the same page he is reported to have stated:

At the present time only 6 regions have been designated for the purpose.

I suppose we could restate that and say that already 6 regions have been designated. There are 6 regions in which it is proposed to pay a grant of $2 per head of population, and this is the money that will be available for distribution. A Mr Luby also gave evidence before Estimates Committee E at that time. When referring to the advertising that is done for interim councils, he is reported at page 205 of Hansard as saying:

Some of the groups that were invited to participate- this is within the 35 at the moment- were invited on the basis of their already being a nucleus as an interim committee. It is their responsibility to widen their representation. The first discussion paper which the Social Welfare Commission published last year does not set out the types of representation that are envisaged.

I emphasise that it does not set out the types of representation which are envisaged. Further on Mr Luby stated some of the groups which might possibly be included. He mentioned the 3 level of government, appropriate voluntary organisations, citizen groups, client and consumer groups, and employer and trade union groups. But at no stage could anyone tell us it was necessary that there should be advertising throughout the community in order to ensure that everyone was aware that an interim regional council was in the offing or that an interim regional council intended to proceed to a more permanent basis or a more permanent structure. That is the situation that we found in the hearing of Estimates Committee E.

As a result of the questions that we asked a statement was prepared for us, and it is included as statement F in the attachments to the report from Estimates Committee E. The important paragraph of that statement reads:

In regard to the regional promotion, the Department and Social Welfare Commission are in the process of reviewing the various regions to see where publicity could stimulate wider community interest and understanding of the Australian Assistance Plan and thereby attract wider representation.

That is the appropriate paragraph. It is still a post hoc move. It still in no way indicates that when these Councils are set up anything is done to avoid their falling into the hands of a small, trained elite- those who, say, are socially competent or well trained or those who have access to the present, existing facilities in the community.

There is another document which is helpful in this regard. It was published in October 1974 and is entitled 'Guidelines for Pilot ProgramsAustralian Assistance Plan'. It is put out by the Social Welfare Commission of the Department of Social Security. This is an excellent publication. It contains the most detailed instructions on many aspects of functioning of the Australian Assistance Plan. For instance, it nominates the kind of motor car that should be bought by regional councils. It nominates the conditions under which that motor car may be airconditioned. It includes draft constitutions and all kinds of information which regional councils would need to know about appointing auditors and meeting the requirements of companies Acts. It goes through the most detailed information. It has very little to say about any measures which are necessary to ensure the widest community participation at the outset when regional councils are being formed. However, it does make some points about where responsibility for these matters lies. It makes it quite clear that the

Department of Social Security is primarily responsible for approving the constitution of interim regional councils and regional councils and for advising the Social Welfare Commission on the administrative implications of policy issues generally. It is on this basis that I am addressing these remarks to the Committee of the Whole while we are considering the estimates for the Department of Social Security. There is joint responsibility between the Social Welfare Commission and the Department of Social Security to develop a policy in respect of membership and representation of organisations and citizen groups.

Reading through this document, I notice that any statements about representation on regional councils is in the most general terms only. The statement is made on page 5 of the document that regional councils - should seek to ensure that their regions are aware of and consider the use of various other funding programs . . .

I mention this just to point out that it is envisaged that the regional councils will move into quite a wide area of social welfare policy, such as grants for community health services, States Grants (Home Care) Act, grants for the development of low cost accommodation for young travellers, etc. It is intended that the work of these councils should move across many areas of social welfare to try to draw together all the available grants. On page 6 of the document statements are made concerning the constitution and the suitably constituted association which is needed. Paragraph 4.3 on page 6 states:

A suitably constituted association formed of interested persons and conducted by persons of appropriate qualifications working towards the establishment of a Regional Council in any non-funded region may apply to the Department of Social Security for an initiating grant.

But it is not stated that such people have to be representative or that they have to make widely known that they are about to take this kind of action. The same paragraph states:

Regional Councils should develop from such associations . . .

It does not say at any time that it is imperative that advertising be carried out or that the community be made aware of the position.

I think that we really have quite a problem in this regard. The Australian Assistance Plan could founder if the public came to regard it as a small, non-representative, elite group and if large amounts of money were put into it. Let me take the most pessimistic view: A situation could arise in which regional councils under the control of small pressure groups were unwilling to advertise their activities and unwilling to make known when their meetings were being held and were making it difficult for other citizens to participate. I think that these are issues which require some kind of clarification if the Australian Assistance Plan is to be the success that the Government hopes and if it is to achieve its objectives without running into criticism.

Senator LAWRIE (QUEENSLAND) - I rise merely to give the honourable senator a chance to continue.

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