COMMITTEES;Community Affairs References Committee;Government Response to Report – 04 Feb 2016

I rise to speak on the government’s response to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report on the inquiry into the Department of Social Services, or DSS, grants. The report was completed in September 2015 after three public hearings and almost 100 submissions. As a member of this committee, I had a very strong interest in this issue and in the government’s response, which was tabled out of session a couple of weeks ago.

As we know, based on evidence given to the inquiry, the committee concluded that the 2014 tendering process was poorly planned, hurriedly implemented and resulted in a loss of services. Combined with cuts to the sector of $270 million, the impacts on services for the Australian community were devastating. Furthermore, the process does not appear to have been equitable and transparent, with an apparent inherent bias towards larger providers at the expense of local knowledge and expertise that smaller providers have developed in response to their clients’ needs. Some of the decisions that were made were plain disastrous, utterly inexplicable, and have had devastating impacts across our communities.

I would just like to take a few moments to highlight one of the ridiculous situations that the committee was informed of. In the first public hearing in Canberra, we heard from the Chief Executive Officer of Volunteering Tasmania, Ms Adrienne Picone. Here is what Ms Picone told the hearing:

Volunteering Tasmania has been chosen to be the preferred service provider in two very tiny pockets of Tasmania. In the south it is greater Hobart and the Brighton and Sorell areas, and in the north it is three small towns in Ulverstone, Devonport and Burnie.

The vast majority of Tasmania will have funding received by a consortium based in Queensland. This consortium, we understand, has never worked in Tasmania. They are without community connections in Tasmania. They have no local knowledge or an understanding of the unique Tasmanian experience. We have on several occasions asked for the rationale behind this decision but have been consistently told that nobody seems to know why this decision was made, and we are really at a loss to understand the logic behind this decision. These actions are at odds with DSS’s stated objective of providing a foundation for integrated, community led program delivery that understands and meets local needs.

I think the government needs to listen carefully to the words of Ms Picone, because what we have seen from this government in so many areas of public policy is an overwhelming desire to smash small, local organisations that are in touch with their communities. They keep the funding to larger organisations and peak bodies but seek to destroy the smaller organisations. It is quite clear that the government has not been listening to the concerns of the sector, as we can see from this disappointing response.

It seems that the government ignored most of the evidence given to the committee and, disappointingly, only agreed to four of the recommendations. They did not agree with one recommendation and noted the remaining nine recommendations. I am pleased that the government have agreed with a recommendation for a five-year contract cycle. However, it is disappointing that the government did not agree with the committee’s recommendation that the Department of Social Services publish its recent analysis of service delivery gaps to promote transparency and to encourage informed discussion of the strategy that will ensure that vulnerable people are properly supported right across Australia with no gaps.

The committee noted witnesses’ concerns that service gaps had not been fully identified and addressed. It is clear that the government needs to respect the not-for-profit and volunteer sectors more because they do wonderful work serving the needs of the community. The NFP sector contributes $107 billion to the national economy and $4.9 billion to the Tasmanian economy, and employs over one million Australians. So I call upon the Prime Minister and the Minister for Social Services to take another look at the committee report and to commit to more of the recommendations. This sector is too important to destroy through random, wilful cuts and misguided ideological decisions. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.