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Appropriations Bill: Community Services Directorate

Thank you, Madam Speaker. Disruptions like Covid have a way of bringing clarity, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses. This has certainly been true for many on a personal level, but it has likewise been true at the institutional level.

In the budget debate nine months ago, I reported that I had met with a group of stakeholders from the community sector. Unanimously, they had raised concerns about this government’s spending priorities. Specifically, they were worried about their ability to meet current and growing demand for essential community services. For years, Labor and the Greens have allowed the sector to struggle. Indexation has demonstrably not kept pace with either inflation or population growth, effectively resulting in year-on-year funding cuts.

Meanwhile, Canberra has become a more expensive place to live. Despite our higher-than-average incomes, nine per cent of all Canberrans are now living in poverty, including 11 per cent of children. Another 24 per cent are just scraping by. One-third of adults in Canberra report that they cannot survive a financial shock. Rents in the territory are the highest in the nation, and the December 2020 Rental Affordability Index found that both single-income couples with children and dual-income couples with children pay a higher proportion of their incomes on rent in the ACT than anywhere else in Australia. Add in skyrocketing prices for gas, electricity, healthcare, education and so forth, and you have a perfect recipe for increased demand as well.

Two months ago, I reported to this Assembly that the head of one community organisation had told me that demand for services had increased so much that both employees and volunteers had been forced not just to work longer hours but, in some cases, to work seven days a week. Covid has brought into stark relief what has happened to our important community sector after years of government neglect.

I therefore welcome the increased funding for community services in this budget. But let’s not pretend that this funding boost is anything other than Labor and the Greens playing catch-up after years of neglect. My great fear is that, once the immediacy of Covid fades, those opposite will return to ignoring our community services providers. That cannot be allowed to happen.

The reality is that the pandemic has made a significant impact on our communities, and some of these impacts are long-lasting, even permanent. Community recovery is essential, and it is vital that the ACT Government listens to and works alongside the community so that any policy decisions being made are made under well-informed and thorough community consultation, and that decisions are made in a timely manner with transparency and efficiency. It is important that community consultation and participation with the ACT government is made as accessible as possible.

I know that there have been community partners who have been left out of the conversation for one reason or another, and it is important that they do not fall through the gaps when it comes to paving the community recovery roadmap. Supporting the economic and community recovery of all our key service providers, organisations and industry groups in the ACT will be something I will be keeping a sharp eye, not only in the immediate future but in the years to come.

I wish to speak now to Safer Families. Almost from the moment I was first elected, I have voiced my concerns and asked many questions of the ACT Government about domestic violence in our city. I have spoken about the need to achieve better outcomes in prevention and early intervention. I have also warned the government that frontline services were experiencing an increase in demand that would become too much to bear unless more investment was made to meet community needs.

The first phase of the Safer Families Levy provided $770,000 for the training of frontline staff across community – a worthwhile initiative. Not long after, another $2.4 million of the levy was spent on training all 21,000 ACT government staff, at the expense of frontline service providers. This is not how we expected the Safer Families Levy to be used, and when I first learnt of this change in the spending of the levy, I immediately sought clarity from the minister in hearings and continued to represent the many Canberrans who raised significant concerns about the ACT Government’s decision to pull much-needed funding away from frontline services.

Answers to Questions on Notice from estimates hearings and during sitting weeks over the years confirm that only about 25 per cent of the levy was spent directly to support domestic violence victims and frontline domestic violence services, and it was only in 2020–21, after persistently raising concerns with the ACT Government, when the percentage rose to approximately 30 per cent.

And so we ran out of money, during a time when victims of domestic violence, and the frontline workers and service providers who support them, needed it the most. I have received reports of mothers and their children fleeing violent homes and sleeping in cars because there is a lack of emergency housing.

I have received reports of men and other people who are victims of domestic violence, unable to access critical support and accommodation when they were in need. Families waiting an average of 280 days to find priority housing, community legal centres at full capacity and forced to let victims down. Children who are in desperate need for trauma counselling and professional support from being invisible victims to violence in the home.

The list goes on, and most of the levy was seen by many to have been squandered by the ACT Government.

The solution? The minister announced that the solution is for Canberra rates payers to bear the cost, by increasing the Safer Families Levy by $5 each year over 4 years so that we will be paying $50 instead of the original $30 levy by the year 2024–25.

As the Opposition, the Canberra Liberals and I have relentlessly scrutinised and questioned the ACT Government on their decisions in this space. We have represented and advocated the concerns of many Canberrans for safer families. We have made recommendations and provided advice to possible pathways and solutions to these concerns. But without an Assembly majority, we have no choice but to accept that under this current Labor-Greens Government, increasing the levy is the only solution they can offer to remedy the crisis we now find ourselves in – much of which was foreseen, even before COVID-19.

I know that the Canberra Liberals and I would have exercised the foresight of the warnings given and made sure that the valuable contributions given by Canberrans as part of the Safer Families Levy would be spent wisely to create increased safety for those directly impacted by domestic violence.

Children fleeing violence are not the only ones I worry about. As I have mentioned many times before, our youth justice system is ripe for reform. This budget commits $795,000 over two years to help develop service redesign to allow the minimum age of criminal responsibility in the territory to be raised. But a broad range of stakeholders – including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and university researchers – have shared with me their concerns that legally changing the age before fundamentally reforming the system will just create worse outcomes for children.

In consulting with these stakeholders and others, I had compiled a list of minimum reforms needed. I was satisfied to see that the commissioned review tabled by the government in August identified almost exactly the same gaps as those on my list and likewise called for, quote, ‘comprehensive systems reform’. I will be carefully watching this development because the last thing we need to do is tick a box on raising the age without filling in all the known issues in our youth justice system.

I speak now to the topic of child protection. I took the opportunity during budget estimates hearings to seek an update on the implementation of external merits review for child protection decisions in the ACT. I first moved a motion calling for this reform four-and-a-half years ago, and I am grateful that the Human Rights Commission then followed my lead and confirmed that our current system is not human rights compliant without an external merits review mechanism in place. On this point, I am reminded that ANU academic Valerie Braithwaite’s paper, published earlier this year in the International Journal on Child Maltreatment, relies heavily on research conducted right here in Canberra to explore resistance to reform in the child protection space.

Nine months ago, it looked like we may actually be on the verge of finally having an external merits review mechanism. Sadly, I was informed last month that those contracted to design this system lost their employment, and so there is more delay to come. As a major stakeholder pointed out to me earlier this year, other Australian states implemented external merits review without outside assistance, but it appears that this is too hard for this government, and so we must continue waiting. Canberra families have been waiting far too long for this human rights-necessary reform to be implemented. They are the ones who are suffering because of this government’s complete incompetence when it comes to reforming legislation.

On the topic of child protection, I raise the matter of the promised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioner. This recommendation was made by the Our Booris Our Way committee in 2018, but still a commissioner is not in place. Instead, this budget provides a bit of funding for a temporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Families Advocate pending the actual implementation of a commissioner. In hearings, I tried to find out what powers this temporary advocate will have and, importantly, what powers the new commissioner will eventually have.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community have clearly insisted that the new commissioner have, quote, ‘the capacity to specifically intervene and engage in child protection processes’. This specification is important. Seventeen years ago, the Vardon Report recommended that the territory establish a Children and Young People Commissioner with similar powers. The Labor government went ahead and created the Office of the Children and Young People Commissioner but – once again resistant to actual reform – did not grant to the commissioner any actual power to intervene in child protection processes.

So here we are, 17 years later, with a nearly parallel recommendation. I was told in hearings that the temporary advocate was being put in place specifically to deal with the Indigenous community’s frustration with the delay in getting their commissioner. Indeed. But let’s be honest. If Labor had given the Children and Young People Commissioner the powers that were originally recommended in the Vardon Report in 2004, we may not be in this situation right now – with a child protection system that is not compliant with our own human rights laws and with demands for a commissioner specifically to deal with child protection matters within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

In answer to my question in hearings, I was told that the powers for the new commissioner were, quote, ‘part of the conversation’. No, Madam Speaker. On this point, the conversation is well and truly over. It is absolutely vital that legislation be amended in order to provide the new commissioner with the power to intervene in child protection decisions, as demanded by the community.

In the interest of time, I will raise one final point. During budget estimates hearings, Minister Berry confirmed that, after five years of trying to recruit a full-time psychologist to administer public autism assessments, the ACT Government has still failed to do so. I merely note here that Tasmania, with a population only slightly larger than the ACT’s, has three full-time psychologists on staff who provide public autism assessments to children and young people up to the age of 18. Here in Canberra, we continue to use part-time outsiders to provide the same service but only to children under the age of 12. I will have more to say on this topic later today, but surely we can do better than this. Thank you.


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