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Appropriations Debate: Community Services Directorate

Thank you, Madam Speaker. When ACT Labor and the Greens really want to get something done, they stop at nothing to make it happen – or to make it happen fast. Earlier this year, Minister Stephen-Smith announced that her government would forcibly acquire Calvary Hospital and then tabled legislation authorising this extreme move. Three weeks later, the bill was passed.

Normally this would be impossible. Standing Orders 174 and 175 require that proposed legislation be referred for possible public inquiry and that debate on the bill be suspended until the committee has reported. This is an essential element of the democratic process in Canberra, where we have no upper house to check government power.

But did this Labor-Greens government let democratic safeguards slow their agenda? Nope! Immediately after Ms Stephen-Smith tabled her bill, Mr Gentleman moved to suspend Standing Orders to allow the bill to be debated and passed before an inquiry could be completed. ‘These measures’, he said, ‘will allow a more swift passage of the bill’.

Then Mr Gentleman assured us it was not his intention to block public scrutiny of the Calvary takeover. An inquiry could go ahead, he said. Of course, when he made that assurance, he almost certainly knew there would be no inquiry. When, as the chair of the Public Accounts Committee to which the bill was referred, I sought to launch the inquiry, both Labor and Greens members on the committee voted to block all scrutiny. One month later, the ACT Government took control of Calvary Hospital.

Another example of ACT Labor and the Greens’ determination to pursue their agenda has recently come to light. Speaking at the national Labor conference in August, Minister Stephen-Smith boasted about carefully plotting to rush the decriminalisation of dangerous drugs in the territory. ‘We took it to the election quietly…’, she said, ‘so that after the election we were able to work on it quickly’. The process was then sped up by strategically choosing to go through a private member instead of a minister. ‘If the government had tried to do it, I tell you it would have taken two years to develop the legislation’, she bragged, ‘and we would have had to deal with all this risk aversion and complexity’.

This boast is revealing: when it comes to dangerous drugs, Ms Stephen-Smith was unwilling to let complexity slow her down. When they want to, those opposite can steamroll right over a complex situation.

As a shadow minister over the past seven years, I have repeatedly urged Ministers Stephen-Smith, Berry, and now Davidson to pursue important reforms. And I have repeatedly asked questions about their progress. As the record shows, many times the response has been that I don’t understand the complexity of being in government and implementing reforms.

One example: this budget includes $697,000 to establish external merits review for child protection decisions. It is an essential human rights safeguard for a family to be able to ask that the decision to forcibly remove their children be reviewed on its merits. The first time the ACT Labor government was advised to address this issue was in the 2004 Vardon Report. Then the 2016 Glanfield Inquiry specifically recommended that ‘a review … be undertaken of what decisions … should be subject to internal and external merits review’. Concerned that I could see no progress, in 2017 I moved a motion calling on the government to acknowledge the importance of external merits review and to note that the ACT was falling behind other jurisdictions. In response, Ms Stephen-Smith cut both statements, though she did confirm that the review had started in December 2016 – almost seven years ago.

That review was completed four years ago, and a discussion paper was released. In a submission to that paper, the Human Rights Commissioners stated that, quote, ‘external merits review of child protection decisions … is essential for achieving full compliance with the ACT’s human rights obligations’. Three months later, the chair of the commission told media that, quote, ‘We must step into line with other jurisdictions and provide for external review of child protection decisions’, fully validating the points that Minister Stephen-Smith refused to endorse in my motion two years earlier.

A final report recommending a specific model was due in September last year. I was told in November’s annual reports hearings that it wasn’t done but would be released publicly. In estimates hearings last month, I again sought an update. The report, the minister said, had been finalised but not released. And when I asked when external merits review would finally be implemented, I was told sometime before next year’s election.

After years of prodding the government, I am relieved to see funding in this budget for external merits review. I genuinely hope it will happen. As I have learnt from this government’s foot-dragging over the past seven years, however, one has to wait and see. What is clear at this point is that this much-needed reform has not been as important to the minister as the takeover of Calvary Hospital or the intentionally ‘silent’ decriminalisation of dangerous drugs.

This appears to be the same when it comes to implementing the 36 recommendations from the Our Booris, Our Way review into an ‘alarmingly high rate of removals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from families’.[1] The Indigenous steering committee first met in February 2018 and by August had already delivered four recommendations. They asked the Labor-Greens government to implement these four early recommendations ‘immediately’[2] ‘to accelerate improvements to the child protection system so that the community may see change during the Review’.[3]

That was five years ago. As of May 2023, not one of those first four recommendations has been fully implemented. In fact, the implementation oversight committee only considers two of the 36 recommendations – numbers 7 and 15 – to have been completed, with one more that has moved to the monitoring stage.[4]

In her forward to the latest update, the minister acknowledged that, quote, ‘some recommendations are taking longer than others to progress’. She also acknowledged ‘the frustration conveyed by the Committee’.[5] And who wouldn’t be frustrated? Common sense suggests that a government that knows how to forcibly acquire a hospital in a matter of weeks whilst blocking all democratic scrutiny should be able to fully implement four common-sense recommendations made more than five years ago.

Lest those opposite dismiss my words as a ‘political stunt’, as is their habit, the chair of the Our Booris, Our Way Implementation Oversight Committee has described the government’s performance over the past five years as, quote, ‘ferocious indifference when it came to a commitment to action to implement recommendations. We did see this coming’, she added, ‘as throughout the review many attempts were made to diminish our voices and our decisions’.[6] Things may finally be starting to improve, she has said, but demonstrably this has not been a priority for ACT Labor or the Greens despite what they may say.

I have faced similar government foot-dragging with youth justice. For many years now, I have raised concerns about the lack of diversionary programs as well throughcare for young people exiting detention. This government loves to talk about diverting at-risk youth from being locked up, but that requires having somewhere to divert them to, and for years we have had long waiting lists for young offenders to get help and almost nowhere for them to go, putting both young people and the community at risk.

After many years of failing families, this budget finally introduces funding for a Functional Family Therapy–Youth Justice program. Only time will tell if it will launch when promised. Concerned by this government’s pattern of announcing new initiatives and then woefully underfunding them, I asked in estimates if this program would have the capacity to prevent young people in trouble spending months and months on a waiting list. I was told yes, but I will believe it when I see it.

The history of throughcare for youths exiting detention further illustrates how this Labor-Greens government operates. The Human Rights Commission recommended a transition unit in 2011, but five years later the government shut it down. In 2019, the Human Rights Commission identified this ‘as a major issue’ and again called for ‘a systemic program of throughcare at Bimberi similar to that previously offered’. The government agreed, but nothing had changed by 2020, when the Inspector of Correctional Services told the government to, quote, ‘take urgent action’ regarding ‘a systemic program of throughcare at Bimberi’.

Reflecting this government’s sense of urgency when it comes to the wellbeing of young people, three years later, and seven years after ACT Labor and the Greens shut down the transition unit at Bimberi, this budget finally includes $200,000 … not to actually reopen the unit but to design something new. I was told it might be ready by the middle of next year, but who knows? Clearly, this has not been at the top of this government’s priority list.

In the area of child development, I note that recommendation 42 in the Estimates Committee report is for the government to ‘urgently address … autism assessments for young people over the age of 12’. This significant reform would bring the ACT into line with Tasmania, Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory, all of which publicly support autism assessments for young people. Two years ago, I called on the government to do the same thing … and also to track data in order to measure delayed diagnosis and its causes so that we can improve early diagnosis.

My motion was unanimously rejected by both Labor and the Greens. Minister Berry has stated that the government is collecting no data, and in estimates hearings, I confirmed with her that this budget includes no support for expanding publicly funded assessments. And whilst the government has agreed ‘in principle’ to this recommendation, no reasonable person expects to see its implementation. This is simply not a priority for this government.

As clarified during estimates, food security is another important area that is not a high priority for this government. Since 2011, a small grant has been given each year to help pay for the cost of bringing discounted food and other essentials from Sydney to Canberra to stock community food pantries. As Minister Davidson confirmed, the value of this grant in 2016–17 and again in 2017–18 was $84,539.49. Rotary in Canberra administered this grant, topping it up with their own funds.

Then, in 2018, the government switched the grant for freight costs to St Vincent de Paul. At the time, Minister Stephen-Smith stated that, quote, ‘The refreshed emergency relief program will deliver better services for Canberrans in need’. Sounds great! What she didn’t say was that the value of the government’s grant had been slashed by one-third, from $85,000 to $56,000. Like Rotary, Vinnies supplemented freight costs from their own funds for four years, but last year this all fell apart. Huge cost-of-living increases created increased demand on community food pantries whilst freight costs soared, and the grant was exhausted within just four months. The government finally responded to repeated public calls for assistance, but not before months of panic and, as confirmed by food pantry managers, disruptions to supplies. What an awful ordeal to impose on vulnerable Canberrans and those who support them!

Imagine how different things could have been if the government had been checking on food pantries or keeping an eye on soaring freight costs. A government that spent months carefully plotting how to bypass the ‘risk aversion and complexity’ associated with decriminalising hard drugs could have spent a bit of time tracking the emerging situation and planning how to avert a crisis. Instead, the focus of this Labor-Greens government was somewhere else last year, and instead we got months of what the minister euphemistically labelled ‘periods of uncertainty’ for those struggling to feed themselves and their families. Demonstrably, such people are not a priority for this government despite what those opposite may say.

Neither, it seems, are victims of domestic and family violence or those who seek to help them. On this topic, I feel like I give the same speech year after year – though, as the years go by, the problems increase in number and severity. Refuges and other frontline services supporting victims of domestic violence remain underfunded whilst demand continues to increase well beyond the capacity of service providers. In the meantime, millions of dollars of the Safer Families Levy are spent on training for ACT public servants instead.

Next year the Safer Families Levy will increase to $50 per household. Yet the ACT Government has purposefully obscured how much of the levy is spent on frontline community services by using the levy to offset a range of different initiatives, making it impossible to differentiate the funding invested in the domestic violence portfolio as a whole.

I have regularly questioned the government on the use of the Safer Families Levy since it was first established in 2016, and I will continue to advocate for it to be spent directly on frontline community services that support people who are at risk of or are victims of domestic violence … and for greater transparency.

I support policies that support victims of domestic violence. I welcome the anticipated design and implementation of several pilots that have been announced, namely the Victim Survivor Consultation Program, the multidisciplinary centre for specialist sexual violence responses and services, the policy and program design by domestic violence victim-survivors, and lastly, early intervention response programs for children and young people – something I have been advocating for since I was first elected.

But too many of these policies and initiatives have not come fast enough. For example, new initiatives relating to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women as well as children and young people who have experienced domestic violence were included in the ‘We Don’t Shoot Our Wounded’ report, released in 2009 by the then-ACT Victims of Crime Coordinator in collaboration with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. It contains 12 recommendations. Unsurprisingly, all 12 were completely ignored by the ACT Government, which sat on the report and did nothing about it for 10 years! Fourteen years after the report was released, we are just beginning to see some of its recommendations in the planning stages in this budget. Demonstrably, implementing these important reforms has not been a government priority.

Finally, I note that ACTCOSS in its budget submission expressed hope that this budget would finally be the one to fund a board of inquiry into overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system. The unanimous request for this board of inquiry was first made by Indigenous community leaders in March 2021 and has been repeated many times between now and then. In ignoring this request, the government has, amongst other things, claimed that it would cost too much and take too long.

The reality is that this inquiry is not something that ACT Labor and the Greens want. If they did, it would have happened by now. This government, after all, has demonstrated that it can commission and fund a board of inquiry when doing so suits its agenda. A board of inquiry into the handling of the Bruce Lehrmann case was announced in December last year, and by February the government had provided $4.3 million to fund it. Why have First Nations community leaders been waiting more than two years for the inquiry they have asked for? Demonstrably, they and their concerns are not a priority for this government.

In conclusion, I wish to express my gratitude for the good work that all committed community service providers do to help build, protect, and support the most vulnerable amongst us. It is quite clear from this budget, however, along with prior budgets and cumulative decisions by this government, that community services are not its top priority.

Labor and the Greens repeatedly say the right things about supporting our communities and at-risk Canberrans. The foot-dragging, delays, excuses, inaction, lack of funding, and refusal to genuinely listen to community members and frontline service providers all suggest otherwise. Demonstrably, this is a government that is focussed on other things. Canberrans deserve so much better.

[1] Our Booris, Our Way Steering Committee, ‘Release of Our Booris, Our Way Interim Report’, press release, Aug. 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Our Booris, Our Way Steering Committee, ‘Our Booris Our Way Interim Report’, Aug. 2018, p. 3, emphasis added.

[4] ACT Government, ‘Our Booris Our Way Review, Six-monthly Update: July – December 2022’, May 2023, pp. 21, 35, and 39.

[5] Ibid, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 7.


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