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Homelessness services face lingering uncertainty

Scott Ludlam 10 Feb 2015


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:31): My question is to the Assistant Minister for Social Services, Senator Fifield. I refer to the extraordinary open letter signed by more than 60 homeless service providers today, pointing out that, while the government budget is on a four yearly cycle, every front-line homeless support service in the country faces layoffs and closures because the government is refusing to commit to their continued funding. Will the government commit to a four-year National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness? And if not, why not?

Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Government Business in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Social Services) (14:32): I think it is important to point out that the previous Labor government not only terminated the NPAH funding beyond 30 June 2014, but it also failed to provide for homelessness funding in the forward estimates.

The PRESIDENT: Pause the clock. Senator Ludlam, on a point of order.

Senator Ludlam: Mr President, I rise on a point of relevance: if I had wanted to ask about Labor policy, I would have asked a Labor senator; you are the government, Senator Fifield. Mr President, I ask you to draw his attention to the question.

Opposition senators interjecting-

The PRESIDENT: Order! Thank you, Senator Ludlam; Senator Fifield had just commenced his answer and he is putting the context around the question you asked.

Senator FIFIELD: Thank you, Mr President. As I was saying, there was no provision for NPAH funding in the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook in August 2013 issued by the former Treasurer. In contrast, the coalition government has provided $115 million for the 2014-15 National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which was matched by the states and territories. It is also important to point out that the states and territories are responsible for determining priorities, and retain the flexibility to decide which services should be funded. Mr President, in the short term, future arrangements for the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness will be considered in the context of the 2015-16 budget, while longer-term arrangements for housing assistance and homelessness services will be considered in the context of the white paper.

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:33): I thank the senator for his answer and I rise on a supplementary question. Senator Fifield, in the context of the $115 million you identified, I presume you are aware-through you, Mr President-that that amounted to a cut of $44 million. Will the government be restoring that cut, made as part of the extraordinary cuts to the housing and homelessness portfolio? And will the government immediately reinstate the $21 million it cut from peak bodies like Homelessness Australia just three days before Christmas?

Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Government Business in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Social Services) (14:34): As I stated before, but I will restate it for Senator Ludlam: in the short term, future arrangements for the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness will be considered in the context of the 2015-16 budget.

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:34): Mr President, I rise on a further supplementary question: due to the failure of the minister to commit to funding, and the government's evident indifference to the plight of homeless Australians, can we take it that Minister Scott Morrison intends to bring the same spirit of compassion and humanity to the social services portfolio that he brought to the immigration portfolio?

Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Government Business in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Social Services) (14:34): Mr President, I can answer that question in one word: absolutely! But I will expand upon it for you, Senator Ludlam. Minister Morrison, as Minister for Immigration, showed the ultimate compassion and the ultimate decency-because his ceaseless and absolute objective was to stop people dying at sea. And I am so pleased to be able to advise all of my colleagues in this place that Minister Morrison was successful. Because of Minister Morrison's efforts, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who would otherwise have lost their lives at sea. It is a matter of great pride in this government that the people smugglers have effectively been put out of business. Minister Morrison is a man of great compassion and great decency. He wants to see Australians in work. He wants to see people who are facing extra challenges for reasons beyond their control getting the help they deserve.

Motion to Take Note of the Minister's Answer

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:30): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Assistant Minister for Social Services (Senator Fifield) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ludlam today relating to homelessness initiatives.

Mr Morrison has taken over responsibility for some of the most vulnerable people in our community: people at risk of homelessness or who are actually suffering homelessness. Perhaps Senator Fifield recognised that I was being somewhat tongue in cheek in the final question that I put to him, about whether Mr Morrison was going to bring the same spirit of compassion and humanity that he brought to the treatment of people seeking sanctuary and refuge in Australia to people who are suffering homelessness.

Homelessness kills people. Presumably none of us, on any side of politics, have ever been homeless or potentially at risk of homelessness, but I bet we all know somebody who has, because it is so widespread in a housing market as warped and overheated as that of Australia. It is a Commonwealth government responsibility to do something about it, whether it simply be through guaranteed funding through four-year budget cycles or whether it be more hands-on forms of assistance to homeless people. There is nothing in the Constitution that says it is solely a state responsibility or that we should simply throw some of the most vulnerable people in our community into the teeth of the market. The market has failed, and it continues to fail people who are falling through the cracks.

Senator Fifield, understanding that you are in a representative capacity when you come in here and that you are not responsible for the portfolio, it is kind of dismal to simply hear back a recitation of what the Labor Party had done. Under the former government, we had a Minister for Homelessness that we could take these questions to. Under the former government, we had direct assistance like the National Rental Affordability Scheme. The Rental Affordability Scheme was not perfect, but it was something that was brought in by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd after being developed extensively over a period of years by housing peak bodies and people with experience in financial markets to try and work out how to get something happening on the supply side, and you have trashed it. You pulled it apart. It is hard to believe that you could simply come in here and blame the former government. You have been here for 16 months.

Maybe this is a part of the commitment that good government starts today. Maybe good government on behalf of homeless people could start today, because sweet stuff-all has happened up until this point, apart from abolishing things that had previously existed. You have cut $235 million from the National Rental Affordability Scheme. I imagine that senators from the crossbench and from the opposition would have worked with this government to improve that scheme, which was flawed and which we had been critiquing for months and years. I would imagine that those on the crossbenches and the opposition benches would have worked with the government to improve that scheme, and instead you have just thrown it out the door. The First Home Saver Accounts scheme has been abolished-$130 million. Homelessness research strategy funding-

Senator O'Sullivan: No money. You didn't leave enough money behind.

Senator LUDLAM: There seems to be enough money to build $40 billion worth of submarines and Joint Strike Fighters. There seems to be enough money for these random defence procurement decisions that seem to be getting made. There was enough money to send hundreds of millions of dollars back to Rupert Murdoch. There was enough money to give the mining industry a massive tax cut. So do not start complaining about money, because it is falling on deaf ears for people who are suffering homelessness.

The homelessness research strategy has been axed. The Housing Help for Seniors pilot program, $170 million, has been axed.

Senator O'Sullivan: The structural deficit, up to $60 billion, left behind by you and Labor.

Senator LUDLAM: Most of them Howard era tax cuts, as you well know, for people in the middle class who could have done without it. There is money in the budget for your pet projects but nothing for people suffering from homelessness.

The thing that I brought in here to Senator Fifield for question time is that you are keeping every homeless support service, crisis centre and shelter in the country on starvation budgets that roll forward a year at a time. So you have told them, effectively, that there will be no guaranteed funding commitment till after the budget, which occurs in May, and their funding falls off a cliff at the end of this financial year, at the end of June, which means they are looking at redundancies, cannot sign rental and lease agreements for properties and cannot put people into long-term care or long-term programs if the funding is not guaranteed. Imagine if the rest of government tried to work this way. Imagine if you made the defence department work this way. You go to the defence department and you say: 'We don't know what your budget's going to be on 1 July. In fact, we don't know if there's going to be any funding for defence at all. We may have to make savage cuts, and we won't tell you until May.' That is gargantuan incompetence and indifference to the plight of people who need better from us. They need better from the government and they need better from this parliament.

So, as these groups whose funding you so casually cut on Christmas Eve last year come into parliament over the next couple of days, we will be seeking answers from this government as to what it intends to do, and we will be seeking funding certainty.

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