Chapter 3 - Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Portfolio
Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
This chapter contains the key issues discussed during the 2010-2011 additional
estimates hearings for the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous
The committee heard evidence from the department on Thursday 24 February
2011. Areas of the portfolio were called in the following order:
Cross Outcomes/Corporate Matters
Families and Children
Community Capability and the Vulnerable
Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA)
Disability and Carers
Cross Outcomes/Corporate Matters
The committee began by asking the department to inform them of the
impact of the recent floods in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria and the
affect of Cyclone Yasi in Queensland and the bushfires in Western Australia.
The department told the committee there were no personal injuries recorded and
no significant damage to any buildings. The head office in Brisbane was
evacuated for a few days and the Cairns office was closed because of Cyclone
Yasi, but Dr Geoff Harmer, Secretary, confirmed that the department has
returned to normal operations. Dr Harmer also noted that following the recent
earthquake in New Zealand, the department made contact with the head of the New
Zealand Ministry of Social Development to offer any assistance they could
provide. The committee requested that when the time is available, they would
appreciate a report on the emergency response plans for the recent natural
disasters and the role that the department played at a regional level.
The committee sought further information on the benefits provided in the
employee collective agreement, such as the provisions in place for the
Promoting Good Health payments.
The committee also asked about the department's cultural leave and what
criteria is used to determine an appropriate use of cultural leave. Officers
explained that cultural leave covers a number of things, and the list of
guidelines for such leave can be provided on notice. Officers were confident however
that the policy is comparable with other departments. Officers also informed
the committee that the current collective agreement is due to expire in
Departmental trial of iPads
The committee asked the department to provide information on the amount
spent on iPads, the number of iPads purchased and the people they were
purchased for. Officers explained they are essentially for senior officers and
described it as a 'very modest and targeted trial'.
Officers were keen to highlight the security measures in place to ensure there
are no breaches, noting the department adheres to the Defence Signals
Directorate guidelines and does not allow any secret or confidential
information on the iPads.
The committee asked the department to explain any unique functions that
made the purchase of the iPads necessary. Officers explained that they are
being trialled in a number of ways and were being considered as a replacement for
laptops when staff are travelling. The trial is due to complete in early
March, with a view to discuss how they could be potentially deployed in a
Families and Children
Paid Parental Leave (PPL)
The committee asked officers to clarify figures listed in the FaHCSIA
budget statements, and how they relate to current spending figures. Officers
explained that the PPL scheme started on 1 January 2011. Officers explained
that there are two particular targeted 'client groups': the people entitled to
the payment itself and the employers who will be transferring those payments to
The committee noted the potential for people to access two schemes of
paid parental leave.
Officers explained that there are many variables involved in whether one could
access both a government sponsored and an employee sponsored scheme, such as
what stage they choose to take their leave. Officers clarified:
One of the objectives in the design of the scheme was to
allow, for purposes of maternal and child health, for more time between working
mothers with very young babies. Should a person choose to tack on to their
employer-provided maternity or parental leave scheme, this payment would not be
double-dipping. It would be merely an extension of the possible time away from
The committee asked a number of other questions as to specific cases to
determine who specifically would be eligible for the scheme, such as an
Australian citizen who gives birth in another country. Officers replied:
Yes, it is possible for an Australian citizen to claim, and
for an Australian citizen who has been working overseas to meet the work test
by working overseas.
Family Support Program
The committee sought information on the progress of the tender for the
Family Support Program, noting that when funding is dependent on the upcoming
budget, it can create discomfort for service providers. Officers explained
that the department is in the process of approving the new program guidelines
and the 'templates' that will be in place for the funding agreements.
The committee asked officers about particular programs offered under the
Family Support Program and the likelihood of those programs being continued.
Officers explained that the early intervention and prevention programs, as well
as pre-marriage counselling and couple counselling, will continue to be part of
the Family Support Program.
When questioned on the eligibility of people seeking assistance in those areas,
Certainly our expectation would be that no one who needs a
service is denied that service. Different organisations have fees policies
that they apply, but that is a very clear requirement that people are not
denied a service who are unable to contribute.
The committee noted these services are available for everyone, but that
organisations place a priority on 'vulnerable clients'. As a result, the
committee asked officers to explain the department's definition of
'vulnerable'. Officers were keen to note that the department does not 'own'
the definition, but that work has taken place with the service providers to
establish a draft definition of vulnerability.
The committee sought further information on the Broadband for Seniors
kiosks. Officers reported a total of 2,000 kiosks established, noting that the
location of each was based on a high need postal area, as well as the number of
seniors, education levels, income levels, and the Socio-Economic Indexes for
Areas (SEFIA) score. Officers further noted that the location was also reliant
upon applications by individual communities working with the provider, with
applications being assessed on a case by case basis to make sure that the highest
need areas were given priority.
Community Capability and the Vulnerable
The committee queried why the department did not make a submission to
the Productivity Commission's inquiry into gambling reform. Officers explained
that while the department has programs that fund emergency relief suppliers,
they do not require the suppliers to provide the reasons why people affected by
gambling have sought assistance and for those reasons did not provide a
submission to the inquiry.
The committee sought further information on the demand or uptake of
services during the rolling out of income management in the Northern
Territory. Officers told the committee from 2008-09 to 2009-10, the client
uptake increased significantly from 5,277 to 14,000 people. The department were
able to provide data for 2009-10, but noted that figures on the new rollout are
not due to be provided by the services providers until the end of the financial
year. Officers also informed the committee that since the 2010 election,
funding has increased to cover approximately 100 additional communities and now
covers 180 communities in total, providing greater coverage in the Northern
Women and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA)
Officers began by updating the committee on the representation for women
on Australian government boards during 2009-10. Human Services notified the
department of an error in the calculations for the report, and as such, the
report was removed from the website to avoid misleading the public or the
parliament. Officers informed the committee of the updated figures:
At this stage, I am able to report that the overall figure as
at 30 June 2010 is 34.3 per cent, which is comparable to the 2007-08 figure of
32.8 per cent and the 2008-09 figure of 33.4 per cent.
The committee queried the position of permanent director of EOWA, noting
that the current acting director has been in the position for over two years.
Officers reported that they anticipate the appointment will be announced within
The committee sought clarification on the discrepancy between an answer
to question on notice and a press release by the Minister for the commencement
date for the 1800 RESPECT counselling service. The committee noted that while
the service commenced on 1 October 2010, the Minister did not announce it until
5 October. Officers explained that the telephone number was being
automatically transferred from a previous service and explained the delay in the
Minister's announcement was due to the requirement to ensure there were no
problems in the transfer for the first few days.
Office for Women
The committee asked the department for an update on the progress of the
establishment of the Office for Woman. Officers reported that in December
2009, the Office for Women issued a request for tender for a panel arrangement
of gender experts. From that request, 43 tenders were successful, with 38
contracts signed to date. The contracts are now published online, and APS
agencies were notified on 18 February that the panel has now been established.
Disability and Carers
The committee discussed the selection process for disability ambassadors
announced at the Disability Awards in 2010. Officers explained that the
department assisted that process by providing suggestions, but that the
appointment was essentially a decision for government. The committee raised
the issue of the appointment of Ms Catherine Deveny as ambassador, noting that
some of her public comments were a cause for concern. The Minister advised
that the appointment was for international day specifically, and the
appointment will not be renewed.
Disability Support Pension (DSP)
The committee queried why the department had not yet published the
latest Characteristics of Disability Support Pension Recipients report.
Officers explained they have been unable to meet the timeline due to competing
priorities, but that the target date for release is the end of March.
The department provided details on the number of DSP recipients,
separating those who were subject to arrangements before the 2006 reforms and
those who were recipients afterwards. The committee queried why the recipient
numbers were growing at a particularly fast rate when the rate of unemployment
is continuing to fall. Officers explained that many factors affect the total
number of people receiving DSP, but that economic conditions rarely affect the total.
Officers further explained that:
The drivers of DSP also include an increasing number of women
seeking the payment as a result of other payments being closed that they might
previously have been eligible for, which includes increasing the age of the age
pension, the closure of the wife pension and the restriction of parenting
payment. DSP numbers are also driven by very low exit rates. Once people are
on the payment they tend–sadly, as the minister observed in a newspaper
article–not to leave the payment unless they qualify for age pension or they
The committee began by asking what effects the recent natural disasters
have had on the government's social housing investments. Officers replied that
in relation to Queensland, Queensland Housing adopted a policy over many years
to build above the one in 100-year flood level, resulting in the vast amount of
stimulus housing being unaffected. Officers noted they have not received all
information in relation to the damage caused by Cyclone Yasi because it has not
been made available by the Queensland Government yet.
The committee asked the department about a company contracted to build
social housing that has reportedly since collapsed. Officers informed the
committee they are aware of these reports, and that the stimulus process involved
approximately 2,500 projects, of which a small handful ended up with this
particular construction company. Officers emphasised that the responsibility
for managing the program rests with state governments and that each
jurisdiction has different ways of ensuring subcontractors get paid. This
particular case occurred in New South Wales, where Housing New South Wales has
measures in place that seek statutory declarations from companies that ensure
they are in a position to pay their subcontractors.
Public Housing Waiting Lists
The committee raised a number of figures that showed the number of
people on waiting lists had increased, but also that the number of days housing
stock was left vacant had increased. Officers explained that it is quite a
complex environment, but that a significant part of the increase in the number
of people on waiting lists can be explained by the transition of jurisdictions
using multiple lists, to using a single waiting list. This single list is a
consolidated waiting list across all types of social housing comprising of
community housing, indigenous housing and mainstream public housing.
Officers explained that while not all states and territories were currently
using a consolidated waiting list, the integration of waiting lists is one of
the reform agenda items that comprise the National Affordable Housing
Dr Harmer provided another explanation for the increase in number of
people on waiting lists, stating:
In our experience, waiting lists often reflect the possibility
of being housed, so when there are some additional funds in public housing as
there has been recently, the expectation of being housed goes up and people
feel it is worthwhile putting their names on the waiting list.
Minister Arbib also noted that the data was collected both during the
global financial crisis and prior to the social housing stimulus being
completed, which may have had an effect. Officers noted the average turnaround
time between tenancies could be attributed to maintenance taking place on the
property, as 97.7 per cent of public housing stock was tenanted as at 30 June
The committee sought an update on progress for new homelessness
legislation. The department reported they are advancing the work on the National
Quality Framework, which is seen as a key initiative when addressing
homelessness. Officers are taking legal advice to determine the parameters of
the proposed Commonwealth legislation.
The committee took the opportunity to acknowledge Dr Harmer's retirement
and last appearance at Senate Estimates. The committee and Minister
acknowledged Dr Harmer's contribution to the public service since his
commencement in 1978.
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