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Tackling homelessness in Senate Estimates

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Scott Ludlam 4 Mar 2014

Senator Rachel Siewert, Australian Greens spokesperosn on families and community services, raises crucial homelessness issues in Senate Estimates.

Senate Estimates - Homelessness and the NPAH
February 26th 2014

Senator SIEWERT: That is right, yes. I would like to ask some questions about the national partnership agreement on homelessness. I bet you could not have guessed that that is what I would be asking about. I understand that the minister, Mr Andrews, has said that we need to wait until after the budget for any further announcements. Is the government not going to be making any announcement on the partnership agreement before May?
Mr Pratt: What is the basis for the understanding that Minister Andrews has said that?
Senator SIEWERT: Minister Andrews said on 23 February:
The Government understands the community sector is seeking clarity and will work to ensure there is certainty as soon as possible. But all significant funding decisions must follow the budget process and these decisions will be announced in May.
Mr Lye: What we would add to that is that clearly there is a budget process. We are very aware that people have asked for a decision to be communicated as soon as possible. People have talked about March or April to allow service providers time. I think the minister is aware of that. The fact that it is in the budget process does not mean that the decision will not be communicated before that time. So it is in the budget process, but there obviously is facility to make announcements before the budget.
Senator SIEWERT: So does that mean that you will be letting organisations know that they are likely to have continued funding?
Mr Lye: Well, it is a decision for government, Senator. I think the minister is trying to convey that it is in a budget process. The situation we are in is that the transitional NPA did not receive ongoing funding, so it is classified as a terminating initiative. So there is no money in the forward estimates. The government has to have a process to consider what it will do.
Senator SIEWERT: I appreciate that, but I am still somewhat confused by your answer. I know for a fact that in WA there are organisations that are looking at closing their doors. I am sure that is repeated around the country. They are looking at closing their doors way before we get to May. From your first answer, do I take it that there will be some form of improvement in certainty for organisations to know whether there will be some funding or not?
Mr Pratt: Senator, what we are saying is that the government is aware of these issues. There are precedents for decisions to be announced pre budget in certain circumstances. As yet, government has not taken a decision on that.
Senator SIEWERT: I am told that in March some of these organisations are going to have to make a decision. I presume the minister is aware of the very restricted time in which these organisations will be having to make these decisions?
Mr Pratt: Yes, Senator.
Senator SIEWERT: I understand from what you have just said that that will that enable some further negotiation with the organisations if a prebudget decision is made. Will the follow-up to that be some negotiation with these organisations so a decision is made? It does not necessarily mean that the organisations that are
currently getting funded will have their funding continued. I am not trying to split hairs here. There is the big picture announcement. Then there is the work with organisations. Is that able to start, at least, before May?
Mr Pratt: That really depends on the decision the government takes, Senator.
Mr Lye: I think most of the organisations involved are actually funded by-Mr Palmer will correct me-state governments. So we have a relationship with the state governments. The state governments are the funder. So we are in regular contact with chief executives of state housing authorities or development authorities, keeping them abreast of where things are at. When a decision is taken, it will be communicated. Then that process would happen.

Senator SIEWERT: So they will be communicating with the relevant state agencies?
Mr Lye: I think for the most part. Mr Palmer will correct me if I am wrong.
Senator SIEWERT: In WA, the partnership funds 41 different bodies to provide at least 80 different support services. Are they all going to be able to be addressed during that timeline? Will all those issues have a degree of certainty one way or the other by the time they have to start laying off staff?
Mr Palmer: My understanding is that each of the states and territories have a three-month notification requirement with the services they fund. It would depend on how processes run and the decision the government comes to on what notification we will give from the Commonwealth.
Senator SIEWERT: Where are the negotiations with the various states up to?
Mr Palmer: Without a government decision, it is not possible to enter into specific negotiations. But we have had ongoing discussions with states and territories-
Senator SIEWERT: I should have used the word 'discussions'.
Mr Palmer: around the different approaches they are taking and where they are at.
Senator SIEWERT: I am interested in all the states, but I am being a bit parochial here about my home state of Western Australia. Have you had any discussions with Western Australia?
Mr Palmer: Typically when we have spoken with the states and territories, we have spoken with them in multilateral forums and Western Australia has been present. The most recent discussion was last week.
Senator SIEWERT: So the discussions you have had with all the states have been multilateral discussions rather than on a one-
Mr Pratt: No.
Senator SIEWERT: It is just my home state?
Mr Pratt: The most recent discussion, which happened to be multilateral, was in Western Australia last week.
Senator SIEWERT: Presumably, therefore, you were talking to the Western Australian government. Thank you.
Mr Pratt: They often turn up at meetings in their state. Not always though.

Senator SIEWERT: That is interesting. I may pursue that at another time. In terms of the priority being put on this, do I take it from the comments you have made previously-I will address this to you, Mr Pratt-that this is high on the government's list of priorities to resolve?
Mr Pratt: I think that is a fair characterisation.
Senator SIEWERT: I am aware that resolution of the issue may be a priority. Does that mean homelessness is high on the government's priority? I am not trying to split hairs here. You may be trying to resolve it to just say no. I am not putting words in your mouth there. Does that mean homelessness is high on the government's priority?
Mr Pratt: Certainly the government regards homelessness as a priority.
Senator SIEWERT: Is the funding part of this process part of the commission of audit?
Mr Pratt: I assume the commission of audit is looking at this area, but I do not know.
Senator SIEWERT: I do not want to rehash all the discussions that we have had previously on the commission, but you presumably provided information to the commission on homelessness?
Mr Pratt: As I was saying earlier, we provided information on virtually everything that we do. What the commission of audit is actually focussing on, though, I do not know.
Senator SIEWERT: And you have not been specifically asked by the commission to provide further information on this?
Mr Pratt: Well, not personally, no. But in terms of the department, I do not know, and I probably would not answer if I did know.
Senator SIEWERT: You probably would not?
Mr Pratt: No. Apologies, Senator.

Senator SIEWERT: I am aware of time, so I will move on rather than pursue that.
CHAIR: But you are moving into a different section?
Senator SIEWERT: No. Still on the partnership. How many staff members, or full-time equivalents, are there working on this issue?
Mr Pratt: On homelessness?
Senator SIEWERT: Yes.
Mr Palmer: Senator, we have 24 people currently working within the homelessness branch on a range of homelessness issues.
Senator SIEWERT: Sorry, how many?
Mr Palmer: It is 24.
Senator SIEWERT: Is this the same number as was previously under FaHCSIA?
Mr Palmer: It is a smaller number.
Senator SIEWERT: By how much?
Mr Palmer: The number I have for June 2013 was 50 people.
Senator SIEWERT: Fifty under FaHCSIA?
Mr Palmer: Yes.
Senator SIEWERT: Just so that I do not go off half-cocked, that is half. Are those people not working on homelessness any more?
Mr Lye: It might have come about by the way we divide the functions.
Senator SIEWERT: That is where I was going, just to be clear.
Mr Lye: We divide out functions like research, and we divide housing policy, yet there are very strong interactions between those pieces of work in the one group. Then we also have some separate policy capacity in the family violence area, which sits in another area of the department. I think probably we would say we have plenty of guns on the issue. We have not reduced our effort.
Mr Pratt: I will come at it from another way. You should not assume that the change in numbers is solely due to efficiency dividends. It is a combination of things. Different areas of the department grow and shrink depending on what workload they have. There have been structural changes in the way we have done things like managing programs, policy work and research, as Mr Lye has just covered. In terms of the cycle of work, sometimes we move resources from one location to another and then back again or to another place.

Senator SIEWERT: I suppose the obvious response is that if it is on a cycle around priorities, I would have thought that, if at the moment you are basically in the process of developing a new agreement, it would take a fair number of resources to finalise.
Mr Pratt: As the officers have indicated, we are not yet at the stage where we might enter into negotiations. If we do enter into negotiations, we might revise our staffing numbers.
Mr Lye: It is a bit to do with the way the agreement is struck, too. It is not like another area, where we are directly funding NGOs and have an amount of work that comes from having that direct interface with the nongovernment sector. In this case, we are dealing with just the jurisdictions, essentially. That is a different sort of workload. It is complex and it requires people to think, obviously. But it is a different order of workload.
Senator SIEWERT: I have just a few more questions on this area. As part of the ongoing consideration of the next phase, are you also looking at the specialist services that were part of the last process? I am thinking of, for example, homelessness and domestic violence. Are those sorts of programs still in the mix for consideration?
Mr Palmer: It is probably worth explaining a little history here. If we go back to 2007, a large number of homelessness services were funded under the old SAAP, or supported accommodation assistance program, and the old CAP program, or crisis accommodation program. Those funds were rolled into the national affordable housing specific purpose payment from, I think, January 2009. So the homelessness services that were part of that agreement that were rolled in are continuing. That is part of the national affordable housing specific purpose
payment. It is a bit hard to say, but if you asked how much money was rolled in today's terms, in the order of $250 million ongoing in the base of the national affordable housing specific purpose payment is dedicated towards homelessness services. To get to your question, a lot of those services were for domestic violence refuges and those sorts of services. Some 39 of the 180 initiatives in the national partnership agreement on homelessness are also directed towards domestic violence refuges and those types of services.
Senator SIEWERT: So will that process continue? 

Mr Palmer: The national affordable housing specific purpose payment is an ongoing payment and is not being changed at any point at this moment.
Senator SIEWERT: I also note that at the same time the minister made the comments on 23 February about the budget process, he also made comments about responding more effectively to the causes of homelessness. Can you take me through what that means and whether that work is part of the future considerations in the agreement?
Mr Palmer: The minister flagged both before the election and after the election that the government wants to look at the effectiveness of the national affordable housing agreement and the way we measure the full range of services, including homelessness services, that are funded under that agreement. As part of that consideration and part of improving transparency and effectiveness, we would be looking at homelessness services. In his speech to the National Housing Conference in November, he asked for people to write to him if they have views on how those programs can be improved. That is the stage we are at at the moment. It is a consultation phase at the moment.
Senator SIEWERT: It is undergoing a consultation process. Thank you.
CHAIR: There are other questions around the national partnership and homelessness, so we might just do those.
Senator SIEWERT: Yes. Do that.

Full transcript is available here.


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