Royalties for Regions Bill
Date:Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Extract from Hansard:
HON ALISON XAMON (East Metropolitan) [9.27 pm]: I rise tonight to express a level of disquiet with this legislation. I know that I am not alone in my concerns, although I must admit that I had some hesitation in deciding whether I would speak in this debate on the Royalties for Regions Bill. We are hearing a lot from our regional members, which is great, but I am concerned that perhaps the sorts of things that are said behind the scenes are not being brought to the fore. The concern I have is that if anyone comes out to criticise this legislation, they run the risk of being falsely accused of being anti-regional Australia. Anyone who wishes to accuse me of that would be lying, and I would consider that to be quite malicious and certainly false. I consider myself to be pro people. It should not surprise anyone in this chamber to know that my priority has always been about the plight of our most marginal, disadvantaged and helpless Western Australians, whether they live in the regions or in metropolitan Perth.
My concerns with this legislation are essentially twofold. Firstly, I am concerned that there are not appropriate accountability measures within the legislation and that they are inadequate. Secondly, I am concerned that, as a result of that, we may find that portions of the money that is being allocated does not end up where I believe the money needs to be targeted, which is in those areas of desperate need. An important point to bear in mind when considering this bill is that royalties are an essential part of our overall state revenue. The money that has been diverted into royalties for regions comes from money that traditionally goes into the state coffers to pay for all those things that governments should and do spend money on, including those things we sometimes take for granted, such as education; health care, including mental health care; transport; child protection; environmental protection; police; and any number of essential services. Royalties are part of the state’s normal income, not money that has been conjured up by the Minister for Regional Development. That is not to say that we should not have royalties for regions. As has been said, a form of royalties for regions, but not this one, has been incorporated into the policy of the Greens in the past. We have a responsibility to every Western Australian to ensure that the money that does go towards royalties for regions is spent wisely and spent in the areas of greatest need and where it will make the greatest difference to people’s lives. The question I have and the question before us is: will the Royalties for Regions Bill ensure that this money achieves this very important purpose? The problems that have beset many communities in regional areas, and in particular Indigenous communities, are certainly significant. Many of these communities are vulnerable populations living at the core of hardship and poverty, which, at this point in history, should be to the great shame of all of us.
As a case in point, I draw members’ attention to an article by Jessica Strutt in The West Australian published on 20 October. It details the challenges that are currently being faced by the people of Kununurra. The article describes shops being put out of business due to crime, children begging on the streets, child sexual abuse, and a severe shortage of accommodation and child protection services. I do not think it takes an enormous argument to convince people that money needs to be spent in Kununurra as a priority. The problems that have beset Kununurra will not be fixed by building a bowling green or giving the playgroup a makeover. I do not want to be too flippant about this, but, having said that, we know there is a huge disparity between many services and facilities between the metropolitan and some regional and remote areas. That is not in dispute—certainly not from me and certainly not from the Greens. I have not heard a single speaker dispute that either. I must admit to not having read Hansard from the other place, but, apart from that, I have not heard a single speaker attempt to dispute that point. I certainly will not dispute it either.
I will mention an area of particular concern that was identified by the Commissioner for Children and Young People; that is, the shortage of safe houses for women and children, and particularly Indigenous women and children in rural and remote areas. The commissioner also identified shortfalls in quality child care, in parenting advice and the availability of Aboriginal health workers in many Indigenous communities. In addition, increased mental health services and youth support services are needed. We need more programs to effectively address infant mortality rates for Indigenous Australians and programs that focus on improving Aboriginal educational outcomes. We certainly need more appropriate training as well as other ways to increase employment opportunities for young people in regional areas. Programs are needed to reduce the overrepresentation of young Aboriginal people in our justice system. Basically the list goes on.
We all know that there is a lot of need in our Indigenous communities. We also know there simply is not enough money in the pot to fund every single worthwhile project in regional WA, or, for that matter, in the metro area. I will certainly be the first to admit to this government that the previous government was not doing it a whole lot better either. As there is a finite pool of money, we need to prioritise our spending. One of the jobs of government is to make those hard decisions on where limited pools of public money should be spent. We know that is not an easy job. We obviously have a lot of disagreement in this place as to how that can be done. A hard job will become an impossible one when there is no adequate framework to ensure that the processes for determining that are rigorously conducted.
I know of the contents of another submission made by the Commissioner for Children and Young People to the Standing Committee on Estimates and Financial Operations’ inquiry into the royalties for regions policy. The commissioner identified a lack of coordination in the delivery of services for children and young people in regional areas. She called for a child and youth plan to provide coordinated funding for programs that provide kids with activities outside school, including sport and cultural activities, as they have proven to be enormously beneficial to children and their communities.
The commissioner made a very good point and one which can be broadened to other areas; that is, the real needs of WA people cannot be addressed without coordination and collaboration by all service providers. Royalties for regions should not be operated in isolation without due consideration to service delivery. Strategic planning is necessary to ensure that funding reaches and is effective in areas of greatest need. There is no point spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on recreational or other facilities if the resources and local capacity is not there to sustain it. We have all heard stories of brand-new pools in recreational centres that have been closed due to a lack of staff or lack of funding for maintenance and upkeep. The programs that are funded must be based on sound evidence. We need to know they are a community’s priority and there is capacity for sustainability.
It seems to me that an essential tension in the royalties for regions policy is the argument that this spending should be over and above the normal delivery of funds to the regions, yet clearly many of the things that have already been funded and are proposed to be given priority for future funding are in essence core areas of service delivery that have been chronically underfunded for a long time. This legislation fails to deal with that tension.
Last month Hon Mia Davies shared with this house a range of mental health programs that have been funded through royalties for regions. Obviously I applaud any initiatives to put money into mental health, but I am concerned that the government’s commitment to mental health has been demonstrated through royalties for regions funding, particularly when our metro mental health services are currently being “de-funded” and when people in the east metro area are being denied adequate mental health services. Substituting royalties for regions funding to make up shortfalls in funding for mental health is not an acceptable outcome. The government’s first priority should be adequate front-line delivery of essential services. It is not doing this at the moment. People should not have to fill in a grant application to receive an appropriate level of funding for education or mental health care in the community, whether they live in Broome or Armadale. I would hate it if the government saw royalties for regions as a way to get around the significant cuts it has made in other areas so that in the end people who live in the regions, as well as those who live in the metro area, end up worse off than was the case before this policy was introduced.
I support the inclusion of local decision making as an important part of the way funds are distributed. I recognize the argument that often people in the city are seen by people in regional areas as not being perhaps the best equipped to determine their needs. However, this is only going to work if there is appropriate accountability including adequate reporting and evaluation. Cost-benefit analysis also needs to be an essential part of the approvals process. The ideal situation would also involve some level of partnership with other areas of government so there is no duplication and that processes are fully transparent. I believe that organisations such as Lotterywest, existing local government grants programs or Tourism WA grants and other small grant schemes should be the first port of call for communities wanting to refurbish their playgroups or hold a community festival or refit their sporting halls where such things are not provided in normal government service delivery. I know, being the mother of three children and having been involved with these sorts of organisations for many years, that every playgroup and toy library that I have been involved with has had to do this. In fact I still have to do this, although not quite as much. My husband is doing more of that these days. Good on him! It is really no different for metropolitan parents. I am not saying that royalties for regions is not providing funding for some really worthwhile causes, projects and programs. We keep hearing them over and over again. However, I am concerned that the people of Western Australia cannot be sure that the money is being spent wisely, because the legislative framework is simply so loose that it is not giving us any guarantees.
As noted by my colleague Hon Robin Chapple, this legislation does not contain appropriate mechanisms to ensure strategic management for the distribution of funds, or that the expenditure will provide a long-term, sustainable benefit, and target essential and important areas of need in a transparent way. If the government or the Minister for Regional Development is distributing up to $1 billion of revenue, I for one want to be sure that the money will be spent wisely and sustainably. I want to know that it will be spent on projects that will make a real difference to people on the ground in regional communities; in particular, that it will make a difference in the long term to the most vulnerable members of those communities, including women and children, and in particular Indigenous women and children. I want to know that it will be distributed according to policy rather than politics. Instead of the program being royalties for regions, I would like it to be royalties for people. If that means that we need to put more money into regional and remote communities, that is absolutely fine.
Hon Col Holt interjected.
Hon ALISON XAMON: That is not what I said and I am disappointed that members have chosen to not hear what I am saying.
I believe the money needs to be distributed according to need. I have a different idea of need. Need to me is not about numbers; it is about the way people are living and where they are living, and about addressing issues of poverty and disadvantage. If that means that the majority of the money needs to go to the regions, that is where it should go. However, I am concerned that there are no accountability measures in place so that we can know that that is where it will go. I would hate to think that moneys were distributed solely on the basis of electorates rather than defining where the need really is.
Hon Mia Davies interjected.
Hon Wendy Duncan interjected.
Hon ALISON XAMON: I am sorry; there are two members talking at once and I cannot hear. I will continue responding.
The royalties for regions program is supposed to remedy the previous chronic lack of funding and the previous lack of the provision of adequate services and infrastructure to regional Western Australia. Historically, there certainly has been a huge problem with that. The program is supposed to support the fair allocation of the state’s resources and the maintenance of vibrant regional communities. The Greens (WA) support the intent of the royalties for regions policy, but there is no guarantee that the current bill, without amendment, will deliver on those intentions. That is my grave concern. I want to make sure that this money goes to where the actual need is.
It is disappointing that members are not hearing what I am saying when I am defining “need”. Need is not about numbers. Need is not about where the majority of people live. Need is about dealing with disadvantage.