Consideration of Tabled Papers
Resumed from 21 October on the following motion moved by Hon Stephen Dawson (Minister for Environment) —
That pursuant to standing order 69(1), the Legislative Council take note of tabled papers 4389A–D (budget papers 2020–21) laid upon the table of the house on Thursday, 8 October 2020.
Comments and speeches by various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [12.43 pm]: I rise to make some comments about this year’s budget. I have 23 portfolios on behalf of the Greens, so I am clearly not going to be speaking on every single portfolio that I have. I am looking forward to the budget estimates process to see whether I can get answers to some of the detail around the budget. But I was able to go through at least some of the core issues that have been occupying my mind particularly during the last year since the last budget, and I certainly have plenty to say about those.
One key issue that I want to talk about is what is happening—or, rather, what is not happening—in the area of homelessness. I think it has been very interesting to watch how, over the course of the last six months in particular, this area has finally started to receive mainstream attention. It is an area that is usually glossed over. We have seen the way that the now Lord Mayor changed his whole attitude to the issue of homelessness through the course of the last several months because awareness has been raised around what is happening for people, particularly rough sleepers, who continue to be terribly let down by government and are basically falling through the cracks. I would have thought that if one issue was going to receive a high level of attention in this budget, it would have been the issue of homelessness, yet this is an incredibly disappointing budget when it comes to addressing homelessness. Apart from a very welcome state government investment of $201 million to provide essential services in remote Aboriginal communities, there were no new social or affordable housing initiatives in the state budget. Of course, this has been compounded by the failure of the commonwealth government to invest in this area as well. Certainly, my colleagues in the Greens at the federal level have made much comment on that.
From an economic perspective, it is stupid not to address the issue of homelessness. It is a good economic stimulus. It is one area in which splashing taxpayer dollars around actually makes people’s lives better, and it makes good economic sense. It reduces costs in not only health and mental health, but also police and corrective services. It also reduces the costs around child protection if people are able to be appropriately housed. Housing is fundamental in ensuring that people are able to gain employment and critical in ensuring that we have engagement of children in school.
The state government has budgeted 831 new social homes from 2020–21 to 2023–24. The budget estimates that people will continue to wait an average of 95 weeks to access social housing. This is simply not good enough. That is an appalling length of time to leave people waiting to get into housing. Furthermore, the recently released and much touted WA Housing Strategy 2020–2030, which is a 10-year strategy, will see only an additional 2 600 homes added to the social housing stock. I remind members that as at 31 August this year, there were 14 890 applications on the housing waiting list, representing 24 921 people, and 2 097 applications on the priority waiting list, representing 3 898 Western Australians. People who are placed on the priority waitlist are already in absolutely dire need of housing. They are in dire need of receiving shelter. Members might have seen yesterday’s ABC article titled “Terminally ill woman still homeless after 12 months on WA Housing Authority emergency list”. The article goes on to refer to what I think is the very tragic story of Sheryl Brockman, who has terminal cancer and is homeless. She has been on the priority housing waitlist for over 12 months. This, of course, is just one of far too many stories. The article puts another desperate human face to the nearly 4 000 people who are currently on that waiting list.
This state budget has not even remotely adequately responded to the needs of these people. Modelling by the University of New South Wales indicates that there is a current shortfall of 39 200 social and 19 300 affordable homes across this entire state. Further modelling has estimated that an additional 2 500 households are likely to apply for social housing if the unemployment rate increases to eight per cent. It is a very likely outcome that we are going to see that increase in unemployment. We are in the middle of a global COVID-19 pandemic, so we have to expect that we are going to hit that sort of unemployment rate; therefore, we need to be prepared to deal with the consequences that flow on from that sort of hardship.
We know that there is already a rental crisis in Perth, with vacancy rates the lowest they have been in 13 years. It was with great concern that I read this week reports that, come January, we might have very seriously low rates of rental availability. We are facing a homelessness crisis. We are already in a homelessness crisis, but we are facing a worsening homelessness crisis. The WA government’s response in both the 2020–21 state budget and the 10-year strategy, which I understand the spin doctors have put a lot of effort into, has frankly been far more spin than action. I note that the commonwealth government also needs to lift its game in this respect. People are being failed by both sides.
Of course I want to make some comments about mental health. I cannot stand to make a speech on the budget without talking about the mental health sector. I note that the government has been excitedly talking up its mental health spend in this year’s budget, and it trumpeted that in the budget speech. There is over $1 billion in this budget— a 7.5 per cent increase on the last budget. Indeed, potentially, that would be great news if the current situation was not so dire. There is unprecedented need. Of course the increased spending is welcome, and it is just as well it has been put forward, but it will not be enough to deal with the ongoing serious concerns in the mental health sector. We are now halfway through the WA mental health and alcohol and other drugs services plan 2015–2025, yet we have made little to no progress in some of these really important areas. In fact, in some areas, we are actually going backwards.
The WA Association for Mental Health, which members will be aware I used to be the president of, rightly identifies that this government is continuing, unfortunately, the very much outdated system and very much old-world thinking of funnelling more money simply into hospital beds without matching funding for prevention and community support. The spending on prevention in this budget remains disappointingly low at just 1.7 per cent of the total spending on the mental health and alcohol and other drugs sectors, and that constitutes $17.2 million. Of that $17.2 million, the mental health sector is receiving $8.5 million and the alcohol and other drugs sector is receiving $8.7 million, which means that for the mental health sector specifically, the proportion of expenditure on prevention will be only 0.9 per cent this year, when the 2025 target requires that we need to be looking at about six per cent of expenditure. That is how far we are from the identified necessary targets. The target in the 10-year plan is that five per cent of spending should be on prevention, with an aim to reach six per cent by the end of that plan—so, within five years. We know that evidence-based prevention initiatives generate a significant return on investment and that they support people to stay well in the community and ultimately reduce the long-term impacts of mental health challenges, yet the government continually fails to adequately invest in this space. Spending on community support has stagnated at five per cent of the budget—so, $54 million. This needs a fivefold increase to $250 million a year in order to meet demand. That gives members an indication of just how far behind we are with the identified necessary investment. We are hitting only 20 per cent of what is required.
I remind members that the 10-year plan calls for community support to represent 22 per cent of the total mental health spend. A lack of investment in community-based supports means that people are not able to access mental health supports close to home and in their community, and that means that people are declining, are not getting support when they need it and early on, and are ending up in our hospitals when they hit that crisis point. Our mental health system is not working to ensure that people are kept out of our hospitals and that people avoid getting critically unwell. That is the way that our mental health sector is meant to operate.
I spoke this week about the annual report of the Mental Health Advocacy Service, which clearly articulates the real impacts on the ground. I remind people again that the Mental Health Advocacy Service is a statutory body that reports straight to Parliament, so it is able to give unfiltered commentary about what is happening to people. Because the current Chief Mental Health Advocate is not planning to continue in the role after this year, she is in a position to be fairly fearless about what she decides to bring to the attention of this place. She has painted a picture that shows that our mental health sector is in complete crisis and that things are not okay on the ground. This budget, as it has been presented, will do nothing to address the imbalance that I have just talked about. There is a cost, as there is with homelessness, when there is a failure to invest. There is a cost in failing to address the failure in our mental health sector. It costs $1 595 a day for someone to be admitted to a mental health inpatient unit. Western Australia has historically had, and continues to have, the highest rate of readmission to hospital within 28 days of discharge for mental health patients of all the states and territories. The needs of people are simply not being met within the community because we are failing to invest in those community-managed mental health supports. The latest data shows a readmission rate of 18.6 per cent compared with the national average of 14.9 per cent. That is from the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist. About 25 per cent of mental health hospital beds are currently being occupied by people who could be discharged if only there were somewhere for them to go, which means that over 160 people could be discharged if there were appropriate community care facilities for them. Again, I remind people of that figure—$1 595 a day.
As the annual report of the Mental Health Advocacy Service has attested, although there have been some welcome announcements in this space, including a 20-bed adult community care unit, there are actually 16 fewer psychiatric hostel beds due to bed closures. Furthermore, the mental health emergency care unit, which was opened at Royal Perth Hospital and designed to take some of the pressure off our emergency departments and help people avoid hospital admission, was funded by closing eight voluntary beds on a non-unauthorised mental health ward at RPH, which just put pressure back on the system yet again. Plans for a Safe Haven cafe, as another alternative to emergency departments, are also underway, and more hospital beds were announced during the year for Fremantle Hospital, but they will not be open until 2024—one year before the 10-year plan is due to expire.
Cutting through the spin, it is a dire situation within the mental health sector. Far too often, people are just not getting the supports they need when they need them. I remind people that the 10-year services plan, developed under the previous government, was an extraordinary plan in that for the first time all stakeholders—carers, consumers, family members, service providers, the non-government sector and clinicians—were brought together and a consensus framework was developed for what we needed to address the mental health crisis into the future. It received bipartisan support at the time, but it required investment. If we are failing to invest, we are failing the community on mental health matters.
Sitting suspended from 1.00 to 2.00 pm
Hon ALISON XAMON: Before the lunchbreak, I was talking about my concerns about the ongoing underinvestment in the areas of homelessness and mental health. On a positive note, I welcome the allocation of $37 million to the “Western Australian Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2021–2025” and the additional $2 million for the Aboriginal youth wellbeing package.
I think it is also important to note the concerns of the Mental Health Advocacy Service and the Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia that there is just not enough investment in specific youth mental health services. The annual report of the Mental Health Advocacy Service notes a range of ongoing serious gaps in the provision of services to children and young people. I spoke about this issue in an adjournment statement earlier this week. The report goes into quite a lot of detail about the availability—or should I say the lack—of beds for children and young people. In addition to the issues that I spoke about earlier in the week, the service found that only three of the five government health service providers in WA have mental health wards for children, and that one of those three takes only children aged under 15 years. A number of examples of the consequences of a lack of services have been listed in the report, including one which involved a child with an intellectual disability being in an emergency department for more than 40 hours. Other examples include a 17-year-old who was rejected by a youth ward and left waiting in an emergency department for longer than 24 hours; a child who was held in a regional emergency department with security guards for over 24 hours, yet was still not admitted for another two days; a child with an eating disorder who was on multiple referral orders for a month while waiting for admission; 14 youths who were at one time waitlisted for one youth ward; young people who were waiting in the community for weeks for admission; and one child who spent a day in an adult ward at Graylands Hospital, which is no place for a child to be.
We already know that Perth Children’s Hospital does not accept children aged 16 and 17 years as inpatients and that they can be admitted to only one of two youth wards that take people aged 16 to 24 years. On discharge, 16 and 17-year-olds need to go to a separate health provider for community care—the Child and Adolescent Health Service. This is a really big problem in the system. Time and again, access to continuity of mental health care specifically for 16 and 17-year-olds is raised by constituents, service providers and advocates. In this case, it has been raised by the statutory advocate, but it remains a massive issue and it is not adequately addressed in this budget.
A lot of people contact my office about mental health concerns. I think word gets around that my office takes particular interest in this area. Apart from a disproportionate number of concerns that come to my office about our prisons and forensic mental health specifically, a huge number of constituents come to my office desperately needing support, usually for their teenage children. It is an area of enormous need. One mental health service I always like to refer people to is Youth Focus. I think we are very lucky to have Youth Focus in this state. It is a marvellous non-government organisation that provides very good clinical and community supports for children and young people. Apart from referring people to headspace if their concern is fairly early on and low level, I always suggest that people try to get into Youth Focus, unless, of course, we are talking about people who have already become critically unwell with psychosis and those sorts of things. Therefore, I am alarmed and distressed to learn that Youth Focus now has waiting lists for people who are trying to gain access to its services. It strikes me that the easy fix would be to have money along the lines of what I have talked about previously—funding within the 10-year services plan. We are very lucky that we have a service to which we could potentially give money that would meet that demand, but it is not being given the funding that it needs to do that. I say to the government that that is a critical area we need to look at. Members in this place who are undoubtedly also being contacted by constituents whose children need urgent help should also be advocating that funding go there as well, because it will ensure that people are referred to a place that is able to provide appropriate supports, yet that is not happening.
It is important to note that the operations of the Mental Health Advocacy Service have been significantly impeded by ongoing budgetary constraints. That service absolutely needs to be funded enough to fully protect and support highly vulnerable people. In fact, I remind members that it has legal obligations to meet under the Mental Health Act and the Criminal Law (Mentally Impaired Accused) Act, and it needs to be funded accordingly. Advocates recorded more than 30 000 contacts in supporting more than 3 500 consumers in the last financial year. Although the service’s budget increased from just over $2.7 million in 2019–20 to $2.8 million in 2020–21—a five per cent increase— that is clearly not enough to enable the service to properly fulfil its functions. This service experienced more than nine per cent demand over budget last year and is experiencing a rise in need. Those figures make it quite clear that the current situation is completely unsustainable.
The budget also contains no funding to address the demand for forensic mental health. Instead, it mentions only the recommencement of planning work that is required to support expansion. I note that despite it being an election commitment and there being wide recognition of the dire need for reform in the forensic mental health space, nothing has been done. There is no money, there is no budget and there is no legislation. Last year’s budget indicated the imminent introduction of a bill to reform CLMIA, so I am incredibly disappointed that this year’s budget merely mentions work to update projected demand for forensic mental health services, including estimating the potential impact of changes to the Criminal Law (Mentally Impaired Accused) Act 1996. This means that disabled and very mentally unwell people continue to be in limbo in our prisons. They are locked in cells all day because there is nowhere appropriate for them. I am aware of one critically mentally unwell person in particular who has a disability and has been kept in prison. A member of his family was on the phone to my office as recently as yesterday. He continues to self-harm because he is absolutely in the wrong place and should not be in prison. It is becoming very serious and I sincerely hope that a death in custody does not occur as a result. He has ended up in emergency far too many times and he does not need to be where he is in isolation in prison. He needs to be in a therapeutic environment.
In relation to health, the significant increase in palliative care funding is welcome. I am on the committee that is currently looking into the issue of palliative care, so more information will be made available to this Parliament at some point in the future. It is really disappointing that funding for free ambulance services for people on concession cards was not included in the new service agreement.
I am also disappointed that the Earbus did not receive ongoing funding over the forward estimates in this budget, but received funding for this year as per an election commitment. Given the World Health Organization has found that the rate of chronic middle ear infection in First Nation children is among some of the highest in the world, it is essential that services such as the Earbus that work to reduce the incidence of middle ear infection are provided with sustainable funding. I remind members also that the issue of ear health is not simply one of making sure that our children can be as healthy as they can be; it translates directly to the capacity to learn at school. There is also a correlation between higher rates of middle ear infection and juvenile offending. For a small level of investment, we can see a massive return in this area, and I am very disappointed that it has not been considered in the forward estimates.
In relation to education, I notice there is lots of infrastructure spending. It is disappointing that the budget reveals that no inroads have been made into reducing the gaps in engagement and educational outcomes between First Nation and non-Aboriginal students. There is no detail yet on support for vulnerable children, specifically students at educational risk. I hope to have an opportunity to unpick that further during the committee hearings, because, as members will be aware, that area is of particular interest to me. I note that the “Department of Education: Annual Report 2019–20” revealed a more than eightfold increase in the number of students who were expelled or excluded from eight in 2017 to 65 in 2019. I want to say once again, as I have said many times, given the correlation between school engagement and suicide, I think we should be really concerned about this development. I do not believe it is the right approach to take. When kids engage in problematic behaviours, they need to be supported, not abandoned. I am concerned that is what happens in practice.
I have already raised concerns about the failure to renew funding for Inclusive Education WA. I think it is an invaluable resource, and I do not think it was the best decision to make. As recently as Tuesday I spoke to parents who have been very disappointed about the decision not to continue the face-to-face teaching; they believe it is the wrong step to take. They are aware of the minister’s response to the issues I raised. I imagine this is an issue that people will continue to raise concerns about. For a parent who has in particular trans children, that seems to be an area of critical concern that has been brought to my attention. Parents are desperately concerned to ensure that schools are well equipped to provide safe environments for their children, but they are not confident that that will happen. I suspect we will hear more about that in future, particularly from those parents.
The Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia has also raised concerns about the need for investment in Indigenous infrastructure for disadvantaged schools and students. One of the things we have certainly seen is that the pandemic brought into stark relief the importance of digital access for students. It highlighted the disadvantage experienced by too many WA students who were unable to properly access education during isolation because they did not have access to a computer or the internet. I am concerned that in the event of a COVID-19 second wave in this state—which is always a possibility, as everybody acknowledges—we may need to go into lockdown, and schools or at least selective schools will need to close. If they need to close for a substantive period, there is concern to make sure children have equity in digital access. As I say, the Youth Affairs Council has raised that as a specific concern. It is one that we need to keep a really close eye on. The reality is that these days, children and young people are expected to have digital access just to keep up with homework and a range of day-to-day educational opportunities. It means that it poses a particular challenge for our public education system to ensure that children are not left behind simply because they do not have that access.
In relation to the public sector more broadly, which I spoke about last week, I am disappointed there is no investment in public sector jobs and about the ongoing wages policy, noting the wage rises are to remain at $1 000 for the next two years and simply looking to increase with CPI after that. I think COVID-19 fundamentally and permanently has changed our world and thrown into stark relief the importance of our public sector’s capacity to urgently and swiftly address crises as they arise. That is the case particularly at the moment in a complex and ambiguous environment across planning and coordination and specialist expertise that is required. Not investing in the public sector at this time is short-sighted, and that decision is potentially dangerous.
I welcome that the COVID-19 recovery plan includes spending in important areas such as family and domestic violence initiatives, children in care initiatives and seniors support. We have found that these areas were particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic but I need to echo the voice of the Western Australian Council of Social Service. I am concerned that funding has not improved for the community services sector more broadly to meet rising need. Instead, the only increase is supplementation for wage rise increases.
I want to comment also on what I am seeing happen within the community sector more broadly. I am from the community sector; it is a sector I know. I do not purport to speak for other parts of the community. I do not purport to speak for farmers or big business, but I have a lot to say about the community sector because it is where I am from. I have those relationships and it is an area I really know. I am worried about the increasing level of concern being raised with me by community services and peak bodies that they are not free to speak candidly about concerns they have around the way this government undertakes its operations, specifically about loss of funding. What has been described to me is an atmosphere of fear and trepidation about expressing concern and a sense that this government will be vindictive about how it will respond to those criticisms by either denying people access to the table to ensure they are part of helping to develop strategies to resolve problems or, worse, being defunded. I am really concerned about this because, as I have said, when I was the head of a peak body, when I spoke out against decisions that were being made by government, I was never concerned that the organisation I was representing was going to experience adverse repercussions as a result of my advocacy. It says a lot about what is happening in the community sector at the moment that there is a genuine, underlying fear. This government has had accusations of being thin skinned and glass-jawed thrown at it quite a few times by many sectors across the board. It is more than simply a concern about the silencing of voices. When the advocacy of the community sector is silenced, it leaves people vulnerable. It means that people are not able to ensure that they are getting the best services that are made available for them. That is problematic. I do not know what the solution is, other than to ask the government to cut it out—stop doing it. The reality is that there is an emerging culture of trying to silence dissent and trying to make sure that people are shut down.
Another concern that has been raised with me is about the pressure that is put on non-government community sector organisations to do things such as stand next to ministers when they make announcements about funding arrangements. That means they are caught in with the spin even if they have grave concerns and feel that what is being promoted is counterproductive, undercooked or woefully inadequate. I am very concerned that people feel as though they have very little option to say no. I am very clear that when funding is given, it should never have strings attached. We should make sure that people are able to deliver services, and if they still think that what is being provided is not up to par, they should be free to be able to speak out. These people represent some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. That is something I am very conscious of and I think it is very important that I speak up and call that out because these people feel that they cannot.
I note the much-touted announcement of 800 more police at a cost of $314 million. What an extraordinary amount of money. It is $257 million for 800 new police—200 a year over four years—and an additional $57 million for flow-on costs for the criminal justice system. That means an additional $31 million for the courts, $15 million for Legal Aid WA, and $11 million for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. There is also $323 million for new prison spending. So much for the investment in decarceration. So much for social reinvestment. We know that more spending on police does not reduce crime. I know that the announcement has been popular. I represent the Greens; I am happy to pursue evidence-based practice even if it flies in the face of populist thinking. We know that increasing the number of police does nothing to deal with the over-representation of First Nations people in custody, so the government has just blown one of the many recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. I think this will just be more money without any real increase in community safety. We need greater spending on things that work. By that, I am talking about prevention and diversion and the problem-solving, diversionary courts. That is where we should be looking at putting the money.
In 2009, the Law Reform Commission recommended that we look at increased investment in a whole range of our diversionary courts and we have still not seen those much-required increases, particularly out in the regions. We need to look at the whole suite of measures that need to be funded to incorporate justice reinvestment, including drug and alcohol problems. These are the things that keep our community safe. These are the things we should be spending our money on. Instead, all the efforts to look at decarceration have basically been undone in one election announcement. I am very disappointed. The annual report from the Department of Justice revealed that despite some progress in the area, with some investment in things like drug and alcohol programs, a significant backlog remains in the completion of prisoners’ individual management plans. Of course, that impacts on people’s capacity to undertake rehabilitation opportunities and their eligibility for parole. People are being kept in prisons longer than they otherwise would have been simply because we are not investing in ensuring that people can undertake programs in prison, as required. That is before we even look at the ongoing delivery of health, mental health, alcohol and other drugs, and dentistry services within our prisons. They are woefully inadequate and should not be delivered by the Department of Justice. I have maintained all along that they should be delivered as part of the overall health system. I think it is poor. Once again, I will call for prisoners to have access to Medicare. That was one of the first things I raised in this place three years ago. At that point, government members said that they agreed with me and that they would raise it. I am asking government members to keep raising it at the federal level. It is going to be a critical reform that will ensure that, ultimately, prison is a place where people can address their underlying health, mental health and other concerns, and go out into the community and hopefully never come back into prison. We have to start looking at changing the way in which those services are delivered.
Regarding youth justice, which, as members know, is a particular passion of mine, I am pleased that the number of children and young people in Banksia Hill Detention Centre has been trending down, but that is about the only good news. More than seven out of 10 children and young people in detention continue to be First Nations children. For girls, the statistics are particularly bad. In Banksia Hill Detention Centre, as at 30 June 2020, six out of eight girls were First Nations girls. I continue to be concerned about younger children in detention. I am incredibly disappointed that the Western Australian state government is not moving to raise the age of criminal responsibility. It is an incredibly important reform, which I really hope does not fall off the agenda. There was a lot of talk about it early in the term. It is absolutely essential that it remains on the agenda and that we look at reform. I would dearly love to see some reform in the next term of government, whether I am here or not. As at 30 June, there were three children under the age of 13 and 18 children who were aged 13 or 14 at Banksia Hill. We have already heard commentary today about the tragedy of 11-year-old children taking their lives. It is right to recognise that that is a tragedy and right to recognise that it is such a tender age to have such terrible things happen. Members, children of the same age are in Banksia Hill. In other jurisdictions in the world, they would not be in there. They would be given other types of support. It is very disturbing that such young children are still being incarcerated. As long as that is an option made available, it is a disincentive to ensure that there are wraparound services to help those children who are invariably troubled and come from deeply distressing backgrounds.
I am still concerned about the impact of mandatory sentencing on children. The most recent public statistics demonstrate that for 16 of the 48 sentenced children and young people in Banksia Hill Detention Centre, their most serious offence was unlawful entry with intent, or burglary and break and enter. I remind members that detention was meant to absolutely be the option of last resort when it comes to children. That is what the act says. The budget papers show how ineffective the youth justice detention system is. A total of 53.4 per cent of young people were returned to detention within two years, which is worse than last year, when the figure was 52.9 per cent. We know that nearly 85 per cent of young people returned to detention or adult custody within five years.
As I have said before—I am simply echoing previous reports of the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services— we need to close Banksia Hill and move to small purpose-built therapeutic centres close to the communities where the children and young people live. This is not some big Greens plan; this is something that the experts are saying needs to occur. I am echoing that evidence-based approach. This reform is completely missing from the budget. This government has now been in power for four years and something could have been done, but we have seen nothing.
I am really concerned about what is happening with child protection. There is a correlation between the issue of child protection and the youth justice concerns that I just spoke about. We have seen staff vigils and heard stakeholders identify that we have a system in crisis. The number of children in state care has continued to increase. The rate for First Nations children, at 4.8 per cent, more than doubled the rate for non-Aboriginal children, which is at 2.2 per cent. I note that the budget indicates that the growth rate has slowed; nonetheless, it is still growing. Aboriginal children comprise only seven per cent of WA’s youth population but they represent 56 per cent of children who are in care. We are seeing that families are being separated and not receiving adequate support to stay together or to work towards reunification. That is coming directly from the services that are trying to provide these supports. There continues to be a critical lack of foster carers. I asked some questions recently in this place that revealed that 2 422 children were separated from their siblings. That is simply devastating. We know that when children are separated from their parents, the one thing they want is to at least be able to stay with their siblings. That is a huge number of children who are not able to stay with their siblings for a range of reasons. That is heartbreaking.
I welcome the allocation of $700 000 to trial Aboriginal family-led decision-making. It is essential that self-determination is not just a concept in legislation but also enacted on the ground. First Nations communities should absolutely lead these initiatives, which aim to determine how best to protect and care for their children. It is disappointing that they had to get this initiative, even though it has been occurring in other jurisdictions for a very long time. There has been some increase in funding for early intervention and family support, and that is welcome, but it is not enough and it does not continue into the forward estimates. The figures in the budget are very concerning, demonstrating that the government is still failing to meet the target on care planning time frames. The budget target is 90 per cent and the actual is 84 per cent. The proportion of First Nations people who were placed in care in accordance with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child placement principle had an actual of 66 per cent with a budget of 80 per cent.
I will make some comments about what is happening with our oversight agencies. By and large, these agencies are generally maintained in terms of FTE and the services offered. I am talking about the Public Sector Commission, the Equal Opportunity Commission, the Office of the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the Information Commissioner and the Health and Disability Services Complaints Office, but I have some more comments to make about some of these agencies. We are seeing a desperately needed increase in services provided by the Office of the Auditor General, as we need to, because it is starting to play a much larger role in the local government sector and has been afforded additional roles, so we need to see an increase in FTE. We could also potentially use an increase in staffing for the Information Commissioner as the workload of complaints about refused or redacted FOI applications continues to increase. On that note, I am one of the people who has been trying to access documents by FOI. Sometimes I do it on behalf of constituents and sometimes it is because I am denied information that I have been trying to get for quite some time, even in this place. Cabinet must be a veritable library with the sheer volume of documents that have been paid for by the taxpayer that cannot be made available in any way for years on end because they are apparently cabinet-in-confidence. I know that people like to talk about some sort of blockage in the Legislative Council in terms of decision-making, not that I agree with that, but there is clearly a blockage in decision-making in cabinet, judging by the number of documents that it is simply unable to clearly make decisions about, which means that they are never able to be made available. Anyway, I think we need to look at more funding for the Information Commissioner to try to get to the bottom of this and find out why so much information is unable to be brought to light so that people know on what basis government is making a lot of its decisions. We do know that the oversight agencies undertake the critical work of administrative and financial review and ensure transparency in government decision-making. We need these agencies to be strong and healthy now and in the future. These agencies are best able to find the problems when it comes to the delivery of public services but, unfortunately for us, offices such as HADSCO and the Equal Opportunity Commission effectively have very little authority to correct the issues that they may find. I understand that that is a statutory problem but it is of concern, and certainly anecdotally people are regularly unhappy with the resolution of their complaints to these authorities.
I want to make some specific comments about the State Records Office. The State Records Office thoroughly disappeared from last year’s budget. Even the service known as “State Information Management and Archival Services” was removed from that budget. Instead, it was replaced with “Corporate and asset and infrastructure support to the culture and arts portfolio and government”. This year we have to guess that the services provided by the State Records Office are in the service listed as “Asset and Infrastructure Support Services to Client Agencies”. There used to be a government budget outcome under the heading “Government records and State Archives are appropriately managed and accessible”. There used to be KPIs around achieving this outcome. I note that those KPIs have never been met because the government has never provided the commission and the office with the resources required to do their job. It was suggested that the reporting contained in the State Records Commission annual report would have to be sufficient. I note that the annual report is not yet available. I imagine that the litany of failures to appropriately resource what is an essential government service will continue. The State Records Office has provided an annual report as part of the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries. Even this department-produced document notes that over 75 linear kilometres of paper-based state archives are not in public archives and that an archive for its born-digital records is still not in place, despite literally years of being called for by the commission. There is still no genuine state archive, whether that be paper or digital. This was a recommendation of the WA Inc royal commission, and we still do not have it. It is an essential part of our accountability systems and it is also a really important part of our cultural heritage. This does not mean that the government is not spending money on records management and archiving overall. We are still spending millions and millions of state government money on contracted document storage and contracted records management consultancy every year. However, none of that money goes to the State Records Office.
I want to take a moment to reflect on the difference between what we do here and what happens in New South Wales. We know that last year the State Records Office of Western Australia had fewer than 20 employees while the State Archives and Records Authority of New South Wales employs more than 130 people. It generates revenue in the order of tens of millions of dollars as a commercial provider of records management services for private industry and as a low-cost provider for state government agencies. It is a non–budget dependent agency. New South Wales enjoys the benefits of having a functioning public archive, which is a central records management body that acts as a consultancy for government and private industry, and it costs the NSW government virtually nothing. We know that we need to properly document our decision-making, especially since many government agencies have been moving quickly in the last six months due to coronavirus. I note that one of the achievements touted in the annual report this year is the reduction of red tape in record keeping. I hope that concerns members as much as it concerns me. An awful lot of so-called red tape is put in place because we have seen that without solid accountability systems, including record keeping, we provide opportunities for corruption. I remain truly disappointed at the extremely low priority this government has assigned to the State Records Office of Western Australia and the building of a digital archive. This has been a critical issue for our paper records, and it has been for decades. The budget contains nothing in the works to confirm that we need to build a digital archive to protect our cultural memories or that that message is understood.
I will conclude my comments on the budget by discussing a topic that is absolutely at the core of the Greens’ work, and that is, of course, climate change. We have an unprecedented opportunity to tackle climate change and the COVID recovery at the same time. It is beyond disappointing that the steps taken in this budget towards tackling climate change are mediocre. Although the budget contains measures for the development of battery storage and environmental rehabilitation, it falls well short of what is needed and it certainly does not put the level of emphasis on climate change that we would not only hope to see, but that is absolutely necessary. Investment in these areas can provide the jobs that we need—we do need jobs—and also set up our future to be much greener and more carbon efficient and, ultimately, safer for our children. This budget contains billions of dollars for road building across the forward estimates. We know that those kinds of activities do not deliver the number of jobs per $1 million invested that investment in health care and education, for example, does. They certainly do not provide the same long-term climate change–fighting outcomes that expenditure on renewable energy infrastructure does, and they do not offer the immediate and long-term benefits of a substantial rehabilitation program. In many ways, those things are not only necessary, but also relatively easy to implement.
Overall, this budget provides some increased spending in important areas, but there are some very disappointing missed opportunities for much needed reform. This government has now been in office for four years. I have spoken about issues that the government would consider to be its core issues, but clearly they are not, including the ongoing failure to redirect funding from prisons and police through justice reinvestment and addressing the significant needs of vulnerable people, such as homelessness and mental health.
Comments and speeches by various members
Debate interrupted, pursuant to standing orders.