Dean Smith

In Parliament

ADJOURNMENT Rural and Regional Family Support Services

November 28, 2012

I rise tonight to draw to the attention of the Senate a matter that is of ongoing concern to regional communities in Western Australia. I refer to the funding arrangements for the Rural And Regional Family Support Services, which until 30 June this year had been providing critical community services by ensuring counsellors, psychologists and community welfare workers were on the ground in regional areas to provide support to farming families dealing with mental health issues and relationship problems. These services were part of the pilot of drought reform measures in Western Australia jointly funded by the Western Australian state and the federal governments and ceased on 30 June this year.

The RRFSS program provided funding for outreach counselling services in and around the regional community of Esperance in Western Australia to vulnerable and disadvantaged families. Now, that is important, because as one official from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs said to me in reply to a question I asked during Senate estimates last month, these are people who 'tend not to actively approach services and there needs to be quite a deliberate effort to go out and reach those clients'. That is coming from officials in the Minister Macklin's own department. It backs up the view contained in a review of phase 1 of the pilot program, which was handed to the government in September 2011. That review stated the permanent presence of social support services delivered via outreach to people in rural communities was a worthy feature of the program. However, on 30 June this year, the pilot program came to an end and those outreach services ceased. That is five months ago—and still no announcement has been forthcoming from this government about the pathway in terms of future provision of these services. So, services that this government's own department described as 'worthy' are now not being provided.

The government has claimed that community need in Esperance can be met through existing services. With respect, I am not convinced by that. It stands to reason that if there was a 'pilot' program, it presumably would be piloting different services to the ones previously available. There would be little point in having a pilot program that merely replicates existing services. The government's own figures on the DAFF website state that under phase 1 of the pilot program, just over 2,200 clients received these services, and just over 3,200 received them under phase 2 of the program. These figures demonstrate a significant need for these services.

What particularly concerns me is that I am being told, as recently as earlier this month, by experts who are on the ground in the Esperance region that people who were receiving assistance pre-30 June under the RRFSS funded services are now slipping through the cracks. I am advised that the capacity of current programs could deal with some of the demand for the services; however, it cannot deal with all of it, and that the outreach element of the service will be lost. This means that, at a time when this area is still struggling with the significant ongoing impacts of drought, those most vulnerable have been abandoned by this government.

Since this issue was first raised with me back in July this year, I attempted to obtain from the government information regarding the existing services that the government assures me can meet the demands of this community. I have been pursuing this matter over several months, through Senate estimates and in personal representations I have made to Minister Macklin's office. I have, in fact, now written to Minister Macklin about this very issue on four occasions—on 16 July, on 15 August, again on 31 August and finally on 13 November. I also met with the minister's Chief of Staff in the minister's office in Parliament House, here in Canberra, on 22 August to discuss the issues. At that meeting, the minister's office undertook to provide me with additional information on the services available. Regrettably, no additional information from the minister or the minister's office has been forthcoming since that time, nor have I received a single reply to any of the four letters I have sent to the minister on this subject. This is not an issue the government can afford to ignore.

Esperance sits in a part of Western Australia that this year recorded its third driest July on record, and the region suffers from high rates of suicide. We know that difficult weather conditions are a significant cause of stress for those living in farming communities. It stands to reason, then, that a region suffering from abnormally dry conditions and that already has a high suicide rate is the sort of place that we should be looking to provide with additional counselling services, rather than reducing them. We have now moved into the harvest period, which can be an additionally difficult and stressful time for farming families. Yet, the net effect of the federal government's actions has been to reduce the range of counselling services available in the Esperance region.

It is of tremendous concern to me that more than four months after I made the first of my representations to the minister about this issue, her office has still not been able to provide me or the local community information about the types of services available. It is all the more puzzling because, as I have outlined, the minister's department has adopted the view that there was no need to continue supporting the services of the RRFSS that the federal government funded under the pilot program. Now, to reach that conclusion, the department presumably had to make an assessment about the range of services that were available in the Esperance region—and thus must know what they are. The fact that the government is either unable or unwilling to make that information available is of deep concern to me.

Just yesterday, we had the release of Australia's first Report Card on Mental Health, released by the Chairman of the National Mental Health Commission, Professor Allan Fels. Amongst other things, the commission found that Australia's mental health services are in an 'appalling' state and called on the Prime Minister to 'give mental health a seat at the top table'. Tellingly, the commission found that, although Australia is doing well on policy development in this area, it is failing badly in terms of service delivery. In regional areas, it is delivery that matters. The report card notes on page 67 that rates of suicide are higher in rural and remote locations. It is also worth noting that Western Australia had the third highest suicide rate in Australia between 2006-10, and it is the only state where the suicide rate has increased over the last five years. All levels of government can do better, particularly in terms of the practical delivery of mental health services. No reasonable person would deny that. By all accounts and indeed by the department's own admission, the pilot program under the RRFSS was providing valuable outreach services that targeted 'at risk' people in regional communities.

I urge the minister, as a matter of priority, to examine the services being provided in the Esperance region and, in particular, to make a special funding allocation to allow this vital outreach and counselling work to continue in this vulnerable part of Western Australia.