Page 2612 - Week 08 - Thursday, 30 June 2005

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The research literature shows that counselling is not the most important need for victims of crime, but that is what the government is increasingly spending the victims services scheme budget on. The point is how well taxpayers’ funds are being utilised to provide services to victims of crime. The government is giving preference to referring victims of crime to professional services, contracted out at $150 hour, when VOCAL offers both assistance and counselling for nothing. ACT Health advertises in a promotional brochure its own service as a 24-hour service. But all it amounts to is a duty of just answering the phone and telling victims they will hear from someone during working hours.

While VOCAL is receiving more requests for help due to the automated support link system used well by police and doctors, there are in fact victims of crime who do not find out about the support offered by VOCAL until well down the track, after they have endured much emotional trauma, including having to face perpetrators in court appearances, because they have not been informed by ACT Health or other government agencies about VOCAL and the assistance VOCAL can provide them. I was concerned to hear that there were only one or two people in a 12-month period referred by the professional services to VOCAL, bearing out that point I earlier made about perhaps the bureaucrats trying to shut out the volunteer service.

It seems the taxpayer is not getting value for money, with so much money being spent needlessly on professional service providers who are motivated to spend as much time as they can on patients simply because they do that at an hourly rate. I was told that in one case a victim of crime was given 48 hours of such counselling, which is 36 hours more than is allowed under the scheme for professional services. That person then went to VOCAL for assistance. They apparently had mental health problems that predated the crime. In that instance, the bill was, I think, $8,100 for what turned out to be inappropriate and unnecessary counselling. For some people, the support they need is to be able to repeat their story ad infinitum.

We come now to the prison. This year’s budget finally acknowledged what we have been saying for some time now: the government’s fully funded, new ACT prison project has blown out beyond the $110 million allocated in 2001. As late as the end of last year, the JACS incoming-government brief still put the figure at $110 million. The government maintains that there has been no blow-out and that the $18.7 million allocated in the last budget to cover the increase in construction costs in the last couple of years is the normal escalator. I think what they failed to explain is why the project has been so delayed. The $18.7 million, in any case, goes nowhere near plugging the hole created by the delays and, obviously, the construction costs, which have risen by some 40 per cent since 2001, according to the Master Builders Association. Really, as a result of this budget, we are none the wiser in terms of the real operating costs of the prison.

In the Treasury briefing on budget day the Treasury officials indicated that the operating costs for the prison, including staff costs, would come out of the general government sector. Territory unencumbered cash was mentioned as a source. That was the excuse for why there was no provision in the outyears for the increase in recurrent costs. Unencumbered cash has come down from $800 million seven years ago, to $83 million in 2004-2005, to a projected $24 million in 2006-2007 when most of this money will be needed. There may well not be enough cash, especially with the way this government is running budgets, for the increased running costs of the prison.

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