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Thursday, 19 September 2002
Page: 6752


Mrs IRWIN (4:20 PM) —I might begin by briefly going over some of the points I was making before this debate on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Disability Reform) Bill (No. 2) 2002 was interrupted. In speaking earlier—two weeks ago—to this bill I made the point that, without real support from governments and a vastly different approach by employers, this bill will be harsh and unfair, particularly to mature workers. We are saying to the many thousands of Australian workers, people who have literally broken their backs to build this nation, that they have to find their own way back into the labour market. The amount set aside for this bill to provide training and assistance is nowhere near enough to do the job properly. There is no intensive assistance, because unless it is backed up by workplace assistance—and, more to the point, by understanding employers—then this is nothing more than a cruel hoax.

It is a trick played on some of the least fortunate people in our society. For many people who fall into this class the new economy, or even the service economy, offers little in the way of real job prospects. In my electorate of Fowler there are many men and women who came to Australia as young adults and did the backbreaking work that was needed. They worked in the mines and on the building sites. They cleaned shops, schools and offices. They worked in our hospitals and even at Australia Post, as I mentioned in the first part of my speech over two weeks ago. They have poor written English skills so they were not allowed to move into supervisors' jobs. If, after years of backbreaking work, they did suffer from broken backs, they might have hoped for some understanding of the pain and suffering they endure every day. They might have hoped that, having based their lives on their physical strength, they would be able to maintain active employment even when they did not possess their full strength. It is a sad commentary on Australia's employment policies over the years that we have not catered for the changes in our workplaces and the demand for 100 per cent able-bodied workers.

There is a stark contrast between how this government treats those men and women who have done the backbreaking work—in some cases, for more than 40 years—and those who have taken a different career path. The other week, I was listening to a public servant who was telling me that he was able to resign from his position at the age of 55 and, a few days later, be engaged by his former department as a consultant. I do not have any official figures on how many public servants choose to do this, but I understand there are quite a few. Here we have a government which gives its blessing to people who, in most cases, have no physical disabilities. These people who, you might have thought, have skills and knowledge because the government has invested in their training over the years and who could have worked for many more years are encouraged to retire at the age of 55. Thanks to some generous tax concessions introduced by this government, they are able to retire on modest or, in some cases, good incomes for life.

This is the real worry. We are saying to one group in the community—people who are fit and well— `Retire, take it easy, put your feet up; you've earned your retirement.' But, to another group, we are saying: `We don't care that you might have a back problem. We don't care if you have some disorder that makes day-to-day living very hard for you. Go out and get a job!' But, in the first case, that of the early retiree, we not only allow retirement but encourage it with generous tax concessions. Some of our most highly skilled people spend their days on the golf course and get tax concessions and retiree discounts to help them enjoy their golden years. But to others, and particularly to those less skilled, we say, `Get a job!' We will make them go through the process of applying for job after job, knowing full well that they will never get one. I wonder who is laughing at that joke. I wonder who can see the funny side of that tragedy. But that is exactly what the government is doing with the measures contained in this bill that we are debating today.

As I said at the beginning of this speech—over two weeks ago—the government is 20 years behind the times. Let us get one thing straight: we need people to continue to work as long as they can. As we have seen from the Intergenerational Report, we need to keep people in the work force as long as we can, but we have to equip them for the jobs of the future and we have to fit them into the jobs that will need doing. We can be like Australia Post and just get rid of people if they do not quite fit in at the moment. We can cast them onto the human scrap heap for the rest of their lives, or we can take a long-term view. We can make the jobs fit the people, not the people fit the jobs—or at least we can go halfway to doing that.

This legislation does nothing to help reduce the number of Australians seeking disability support payments. All it does is make the lives of tens of thousands of Australian workers miserable, put 100 per cent of the mutual obligation on the backs of people who can least bear it and take away whatever dignity they have left. Worse than that, it does nothing to ensure that Australia has the kind of work force it needs. It is not a far-sighted measure; it is a penny-pinching one. It is not a policy for the 21st century; it is a throwback to the last century.

In opposing this bill, Labor is saying to the government: `Go back to the drawing board. Look at the labour market needs of Australia for the decades ahead. Look at the make-up of our work force and at its skills, its abilities and its disabilities. Come up with some measures that address the real problems that we face, not solutions that place the burden on individuals but solutions that consider real mutual obligation—obligations for employers like Australia Post to ensure that their workers have a full working life, obligations that make employers responsible for those injured in their workplaces and obligations to ensure that workers upgrade and modify their skills so that they can continue to work well beyond the age of 55, 60 or even 65.'

This bill will not achieve that. It is self-defeating. Most people will live with the hassle of filling in the forms and keeping Centrelink happy. They will go along with what the government wants them to do. They will put up with the indignity they have to face. In the end, what will the government have achieved? Nothing. There will be just as many people with minor disabilities unable to contribute to the economy. There will be just as many cast off by industry because they are not young, fit and attractive. And who loses? We all do. As a nation, we lose the benefit of their labour and, as individuals, they lose from being denied the self-esteem and dignity that work provides.

The growing number of people in their late 40s or in their 50s will have no chance to save that bit extra to see them through their retirement years. They will be that much more dependent on our social security system. They will be a burden on our social security system, not by choice but because short-sighted governments—like the government that we have now—cannot come up with real solutions to the work force problems, because governments would rather cut back benefits than help people to get off benefits altogether.

The measures in this bill will not help anyone. They will simply commit many people to lives of poverty and despair. They will not help our economic performance; they will simply shuffle people from one line at the Centrelink office to another. They will send us back to the last century, to the old solutions and to the failed policies of this government. They will destroy not just the dignity but the potential of so many people of working age. As a nation, we will definitely be poorer for it. This bill must be defeated.