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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 2270

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (Dobell) (11:32): I speak in support of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Disability Support Pension Participation Reforms) Bill 2012, which contains a whole series of key reforms to the disability support pension that are part of the Australian government's 2011-12 budget package Building Australia's Future Workforce. The Central Coast is an area where there are a high number of people with disabilities and on disability support. Over 12,000 residents of the Central Coast are in receipt of disability pensions, and it is an issue that is very close to my heart in terms of how we deal with these issues.

I have a particular constituent who is a regular lobbier of our office, Paul Davis. Paul has been looking after his son Logan for in excess of 20 years. Logan is severely disabled. Together we have been able to make sure that access to disability toilets on the Central Coast is something that can happen. Previously we had the experience that, because of vandals, the disability toilets were locked and so you had these toilets that no-one could actually get into, which sort of defeats the purpose. Through this association with Paul Davis I have been able to see the kind of strains and stresses that having someone with a disability and caring for them puts on an individual, a family and their friends. Paul certainly has gone through a lot, willingly, for his son, but it is an everyday struggle in relation to how you deal with that disability and the obstacles that are in your way. Paul has been a terrific advocate for those with disabilities.

While I am talking about local issues in terms of disabilities, I would like to mention a couple of other areas and pay some credit to some locals. Councillor Doug Vincent on the Wyong Council leads the disability tourism group on the Central Coast. People with disabilities also like to get away and have a break and have holidays, and again one of the things in our society that is difficult is that we often do not cater for this sort of thing. So the Central Coast has taken a position, led by Councillor Vincent, that we need to make sure that we have tourism facilities available to make sure that this takes place. We have already had a number of events for disabled surfers and the like. One of the areas we are focusing around is Camp Breakaway. It is in the electorate of my neighbour Jill Hall, the member for Shortland, but is very close to my border. Camp Breakaway is a terrific facility that enables people—not just those from the Central Coast but a lot who come up from Sydney—to come and have a holiday and a break, away from the everyday struggles and strains of looking after someone with a disability. They are a great local organisation who do a terrific job. They are also pivotal to looking at how we develop disability tourism on the Central Coast so that people have that sort of access. I know I diverted a little bit there, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is very much worth recording in this place these sorts of achievements, these sorts of things that local people are doing on the Central Coast, and acknowledging the terrific work that they do.

The government is improving support for Australians with disability to help them into work where possible while ensuring we continue to provide an essential safety net for those who are unable to support themselves fully through work. This is because the government recognises that working benefits people in many ways. It helps to boost people's self-esteem and improve their social contact, it provides more income and it leads to improved health and financial stability. The government is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities can access these opportunities whenever they are able to do so. From 1 July 2012 more generous rules are being introduced to allow all disability support pensioners to work up to 30 hours a week without having their payments suspended or cancelled. These people will be able to receive a part pension, subject to the usual means-testing arrangements. Currently, people with disability support pensions granted on or after the introduction of the Welfare to Work changes on 11 May 2005 can only work up to 15 hours a week before their payment is suspended or cancelled. So this is a major change. Those recipients granted pensions before this date were grandfathered under the Welfare to Work changes and can work up to 30 hours. Disability support pensioners subject to the 15-hour rule can find it difficult to find work limited to less than 15 hours a week. Many want to test whether they can work more hours but are worried about losing their qualification. This change will remove the disincentive for disability support pensioners to take up work or increase their hours if they are able to do so. It will help address the low workforce participation rate of people with disabilities. It is estimated that the change will encourage around 4,000 disability support pension recipients to take up work and 3,900 recipients who are already employed to work extra hours.

The reform helps disability support pensioners to engage with the workforce by introducing new participation requirements for certain disability support pension recipients with some capacity to work. This supplements other measures which deliver extra support for people with disability, including more employment services, generous rules for disability support pensioners to encourage them to work more hours and support for employers to take on more people with disability through new financial incentives.

Many people with disabilities want to work if they can, but they need extra support. Through this measure, disability support pension recipients under the age of 35 with a work capacity of at least eight hours a week will be required for the first time to attend regular participation interviews—engaging with Centrelink to develop participation plans tailored to their individual circumstances to help build their capacity. The participation plans could involve working with employment services to improve job readiness, searching for employment or undertaking training, volunteering or rehabilitation. The participation interviews will also help make sure disability support pension recipients are connected to the other services and supports—such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health and other community services—they need to overcome barriers to participation.

While attendance at Centrelink interviews will be compulsory, participation in activities identified in the plans will be on a voluntary basis. There will also be exceptions to the new participation requirements for pensioners who are manifestly disabled or who have a work capacity of less than eight hours a week, or while a pensioner is working in an Australian disability enterprise or the supported wage system.

The third measure in this bill is based on the recognition that the disability support pension is an essential safety net for people with severe impairments who cannot work. New, more generous rules will allow people receiving the disability support pension who have a permanent disability and no future work capacity to travel overseas for more than 13 weeks while retaining access to their pension. In addition, a disability support pension recipient who is severely disabled and required to accompany a family member who has been posted overseas by their Australian employer will retain their pension for the period of the family member's posting. These pensioners will not be eligible for add-on payments, such as the pension supplement or rent assistance, while they are overseas.

Existing portability rules will continue to apply to disability support pension recipients who have some ability to work. Other working-age payments will not be affected by these changes. The bill contains other minor amendments changing references in the child support legislation to average weekly earnings data derived from an Australian Bureau of Statistics publication—necessary because of a change in the frequency of that publication.

This government has a great record in disability services reform. This government understands that fundamental reform of disability services in Australia is required, which is why we are determined to deliver a national disability insurance scheme. A national disability insurance scheme will give people with a disability the kind of support they have the right to expect. It will give Australians who were born with or acquire a disability confidence that they will get the helping hand they need to have a good life.

I know, Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, that you went to your electorate's launch of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Many of us went to such launches in our electorates and met with people who were going to be affected by the scheme. As a new and, at that time, very sleep deprived father who was feeling a little sorry for himself, it was an eye-opener for me to meet families who had children with disabilities but who do not currently have the support of such a scheme. Their lives are so much harder.

I was able to go to a place called Chipmunks Playland and Cafe at Westfield, where a local charity, Blair's Wish, was supporting the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I met young Blair, who has a disability that his family is living with. He is one of three children. Seeing the effect on the family unit of having a child with a disability was absolutely profound. Any feelings that I had been having about the difficulty of dealing with a young child soon evaporated when I was given details not just of Blair's life and how his disability affects his family but of the difficulties faced by the many children and parents who were there. One mother told me how, for the last five years, she has had to wake every hour on the hour, turn her child over and check that he is okay—24 hours a day. For those of us who do not have a child with a disability, it is incomprehensible to see how you could live a life in such circumstances. But they do—because these are their children, these are people they care about and love. As a nation we need to make sure that these people are looked after—and that is what a national disability insurance scheme is about. It is about making sure that the most vulnerable in our community, the most in need, get the assistance they have a right to expect. This side of parliament can be incredibly proud that we have been determined to introduce this because of the profound effect it will have on those people with disability, the profound effect it will have on communities that have large numbers of people with disability and the profound effect it will have on families who will rely on the help of the Disability Insurance Scheme. It is certainly not going to mean that their life will be easy, in any sense, but it will mean that they will get much needed assistance. It is something that everyone in this House should be supporting and making sure that we bring about.

On this side of the House, we have a very proud record of making sure that we are there for those who are most vulnerable. This legislation is part of that suite of packages. It pre-empts some of the issues that we are going to be dealing with with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but the issues that we are talking about today with this bill are important for the dignity, the participation and the care of those people in our communities who suffer from a disability. For that reason, this is a very important bill. It is a marker as to where this government are going to support people with disabilities and it is something that we should all support, and I commend the bill to the House.