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Wednesday, 19 November 1997
Page: 9108

Senator NEAL(1.32 p.m.) —I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Parenting and Other Measures) Bill 1997 and to draw to the attention of the government the effect of its policies on Australian families, particularly on low income families. Australian families are very concerned about what is happening now and what may happen in the future. Australian families, particularly low income families, are facing a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity at this time. I have to say that, under this government, they are justified in being concerned that they may not have a job next week. Under this government, they are right to be concerned that their already stretched household budgets may not be able to meet the extra costs that this government is going to impose on them.

I would like to go through a few examples of this. They will be spending more on child-care costs. As we know from the report that was tabled yesterday, in some cases they will be spending up to an additional $40 a week. They will be spending more on community care services and HACC services. If they can afford private health insurance, the benefit they would have received from the rebate will have gone in increased premiums. They will be paying more for pharmaceuticals. Health card holders will pay an additional $3.20 for the co-payment and, as at 1 February next year, potentially as estimated by the AMA an additional $30 per month with the new drugs tax. They will be paying more for dental treatment with the abolishment of the Commonwealth dental health scheme.

They will be paying more for housing with the reduction in rental assistance and the reduction in the availability of public housing. They will be paying more for their elderly parents to get into a nursing home and they will be paying more as a daily fee once they get in there. If they have children between the ages of 16 and 25 who are seeking work or are in education, then they will have to support those children searching for work up to the age of 20 and they will have to provide more assistance to their studying children.

All round, if you are a family in Australia, particularly if you are a low income family, under the policies of the present government you are a loser. Australian families over the last two budgets have lost $10 billion—that is from health, housing, education and social security. If this government believes that it can carve $10 billion out of the pockets of Australian families and it will have no effect, then it had better rethink its position.

I will look at the provisions of this bill. Schedule 1 combines the parenting allowance with the sole parent benefit. Ostensibly this is the provision to ensure simplification; to put two allowances together under the same name. As this government has always done, when it simplifies it uses it as an excuse to take away a benefit some low income person has. This is no exception to that general principle because, as usual, it has gone for the lowest common denominator.

Sole parents will lose in the following ways. Before, there was an assets taper whereby the sole parent payment was reduced gradually as their assets increased. Instead of their payment being reduced by $3 a fortnight for every $1,000 of assets that they have, under the new arrangements proposed in this bill they will immediately lose their sole parent benefit, or the parenting payment as it is now to be known.

There is also now the application of an income maintenance period for sole parents which did not previously apply—that is, if they have cashed out annual leave, sick leave, long service leave or maternity leave and it is paid as part of a redundancy payment, they will now have to wait the period that those payments cover before they are eligible for the parenting payment. There is also a reduction in the overseas portability from 26 weeks to 13 weeks.

There are some small winners in these provisions, but the net effect of these changes is that there is $7 million taken away from low income families that have children. When we know very well that children living in families relying on the sole parent benefit are some of the worst off in our community, those who are struggling the hardest, it really is a very harsh provision to be applying.

But it does get worse when we move to schedule 2, which applies to the child disability allowance. Firstly, as of 1 July, eligibility for the child disability allowance will be based on a prescribed list of disabilities and a child disability assessment tool. Secondly, the child disability allowance arrears will be cut from 12 months to six months. Once this government starts cutting away at payments made to disabled children, it really is hitting the bottom of the barrel. If I were a member of the coalition now, I would be a little embarrassed. If this government does not believe that the disabled children in our community are entitled to some sort of support, I really cannot see who it does believe is entitled to support.

There is only one positive change in relation to disabled children—that is, in order to get over the high jump, in order to qualify for the child disability allowance, you can now add two children together. So, if you are a family that is unfortunate enough to have not only one child but two children who are disabled, you can add them together so you get over the high jump. It is a small positive thing—I do not like to be negative always—but I have to say, in the light of the negative changes the government has made, it really is pretty small. There has been some debate about exactly who are affected by these changes and how many. The government itself says there will be about 12,000 children who are affected, but this certainly does not seem very clear, and maybe the minister would like to clarify that when she is on her feet.

Also, there seems to be some argument about the sorts of disabilities children suffer from, which will mean that some will lose out with these changes to the children's disability allowance. There seems to be some argument on behalf of the government that the sorts of people who are going to be missing out are three particular classes of children. They will be children with attention deficit disorder, children with diabetes and children with asthma. I suppose the whole basis of the argument is that these children are not really disabled, that it is not really a problem for them, that they require no additional help.

Firstly, despite the fact that those figures were relied on in the budget portfolio document, there seems to be little support for that view put forward by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I am sure the government is well aware of the debate in relation to that issue. It seems to me that in some cases the children who will miss out will be not only those in the three categories but also those who suffer from other disabilities.

Putting aside that argument for a moment, it is important to say that I do not believe the three classes of children with those particular disabilities are unworthy of support. If that is a view held by the government and by the department, they have never had children, dealt with children or cared for children who are in those categories. It certainly is a great difficulty that children have to overcome, particularly in the category of ADD. For those children who suffer ADD in our community, it can often be the difference between their being educated and their not being educated. In many cases, to overcome that difficulty they have to have extensive additional teaching and coaching to get even the bare necessities of an education—to be able to read and write.

This government is saying that, if you have a child with attention deficit disorder, it does not care if you cannot get that additional help. If you are poor, if you cannot afford to pay for that additional training yourself, that is just too bad. I really do not see how this government feels that the community are winners if there is a generation of children with a disability and the government does not provide them and their families with the tools to overcome it. That sort of short-sightedness also applies to children in the categories of having asthma and diabetes.

Despite our objections, this government seems hell-bent on proceeding with this part of the bill, and this is not the first time that this government has had a go at the disabled in Australia. It is not the first time, because we fought it off before. When the government attempted to alter the arrears for the child disability allowance in earlier legislation, we defeated it, and I hope we will be able to do that again.

There are also other areas where this government is eroding the support that is being provided to the disabled. In the Social Security and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Family and Other Measures) Bill , which we have previously dealt with, there was the introduction of a new disability impairment table for adults who are disabled. Under that new table, thousands of people with disabilities would have to look for work, and where there were no jobs available those people would miss out. That amendment got through on the basis that the Australian Democrats agreed that they would allow its passage if the government would review it at some time in the future. I was quite disappointed by that position, but I cannot get away from the fact that this is a proposition put by the government that does have a responsibility for running the country. Obviously it thinks that it is all right to reduce the eligibility of disabled people for the disability allowance.

Something else has happened, probably less obviously, and there was some discussion about it at the estimates committee hearings—that is, at the same time, there has been a crackdown on the availability of the mobility allowance. I questioned the officers at some length about this issue. They tried to impress upon me that this reduction, or this removal of a number of people who are on the mobility allowance—or, more accurately, the failure of many people to qualify for the mobility allowance—was as a result of the fact that there had been some confusion about the mobility allowance. They said the reality was that, previously, people who were not entitled to it were receiving it and they had just clarified the guidelines to ensure that this did not occur. I beg to differ.

A number of people who have contacted the opposition have an entirely different view of it as well. They see that they had an entitlement before to an allowance, not a large allowance but just enough to allow people who are quite disabled to get around, to attend living skills classes, to attend venues outside their home that would give them a greater level of skill. Maybe it would not give them a sufficient level of skill to immediately obtain employment, but for some people, particularly those who are disabled, the journey to being able to obtain employment is a very long and arduous one. The early steps may have a tenuous connection on the face of it to eventually getting a job but, in my view, anything that increases the skills and exposure of disabled people to the outside world is a step towards getting them a job. I believe that this government has treated the disabled, both children and adults, despicably. I hope that it reconsiders its position in the future.

Schedule 3 of the bill is rather peculiar. The government has changed `family payment' to `family allowance'. We are not opposed to it, but we are a bit puzzled by it. Why this government would bother to make 255 amendments to the Social Security Act just for the purpose of changing the name from `payment' to `allowance' seems to be rather extraordinary, although I suppose there is some ideological basis for it. I am a bit concerned about not only the amendment and the fact that it wastes the time of the Senate in dealing with it but also the cost involved in it.

What is the cost of this ideological bent of this government to change `payment' to `allowance'? How much does it cost for the stationery? How much does it cost for the application forms—reprinting it all, of course, because of the change of name? How much is it going to cost for the publicity to inform people of what is happening? Again, I would like the minister to respond to that when she is on her feet, if she can. How much will it cost the community for this change of name, which appears to me to be entirely based on ideology? If the minister has another explanation, I would be very interested to hear it, but I certainly could not think of any other reason.

Schedule 4 of the bill deals with the hardship provisions. It standardises the arrangements for determining when severe financial hardship can be invoked to waive ordinary income maintenance and liquid assets waiting periods. A person must have liquid assets of no more than two weeks payment. For the income maintenance and liquid assets test, they must also demonstrate that they are in this financial predicament because of what is, in the view of this government, unavoidable and essential expenditure. This has been a vexed question: what exactly can be the basis for hardship provisions? This seems to be an improvement on the previous position, but I am not sure if it is exactly the ideal. I suppose I have to concede the benefit of a slight loosening up.

The problem with `unavoidable and essential expenditure' is that sometimes things occur to a family that may not necessarily come within this category. In those circumstances, should the family have to potentially go without food and lodgings for maybe two weeks? I suppose it is not often that it occurs, but I am sure it does happen. Say, for example, the father of a family takes the only income the family has and goes off and gambles it. Obviously you would not describe that as being essential expenditure but, then again, is it really fair that the family in that situation should go without food for that period if something like that should occur? Obviously the father has done something completely irresponsible, but should the rest of the family suffer as a result? Again, I would be very interested to hear if the department has given any consideration to this circumstance or whether there is some provision that can deal with this sort of situation.

Schedule 5 extends the health care card eligibility to disabled children who do not otherwise qualify for the child disability allowance and bases the health care card eligibility on income averaged over eight weeks. Of course we support the first part for all the reasons that I have said already—I think disabled children need all the help they can get—but we are a bit concerned that this mechanism extends the period over which income is assessed. It essentially means that you do not have to wait for four weeks for the health care card; you have to wait for eight. We are a bit unhappy with that. (Time expired)