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Thursday, 12 May 2005
Page: 105

Senator McLUCAS (5:42 PM) —This budget attacks the most vulnerable and defenceless people in Australian society: those who suffer from complex disabilities and chronic and degenerative conditions like HIV-AIDS, multiple sclerosis and mental illness. Treasurer Costello stood up on budget night, and later in the media, and smirked about people he claims are ‘faking bad backs’, as justification for introducing draconian and punitive measures that will have severe consequences for hundreds of thousands of Australians who suffer from a physical or mental disability.

The government is calling people with disabilities ‘shirkers’. They are implying that MS sufferers and people with episodic mental illness, acquired brain injuries or other incapacities are ‘bludging’ and therefore deserve to be punished if they do not find a job. As a result of the government’s changes to the DSP rules, the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations estimates that 60,000 people with a disability will be $40 a week worse off. This is at the same time that the rich, people earning over $125,000, will be about $65 a week better off. That is Mr Costello’s concept of helping those most in need in our society. Young people with a disability will be particularly affected. Not only was there no budget allocation for a national disability employment strategy, but in the future they will also be financially disadvantaged in comparison to their peers.

There may well be a few people who should not be on the disability support pension. Labor has always maintained that disability payments are there for those who genuinely meet the criteria. But you do not make the thousands who are in genuine need suffer in order to ensure compliance. There are other, more equitable, just and fair means to ensure that those in genuine need are supported. Under the Orwellian doublespeak of welfare reform—the word ‘reform’ is used so poorly by this government—the Howard government is introducing a new form of punishment that goes beyond words like ‘mean-spirited’ and ‘unfair’. The changes to the DSP announced on budget night are an appallingly vicious piece of policy that will create two tiers of welfare for people with a disability. The existing 700,000 Australians receiving the DSP are being abandoned and forgotten. There are no training or employment opportunities in this budget for them. People with disabilities needing the DSP in the future will be punished by this government. These people, implies Mr Costello, are faking their disability. These are the people with allegedly nothing more than a bad back. As an aside, Mr Costello has clearly never had a bad back. A bad back, Mr Costello, is one of the most painful and debilitating conditions one can have.

Let me make something patently clear to the Howard government—people with disabilities want to work. Senator Humphries said as much a moment ago. When I meet with disability organisations and people with a range of disabilities, the overriding message I hear from them is that they want to participate, be active and contribute in the best way that they can, but the truth is that employers and job agencies are simply not employing them—and Senator Humphries agreed with me. The real day-to-day problems for people with disabilities trying to find suitable work are access to public transport and the design of buildings. These issues have not been addressed in this budget, nor were they addressed in any of Mr Costello’s previous nine budgets.

In the lead-up to the budget, the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations called on the government to introduce a national employment strategy that focused on employers and improved job retention for people with a disability. This did not happen. Instead the disability sector woke up on Wednesday morning to the absolutely shocking headlines in the Daily Telegraph alleging that people with a disability are shirkers. I am appalled that the government has perpetuated this myth and facilitated this language of division. Since the inception of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the campaigns waged by people with a disability and their supporters, the understanding of the lives of people with a disability and their consequent acceptance and inclusion has grown—but not to the point of a lack of discrimination. The language of the Howard Government this week, which has facilitated sections of the media to vilify people with disabilities, is to be deplored. This week has set back the goal of removing discrimination towards people with disabilities immeasurably.

The measures announced by Mr Costello to increase employment assistance to people with a disability will not create jobs, and the budget itself acknowledges this. What is needed is a national disability employment strategy that addresses disability discrimination and the barriers to participation. Without concrete proposals to encourage employers to employ people with a disability, the budget proposals will do nothing to increase employment of these people. Instead, they will leave people more entrenched in poverty and unemployment than ever. The issue for people with a disability is not how many hours they can work but what type of work they can do. This is the fundamental issue that Treasurer Costello does not seem to understand or acknowledge.

The Howard Government does not understand that disability is a multidimensional concept—it relates not only to body function but also to people’s environment, which may limit their capacity to participate. Disability is not a medical condition based on a health condition that may be treated purely by mainstream medical approaches. Disability is now recognised as the interaction between a person and their environment, including the social, economic, legal and structural environment. The most significant barriers people with disabilities face are a product of this interaction, and the help they need from government is assistance in changing that environment, not adding bigger and more onerous barriers.

Rather than having ‘bad backs’—a category under which Mr Costello so ignorantly and patronisingly lumps everyone—3,958,300, or one in five, Australians has a reported disability according to the most recent ABS data. This rate is roughly the same for women and men and has remained static since around 1998. We also know that people with disabilities are trying to gain employment, and there are many people categorised as having a disability who are participating in the work force. Data from the ABS shows that of the people with a disability living in the community, 53.2 per cent are participating in the work force. In fact, ABS data says that, in 1998, 31 per cent of people with a disability living in the community were employed full time and 16.1 per cent were employed part time. Of those with a reported disability, 86 per cent were limited in the core activities of self care, mobility or communication, or were restricted in schooling or employment. It is also staggering to note that 16 per cent of Australians with a reported disability have a mental or behavioural disorder as their main condition. It is relevant to point out here to the government that only 24 per cent of Australians with a profound or severe core activity limitation have completed year 12 and only 14 per cent have a diploma or higher qualification. My question to the government is: how do people with a range of disabilities find part-time work? My further question is: how will these same people fare in regional and rural areas, where able-bodied people find it hard due to limited opportunities and low job vacancies?

Senator McGauran —They will not lose their disability pension if they cannot find work.

Senator McLUCAS —I am sorry, Senator McGauran; they will. That is the point. The complexities involved with disabilities mean that some people with a disability cannot stand for long periods of time. Others suffer from disabilities that restrict their dexterity and movement. Some have disabilities that restrict the way they function in society. Of most concern are the thousands of Australians who suffer from periodic mental illness. In these cases a person may be able to work for weeks, perhaps months, without incident. However, when they have an episode or exhibit behaviour which is different, they more often than not lose their job. I cannot emphasise enough how detrimental this is to their self-esteem and their ability to re-enter the job market.

My further concern is the disincentive implicit in the measures in the budget for those with periodic mental illness to access employment. Repeated failure in the job market due to a person’s mental illness, not their application or desire to work, will make anyone nervous about trying again, especially if there is the potential for accessing a lower pension if failure is once again realised. That reality is there. If those people are faced with the reality of another failure in the job market, they will be worried about trying again. That is the reality that is presented in this budget.

I am also concerned about how these people will be assessed for work capacity. What will be the qualifications of the assessors? Will they have specialist training in mental health or acquired brain injury? Where will people with disabilities be expected to work? Already we hear that the Attorney-General is considering granting an exemption to small business from complying with the Disability Discrimination Act. If this transpires then people with particular disabilities will not be able to access those premises. In other words, even though people want to work, they may be denied the opportunity because the work premises are inaccessible, dangerous or hazardous to their wellbeing.

The Howard government is refusing to recognise or acknowledge any of these factors. According to Mr Costello, these are just people with bad backs who do not want to work. So he has taken the biggest stick possible to people with a disability but has not mentioned, let alone addressed, the de facto discrimination that permeates job agencies, employers and the government when it comes to employing people with a disability. The government has not addressed the structural barriers—and I mean literally the structural barriers—that prevent people with disabilities from participating in the work force, because this would mean real welfare reform. It would mean doing something, as opposed to demonising the most vulnerable.

Let me point out the hypocrisy of the government. Under the Howard-Costello government there has been a real decline in the number and proportion of people with a disability employed in the Australian Public Service. So on Tuesday night we had the sight of a smirking Treasurer patronisingly telling people with mental and physical disabilities to go out and get a job or their benefits will be cut. But does he lead by example? No. Does the man who covets the prime ministership demonstrate the importance of leadership by ensuring that the Australian Public Service sets the benchmark for hiring people with a disability? No, he does not. The Howard government is penalising people with disabilities because they have a disability. It is demonising them, belittling their chronic conditions or mental illness and allowing the media to stereotype them as shirkers. This is not welfare reform; it is victimisation. The worst part is that it is based on ideologically driven obsession, not empirical data or research. I condemn the government for the way it is treating the hundreds of thousands of people with a disability. I commend the motion to the chamber.