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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 3726

Mr BLUNT(10.05) —This package of legislation-the Disability Services Bill and the Disability Services (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill-which we are considering today is of great significance to the many thousands of people in Australia with disabilities. In broad terms the Opposition supports this legislative initiative by the Government, although in another place we moved amendments, one of which we were successful in having accepted. We will, with the concurrence of the Clerk, later be circulating our proposed amendments to these Bills.

I believe that all Australians have a great deal of sympathy for those of their fellow Australians who have disabilities. It is important in our society, which by world standards is a wealthy society, a compassionate society and a Christian society by and large, that we, in framing our legislative approach to government and in providing welfare services, understand the special needs of those people who do not have the same capacities and advantages that the majority of Australians have. For that reason, we believe it is important that government in developing its welfare policies give considerable attention and thought to ensuring that the very special, indeed unique, needs of people with disabilities are catered for in general terms.

This legislation represents a major review. In fact, it is a landmark piece of legislation in terms of care for people in our society with disabilities. The shadow Minister for Community Services, Senator Peter Baume, speaking to these Bills when they were introduced in the Senate, said in broad terms that the Opposition supported the thrust of the Government's initiative and was prepared to support the legislation to the extent that it moved towards setting goals and objectives and reflected the special needs of people with disabilities. That, of course, is our view in this place and we will not be opposing these Bills, although, as I said, we will be proposing certain amendments.

I am told that in Australia there are at least 270,000 people between the ages of five and 64 with disabilities. That gives honourable members some idea of the numbers of people in our community who are interested in this legislation and underscores, I believe, the need for all members in this place and, in fact, in the community generally, to pay attention to the way in which we set up a legislative framework for the provision of community services for people with disabilities.

Community services are very important. In recent years there has been a changed approach to the provision of these support facilities. By their very nature and because of the nature of our society, support for people with disabilities originally arose as a result of the concern and, dare I say, love of their families, their parents in many cases, and their immediate relatives. In recognition of the work done by informal groups, government began to provide services in this area. The legislative framework developed over a long period in co-operation with those voluntary groups, family groups and charities which have taken an interest in the provision of these very important support services for these very special people. This legislation seeks to change the basis of the government's approach. We on this side of the House do not have any objection to that basis of approach, although we differ on detail in some areas. We see that the Government has recognised some of the points made in a Senate report prepared some years ago which bore the title `Through a Glass Darkly'. The Opposition supports the general thrust of that report and is very pleased to see that the Government has taken the opportunity to introduce some of the reforms proposed with a view to achieving some of the objectives presented in that report.

The Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes), in the second reading speech on the Disability Services Bill, said that it had a number of purposes. The first of these was to provide a future legislative basis for the provision of financial assistance to organisations conducting services for people with disabilities to replace the present source of assistance, namely, the Handicapped Persons Assistance Act 1974, which, apart from certain provisions, will be repealed. The second objective is to provide a specific legislative base for two related sub-groups-the program upgrading scheme and the assistance for people with print disabilities-by incorporating them into the new legislation.

The third objective is to provide funding and other mechanisms by which, under certain conditions, existing subsidised services may continue to receive financial support while upgrading to meet the more stringent requirements of the new legislation. We are particularly pleased to see that this provision is incorporated in the legislation because undoubtedly there will be some difficulty for some organisations and people involved in those organisations in adjusting to the changed circumstances, the changed environment, for the provisions of this legislation. The fourth provision of the legislation introduces, according to the Minister, greater protection for the interests of both the Commonwealth and the people with disabilities who are the users of subsidised services. This, the Minister says, is to be achieved by a variety of provisions and features of the Bill, including a requirement that all services be formally reviewed at intervals of no more than five years.

In terms of structuring a legislative program which is goal oriented, which is oriented towards the needs of people with disabilities, that is a major step forward in the view of the Opposition. We believe that it is very important to keep foremost in our minds and in the mind of government the need to ensure that the services we provide reflect the needs and requirements of people with disabilities. It is all too easy in government to structure legislative programs around budgetary constraints, to decide that the simple spending of money is ample evidence of concern. That, of course, is not an effective way of distributing resources in this sector, and it is very important that the adequacy and the efficiency of programs be reviewed on an objective basis. That review, of course, must take into account the changed needs of people with disabilities. We hope, and I am sure, the Government will engage in adequate consultation with organisations that are representative of people with disabilities to ensure that those reviews reflect the changing needs and the perceived changing needs of those organisations.

The fifth objective, the Minister says, is to provide a range of activities, such as program related research and development, intended to ensure that the services funded under this program are designed to meet the changing needs of people. As I said, adequate consultation with those people who are the users of this program is very important. The research must take into account not only the views of the people who are employed by organisations providing those services but also the views of the people who consume those services-the people who, on a daily basis, are affected by the quality, standard and variety of those services provided under this legislation.

Finally, the sixth objective of this Bill is to provide a new legislative base for the provision of rehabilitation services by the Commonwealth, which is currently provided under the Social Security Act. When this Bill was debated in the Senate considerable concern was expressed by many Opposition senators about the implications of that change and whether the Government would continue to provide adequate rehabilitation services. I hope that in the concluding remarks of the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe), who is at the table, he might address the Government's policy on the provision of rehabilitation services and the implications for the current users of those services of the Government's decision to sell some of the facilities that exist in many places around Australia.

It is of some concern to the Opposition that in drafting this legislation the Government has decided that it is appropriate to include States as organisations capable of applying for funding under this legislation. It is, I believe, a unique proposal that a sovereign State of this Commonwealth will be regarded as an organisation along with other organisations, many of which are community based or voluntary organisations, and able to apply for funding under this program. I know that in the other place Senator Grimes made some comments about this. I hope that for the benefit of members of the House the Minister here will also comment on the Government's underlying objectives in proposing this measure.

One other aspect of the legislation that causes the Opposition some concern is the Government's intention to exclude under the legislative package organisations for people with predominantly psychiatric disabilities from becoming eligible as organisations for the purposes of the legislation. In making this exclusion we believe that the Government has breached the principle of equity. The Opposition does not believe it appropriate to differentiate between people with disabilities based on the nature of their disability. We are talking about people who for one reason or another have difficulties in coping with the pressures and requirements of modern life. Whether that difficulty arises from a physical or psychological disability, I can see no reason for making a distinction in this legislation. If people have difficulty, if they cannot cope, if they require special assistance and consideration, I believe that it is appropriate to deal with them on that basis and not to say that there are two categories of people in our society with disabilities, people with physical difficulties and people with predominantly psychological difficulties. For that reason I hope the Minister will explain again the basis for that distinction which sets apart a particular group of people. It is important that we do nothing to ostracise or separate people in our society any more than their existing disabilities already do. It is difficult for many people with disabilities to participate in the community when they recognise that their disabilities, whether physical of psychological, limit their capacity to take a full and complete role in our society.

In framing legislation it is important for a government to demonstrate compassion and understanding of human psychology and to ensure that there is not inadvertent, and hopefully never deliberate, decision to categorise people of the basis of their disability. The status of people changes in the course of their lives. Many people who are born with no disability at all, with all their capacities and faculties, in the course of their lives encounter disability which changes their status. They are very much aware of what they were previously and of their former capacities. They are also conscious of the limitations that then apply to them. Conversely, there are many people who overcome their disabilities, some completely, others perhaps partially. They also understand what that means to them in terms of their capacity to be complete and active Australians and to participate fully in our society. Any legislation which seems to quarantine people on the basis of their disability, or implies that some people have a capacity to overcome that disability more so than others, or limits in some way the way in which governments respond in providing services to those people, is potentially dangerous. I hope the Government will consider the implications of this quarantining, this distinction between the basis of disability, before pursuing this legislation completely. The Opposition supports this package of Bills. It has been debated at some length in the Senate. We intend to move some amendments in the Committee stage, and on that basis I commend the Bills.