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Thursday, 14 February 2002
Page: 196

Ms WORTH (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing) (10:12 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill is the same in substance as the Disability Discrimination Amendment Bill 2002, which the Attorney-General introduced on 27 September 2001 and which subsequently lapsed when the parliament was prorogued.

This bill is an important precursor to the formulation of disability standards for accessible public transportation services and facilities.

It is an essential element in ensuring that the standards, when implemented, operate in a fair, balanced and effective manner, both for people with disabilities and for public transport operators and providers of such services.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, the Attorney-General may formulate disability standards in a range of areas.

Last September, the Attorney-General released for public information a final draft of the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport, together with accompanying draft guidelines.

When implemented, these disability standards will greatly assist in breaking down social and economic barriers faced by people with a disability or mobility problem, and their carers and friends.

The standards will also benefit many older Australians and parents with infants in pushers or prams, who need or want to use public transport services and facilities.

A lack of accessible transport services and facilities is a significant barrier for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are much less likely to be able to drive and are often faced with unreliable or expensive modes of transport.

The disability standards for accessible public transport will be the first of their kind and, as such, they represent this government's strong commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities.

The development of the standards has been a major initiative, involving extensive consultation over a long period to ensure that a broad range of views were canvassed across the public transport industry, the disability community, government agencies at all levels and other interest groups.

The Attorney-General proposes to formulate and table these disability standards, in accordance with the act, when this bill is passed.

Section 55 of the Disability Discrimination Act currently empowers the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to grant temporary exemptions from the operation of provisions of the act.

This power does not currently extend to exemptions from disability standards.

The government is keen to ensure that the disability standards are implemented in a practical and balanced way.

This aim would not be realised if the standards were to give rise to unnecessary uncertainty on the part of transport operators and providers about their compliance obligations.

This is particularly the case where an operator believes that they may not be required to comply with a particular requirement because to do so would cause unjustifiable hardship to the operator.

A mechanism to allow for temporary exemptions from part or all of the standards, where appropriate, will provide the means by which up-front certainty about compliance obligations can be assured.

This bill will therefore amend the act to allow the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to grant exemptions from disability standards dealing with public transportation services and facilities.

Extending the commission's power to enable it to grant exemptions from these standards is consistent with the commission's current power to grant exemptions from provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act.

The bill also provides that, before granting an exemption from the disability standards, the commission must consult a body prescribed in the regulations.

The body prescribed for that purpose will be the National Transport Secretariat.

The secretariat is jointly funded by all jurisdictions and reports to the Australian Transport Council.

The secretariat will be able to provide the commission with invaluable technical advice in respect of an application for a temporary exemption from a requirement of the disability standards.

The Australian Transport Council has agreed to the secretariat taking on this role.

The commission will also be able to consult with any other body or person it considers appropriate to consult, as is its current practice.

If the commission decides to grant an exemption to an operator or provider where, for example, unjustifiable hardship would be imposed in complying with a requirement of the standards, the exemption will provide protection from a complaint about a breach of that requirement.

Like an exemption from the provisions of the act, an exemption from the disability standards in relation to public transport services can be for a period of up to five years, and an application can be made to the commission for this to be extended.

An exemption may be granted from particular requirements of the disability standards under terms and conditions specified in the exemption instrument.

An exemption might be granted, for example, on condition that an operator meet the targets it has set for itself in an action plan.

The disability standards for accessible public transport will spell out in greater detail rights and obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act.

They will provide transport operators with information to assist them in complying with their obligations under the act.

They will also provide a practical means of working towards meeting a key objective of the act—to eliminate, to the extent possible, discrimination from public transport services, on the ground of a person's disability.

Already, as we go about our daily business, we are becoming more familiar with signage, facilities and infrastructure which remind us about the requirements of people with disabilities.

They also remind us of how important it is to do what we can to facilitate the participation of people with disabilities in community life so that they may enjoy the many opportunities it has to offer.

We can assist by removing some of the barriers that may prevent them from doing this.

That persons with disabilities have the same fundamental rights as the rest of the community is an important principle enshrined within the Disability Discrimination Act.

The disability standards will help to promote increased recognition and acceptance within the community of that principle.

They will also further our standing within the international community as leaders in taking practical steps to reduce discrimination against people with disabilities.

The bill provides for amendments that will help to set in place effective arrangements which represent a sensible and balanced approach to eliminating, as far as possible, discrimination against people with disabilities, while ensuring that industry is not unduly burdened in the process.

I commend the bill to the House and present the signed explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Albanese) adjourned.