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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2398

Mr CADMAN (10:22 AM) —The Disability Discrimination Amendment Bill 2002 is a vote for commonsense. There is not a person in Australia who would not want to see ready access for people with disabilities to all forms of transport and access to every aspect of daily life. The proposal before the House in this bill seeks to move one step closer to granting universal access with a requirement for disabled people to gain access to public transport of all types. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission—HREOC—currently has the ability to grant exemptions for the general provisions of disability discrimination but not for disability standards. This bill amends the Disability Discrimination Act to allow HREOC to grant exemptions for disability standards dealing with public transport, including, for example, on the grounds of unjustifiable hardship.

I have been aware of the discussions that have been taking place between elements of the transport industry and the Australian government on the way in which the wish to provide access for those who are disabled has been dealt with. I have spoken to bus proprietors and to people with facilities where transport around the state is a problem. I think we have here a proposal which moves one step towards establishing standards by regulation but which provides a commonsense approach. It has been pointed out to me that there is a massive cost in providing wheelchair access for buses, for instance. It is very difficult to do. You have to consider the footpath and access being available at ground level to meet a same-height standard for a passing bus or other means of transport. If one considers all the possible sites within a city area, one would realise that it is almost impossible to guarantee that, on every site, access to public transport can be granted to somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who is disabled.

If I am any judge of this matter, the people who will be dragging the chain in this process will be the state governments. They will be the ones who will want to do it last. They will have all sorts of excuses and exemptions for not providing access for people with disabilities. Somebody pointed out to me that it is impossible for a person who is disabled to get onto the site of one of our railway stations—and I know the honourable member opposite would be familiar with this station. But state governments of all types have just scrubbed it. They have said, `Bad luck. Go to the next station. Somehow or other get yourself somewhere else and you will get on to public transport.'

It is not just a matter of wheelchair access between the platform and the carriage or between the footpath and the bus—there is a lot more to it than that. This bill gives the opportunity for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to grant exemptions based on a number of reasons. I think that is a practical approach. Private bus proprietors in Western Sydney have put to me the huge cost they would have in making all their coaches compliant and in putting in all the conditions at every bus stop throughout Western Sydney. In this area, you have partially developed subdivisions, older subdivisions and all sorts of circumstances. It is surely not up to bus proprietors to make sure that the footpath conditions at bus stops comply with a suitable physical condition to allow for wheelchair or other access. In these circumstances, I believe this is a commonsense piece of legislation.

Comments have been made by representatives of those with disabilities. I note that they are very disappointed about the extension of the compliance timetable to 30 years for trains and trams—in reality, especially for trains. This does not mean people with disabilities will not be able to use them during this time span. That is a reasonable statement. When one considers the possible capital cost, one has some sympathy for state governments. But it is a common practice, at both state and federal level, to dump the compliance costs onto the non-government sector and then the government sector drags the chain in meeting its own standards. I think that is completely unreasonable.

I hope that everybody moves forward together in this area. I call on state governments to recognise the needs of those who are disabled and to move ahead at the same pace as they impose regulations on the non-government sector. It is okay to dump regulations on the bus companies of Western Sydney, or any other part of Australia for that matter, but it is completely unreasonable to then fail to fulfil the conditions for railway stations, say at Seven Hills. This cannot be the way in which the standards are implemented. If exemptions are granted in certain circumstances for state instrumentalities, the same exemptions should be granted for non-government instrumentalities. These provisions provide for consultations with the bodies involved that may be affected by regulations. HREOC must do that before making a decision to grant an exemption.

A part of the current problems we have in the insurance industry is the real penchant people have to litigate. I will mention a disability case in my area. There is a school on a most difficult, steep site, and a case was brought that a disabled girl should have access to the school. The girl never even wanted to attend the school, but the case was brought against the school. It lost that case and went to the highest court possible. Multimillion dollars are required to make that site accessible for people with certain disabilities. The school, if forced to comply, would close its doors because one test case was brought against it.

I hope some commonsense starts to come back in the way in which we relate to each other in our community. The fact that you can force somebody to comply with the law or receive compensation does not mean to say that everybody has a right to access everything. We are all imposed with limitations of one sort or another. In relation to disability, I hope the lawyers do not go hunting for test cases to prove that their fees are bigger or that their award for damages is better than that of the last guy who went to court. I am just calling for a commonsense approach in the application of these laws. I know the government is pleased that at last, after many years, we have been able to move ahead in this area.