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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 987

Mr NEUMANN (6:22 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. After I was elected in 2007 I came to this chamber and listened to speeches made by those opposite. I am always interested in the speeches made by the member for Kooyong, the member for Murray and the member for Farrer, who is in the House at the moment. They always make interesting and worthy contributions. I may not agree with everything they say but they are dedicated parliamentarians who really exemplify a proportion of our society—the small ‘l’ liberal type proportion, whose views are legitimate in our society. But there are some people who I have listened to since I came to this place whose views I simply cannot respect.

I wonder how the members that I have given praise to can sit in the same party room as the member for Tangney, who tonight has given us what I would describe as a Hansonite type response to this legislation. It was a mean-spirited and quite offensive attempt to belittle this legislation, which was put forward with the best of intentions and is supposed to be supported by his side of the House. I wonder whether he actually listened to the contribution of the member for Farrer before he came into this chamber. I know that there are so many members opposite who are concerned, like we are, about ending discrimination against people with a disability and also those who suffer discrimination on the basis of their age.

The member for Tangney consistently used pejorative expressions about those sitting on this side of the House. He said that we had spent so long in opposition we had forgotten things. Sadly, there are some on that side of the House who have spent so long in power that they have forgotten things. One of the things that they forgot to do, as is the case with so much of what we have had to pick up, is genuine reform in the area of disability. It is interesting to look at the attitude of the then Howard government and the attitude of the now opposition, because you see that generally they support what we are doing. It was an extraordinary performance by the member for Tangney to criticise and cast aspersions on the actions and motivations of the Rudd Labor government in relation to reform.

I will give a short history lesson: it was Labor governments who brought in reformist legislation in the area of discrimination—the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was brought in by the Whitlam Labor government, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 was brought in by the Hawke Labor government, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 was brought in by the Hawke Labor government and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 was brought in by the Keating Labor government. It was Labor governments who brought forward the legislative reforms which have made enormous differences in the lives of people with a disability. And again it has been left to a Labor government to bring forward reforms which are long overdue and should have been done when the Howard government had the recommendations of the Productivity Commission report in 2004. They simply did not do their duty as a government. They did not bring in legislative reforms; they did not do what we are now doing. It is all right for the member for Tangney to criticise our motivation for what we have done and what we are proposing to do to help people suffering from discrimination but we are the ones, on this side of the House, who are helping, through this legislation, those with a disability.

Justice Kirby has said—and this is a great statement by a great jurist:

… the modern notion of democracy, at least in a country such as Australia, is far more complex than simple majoritarian rule. It is a sophisticated form of government which involves the general ability of the will of the majority to prevail but in a legal and social context in which the rights of vulnerable minorities are respected and defended …

That is a wonderful statement from a very fine judge.

We have signed various international agreements which obligate us to address disability discrimination in good faith and we are doing so with this legislation. The minister who is responsible for this legislation, the Attorney-General, made it very clear in his second reading speech that the reforms in relation to disability uphold and strengthen the rights of people with a disability, demonstrate our commitment and accord with our attitude towards the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

One of the key elements in this particular legislation introduces an explicit and positive duty to make reasonable adjustments for people with disability. The member for Tangney went on and on defending his position in relation to this matter, but the opposition has accepted what was a recommendation of the Productivity Commission in 2004 in this regard. The bill here simply clarifies the existing rights and obligations on employers, service providers and others to make reasonable adjustments to remove discrimination against people with disability. We had the Purvis High Court decision a little while ago, which caused some consternation and cast some doubt on this particular meaning. We are incorporating the High Court’s interpretation to ensure there is no doubt at all in relation to much of this legislation. For example, in the area of assistance animals, we have ensured that the law is crystal clear. The Forest decision has effectively been overturned and you will see in the reforms we are bringing in that the rights of people with disability, which seemed never to be a high priority for those opposite, are being respected in our legislation.

In this legislation we are making it explicit that the definition of disability also includes a genetic predisposition to a disability. That is pretty obvious, but we need to make it very clear. Like the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, the member for Maribyrnong, I was appalled to read comments in the Australian Financial Review on 11 February by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, warning that the changes in this bill would force employers to accommodate the needs of staff whose disabilities they may not know about. I thought that was a heartless attitude. It was an attitude expressed in terms of the almighty dollar being over and above those most vulnerable in our community. Protection of those with disability and the aged says so much about where we are going as a country and about our humanity and our commitment to social inclusion.

It is important that we make it clear to employers that they must include people with disability in their workplaces as full members of their staff, that they give every opportunity to those people to gain employment and that assistance animals are accepted in workplaces and in hospitals—such as in the case of the Forest matter—or in other public amenities. It must be very clear to the Australian public that we will not tolerate discrimination against those with serious disability.

I will tell you why this part of the legislation is important from my point of view in the Blair electorate. It is something that goes back a long way and that is why it is really important. We have a very high number of people in my electorate with disability. Way back in 1878 an institution was established called the Sandy Gallop lunatic asylum, which later became known as the Challinor Centre. That institution dealt with people with disability and was the subject of a lot of dispute and controversy. Eventually, the Challinor Centre was closed down and a more caring model of care for the disabled was brought in in Queensland. The reforms were initiated by a former member for Ipswich, former Liberal Deputy Premier in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government Sir Llew Edwards, and have been followed up by David Hamill, the member for Ipswich in the Queensland legislative assembly. The reforms resulted in the site of the old lunatic asylum, the old Challinor Centre, becoming the site for the University of Queensland Ipswich campus.

In a circuitous way I am getting to the point, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Queensland government has established Australia’s first disability centre of excellence on that very site at the University of Queensland Ipswich campus. The Queensland government is to be commended for its $113 million investment, a four-year response to the Carter report in reshaping Queensland’s disability service sector. Ipswich campus in my electorate of Blair will lead the way in research, developing best practice models for dealing with people with disability and rolling out the kinds of programs to help improve the quality of life for people with disability, helping many Queenslanders and also many Australians. The research undertaken at that particular site will go a long way to helping people with disability, as will this legislation that is before the House today. I am so pleased to speak on this particular legislation because it marries in with my strong commitment to the centre of excellence at the University of Queensland Ipswich campus.

Many groups have arisen in my electorate as a result of the historical commitment to disability services in the Ipswich area. The Friends of Challinor Aid League, FOCAL, run a wonderful facility helping people with disability. They offer family respite, vacation care programs and much more. That group arose out of long-held community support for the Challinor Centre going back to 1973. There is tremendous support from the Rudd Labor government for the Extra Support for Children with Disability Program Outside School Hours Care. We have committed $23.6 million to the initiative over five years and I am pleased to say that my electorate is the recipient of much of the funding. But we need legislation, as in this legislation before the House, to help people with disability. That is why this particular piece of legislation is just so important for the people of my electorate.

I want to focus on a local aspect by praising the work of CODI, the Coordinating Organisation for the Disabled in Ipswich. It is a non-profit organisation that helps the frail, the elderly and people with a disability with their transport. It is funded by HACC for the Ipswich-West Moreton area, and I am pleased to say I am a great supporter of CODI. It has done a wonderful job over a long period of time. So you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, that in my electorate this legislation will make a big difference.

The second aspect of the bill I want to talk on very briefly relates to age discrimination. The Attorney-General and the Minister for Ageing made it very clear in a press release they issued on 1 October last year that we were intent on amending the Age Discrimination Act 2004 to remove the ‘dominant reason’ test. The current test is that a person’s age must be the dominant reason that something has been done for it to constitute discrimination under the act. That is inconsistent with other federal unlawful discrimination laws. The legislative change we are talking about here, which follows a bipartisan report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Older people and the law, is an important change in this area.

My electorate of Blair has a lot of aged-care facilities. Three are run by the Baptist Union of Queensland, and I was a member of the board of that organisation for 14 years before I was elected in 2007. Aged care is an area that I am really interested in, as a person and as a politician. I think it is important that we care for our aged, and I know that the Queensland Aged Care Alliance was highly critical of the previous government in relation to funding. The Rudd Labor government has, through its minister and through the Treasury, committed huge sums of money, far more than the previous coalition government ever had the intestinal fortitude to commit, to aged care: $40 billion for the aged in community care, $28.6 billion of which will be spent on nursing homes and hostels alone, and $2.2 billion on community care. In my electorate our senior citizens in aged care will receive $1.5 million at Cabanda Aged Care, a wonderful community program and project in Rosewood, just west of Ipswich, and RSL Care is getting an interest-free loan of millions of dollars as part of the Rudd Labor government’s election commitment.

The aged-care sector is always a challenge, but discrimination against our senior citizens is just intolerable. We must recognise that we have the second-longest lifespan in the world, behind that of the Japanese, and if we want to treat our senior citizens with respect we ought to legislate that we do so. A law has an educative framework to it. It says that discrimination against disabled people is wrong. It says a lot about what we believe as a country. Discrimination against the aged, our senior citizens, is also simply wrong and unacceptable in a decent, humane society that aspires to social inclusion. So the reforms in this legislation are important for my electorate in the area of disability and in dealing with our senior citizens.

The other reforms in the bill include changing the name of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to the Australian Human Rights Commission, extending the time a person has for making a complaint to the Federal Court or Federal Magistrates Court from 28 days to 60 days and enhancing the capacity of the commission to deal with complaints, which effectively gives the president power to finalise those complaints when they have been settled by compromise or agreement.

The bill that is before us is a genuine commitment by the Rudd Labor government, offered with real humanitarian care for senior citizens and those who are vulnerable in society by virtue of the challenges they face through no fault of their own but by accident, by genetics or simply by the sad fact that things that were out of their control have happened in their lives. It is sad that business has criticised this legislation. It is sad that the member for Tangney has criticised this legislation. It is sad that there are still people in our society whom this legislation must be used to stand up to. We need to care for our senior citizens. We need to care for those with disabilities. We need to make them feel as much a part of the Australian family as is humanly possible. This is a great legislative reform, a great Labor initiative. I commend the bill to the House.