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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1143

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (12:07 PM) —I rise to support the Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. This bill will implement key recommendations contained in the Productivity Commission’s 2004 Review of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. In particular, it will clarify that there is a general duty to make reasonable adjustments for people with disability, extend the defence of unjustifiable hardship and modernise key concepts such as indirect discrimination. The bill will also improve the act’s readability.

We have a duty as a national government to use our resources to make life a little easier for people who are doing it tough. Late last year the government held the first Australian Council of Local Government meeting in this very parliament. The federal government made a commitment of over $300 million to go towards new infrastructure spending for local government. That funding was conditional upon its being spent by September of this year, providing an economic stimulus and saving some local jobs. I am proud to say that the Wyong Shire Council has applied to spend $520,000 on a liberty playground at Canton Beach, Toukley—a liberty playground being a playground with equipment for disabled children. This is the second such playground that the Wyong Shire Council has had a part in, the first being built at Long Jetty. Some of the $1½ million that went to the Wyong Shire Council for that first disability park helped provide disabled toilets.

Disability affects people of all ages in everything they do in life. Things as simple as going to the park to play on a swing present difficulties for people who have disabilities. Governments at all levels need to be conscious of these facts. We need to make sure we take disabilities into account and look at making things that we take for granted a reality for people who suffer from disabilities. It is terrific that over the past two years the Wyong Shire Council has built two liberty parks—the only two such parks in my electorate. The money that helped provide for them came from the Rudd government as part of the economic stimulus package, which also provided money for people who are doing it tough.

The Rudd government believes that people inherently deserve a fair go, whatever their particular circumstances. That applies to people with a disability more than any other group, and it is great to see these projects going ahead in my electorate. I would particularly like to pay tribute to Wyong Mayor Bob Graham for helping to push these projects through. That kind of local leadership helps to make these things a reality. He has been a champion of this particular issue and deserves to be recognised for that.

In this bill, the government is about ending areas of avoidable discrimination. I have no doubt that the bill will result in fairer outcomes all round for those who are disabled. The government is committed to making sure that there is proper social inclusion. We understand, as do many business leaders, that reducing disadvantage is now both a moral and an economic imperative for Australia.

I also acknowledge the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services and the work that he has done on this piece of legislation and in this area more broadly. His speech yesterday on this bill was very impressive and moving. It is one that I know many speakers have acknowledged because of the passion that he put into it. But it was not just about words. The parliamentary secretary has visited many of our electorates, mine included, to talk to people with disabilities and to talk to employers about how the disabled can be given a better lot in life.

The parliamentary secretary came to my electorate in December last year, and together we visited the facilities of Aged and Disability Support Services. We toured the facilities and met with a variety of disability service providers as well as clients and their carers. The parliamentary secretary had a very frank discussion with carers, staff and clients who rely heavily on the region’s disability networks. We were able to hear of some of the ongoing difficulties that they face, some of which are based on the geography of the Central Coast. Our area has little public transport and has mountains on one side, a lake in the middle and the sea on the other side. Simple issues of transportation are hard enough for able-bodied citizens on the Central Coast, and that is magnified many times when we are talking about the disabled. Transport was one of the very real problems that were raised with the parliamentary secretary.

The parliamentary secretary also spoke in simple terms about where we currently are with policy and attitudes in relation to disabled people. He spoke about how, as a proud nation with egalitarian values, we need to move forward in this area. He said to the group that, if you could not get a job or access to transport, education or meaningful and dignified income support—all things we take for granted—because of your gender or skin colour, people would be saying that was dreadful, outrageous and simply wrong, and they would be right. But people do not say the same thing in relation to people with a disability. That is a very important and powerful point that the parliamentary secretary made in this parliament and directly to the clients of Aged and Disability Support Services and the people who help the disabled in my electorate. It certainly shows where he is coming from and the passion that he has about making sure that the Rudd government looks at making a difference in relation to the things that so affect the lives of the disabled. We need to start to make some changes so that getting access to education, transport, income and so forth is not a struggle. There should be things in place that make access easier than is currently the case.

He went on to say that reform in attitudes to people with disabilities begins in local neighbourhoods. He emphasised that in every neighbourhood in the country our attitude to the disabled needs to be addressed. I think this is a message that every member of the House can take back to their own electorates—that is, that some of the discrimination and the reasons the disabled are not given a fair go for equal treatment are rooted in the attitudes in our local areas. As the elected representatives of those areas, it is incumbent upon all of us in this place to lead the debate so that this often hidden discrimination can come out and together we can change the attitudes of our local communities. By doing that, we help to change the attitudes of the nation as a whole. In Australia we have embraced and are very proud of the notion of a fair go for everyone, but it seems the only area in which we have forgotten that and are lacking is that of the disabled. It is something that cannot continue.

Some of the key points of this bill are as follows. The bill aims to improve the effectiveness of the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure it continues to protect the rights of people with disabilities. It does not introduce new significant obligations and it implements many of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission, the Law Reform Commission and parliamentary committees. The opposition accepted the vast bulk of these recommendations when in government. However, unfortunately—and it is not just something we have seen with this legislation but something we have seen many times with legislation the Rudd government has brought to the House—they failed to implement it. We are determined to put those recommendations in place, which is partly what this bill is about. In developing this bill, the Rudd government consulted industry bodies, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the states and territories.

There have been some frequently asked questions about this legislation. One of those is: will employers, businesses and people who own or control premises face tougher obligations to ensure that they make reasonable adjustments to accommodate people with disabilities? The bill clarifies the existing obligation on employers, service providers and others to make reasonable adjustments to remove discriminatory barriers against people with disability. This was always in the act, but comments by the High Court in the Purvis case cast doubt upon it. The Productivity Commission recommended that existing obligations to make reasonable adjustments be made explicit. The bill implements this recommendation. The obligation to make reasonable adjustments is subject to the defence that they will not be required if the adjustments would cause unjustifiable hardship. This ensures that the Disability Discrimination Act maintains the balance between the rights of people with disabilities and the legitimate concerns of business owners and others. It is very important that this balance is there.

Another question in relation to this legislation is: will the amendments force employers to accommodate the needs of staff whose disabilities they may not know about? Amendments to the ‘request for information’ provision in the Disability Discrimination Act will permit employers and others to seek information from a person with disability, providing it is for a non-discriminatory purpose.

Let us look at why the amendments broaden the definition of ‘disability’ to include genetic predisposition. The current defini-tion of disability includes disabilities that may exist in the future or are imputed to a person. The bill does not broaden this definition; instead, it makes explicit that this definition already includes a genetic predisposition to a disability. The amendment implements recommendations by the Productivity Commission, the Australian Law Reform Commission and the National Health and Medical Research Council to make this explicit for the avoidance of doubt. Again, these recommendations were made to the opposition when in government and were accepted but not implemented. Again, they are something the Rudd government is determined will be put in place.

Another question that has been raised in relation to this legislation is: why has the ‘dominant reason’ test been removed from the Age Discrimination Act, and will that broaden the application of the act? The removal of the dominant reason test was a bipartisan recommendation of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in its 2007 report Older people and the law. Members of the opposition, including the current Leader of the Opposition, recommended scrapping the test. I think all of us would agree that it is entirely unacceptable to give older Australians a weaker protection simply because of their age. The proposed new test is more consistent with the tests used in other Commonwealth and state antidiscrimination legislation. The impact of the removal of the dominant reason test is likely to be minimal. Employers and business owners are already required to comply with state antidiscrimination legislation, and no state or territory antidiscrimination law contains a dominant reason test. They are also required to meet the same test under the Commonwealth discrimination laws that relate to sex, disability and race.

This is an important bill which goes to enhancing and protecting the roles and opportunities for disabled people in the community. It is legislation that should be a priority for this parliament to pass. It has long been needed and it is something about which we can proudly say, ‘We’ve taken the first step in removing some of the obstacles for people with disabilities while taking into account the role that business and employers play.’ I commend the bill to the House.