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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1146

Ms RISHWORTH (12:22 PM) —I am very pleased to rise to speak in favour of the Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. The amendments before us today look to amend areas of important acts, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Age Discrimination Act 2004. These two pieces of legislation are part of a number of Commonwealth antidiscrimination laws. Since their introduction, these laws have served as very important legal protections to stop discrimination of citizens in our society because of, for example, race, sex, disability or age, whether this discrimination occurred in our workplaces, in our education institutions or in the provision of our goods and services. These pieces of legislation not only have provided a legal avenue for those who have been discriminated against but also have changed attitudes very significantly within our community and really have been leading the change, whether it be in our workplaces, our schools, our universities or our public spaces. The majority of our community would now find it unacceptable to deny employment to a woman based on her gender. They would also find it unacceptable to not have things like disability parking in our shopping centres or to not provide a service to someone based on their nationality.

The amendments that we are debating here seek to amend the Disability Discrimination Act. The Disability Discrimination Act is about giving those with a disability the opportunity to more fully participate in our society. Its objective is to eliminate both direct and indirect discrimination and to promote community acceptance and the rights of people with a disability. I have seen many situations in workplaces and in other institutions where only a small modification—whether that be a physical modification or an attitudinal modification—has meant that people with a disability are able to participate in employment or gain an education. In fact, in the earlier part of this debate, we heard the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services speak about how some of these modifications only cost up to $500. That is a very small amount of money to allow someone to fully participate, whether that be in education or the workforce.

We also need to acknowledge that removing barriers that exist for those with a disability will allow those individuals to contribute enormously to our community. Indeed, the whole community, including employers, will benefit significantly from this contribution. As I have heard the parliamentary secretary for disabilities say on numerous occasions, employers who employ people with a disability say that often these individuals have better attendance records, remain longer and have fewer injuries at work than those without a disability. However, these barriers still exist. In my own electorate, I am constantly inspired by those who have a disability. One example of a person confronted by the barriers, though, is a constituent of mine who is a three-time medal-winning Paralympian who recently brought home gold and bronze medals for individual cycling from the 2008 Beijing Games. I have met this gentleman. He is persistent, he is disciplined, he fights for what he wants to get, and he goes out and gets it. Unfortunately, because of his disability, this gentleman is finding it hard to gain employment, despite achieving world standards in his chosen sport.

The amendments before the House are designed to implement a number of recommendations made by the Productivity Commission in its review of the Disability Discrimination Act. These recommendations include improving the operation and effectiveness of the act. The amendments will also reduce uncertainty by making explicit the positive duty to make reasonable adjustments for people with a disability. Failure to make these reasonable adjustments results in discrimination. In addition, the bill clarifies that discrimination on the basis that a person possesses or is accompanied by a carer, an assistant or an aid equates to discrimination on the basis of disability. This clarification is very important and is in response to the full Federal Court decision in the case of Forest v Queensland Health. Ensuring that people who need assistance are not discriminated against because they need that assistance is very important.

I would like to acknowledge one high-profile case reported widely in Adelaide, where a visually-impaired gentleman was denied a ride in a taxi because he had a guide dog with him. This action really emphasises that those with a disability are, in Mr Ellison’s words, ‘treated like second-class citizens’. He says that he has been able to compare because he originally had sight and then lost it, and he has definitely noticed the different way that people treat him. He said that he took his case to the Equal Opportunity Commission not for the money but to stand up for people everywhere with disabilities—and I certainly commend him for that.

The amendments before us today extend the definition of disability in two ways. Firstly, the legislation extends the definition of disability to include those who may, in the future, have a disability, including because of genetic predisposition. Although the previous speaker, the member for Dobell, acknowledged that this was already implied within the existing legislation, this amendment does make it incredibly explicit. As our scientific understanding of the human genome increases, a lot of people in my electorate have shared with me a concern that, if that knowledge is then imparted to insurance companies, they may not get insurance for something that may happen to them down the line. So this amendment is a very important part of the legislation. The amendments also extend the definition to include behaviour that is a symptom or a manifestation of a disability, which is also very important.

The bill has also—as per the Productivity Commission report—extended the availability of the defence of ‘unjustifiable hardship’ to all unlawful discrimination on the grounds of disability. The combinations of these amendments ensure that the Disability Discrimination Act maintains a balance between the rights of people with a disability and the legitimate concerns of business owners and others. The changes before us today build on the Rudd government’s commitment to those with a disability. Helping those with a disability and their families has been a great priority for this government. In particular, the government has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Further, the government has committed to a national disability strategy which aims to provide a unifying framework of targeted action to address barriers and promote a more inclusive and universally acceptable society. This will benefit not only people with a disability but also, as I have said before, the entire community. This strategy will provide real outcomes for those with a disability and has been open for wide community consultation. As part of this consultation, the government has put together a new national advisory council advice to the Australian government on the needs of people with a disability, their families and their carers.

This government has also made changes to allow those on the disability support pension to transition to the workforce more easily by introducing a new pre-employment referral service and removing one of the biggest disadvantages—the threat that, if they participate in this pre-employment referral service, they might lose their benefits. This has been welcomed by many of those on a disability support pension in my electorate. In Kingston we have a lot of people suffering from a disability. There are over 6,900 people in my electorate receiving the disability support pension. Many of those people have spoken to me about their desire to return to the workforce. They want to be productive. They want to be involved in employment. They want to volunteer. But there has been some concern from them about, if they cannot do it—if they try and they are not able to perform, if something goes wrong—how hard it will be to receive their disability support pension again. This has been of great concern to many of my constituents. Certainly, many of them have told me about their burning desire to re-enter the workforce, and we need to support them to do that.

This government has also tabled a draft of the new disability standards for access to premises. These are changes which the previous government had committed to but failed to deliver. In addition, the Rudd government, through an increased $1.8 billion boost in funding under the new COAG agreement with states and territories, has committed funding for five years to support care for children and teenagers with a disability whose parents who are in the workforce or who might need respite services. Respite services are becoming a growing issue. A lot of parents speak to me about really wanting to care for their children but every now and again needing that break. I think our focus on respite services and continuing to improve those is incredibly important.

I want to make one more comment about what this government has done to help those with a disability and their families. I would like to acknowledge the work done by the Minister for Health and Ageing and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services in the area of autism. Autism spectrum disorders are an emerging disability that needs our support—support for those families and for those in the community. I have been approached by many parents who are finding it difficult to support their children and provide them with all the opportunities that every parent wants to provide: a good education, good health and opportunity for the future. These parents are coming to me desperate for some support. I am very pleased that this government has committed to a number of autism areas of policy, including early learning centres specifically specialising in autism, autism advisers, playgroups and early intervention services. This focus and commitment to helping those with autism spectrum disorders and their families is incredibly important and something that we must build on—whether it is through the families I speak to or in the schools. We must acknowledge that this is a relatively new disorder. It is something that is becoming more and more evident. It is more readily being diagnosed, but it is something that people in our community—whether they are teachers, schools, parents or the people suffering from autism—need some assistance with.

The bill before us today also makes amendments to the Age Discrimination Act. The bill removes the ‘dominant reason’ test. Previously, if an older person, for example, was not given employment for two or more reasons including age, it would only be discrimination on the basis of age if age was the dominant reason. Removing this test makes it clear that this discrimination because of age is illegal. I am pleased that the opposition has supported the abolition of this test. However, it is worth noting that it was introduced by the former Liberal government in 2004. I am pleased that now both the government and the opposition are supporting the abolition of this test. The recommendation to implement this change came as a result of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report into older people and the law. The Law Council of Australia acknowledged in their submission that this dominant reason test was out of step with tests applied to other pieces of legislation about discrimination.

Discrimination because of age is something that I continue to get complaints about from my constituents. I particularly get complaints about employment. I have received many comments at my street corner meetings from people aged between 50 and 65. They say to me they have experience; they have knowledge and skills. However, even during Australia’s skills crisis, they cannot obtain employment. They have reported to me that they have applied and applied and applied for jobs. And, although they are unable to prove that they did not get the job because of their age, they believe that, with one look at their age on their resume, their resume is put aside for that of someone younger. Some have reported to me that now they do not even put their date of birth on their resume, just in order to try and make it to the interview phase.

To address this type of attitude we need more than just legislation. It will require a cultural shift in attitudes and recognition that those older Australians do still have a significant amount to contribute to our workforce. However, legislation is a good start and strengthening this legislation to remove the dominant reason test is, I think, a really important step. The bill before us today and all its amendments are steps towards eliminating discrimination in our society for those with a disability and eliminating discrimination based on age. As a result, I commend the bill to the House.