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Monday, 22 February 2010
Page: 1379


Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services and Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction) (7:59 PM) —The Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009 is a minor portfolio bill for the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs portfolio. The bill includes some amendments to schedule three further parcels of land in the Northern Territory so they can be granted as Aboriginal land. The parcels of land concerned are Alice Valley Extension (East), Loves Creek and Patta near Tennant Creek.

The income management provisions in the social security law are amended by this bill to improve the operation of the provisions in several minor ways. The first amendment will enable people in the Cape York welfare reform areas who are receiving age pension or carer payment to have their payments income managed. This amendment is at the request of the Families Responsibilities Commission, and the new provisions will apply as per current arrangements to income management in Cape York. The second and third income management amendments relate to the use of residual funds in an income management account.

The bill also makes amendments to improve the operation of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal in its handling of the social security, family assistance and child support matters. An example of this group of amendments is the change to titles of tribunal members, such as renaming the executive director the principal member. This change brings consistency with the titles used in similar Commonwealth tribunals. The bill removes the requirement for the principal member to chair panels on which he or she sits by allowing the principal member to determine who will be the presiding member.

The bill refines and improves legislation provided by a previous Labor government to set up the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, whose purpose was to help the unfortunate—those people with disabilities, the elderly, single parents and their suffering children—keep a roof over their heads, adequate food on their table and blankets on their beds when these basic things were threatened by bureaucratic errors and injustices in the one department, Social Security, then in charge of their lives. The tribunal’s responsibilities have grown since then, and it now reviews, questions and often overturns decisions made under social security law, family assistance law and, since 2007, child support law. The aim then, as now, was to rescue those who had fallen between the cracks of our society, however briefly and however unjustly. The people to be assisted here are not dole bludgers but rather those who we wish to help: those who are suffering want, poverty, panic or homelessness because of a lack of legal advice, misinformation or errors of proper bureaucratic process. It is to help those that have lost what may be their only lifeline for themselves and their families. It is there to help those in need of a system which gives them not just a theoretical right but the practical power to challenge incorrect or unjust decisions. That the SSAT is still needed is shown by the 13,000 applications lodged with it in the last financial year.

There are two measures in the bill regarding the income support means test. In the first, as detailed in the pension reforms announced in the 2009 budget, the rules around gifting are to be clarified. Under these amendments, once a gift has been returned and therefore is counted under the assets test, it is no longer assessed also as a deprived asset under the social security disposal of assets provisions. This removes any potential for the double counting of an asset for a person who disposes of the asset in certain circumstances. The second means test amendment clarifies that, where the customer is the beneficiary of a discretionary trust and the trustee has the duty to maintain the customer, the trust should be assessed as being a controlled private trust in respect of that beneficiary. These amendments secure longstanding policy in light of a recent full Federal Court case.

The rest of the amendments in the bill provide a requirement for a claimant to notify if a child who attracted baby bonus leaves the claimant’s care within 26 weeks of birth or coming into their care. The bill also makes further minor and technical amendments.

We are a government that believes in social inclusion and believes that we have a responsibility to help those who are vulnerable or perhaps are at a vulnerable stage in their life cycle. This can be clearly seen in our actions towards Australians with disability. Despite the best efforts of many advocates, people with disability remain in many ways second-class citizens in our society. Too many people with disability live in what amounts to internal exile in a country which is in denial of their existence, their uniqueness, their numbers and, indeed, their cries of the heart. Those things which many take for granted in Australia—a job we like, a house we may aspire to own outright and retirement years in comfort as respected elders of our tribe—they dare not hope for or even dream of. Not in this lifetime, sadly.

We have not got into this position overnight, and pulling ourselves out of it will take years if not decades, but we are making a start. The government has worked with the states to improve the amount of support we offer people with disability. A national agreement signed in 2008 includes $1.9 billion to fund more than 24,000 supported accommodation, respite and in-home care places. A further $408 million will fund services and reforms to the disability services system as part of the National Disability Reform Agenda. The Commonwealth’s contribution to state-run disability services will reach more than $1.25 billion a year by the end of the agreement in 2013. This compares to $620 million in 2007.

One of the programs that is already making a difference is the one-off $100 million provided to the states in June 2008 to allow them to build an extra 313 beds by June 2012 for people with serious disabilities incapable of looking after themselves. This was done to take some of the burden away from ageing carers who have reluctant sainthood thrust upon them and who spend their lives consumed by the worry and anxiety of what will happen in the event that they predecease their adult children with severe or profound disabilities.

The $100 million was provided to the states, and all states and territories are on track to deliver their targets. New South Wales already has 35 beds occupied and has reported to us that it will have its target of 100 beds built by mid-2011. Western Australia, I am pleased to report, will build 46 beds instead of its target of 30. Victoria has contributed its own funding to extend its target from 70 to 100 beds and will have its beds completed by mid-2011. I am pleased to say that, whilst many of these beds are still not completed in terms of construction, we are able to report that for every venue of supported accommodation we have the address and the designation of whether or not it has been designed or, indeed, whether construction has started.

Our government is not content to simply push for new funding into an old system, as welcome as that funding is. We recognise that there is need for major reform in disability; for game changing ideas. Indeed, the ageing of our population gives us a new urgency to reform how we fund disability in this country. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports to us that in 2010 we have 1.5 million Australians who live with severe or profound disability. This number will increase to 2.3 million people by 2030. Recent trends indicate that demand for specialist disability services will grow by around seven per cent a year in real terms over the next decade as ageing carers can no longer support their children or their spouses.

Despite the best efforts of hundreds of thousands of unpaid carers and thousands of professional carers who work in the disability sector, we have a disability system which remains a patchwork of services, crisis driven and problematic for all those who come into contact with it. People are struggling to cope with the current demand, let alone the future demand.

It is clear that the current system, which has lasted so many years, cannot go on forever. That is why the Rudd government has asked the Productivity Commission to investigate a national long-term care and support scheme. This kind of scheme, which has huge and growing support amongst people with disability and their carers, has the potential to change the way that disability is supported in this country. The challenge for people with disability and their carers is to be empowered: to move from being treated as charity to being consumers; to move from people who compete for scarce scraps of rationed support to people who are funded on the basis of need; and to move from people who at every stage in the life cycle meet collisions of the system to understanding that a person with a disability should have the opportunity throughout their whole life to have seamless support so that they can be empowered to be equal citizens in our great Commonwealth. I believe a national disability insurance scheme will provide a better deal for people with disability. It is something that we owe our fellow Australians with disability, their families and carers, who struggle every day to pay the bills, to get adequate care and to find work.

This is not a challenge for those who would be fainthearted, or—to use the colloquialism—wimpy. The argument for a disability insurance scheme is not just a moral one; it is one of responsible economic management, of productivity and of planning for the future of our ageing population. Australian governments at all levels spend approximately $20 billion a year in total on the disability welfare system—around $8 billion on payments for community care and support providers, nearly $3 billion on family payments and other important payments to other carers and nearly $9 billion on income support through the disability pension for over 700,000 Australians. When one adds to this the indirect costs of disability—the cost, for instance, of keeping people who have an intellectual disability, perhaps measured by an IQ below 70, in jails, when such people make up 20 per cent of the prison population; and the cost to the health system ignored and treated too late—we realise the staggering economic outlay that is already underway in our disability systems in Australia.

Starting in April of this year, the Productivity Commission, assisted by an associate productivity commissioner, will look into the costs, benefits and feasibility of approaches which provide essential care and support on an entitlement basis for eligible people with a severe or profound disability. It is not automatic that their recommendations will say that a no-fault social insurance model is the answer, but it is certainly the mission of the Productivity Commission to look at a no-fault social insurance model reflecting the shared cost of disability across the population and to evaluate its feasibility.

I understand that such a scheme will be a massive task to implement. It has an effect on and interaction with our health system, our schools, medical negligence and existing road accident and workers compensation schemes. We do not wish to disrupt that which is already working, but we should recognise that six in every eight Australians do not acquire their injury traumatically but rather through birth or the onset of ageing. Indeed, of those who acquire their injuries traumatically, only half of them have compensable legal claims. The detail is complex, and it will be complex. But we have given the Productivity Commission the time and the tools to do the job properly. They will be supported by an independent panel to help provide insight and access to those with disabilities and to apply their own unique knowledge in terms of reforming the system.

We are not a government that shies away from major reform. The system took many years to get to where it is, and we do not expect results overnight. However, Labor governments in the past have fought cynicism and opposition to introduce programs like Medicare and compulsory superannuation. We are carrying on that legacy by tackling the long-neglected task of major reform in disability; of making visible people who are too often invisible, ignored and left out of debate in our country—people who live a form of de facto exile in the lucky country.

Our government, the Rudd government, is committed to social inclusion. We are committed to moving people with disability from the margins to the centre of our society. Our nation is a small nation on the edge of booming Asia. We can no longer afford to have 1½ million people with a severe or profound disability and ½ million carers marginalised. We need everyone to enjoy the benefits and the fruits of Australian society. We do this because we believe it is not right for a generous, clever and wealthy 21st century nation—a privileged nation such as Australia—to have so many people who are shut out and denied the opportunities available to the rest of the population.

Across the broader community services portfolio we are working to deliver real results for the most vulnerable people in Australia. For our actions to close the gap in Indigenous affairs, for our initiatives in employment and increasing payments to carers and pensioners, this bill continues the fine work that is being done by the government.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.