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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6760

Senator GREIG (5:24 PM) —For Australians with a disability, the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Disability Reform) Bill (No. 2) 2002 is yet another case of `Here we go again'. This bill is yet another step in this government's attempts to paint people with disabilities as malingerers and rorters with nothing really wrong with them, happily living on DSP and doing little else—and for which `use it or lose it' is the government's only solution.

This bill follows the presentation and subsequent withdrawal of the original bill following this year's budget. There is very little difference between the bill before us and the bill which was withdrawn earlier this year. All the government has done is amend the time frame of application in order to `preserve', as it so inappropriately puts it, current recipients. People with disabilities, their families, their carers and those who support them would disagree that any rights have been preserved. Rather, this bill is just a slightly watered down version of the diminution of the rights of people with a disability, one which blatantly seeks to divide and, presumably, conquer the disability community. It does not deserve the support of the Senate.

The bill still proposes to tighten eligibility requirements by restricting eligibility to those people with disabilities who are capable of working for a maximum of 15 hours a week at award wages—currently that is 30 hours; removing the discretion for Centrelink to take account of the labour market circumstances of applicants over 55 years of age; and making it even tougher for those on Newstart allowance to gain an exemption from the activity test because of their disability by nebulously extending the definition of `on-the-job training and work activity'.

The clear intention of the government is to substantially reduce the number of people on the pension over time. Most of those no longer eligible would instead receive the lower Newstart allowance. Those not granted a pension will therefore have income support of at least $53 per fortnight less than their counterparts on the disability support pension, and many people with part-time earnings will be hundreds of dollars worse off every fortnight. Additionally, those unable to receive the disability support pension will miss out on the other support benefits—including pharmaceutical and other concessions, such as transport and communications—which are attached to the DSP and they will be expected to compete with non-disabled job seekers out there in a very competitive job market.

They will also be subjected to the harsh penalty regime for unemployed people who fail to meet Centrelink's activity requirements. At a time when breaching is already having a catastrophic impact on the lives of unemployed Australians, this bill will place thousands more Australians directly into the firing line of the breaching regime. At the same time as this government refuses to act upon the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Breaching and the Ombudsman's report, it is determined to force more people down the devastating path of breaching and poverty.

This bill is not about helping Australians with a disability. The government chooses to overlook the fact that $53 per fortnight is a 12 per cent reduction in income and many people will lose more than this. The government chooses to overlook the costs of disability—of personal care, transport, remedial aids, equipment and additional daily living and job-seeking costs that people without a disability do not have or experience. You do not get people with a disability a job by simply putting them into the dole queue without support, to compete with the hundreds of thousands of job seekers who do not have a disability.

This bill is about revenue raising and it is a revenue-raising exercise. The government wanted to save some $450 million over four years and even this new offer puts only a $161 million dent in the government's budget figures. People with a disability are still the target of this government's revenue raising and we are glibly expected to believe that taking less away from people with a disability, as this bill proposes, is somehow going to advantage them.

We know that there are many different types of disability. Disabilities may be physical, affecting the body; psychiatric, affecting the mind; sensory, affecting seeing or hearing; or cognitive, affecting learning and understanding. People also experience different degrees of disability. They can be from very mild to very severe. Many people have more than one type of disability. Yet the government's panacea-style mantra of `use it or lose it' does not apply evenly across the range of impairments. Try saying `Use it or lose it' to a person suffering from uncontrolled and episodic epilepsy or a mental illness.

The minister makes much of the increasing number of disability support recipients as the sole impetus for this bill. With no empirical research into the reasons behind this—in fact, for seemingly no other reason than `There are too many of them'—the minister has decided the number must be curbed. Any pressing for research into this has been countered with the general suggestion that it has become `too easy to get the pension'. Even more alarmingly, ministers have merely implied that too many people with bad backs receive the disability pension.

We do not dispute that the number of DSP recipients has increased—and data shows that the number of DSP recipients almost doubled during the 1990s—yet there has been no thorough examination by the government of the principal causes of this growth in DSP. Furthermore, the government has provided no research to support its assumption that people with disabilities in receipt of the DSP or making a claim in the future will attempt to get off the DSP and back into the work force only if forced to do so with punitive rules and attitude.

Research has indeed been conducted into the main causes of the rise and number of disability support pensioners—not by government but by the Australian Council of Social Service, whose report entitled Key causes of the rise in disability pensioners was issued last week, and I thank ACOSS for their comprehensive research and well-supported findings. Surprisingly, the strongest rate of growth in DSP recipients was among mature age women—not mature age men, the archetypal DSP recipients. This is a very different trend from that in previous decades when growth among mature age male recipients predominated. Of the 263,000 increase in the number of recipients between 1990 and 1999, 141,000 were men and 122,000 were women. However, since only 27 per cent of recipients were female in 1990, this represents a much faster rate of growth in female recipients. The most dramatic growth was amongst mature age women. Although mature age males are the largest group of recipients, comprising almost half of all recipients, the rate of growth in their number over the decade was the lowest.

Importantly, ACOSS research analysis completely contradicts the government's assertion that it is `too easy to get the pension'. In fact, government policy decisions to restrict access to other payments, especially for mature age women, have diverted people to the DSP, and this is responsible for approximately 20 per cent of the rise in DSP recipients. In the late 1990s, women's eligibility for the age pension was raised above 60 years, and many mature age women with disabilities had to apply instead for a disability support pension. The government's DSP proposals mean that these women will now be pushed onto lower paid unemployment benefits. We are considering a further bill in this place which will close off altogether entry to the mature age allowance and the widows allowance.

The report also found that growth in the number of people with disabilities is responsible for approximately 40 per cent of the rise in DSP recipients. Likely reasons for this include the ageing of the population, with mature age people being more likely to have disabilities; the improved identification of disabilities such as mental illness; and improved care and treatment that has improved life expectancy rates for people with disabilities, such as head injury. Labour market factors, such as the recession, are major factors in the increase in DSP recipients. During and after the recession of the early 1990s, many people became jobless, and those with disabilities and related work force barriers such as age and limited skills faced greater difficulty securing jobs. At the same time, investment in employment assistance for the most disadvantaged job seekers was reduced.

Over the past 10 years the abolition of the sheltered employment allowance and the rehabilitation allowance saw the transfer of most recipients onto the disability support pension. In addition, restrictions were imposed on long-term receipt of sickness allowance—for more than 12 months—and many former long-term sickness allowance recipients also transferred to DSP. These changes to other illness or disability related payments boosted the number of people on the DSP. Policy and other changes have closed off access to alternative payments, such as the abolition of the wife pension for the spouses of people on DSP, many of whom themselves have a disability. Population ageing itself is a contributing factor in the increase in DSP recipients, together with an increase in the incidence of disabilities among people within various age brackets.

The ACOSS research further finds that the phasing out of partner-widow payments and age pension for those over 60 years over the late 1990s, along with the decline in receipt of DVA pensions—mainly wife pensions for the partners of former veterans—also had an impact in the early part of the decade. Another possible factor is changes in state government policies regarding workers and accident compensation payments, which are also a substitute for the receipt of DSP. Indeed, the ACOSS research concludes that, in consideration of all the policy changes above, it would have been surprising if the numbers of DSP recipients had not increased. ACOSS's findings are supported by the interim McClure report on welfare reform, which reported:

The more rapid increase—

that is, in DSP recipients—

recently appears to be primarily due to the combined impact of government policies and demographic trends. Government policies have added to the growth, as the availability of other payments has declined.

If these factors are the principal causes of growth in receipt of DSP, the appropriate policy response is not to make it harder to obtain and keep the pension. In that event, the DSP is performing its proper role as an income support payment for people with serious disabilities. So let us dispense once and for all with the public denunciation and demonisation by this government of disability support pensioners as rorters who are living off the taxpaying public and undertaking bricklaying jobs on the side. This ill-dreamt theory has been comprehensively denounced. Ask any person with a disability and they will tell you that those whose impairments permit require incentives, support, encouragement and assistance to get back into the work force. Those for whom paid work will never be an option want to participate in their communities, and for this they require adequate training and support, both short and long term. People with disabilities are among the most disadvantaged in Australian society. We know from thousands of Australians with a disability who have contacted my office and those of my colleagues that even this latest version of the bill will further disadvantage many people.

The Reverend Richard Miller, the chair of UnitingCare Australia's national advisory committee on disability, said:

UnitingCare Australia is concerned that the changes will put many people who do genuinely contribute to society into a position of double jeopardy.

While official figures demonstrate that few people currently receiving the DSP are able to work, many who do are only able to work between 15 and 30 hours per week. Despite provisions of quarantine for current recipients, this revised legislation does not ensure that recipients will retain their disability support pension. People move off DSP for a number of lifestyle reasons, such as marriage or to raise children on parenting payment. When their circumstances change or relationships break down such that they again need income support, they will find themselves subject to the new rules, notwithstanding that their disability has not changed, and will not be eligible for disability support pension. Even for those who have not yet claimed disability pension, in particular the new requirement that people must be unable to work 15 hours a week before being able to access DSP shows a misunderstanding of many chronic illnesses such as HIV-AIDS.

The government thinks this legislation will encourage people with disabilities to consider the possibility of part-time work when, for chronic illnesses such as HIV and AIDS, the reverse is more likely to be the case. Many people with HIV-AIDS are currently unable to sustain full-time jobs because their energy levels and treatment side effects and toxicities simply do not allow it. The cyclical nature of their illness means that in the future they may need the support and entitlements that the DSP provides, yet this bill will greatly increase their financial and emotional stress—which, as people with a very unpredictable and unstable illness, they can well do without.

On top of the recent attempts to increase copayments for PBS items, this is more of the same bad legislation for people with chronic illnesses. This government is targeting the most vulnerable people in society with a range of new measures which give out a strong message that all people with a disability are somehow frauds and cheats. Rather, it is this government that is cheating people with disabilities of their right to a basic standard of living. The proposed changes are about budget cost cutting when a positive strategy to improve the job prospects of people with disabilities is required. They fail to take account of the complex and varied difficulties faced by people with disabilities and chronic illnesses who wish to participate economically and socially in the life of the community. We Australian Democrats reject this bill outright.

We are pleased that the government has withdrawn its ransom conditions that were originally attached to the earlier bill for the extra $547 million for disability services funding in the next Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement. In reality, the additional funds are a conjuring trick—a sort of `now you see it, now you don't, now you see it again' trick. The promise of an additional $547 million over the next five years is an extension of the extra $100 million offered as part of the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement which expired on 30 June. The additional $100 million a year is offered over the next five years for each year of the length of this agreement. While we are pleased to note that funding has not been cut from the new agreement, we are not blind to the fact that much of the touted funding for the agreement is in fact no additional funding from two years ago.

People with disabilities can feel relieved that the CSTDA offer is no worse than the status quo, but it is certainly not an increase. Indeed, the offer does nothing to improve the parlous state of unmet need as identified by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, nor will it cope with the expected growth in need as the number of people requiring support increases over the next five years. We Democrats oppose this disability reform bill in its entirety. It does nothing to assist people with disabilities to participate economically in the community or in society. We stand by our commitment and promise made on budget night and will vote to reject this bill outright.