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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6767


Senator STOTT DESPOJA (5:58 PM) —I rise on behalf of the Australian Democrats to support the comments made by my colleague Senator Brian Greig on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Disability Reform) Bill (No. 2) 2002. This legislation, and the policy direction it represents, makes the Democrats very mad. The precursor to this legislation, which was opposed by the Democrats and was made evident in the budget this year, was strongly opposed by the Australian Democrats as soon as we were made aware of the policy direction and the intent of this government, particularly in relation to the disability support pension issue.

I commend the comments by Senator Denman and my colleague Senator Greig, who spoke before me. Indeed, I think Senator Denman's point about the opposition of the disability sector to this legislation is particularly important. It was very clear to those of us who were involved in that rally on 19 June to which she referred that this issue has angered many people in our community, not just those with disabilities. I have no doubt that, as a result of that quite rightful anger, we have seen some consequent changes to legislation, although I think the general policy direction of this minister in particular remains pretty much unchanged.

I noticed that during a brief radio interview on The World Today on Thursday, 27 June—a week or so after that rally—Senator Amanda Vanstone, while talking about the legislation, specifically used the terminology `bad back' not once, not twice but three times, all in the space of a brief two-minute interview. At no time in that interview did the minister mention any other impairment. That is sheer demonisation of people with a disability. The minister was doing what the government has been doing all along: trying to trick Australians who do not have a disability into believing that all people receiving a disability support pension are in some way faking a back injury. Not once in that interview did the minister find it fit to mention that people with a disability suffer all types of impairment including physical, affecting the body; psychiatric, affecting the mind; sensory, affecting seeing or hearing; or cognitive, affecting learning and understanding.

The minister did not mention the hundreds of thousands of Australians who actually suffer from these impairments. In fact, I think the government's approach has been to forget about physical, mental or psychiatric impairment, choosing instead to refer to people who have a disability as `having a bad back'. I am conscious of the comments that Senator Denman made in her address to the chamber in relation to bad backs. She made some pertinent points about the fact that a bad back is, of course, a legitimate and painful injury. What about those people who do have the bad back to which Senator Vanstone refers regularly? For example, what about a labourer who has worked for 35 years in an industry where occupational health and safety was not even known about, where employers did not know about ergonomics or safe work practices, and who, as a consequence of repetitive unaddressed poor work practices, has suffered a spinal injury? As a result of that spinal injury the worker has, say, lost a range of movement in his or her back and is in constant pain. He or she possibly—and this is certainly something borne out by the statistics and research—only went to high school for a couple of years, may have a poor grasp of English or literacy and numeracy and, therefore, went into a labouring profession because other skilled occupations were not available to him or her.

Fortunately, today's better work practices and legislation compel employers to better manage the occupational health and safety of their workers. But the fact remains that these people still exist in their thousands throughout this country. So I say to the minister: bad backs do occur, and `use it or lose it' does not apply to a person with a spinal impairment. It is not easy to get a disability support pension for a bad back, as anyone involved in this debate knows. Schedule 1B to the Social Security Act 1991 provides the absolute minimum requirement for disability support pensions for cervical or lumbar thoracic spine impairment—or, as the government would say, a bad back. No wonder Senator Vanstone does not use that terminology: it does not slip off the tongue so easily. The schedule requires—and I am sure the advisers, and I hope Senator Alston, are aware of this—that a person must firstly have suffered:

Loss of three-quarters of normal range of movement and constant neck pain—

or—

Loss of half of normal range of movement as well as back pain or referred pain:

with most physical activities and

with standing for about 15 minutes and

with sitting or driving for about 30 minutes.

Bear in mind that this is the absolute minimum impairment level for people with spinal impairment, and it does not get them a pension. In addition to the above, the person must be unable to work for 30 hours or more. So it is not a case of having a sore back, and it is time the government stopped trying to fool the Australian public in relation to people who are on disability support pensions.

In less than two weeks we will recognise the International Day for People with a Disability. Many people with disabilities want to work, and many people with a disability would be able to do so with the right support. The answer is not to make it harder for them by reclassifying them as unemployed and reducing their income. The bill before us ignores the needs of people with disabilities and fails to recognise the barriers they face. The McClure welfare reform report recognised that people with a disability need more, not less, money due to their disability and recommended a participation allowance.

Two days ago in the Senate, the minister reminded the Democrats that we do not like the words `cherry picking'. They are not the only words we dislike; we also dislike the practice of selectively choosing from the McClure reform report those elements that will disadvantage Australians and send them into poverty, because that is what the government has done in most cases. It has selectively chosen to take people off the disability support pension while selectively forgetting to pay them the recommended participation allowance. The government has selectively chosen to ignore the barriers that people with a disability face, such as discrimination by employers and a lack of accessible transport, personal care and accommodation. They are some of the issues that people with a disability face. That is something that McClure recognised and that is something that the government is not recognising. It remains that eligibility for a disability support pension is already tight. That is the reality, and further restrictions will not reduce the number of people with a disability in our community.

We believe the changes that will be brought about by this bill will only lengthen the so-called dole queue. It will put additional pressure on employment services and, of course, it will increase hardship for those people with a disability. The Minister for Family and Community Services has defended this bill by saying:

I think personally, we do the worst thing possible to disabled people by saying to them: `Oh look, if you can't work 30 hours or more, gee we'll pay you more to stay at home'. I think that's criminal, absolutely criminal.

The Australian Democrats believe that it is not criminal to have a disability, and we should not be punishing people, demonising them or targeting them in any way. Clearly, that is our concern with the policy direction of this government. Every single day in our community there are going to be victims of unsafe work practices and road traumas, people with acquired impairments and, of course, children who will come into the world with an impairment, and all of these people potentially face disability for the rest of their lives. They are not criminals, and it is not criminal to be able to work 16 or even 29 hours a week. It is about time we recognised that when we are shaping our nation's laws.

Take, for example, the case of a young woman who came into my office recently. She has multiple sclerosis. She is barely able to hang onto part-time employment of around 20 hours a week, and she is desperately concerned about what is going to happen to her in the future. She is not a criminal; she is a young woman who did not choose to be struck down with MS. She will eventually face a life of nursing home care, because there is no suitable accommodation for young, severely disabled Australians with MS—or, for that matter, any disabilities. They are forced to spend their days in the kind of nursing home accommodation that we have in Australia which caters specifically for older people. Anyone who is familiar with this debate would be aware of the work that Senator Lyn Allison from the Democrats has done on this issue over the years.

This young woman with MS can work, although for how much longer is uncertain. She needs the additional income supplement that the disability pension provides because she needs to pay her personal carer to get her out of bed in the morning, shower her, assist her to dress and transport her to her workplace. She needs to pay someone to cut her lawns and clean her gutters at her home. She cannot choose to do those things herself. But, according to the minister and this government's policy direction, it is almost considered criminal for a person in her situation to receive a part disability support pension, because she is a person with a disability who is struggling to hang onto a part-time job. This bill will not offer her any assistance to pay for the care she needs and the additional cost she encounters in being able to work, because the government has cherry picked—or, should I say, `selectively chosen'—from the McClure report. The government has selectively overlooked the notion of a participation payment for people in that very situation. This young woman is in a situation where she is not able to save for her retirement; yet, according to this bill, other Australians in exactly the same situation will no longer qualify for the disability support pension.

People with a disability, particularly women with a disability, have a reduced opportunity to participate in employment. Those who can do some work may be restricted in the type of work they have access to due to poor access to the workplace, higher costs involved in gaining access to such things as transport, and a decrease in work skills and the value of qualifications due to long-term unemployment. Once a job is secured, there are obviously other barriers that are faced, such as a lack of suitably modified equipment or special facilities or an inability to work regularly or on a full-time basis.

The Democrats oppose this bill because it penalises those who manage, despite significant barriers, to gain part-time work. This bill penalises those people. Disability is not about bad backs and it is not about things that happen to other people. We should remind ourselves that, in our families, among our friends and in the community there are people who are suffering from a disability or who, unfortunately, could join the ranks of people with a disability. That applies to any of us. Who knows what can happen to us? It is clearly the responsibility of the Commonwealth government and the state governments to ensure that the rights and the needs of those people are looked after.

The government's announcement of additional funds for disability employment services is welcome. The Australian Democrats have acknowledged that; however, we have also acknowledged that those funds are, regrettably, woefully inadequate. There is already a recognised shortage of services for Australians with a disability. People with disabilities are already queuing up to use services offered. Service providers report to us that they are still unable to meet the current demand, even with the welcome new employment places. Instead of making it harder for them, the government should be expanding the services and support available for people with a disability and assisting them in getting jobs and maintaining those jobs. The government's commitment to meet its share of unmet need for accommodation, respite and other supports for people with severe disabilities will not result in any new services. This is simply keeping the government's promise to meet a backlog of need up to 1997 on an ongoing basis—something the states committed to long ago. Further, we believe the need to meet any demand since then or any future needs of people with disabilities has been ignored.

The DSP changes to this bill are counterproductive and do not help people with a disability to gain employment. People shunted on to unemployment benefits will instead face additional poverty traps and disincentives to take up work. From July next year, anyone judged to be capable of working 15 hours a week at award wages will be pushed on to the Newstart allowance. The current test is 30 hours a week; as I said earlier and as Senator Greig has pointed out, there is no evidence that this is not appropriate. Despite the fact that this bill is grandfathering current recipients, it still provides that Australians with a disability will be forced on to Newstart and, unlike disability support pensioners, must actively seek work or be stripped of part of their payment.

We already know that Australians with a mental illness are more likely to face breaching because of the episodic nature of their impairment. Those people with a mental illness who have been unable to comply with the hoops of mutual obligation and have had their payments cut off will be the least likely to be able to front up to Centrelink to explain their situation. We know that is the case. Mental and psychiatric illness prevent a person from functioning in a cognitive manner. Yet the minister would have us believe that it is okay to cut off the income support of someone who is suffering a psychiatric illness because all they have to do is pop into a Centrelink office, explain their situation and everything will be fine. A person suffering a severe psychotic episode will be the least likely to be able to do this and the least likely to be able to live without income support. This sort of approach to mental and psychiatric illnesses shows not only a lack of insight but also a lack of compassion.

The Australian Democrats' message to the government all along has been quite clear: fix up the devastating social and economic disasters of breaching which have been identified by numerous reports before extending them further to people with a disability. We know that people with disabilities are among the most disadvantaged in our community. We know this from case studies that have been given a lot of publicity since the budget and from the hundreds of people with a disability who have contacted our offices and who I am sure have contacted government and opposition offices as well. The bill overlooks the fact that people with a disability already contribute positively to the Australian community and society and to the social good through volunteer work. The activity tests required by the Newstart allowance will prevent this work, placing people who are genuinely contributing to our society into a position of double jeopardy.

The disability support pension is not a desirable goal. Being on a disability support pension condemns a person with a disability to a very low fixed income and prevents them from being active in their community or even purchasing the essential items needed to live a decent lifestyle and regain the self-esteem, confidence and dignity needed in many cases. Being young and on a fixed low income such as the disability support pension is an automatic setback in today's society. Those in this situation, as we all know not only from research but from reports from people directly, find it difficult to participate in social activities, to afford medical equipment and medicines or to obtain appropriate accommodation, good clothing and easy mobility. The solution is not to deny these people their income support, the solution is not to force these people with a disability, without specialised assistance, to join the ranks of the seven unemployed people for every job vacancy in Australia.

In Australia, recent surveys reported that 29 per cent of the population had at least one impairment and that more than half of the Australian women with a disability—compared with 39 per cent of the men with a disability—needed assistance. If the need for assistance is used as an indication of the difficulty of participating in our society, it is obvious that more women than men with a disability are facing this disadvantage. Clearly, education and employment are two of the most important areas to be able to participate in in order to be economically sufficient. Those born with a disability may have experienced segregated education, but even those who avoid that particular segregation or discrimination face other barriers. Having a disability often means extra time is needed for study itself or for the personal care, travel and maintenance of good health needed in order to study. Clearly, additional income and resources are needed to ensure that the equipment needed for study, such as braille equipment or tape recorders et cetera, is provided.

This bill does nothing to eliminate the employer prejudice that people with a disability encounter every day. It does nothing to encourage an employer to take on a person with a disability. It does nothing to increase the competitiveness of a person with a disability in the open labour market. The Democrats recognise the social, cultural, physical and economic barriers that exist for these people within existing employment environments, and we call on the government to address those before they start introducing mean, cruel, discriminatory measures such as these, which have emanated this year from one of the cruellest and meanest budgets that we have seen in a long time.