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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6771

Senator CROSSIN (6:18 PM) —I rise to speak on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Disability Reform) Bill (No. 2) 2002. This bill modifies an earlier bill that has previously been through this parliament and was opposed in the Senate and subsequently withdrawn by the government. The government is now attempting to have a second bite of the cherry in respect of this particular group of people within the community. Senator Stott Despoja in her speech summed up quite well the attitude of this government towards people with disabilities and the way in which these people are being treated through this bill.

Like the first bill, this one seeks to give effect to the government's 2002-03 budget measure to alter the eligibility requirements for a person to receive the disability support pension. However, this new bill proposes to save existing recipients of the disability support pension from the new rules—in other words, to just modify the first bill by putting a little fence around current recipients of the DSP. The legislation proposes that the new rules apply only to people who would be seeking for a DSP on or after 1 July 2003. So it might be all right for current recipients of DSP, but this bill will apply to new recipients of that pension.

Figures provided during Senate estimates hearings in June confirm that the revised measure would result in approximately 103,700 claimants for DSP having their applications for the payment rejected over the forward estimates period to 2005-06. Many of these claimants will qualify for the lesser Newstart allowance. This will mean for those people a difference of $52.80 per fortnight. However, a small proportion will qualify for absolutely no payment at all. There are over 5,000 people in the Northern Territory who currently receive DSP, and no doubt many of these people would be affected adversely if this legislation were passed. The government has stated that the purpose of this bill is to separate people with so-called bad backs from those with genuine disabilities. However, this bill does no such thing. There is nothing at all to say that those people who do have bad backs are not also suffering from a genuine disability. The bill affects people with varying levels and types of disabilities, including those with severe physical disabilities and those with chronic psychiatric disabilities.

The government is trying like crazy to reinforce stereotypes that people who are on benefits are exploiting the system and are not deserving of any assistance, rather than trying to create legitimate social policy which will benefit those most in need. The government is determined to build a surplus for the next election in 2005. This bill is all about additional money in the piggy bank. Because social policy is not a priority of this government, it will come at the expense of those least able to afford it—the people whom the government has no affinity with. This bill, like the earlier version, also seeks to alter the rules relating to access to training and rehabilitation for those on Newstart (Incapacitated) and Youth Allowance (Incapacitated). Specifically, schedule 1 seeks to alter the definition of work capacity from 30 hours a week at award wages or above to 15 hours. It should be noted that the current test is whether a person is capable of working 30 hours a week inside a period of two years and follows a medical determination that a person has a disability.

I share the anger of many Australians, not only those with disabilities, their families and carers, but the many other Australians who are appalled at what this bill represents. That is why we rejected this bill when it was first introduced in parliament. The government, in proposing this bill, has shamelessly broken the election promises it made. The changes proposed in this bill go to the heart of our tradition as a caring and compassionate nation. The fact that we are considering this bill at all shows that this government is prepared to tear down this tradition to pay for their pre-election spending spree. Since the budget was announced, members of the coalition, including the Treasurer, Prime Minister and the minister for employment, persisted in trying to dress up the changes before us as `welfare reform'. But anyone can see that what we are considering today is nothing more than a quick and dirty recovery plan for recouping on its spending during the election campaign. The government has spent $14 million of current and future surpluses and is now asking the DSP recipients to pay for it.

Make no mistake, this bill is not about welfare reform; it is about welfare cuts. It is not about genuine welfare reform; it is just a means of dealing with the deficit the government have plunged us into as a result of their pre-election spending spree that they embarked on in order to get themselves re-elected. Do not forget that, in the context of this bill, the government have a bigger advertising budget than McDonald's or Toyota. Have a think about that. The government confirmed the worst suspicions of everyone when it brought down the budget. Even Patrick McClure was moved to comment on it and said that it was not what welfare reform is about. Patrick McClure is the author of the report on welfare reform commissioned by the government. Mr McClure said the measures were not balanced and did not reflect the spirit of the report. The government are arguing that they want to encourage more disabled Australians to participate in the work force. Apparently, the government have chosen to take $52 a fortnight out of the pockets of disabled Australians as the one best measures to secure this outcome.

On this side of the chamber, we have been asking and will continue to ask: how is cutting someone's income going to help them get a job? We are still waiting for the answer. Patrick McClure was in no doubt about what he thought the effect of the measure would be when he spoke to ABC radio on 16 May this year. He said:

Where I have concerns is this modification of eligibility criteria, so one of the modifications is that they're going to reduce the hours worked from 30 to 15.

He went on to say:

It just doesn't have the balance and it's not in the spirit of our report which was that there was no aim to disadvantage people who were on a disability support pension.

He then went on to add that not only would they be disadvantaged by the cut to their payment but they would also lose the pensioner concession card and be subject to an income test.

Mr McClure's comments leave no doubt that with this bill the government have taken one aspect of the recommendations of the welfare reform report and used it in a way that was never intended. They have used this aspect of the reform proposals in a way that diminishes the capacity of disabled Australians to participate in work, and they have taken this measure to meet their own budgetary aims without implementing the other recommendations necessary to meet a sincere welfare reform agenda. Last year the government said that the McClure report would pave the way. This year they just want to take the bits out of the report that help them meet their bottom line. They will take $52 a fortnight from 200,000 disabled Australians and send them out to find a job.

In considering the legislation before the Senate today, I want to put on the record the hypocrisy and bullying tactics to which the government have descended in a crude attempt to force through this cost-cutting exercise at the expense of some of our most disadvantaged fellow citizens. It is pretty ironic that at the same time they are about to take $52 a fortnight out of the pockets of 200,000 disabled Australians, the government have been crowing about how they are providing a record level of funding for disability services. As we know, the minister has put a caveat on an undertaking that the government made two years ago, which was to increase the level of funding under the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement. This is an unprecedented move, holding the disabled in our community and the parliament to ransom.

The government engaged in nothing less than deception when they stated that there was an extra $500 million in the budget for disability services. But the government have already been forced to look again and to go back to the drawing board. It is clear that the government's own market research has shown that this measure is seen by the Australian community as mean-spirited—but the unfortunate fact is that we are still here today considering these ill-conceived measures and unfair means of clawing back the deficit brought about by the government's pre-election spending spree. The government have been keen to characterise the provisions of the bill in terms of a necessary evil to ensure the sustainability of the social security system—but to characterise the issue as one of welfare reform is simply false. In fact, this bill just takes $52 a fortnight out of the pockets of the disabled and then requires them to go out and find a job.

Labor supports genuine welfare reform which provides appropriate assistance and support in the transition from welfare to work, but this bill falls far short of that. There is no appropriate system and there is no support at all in order to assist these people to do what this bill sets out to achieve. The bill before us is merely a cost-cutting exercise. It has absolutely nothing to do with genuine welfare reform. The government has not budgeted to ensure that all those people kicked off DSP will be provided with assistance to participate in the workplace. The current proposal for reassessing those on DSP is a quick, mean fix, two-hour assessment. This government is not prepared to provide adequate reassessment of people who apply for the DSP. This will see those deemed under this inadequate assessment returned to the job queue, competing—with no extra assistance—with the job seekers without disabilities.

On top of all this, we were told at estimates in the Northern Territory, the state I represent, that those pensioners who have disabilities and who are kicked off DSP would not have the benefit of a Job Network provider who specialises in disability employment. Instead, they will be sent to a provider who is contracted to service people who are disadvantaged in the labour market, a Job Network provider who provides generalist intensive assistance. We were told at the estimates hearing that no organisation in the Northern Territory sought to operate as a specialist provider but that the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations is still trying to find a provider willing to take on this group of job seekers. At this stage it appears that the current Job Network providers in the Territory either do not have the capacity or the interest to provide these services. In the estimates of 4 June this year, Senator George Campbell asked the following question:

This is in relation to the disability services. How many Job Network contracts are currently held by specialist service providers for people with disabilities?

Mr Correll, from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, provided the following answer:

There are 11 organisations operating out of 27 sites that are specialist providers.

He went on to say:

There are nine sites in Sydney, seven sites in Melbourne, four sites in western Victoria, three sites in Brisbane, two sites in Adelaide and two sites in Perth.

Senator Harradine picked up on that, as well he should, and asked about the lack of providers in Tasmania. Mr Correll said:

We do not have a specialist provider for people with disabilities under the current contract located in Tasmania. People with disabilities in Tasmania would, therefore, be getting services at the present stage through Job Network members who are providing services not only to particular categories of people with disabilities but also to the broader group of people who are disadvantaged in the labour market as well.

I then asked a question about the Northern Territory. Mr Correll responded:

The Northern Territory does not currently have them.

That is, the Northern Territory does not have specialist providers. Mr Douglas, from the department, went on to say:

There were no organisations from the Northern Territory that tended to operate as a specialist organisation offering its services to people with a disability.

Round 3 of tenders for Job Network providers is under way. It would be interesting to ask this government what exactly they are doing to ensure that existing Job Network providers—or in fact any new Job Network providers who might be in Tasmania or moving to the Northern Territory—will tender for and be successful in providing a contract that actually assists these people.

Let us say that after the third round we find that in the Northern Territory there are still no Job Network providers who have the interest or the skills or the capacity to provide intensive assistance and support for people with disabilities. On the one hand, you have a government that wants to penalise people on DSP by altering the hours that they are required to work, taking $52 a fortnight off them and pushing them into the Job Network queue in order to look for work. On the other hand, there no Job Network provider out there who has a contract or who is interested in having a contract or who is there to assist these people. It really shows what a blinkered approach this government has to any sorts of reform measures. It confirms that this is not about genuine welfare reform; this is about getting as much money as you can for your piggy bank, to top up your coffers at the expense of any group in the community. The group that is being targeted under this bill is people with disabilities.

Where would this leave disabled people in the Northern Territory who will be kicked off the DSP? It would leave them with $52 less a fortnight, in a place where the cost of basic necessities is very high. It would leave them without a pharmaceutical benefits card; it would leave them without access to the pensioner employment supplement to help cover the costs associated with training and education; and it would leave them joining the dole queue with others and, in the case of the Northern Territory, without a specialist disability provider.

The women's budget statement this year, under the heading `A Fair Go for Mature Age Workers', told us that the government will spend a total of $146 million over four years in new assistance for workers over 50, and $177 million in improving disability assessment and expanding assistance for people with disabilities. Strangely enough, there is no mention of the fact that this budget will see 200,000 disability support pensioners get a pay cut of $52 per fortnight. The McClure report talked about introducing an integrated payment system over five to 10 years and providing add-ons to reflect people's circumstances, including a participation supplement. There is no participation supplement here in this bill, but there is a pay cut of $52 per fortnight.

Funding an additional 73,000 new places in disability employment assistance over three years refers to existing programs only. There is no reference to new or more innovative assistance, and the performance of these programs in the past for the DSP recipient population raises the issue of their effectiveness. Current disability assistance programs have already received serious criticism from the Head Injury Council of Australia as well as the Association for Competitive Employment, which stated that Job Network was ineffectual in locating employment for people with a disability.

The Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Disability Reform) Bill (No. 2) 2002 does nothing to address those criticisms or concerns. This second disability bill is a compromise on the government's behalf, as it now only applies to those who seek the disability support pension on or after July 2003. So the government want us to believe that they have moved in some way, that they are a little compassionate, that the legislation will not affect people now; it will only affect people in the future. However, this is still not providing welfare reform in any sense. The government are still attempting a cost-cutting scam to save their own back. The Labor Party does not believe that cutting people's benefits will encourage them to seek employment—in fact, it inhibits their ability to do so.

This bill is obviously a continuation of the government's use of harsh and unfair tactics aimed at increasing participation in the labour market and subsequently reducing the deficit in the budget—despite the negative impact that this will impose on people in our community. This bill is not even an attempt to genuinely reform disability pensions. This bill has failed to deal with the situations that people are facing every day in Australia as a result of the government's absolutely poor record on social policy.