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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26711


Senator GREIG (8:01 PM) —I also rise to speak to the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2004 Budget Measures) Bill 2004. The bill makes two unrelated changes to family and community services legislation, as announced in the recent budget. It extends the eligibility criteria for carer allowance by removing the requirement that the carer live with the person for whom they are providing care. Carers provide by far the major proportion of both health and community care for people with special needs. Most do so willingly, as members of the family or friends, for love or duty at substantial sacrifice to their own lives. Governments do have an obligation to recognise the care that a carer is providing, to listen to the views of the carer in deciding what their requirements are and not to take the carer's contribution for granted.

It is a fact that carers do not always live with the person for whom they provide care. Indeed, for many people requiring care, their ability to live in their own home represents a degree of independence they do not want compromised. However, it does not diminish the amount of care required. This change recognises the rights of people with disabilities to preserve their independence and, hopefully, stay out of residential care for longer. It has been a long time coming, and the Democrats have called for it for many years. It is again typical of the government's abuse of the Senate process that they should seek to hurriedly deal with this bill, less than three weeks prior to its implementation. We do not want to hold up the beneficial elements for carers, but it does not offer sufficient time for full consideration or even amendment to further improve the lot of carers.

The changes in this bill are not overly complex and could easily have been introduced in the last sitting. Ironically, it was only about eight weeks ago that the government decided to overlook the needs of elderly carers by similarly rushing through the carer bonus legislation, effectively failing to ensure that many carers would receive the full carer bonus. For too long now, carers of elderly Australians or those with disabilities have been often overlooked. Carers are known as the silent army. There are some 2.5 million carers in Australia, and governments do have an obligation to try and meet their unique needs. We Democrats know that it is no exaggeration to say that carers are the backbone of our whole community care system—we simply could not manage without the vital and voluntary care they give.

There was, however, a glaring and extraordinary oversight in the payment of the $1,000 up-front bonus to carers that was quickly pushed through by the government in May this year. This is because there are many carers who have a primary entitlement to another social security income support—such as the age pension or the disability support pension—or who are parenting payment singles, who are providing the same level of care as any other person on carer payment. Because the carer payment is paid at the same rate and has the same income test, there has been no advantage to them in swapping to the carer payment, and Centrelink have advised people of that. To make it even worse, social security income support recipients who were on carer payments were automatically transferred over to the age pension when they reached the age of 65. Because the bonus of $1,000 is only paid to people on carer payments, not other pensions, notwithstanding that they may be providing equal amounts of care, many carers have missed out.

The Australia Democrats did warn the government that they had created an anomaly in that the many carers who receive income support payments other than the carer payment from Centrelink will miss out on the $1,000 bonus. They may have identical caring responsibilities but, because Centrelink moved them from carer payment to the age pension, they have a child and therefore receive parenting payment or they have a disability and receive a disability support pension, they will not receive the $1,000 bonus. The carers who miss out on the bonus of $1,000 are the ones who we would argue can least afford not to receive it. We Democrats attempted to redress the situation by amending the one-off payment bill. However, disappointingly, we were not supported on that by either the government or the opposition. However, the minister cannot hide behind the legislation to avoid responsibility for denying carers the full bonus.

We would have liked to use this legislation before us today to again make our amendments but, given that the government has decided to bring it on in this way, and given the way in which it announced its implementation, we certainly do not want to delay any assistance for carers. Provision exists for the minister to make special payments. Again, we call on the minister to use these provisions to pay the full $1,000 bonus to carers who were not on carer payments at the time. They will not be double-dipping and will not receive two payments, but they will rightly qualify for the bonus. Recognition for carers, and the government's responsibility towards them, does not end with the extension of eligibility criteria for carer allowance or indeed the payment of a bonus. For many carers the lack of respite care available to them means they will struggle to find the time to spend it. Carer allowance of $90 a fortnight is fairly paltry in terms of the dedication of carers. We call on the government to address the ongoing social, economic, health, education and employment problems and needs experienced by carers.