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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1964

Senator POLLEY (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (20:58): I rise to endorse one of the most significant and eagerly anticipated pieces of legislation to come before this chamber in recent years: the National Disability Insurance Scheme Bill 2013. I would also like to place on record my appreciation for the contribution of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, in particular, the contribution that Senator Moore has made tonight to this debate.

The bill establishes a framework for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the body that will manage the launch of this groundbreaking scheme, the NDIS Launch Transition Agency. The agency will initially operate in five sites across Australia from July this year and I am very pleased that one of those sites will be located in Tasmania. Initially, some 20,000 people with a disability, their families and carers will benefit from the NDIS before the scheme expands nationwide.

It could not have come soon enough. For many people in Australia disabilities can mean isolation, poverty, pain, indignity and a sense of futility. The scheme that has emerged after numerous agreements were signed between the Commonwealth and states and territories shares the cost of disability services and supports across the country. NDIS will adopt a self-directed approach so that those with a disability can take control of their own lives and make informed decisions that they think will suit them.

The scheme is desperately needed, particularly when one considers how much improvement is required in how we support those with a disability. One area that I want to focus on particularly tonight and where Australia lags in global standards is employment participation for people with a disability. It is also alarming that Australia, currently the 12th largest economy in the world, ranks 21st out of 29 OECD countries in employment participation rates for those with a disability. This is one of the reasons why close to 45 per cent of those with a disability in this country are living either near or below the poverty line, and this area dealing with disability and employment is something that is close to my family's heart.

In Australia, a person with a disability has a poverty risk of around 2.7 times higher than a person who does not have a disability. This puts Australia last out of all the OECD countries on this measure. Not one of the bottom few, not trending downwards—we are dead last! We are at the bottom! Currently in Australia, only half of the 2.2 million Australians with disabilities who are of working age are actually employed. It is shameful.

Closing this gap is more than achievable. Many nations, including New Zealand, have already substantially improved their own employment participation rates for people who have disabilities and are currently reaping the social and economic rewards. To demonstrate the personal and economic cost of Australia's current approach, I would like to draw everyone's attention to Milly Parker, a disability advocate who became a person with a disability at the age of 21. After acquiring a serious brain injury in a horrendous car accident, Milly was not expected to live and spent a full year undergoing rehabilitation as an outpatient in a nursing home. Today Milly is not only an energetic advocate for people with disabilities; she runs her own successful small business from home.

Since she had resources available to her—and I will return to that point in a moment—she was able to get on with her life and thrive. We should all listen closely to Milly when she says:

I am living proof that if you invest in people with disability, that investment pays off.

So what is stopping us from allowing more people with disabilities to flourish like Milly? Perhaps the most glaringly obvious problem with the current system is that services have quite simply not met demand. Care and support can prove inflexible, unpredictable and insufficient and this has a dramatic impact on the lives of people with disabilities. This shortfall means that many heartbreaking stories have emerged from around Australia, and I just want to share just one story from my home state of Tasmania.

I would like to tell you about Linda from the north-west coast of Tasmania. Linda is a 32-year-old woman with cerebral palsy who requires personal care and support each morning to shower and prepare for work. After getting married she moved, with her husband, from the city to a smaller town 20 kilometres away. Unfortunately, Linda has had a number of issues over the past 12 months with inadequate service provision. The most recent was when she was told that her service provider could not provide support that very week as they did not have the staff available. Linda spoke to her usual staff who said they had no idea why they had been moved from Linda to work for another person. They were more than happy working with Linda and were quite upset that she had been left without support. Linda was actually told it was her fault because she had moved to a town in Tasmania where there were very few workers available to draw upon. The service told her that the only option was to have a support person shower her at 5 am. Linda considered this unacceptable as it would have consequences for her disability, increasing her spasms due to such a long day. She could not attend work for two days until an advocate was engaged to assist her in resolving this issue.

If Linda had access to her own funds through the NDIS, she could engage the services of her workers directly. This would ensure consistency and choice of workers who are not at the mercy of services who moved them around. The NDIS will ensure that Linda has a real and meaningful say in her support. The scheme will give people who have a disability not only sufficient care and support but also greater choice and autonomy in the care they receive, and this is so terribly important. Right now, many Australians with disabilities like Linda are clearly not receiving the support they require. We need to ask ourselves: why is this the case? Well, as I alluded to earlier, unlike our social security and universal healthcare systems, entitlement to disability care and support have not been based on need.

One of the key problems is that those who have acquired a disability through a workplace or motor vehicle accident have been treated preferentially to those who have acquired disabilities in other ways such as at birth. Disability advocate and writer Stella Young has spoken about this dilemma on numerous occasions. She has described how her friend and fellow advocate Milly Parker, whom I spoke about a moment ago, received better care and support because she acquired her disability in a car accident. If Milly had acquired her disability through birth, by falling off a roof or being the victim of domestic violence, this would not have been the case, but because the Transport Accident Commission exists, Stella notes that in relative terms Milly has actually, and I quote here, 'won the lottery'. Stella has had the courage to admit publicly that at times she has felt a consuming jealousy towards the Millys in her life. She asks: 'Why do they get it so easy? Why couldn't I just have had a bloody car accident?' It simply is not fair, and it is distressing to think that a person who acquired a lifelong brain injury at the age of 21 has 'won the lottery'. But we need to understand that that is exactly how it appears to people such as Stella.

Thankfully, the opposition appears willing, for the moment, to put aside partisan wrangling and support the NDIS. This is a great relief for those in the community advocating for the scheme, because the shadow Treasurer has certainly wavered at times. In May last year, he qualified his support for the NDIS by stating:

… at the end of the day the money has to come from somewhere and there is only one pot of money and that is the hard earned taxpayer's money.

Well, yes, thank you, Mr Hockey, but people who have a disability, their families, friends and carers understand where the government's money comes from. As I have emphasised today, people who have a disability want to work, they want to contribute, they want their skills to be valued and they want to be a part of growing the economy.

At its core, the NDIS is about supporting people well enough and early enough so that the impact of disability on their life is as small as possible. Hearing or reading the stories about people who have suffered because of the current deficiencies in disability support in Australia can inspire strong feelings of guilt and, really, it should make us all feel guilty.

Every day that a person sits around in an unsuitable wheelchair that causes them pain and makes their impairment worse, we should feel guilty. Every day that a person rises out of a bed in a nursing home because the funds are not available for a carer at home, we should feel guilty. Every day that a person cannot enter the workforce because they do not have the support they need, we should feel guilty. We should indeed feel very guilty.

That is why the government is pressing ahead with this bill. It will change the way an often ignored and marginalised segment of our community live their lives. I am honoured to be in this chamber, to be supporting this bill and to be part of a government that has recognised this need that is long overdue. I commend the minister; the former parliamentary secretary, Bill Shorten; the committee; and the chamber for their support of this bill.