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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 2902

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (12:00): The Greens support most elements of the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amend­ment Bill 2012. In particular, we are in favour of improvements to bereavement payments and supplementary payments for carers. As has been articulated, and we know very well, there are over 2.6 million unpaid carers in Australia, of whom more than 770,000 are priority carers—in other words, they are providing the most care to people they are looking after.

We have talked at great length in the chamber before about the vital support that carers provide to those most in need in Australia. Up until fairly recently the role that carers played was largely unrecognised in the community. I am pleased to say that that has significantly improved, but we still have a long way to go in this country to ensure that our carers get the full support they need to provide that essential element of care. I remind the chamber that if these carers were not providing that care it would be a massive cost to our budget bottom line, because those carers provide care that otherwise would have to be paid for in this country.

Carers are a highly vulnerable group. Indicators consistently show that they are at the bottom of the income stream and of the health and welfare index. They are consistently at the bottom of it because they provide care at their own personal expense. Often they are financially worse off and, although respite services have improved—I will acknowledge that—they still leave a lot to be desired. These services continue to be underfunded, and any extra resources that support carers are a welcome and timely measure. Having said that and indicated our support, I would like to briefly touch on concerns about linking immunisation to family payments. The Greens support immunisation but we also support the parents' right to choose in relation to their children's health, and any measures by the government to link immunisation to family payments must also contain sufficient protections for parents' right to choose. Presently, an individual's eligibility for the maternity immunisation allowance is determined by whether a child meets the immunisation requirements. These require­ments can be met in a few different ways, including by showing that a recognised immunisation provider has certified in writing that he or she has discussed with the adult the benefits and risks of immunising the child and the adult has declared in writing that he or she has a conscientious objection to the child's being immunised.

This legislation replaces the maternity immunisation allowance requirements, linking it to family benefits. These pro­visions provide an important protection for parents who choose to conscientiously object to immunising their child and ensure that they are not penalised financially for this choice. The measure in this bill ceases the maternity immunisation allowance and amends the family assistance laws to make payments of the family tax benefit part A supplement conditional on a child meeting the immunisation requirements as set out in section 6 of the family assistance act. It is my understanding that the immunisation requirements, and therefore the ability to conscientiously object, are not changing. I welcome the government's maintaining of this protection and encourage them to make sure that this protection is maintained, because it is important that we do maintain parents' right to choose.

Having said that, I think it is important that parents demonstrate that they have actually weighed up the various opinions and evidence in order to make their decision. This does encourage parents to do that, but we need to maintain the parents' right to choose and to hold a conscientious objection, because I know from my discussions with parents that those who do choose to not have their children immunised have thought about it considerably and have made that conscious decision not to have their child immunised. This is not a judgment on whether that is right or wrong; this is saying that parents do have a right to choose and it is ensuring that that choice is maintained in this legislation.