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Shadow Minister indicates the ALP is willing to negotiate a broader welfare reform package and comments on behaviour in Parliament.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: The federal government’s moved to keep its budget plans to crack down on the Disability Support Pension alive by introducing a compromise package. Ahead of a meeting today with state and territory ministers, Family Services Minister, Amanda Vanstone, has withdrawn the threat to link extra money for disability services with the passage of the reform legislation. And she has moved to exempt current disability support pension recipients from tighter eligibility criteria.


But it looks like the government still has a battle on its hands with the opposition parties saying the changes don’t go far enough. Cathy Van Extel is back with us again from Canberra. Cathy, is this compromise package doomed?


CATHY VAN EXTEL: As it currently stands it’s not looking promising. Labor is saying no, it won’t support it and the Democrats are also talking negatively, although they are saying that they’re willing to support changes to the pension if there is a broad overhaul of the welfare system. Labor is also saying that it’s willing to negotiate a broader reform package in line with the McClure recommendations. But what’s currently on the table, it says, would only create a two-tiered system for people with disabilities.


To talk to us a little bit more about this issue, I’m joined in the studio by Labor’s Family and Community Services spokesman, Wayne Swan. Thanks for coming in today. I know it’s been a very, very late night.


WAYNE SWAN: Good morning.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: The government has acknowledged that the concerns about people currently receiving disability support could be disadvantaged under the changes so they’ve come up with this compromise. Isn’t there now room for the opposition parties to move as well?


WAYNE SWAN: Not based on the fundamentally flawed proposal which will create two classes of people with disabilities—one class, prior to 1 July and a second class after 1 July who will be paid $52 a fortnight less than the first class. Let me give you this very clear example. Let’s say that you have Down syndrome, you’re working in a business service unit—that is a sheltered workshop—you’re working 16 hours a week. Before 1 July you’ll be paid $52 a fortnight more than a person you’re working with after 1 July who is working 16 hours a week, two classes of people with disabilities—first class and second class; still a very big cut to that social safety net, still a gaping hole in the social safety net.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: The Democrats are saying that they’re willing to support changes to the Disability Support Pension in the context of a broader overhaul. Do you agree that there needs to be a tightening of the eligibility criteria for the DSP?


WAYNE SWAN: We believe there does need to be fundamental welfare reform in this country, welfare reform which rewards work over welfare and which invests in the capacities of our people. The McClure report, which is the government’s own report, makes serious recommendations and principles. We can support those principles. The only party in this country that’s not supporting the government’s principles is the government. It has walked back from those principles and these proposals are still in direct conflict with the recommendations of McClure, the government’s own report.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Senator Vanstone, though, does have a point, doesn’t she, in arguing that someone with a bad back should be expected to make more of a contribution than somebody with a severe disability?


WAYNE SWAN: Senator Vanstone is continuing the vilification of people with disabilities, because when this measure was brought down we said 200,000 Australians with disabilities would receive a pension cut of $52 a fortnight. She went out there and branded those people as malingerers. The Prime Minister went out there and said they were rorters. They’ve now walked backwards from it.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: You have to accept that there are people that are receiving the Disability Support Pension who should be working?


WAYNE SWAN: Cathy, that’s not a judgment that you and I can make. That is a medical judgment, and it’s not a judgment that Senator Vanstone can make. It is a judgment that should be made in a scientific way. It is this government’s cuts to the assessment procedures that have led to the blow-out that the government is complaining about. We are prepared to sit down and help the government solve this problem in the long-term interest of welfare reform and most importantly in the long-term interests of people in this country with disabilities.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: I’ll get you to put your other hat on, that is Manager of Opposition Business. Politicians are heading home now for the mid-winter break. There’s been a pretty poor display of behaviour from both sides over the past couple of weeks in particular. Your talk earlier this year about improving standards has a very hollow ring to it, doesn’t it?


WAYNE SWAN: It’s pretty sad. We desperately need parliamentary reform in this country, which is why Simon Crean and I put on the table in January this year proposals to move towards an independent speaker and a fundamental reform of the standing orders, particularly the standing orders as they affect question time. What we are now seeing is the consequences of the failure of the government to implement such a reform program.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: It’s also a failure of the Labor Party to follow its words with actions.


WAYNE SWAN: We’re not the government and the government has not yet responded to Simon Crean’s letter and generous invitation to move towards an independent speaker and a fundamental reform of the standing orders. It is the government that has been debauching question time every day. Every senior minister in this government turns question time into a battle, into a denigration, individually and collectively, of the Labor Party.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: The Labor Party has been giving as good as it’s been getting.


WAYNE SWAN: Certainly.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Mark Latham is one of the worst offenders. Is it time that he pulled back? Do you think that he needs to pull his head in or do you think it’s acceptable?


WAYNE SWAN: Cathy, what we have to do is break the cycle. The public is fed up with an approach to politics which says business as usual. We’ve put the proposals on the table. We want a bipartisan consensus in this country for parliamentary reform, for the government to be accountable to the parliament and to the people. It is John Howard who in 1995 made that commitment. He has not followed it through and not come back to us on our invitation.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Wayne Swan, thank you.


WAYNE SWAN: Great to talk to you.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Labor’s Family Services spokesman and Manager of Opposition Business, Wayne Swan.