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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 1959

Mr DOBIE(12.45) —I rise to speak in this grievance debate because I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the lack of opportunity being given to this Parliament for discussion in this place on the needy, the frail, the disadvantaged, the disabled and the helpless. I am concerned that we are no longer being given the chance by this Government to talk at any length in this Parliament on the welfare of these Australians.

We had an extraordinary example of this when earlier this week the newly-appointed Minister for Community Services (Mr Hurford), in answer to a dorothy dix question from his own side, made a statement regarding care for the elderly in nursing homes and hostels. It reached the point of nonsense when we received in our offices a series of Press releases, prepared by the Minister, which announced that these people would benefit from measures announced that day by the Minister for Community Services. The incredible situation is that the Minister made no such announcement. What in fact we had was this negative dorothy dix question on a matter of policy, itself not in accordance with the Standing Orders, made during Question Time, giving members of the Opposition absolutely no opportunity to discuss this matter at all. No subsequent statement has been made, and so we in the Opposition and the Government back benchers still cannot discuss this subject in debate.

On the same day, we had the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) making a statement on the National Agenda for Women, and again there was no opportunity for the Opposition, apart from our Leader, to discuss at length real problems facing women in the community today and the real problems facing the disadvantaged women in the community today. It is about time this Government came to terms with itself and realised that the Parliament is the place for discussing these matters. The Parliament is not the place merely to make statements under the guise of an answer during Question Time, or statements which themselves are not open to debate by the ordinary members of the Parliament from both sides.

Though this is one of the grievances I have today, my grievance on this subject is deeper than this parliamentary ploy which the Government seems to be following. I am concerned that the limited discussion we have had on welfare issues concentrates on abuses of the welfare system. We hear about what Budgets cannot afford. We hear about what must not be paid. I would be the last to deny that one of the critical areas of review of any government is the need for much discussion and action to overcome abuses within the welfare field. Abuses of the system are, as all of us know in this place, very widespread. Whether it is the present Government or the Liberal-National Government which will be the next government of this country, there is a need for a bipartisan approach to those areas where we see abuse to see where and how it can be resolved.

Just as I would like to see a bipartisan approach to eliminating the abuses in the welfare system, so I believe we must move towards a bipartisan approach to the needy, and a bipartisan awareness as to who the needy in the community really are. It is clear that not enough understanding is being shown by this present Parliament towards those who are being disadvantaged. Whether we like it or whether we do not, there will always be a disadvantaged section of the community. For example, we cannot allow the percentage of unemployment to remain as it is without examining who the unemployed really are. Most people, when they talk about unemployment, refer only to the young-the under 25s. A great deal is being said at the moment about Workfare, and though I generally agree that such a scheme deserves investigation-and I am aware of the matter of public importance that was raised in this House yesterday on this very subject-it comes back to the question of who are the needy in the community when one thinks of unemployment.

Within the limited social security budget, it is crucial that those in the greatest need are targeted for the aid available. There would not be a member in this House on either side who is not regularly approached by employers who are having difficulty in finding labour to fill many jobs. To many of these people unemployment is a myth. I do not agree with them and I believe that not enough attention is being given to those who are genuinely unemployed and who the genuine unemployed really are. For example, I believe that not enough consideration, not enough thought, is being given to those who are out of work, say, from the age of 40 onwards. At the moment their future is terrible and one wonders what will happen to these people in the next two years if the economic conditions to which we are referred every moment of the day in this place do not improve.

The Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission has put the question, I believe most succinctly, in relation to the unemployed. In a recent discussion paper put out by this group the point is made-and a vital one at that-that the unemployment is not uniform across socio-economic groups in the community. It identified the most affected groups in the community as:

the younger persons not yet experienced in the labour force;

the older persons who, once retrenched, may lack the flexibility or attributes needed to become accommodated to new jobs in the eyes of potential employers;

the unskilled, or less educated;

the specialists in skills which become redundant;

ethnic groups with language, cultural or other barriers;

recent arrivals not possessing local knowledge;

handicapped persons at a disability in a buyer's market for labour;

Not all of these people appear in the unemployment statistics. We in this Parliament, however, should be identifying these groups and ensuring that our social welfare budget targets them. The same applies to supporting parent's beneficiaries. We also hear so much talk in this place about the supporting parent's benefit-the arguments for and against it. Surely we should be channelling our attentions to identifying the needy within this category and to what is their level of need, as well as arguing the merits of this benefit per se. Of course there are abuses. But we cannot allow this to overshadow the fact that there are supporting parents in real need. In my opinion, to abolish the supporting parent's benefit would be to disadvantage further what is already a disadvantaged group.

I would point out that many of these beneficiaries fall into the lowest income groups and families living below the poverty line. Having one of the highest concentrations of single parents in the very suburb in which I have lived for a quarter of a century has alerted me to the problems of the single parent family and the social problems which are developing among those who definitely are being disadvantaged as a result of the epidemic of family breakdown that has followed the introduction of the current Family Law Act, which is in need of major rethinking.

It is another argument, which I do not propose to proceed with now, as to whether the Family Court allows too easy a separation of families and the destruction of what has been the traditional family situation. Like it or not, if this law is not changed, we are going to have an ever-increasing number of people within our community growing into adulthood without the advantage of proper family background, of proper family attitudes and of proper family concerns. We must do something about this. We cannot sit by and say that the problems will run away or diminish.

From my own experience in the last 30 years, I am very much aware of the problems facing handicapped persons, who are at a disadvantage in a buyer's market for labour, which is the present situation. I am not referring at this stage to those who have a distinct disability, or people who work under the sheltered persons legislation. I am talking of people who have moderate physical-and sometimes intellectual-disabilities. I can assure the House that this is a group which has tremendous problems at this particular time. I do not have the numbers, but it is an issue on which practically nothing has been heard in this chamber for years. If any honourable members have spoken on this subject and I have missed it, I apologise. But, for people who have slight handicaps, the present labour situation is proving horrendous and will have to be given attention by both sides of the House.

Time does not permit me in this grievance debate to go right down the road regarding the normal problems of assimilation faced by this section of our community. I raise the matter at this time merely to point out the problems facing this particular disadvantaged group, which receives scant attention from the Parliament, not just the Government. It is not my intention to list every needy section of the community in this grievance debate. However, I point out to the House that there is a notice of motion in my name, No. 24-in which I call on the House to form a joint standing committee to be known as the Joint Standing Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled, to review Commonwealth legislation, commissions concerning the rehabilitation and welfare of the physically and intellectually disabled, and problems as they relate to the employment, education and welfare of the physically and intellectually disabled. I hope that this may one day be debated in this House and that I may achieve this dear goal of mine. I am distressed that it is highly unlikely that this matter will be raised in the life of this Parliament, even with the new election date.

What I am doing in this grievance debate is alerting the Parliament to the need for a bipartisan approach to the problems facing the needy-a bipartisan approach to identifying them, a bipartisan approach to resolving their difficulties. It is stupid for us to think that, with the huge social welfare budget we have every year, we can allow our approach to these matters to be the subject of petty arguments, petty disputes, as to who the needy really are.