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Tuesday, 3 March 1998
Page: 228

Mr LINDSAY (9:17 PM) —In speaking briefly to this Social Security and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 1997 , I would like to concentrate on the changes which relate to carers. One of the effects of this legislation amendment bill is to extend the qualification for carer payments to those caring for profoundly disabled children under the age of 16. This policy change is a very welcome one.

I have remarked on a number of occasions, both here in this House and out in the Townsville and Thuringowa community, that home carers are some of the most isolated people in our community. The same is true for the carers of people living with severe handicaps and mental illness. Only last Thursday I had the opportunity to visit the office of the Schizophrenia Fellowship of North Queensland in Townsville.

The Minister for Health and Family Services, Dr Wooldridge, only just recently granted a funding package of about $46,000 for the operation of a support and information program for mental health carers called `Help for Rural Caregivers of the Mentally Ill'. The program may have a long and ungainly title but it is one which has delivered a level of support, advice and assistance vital to the carers of the mentally ill in regional and rural Queensland, particularly in North Queensland.

As I affirmed recently in the media in Townsville when the federal government announced that it would assist the Schizophrenia Fellowship, this is an important program and I am pleased the minister recognised this and acted very quickly in approving funding support. The Schizophrenia Fellowship of North Queensland President, Mr David Donohue, has welcomed the funding approval, saying people with serious mental illness in rural areas were principally cared for by their families—mainly women—for whom there has been minimal, if any, regular assistance in the past. Mr Donohue said:

The program aims to provide care-givers with the information, skills and support necessary to become more competent in their role as carers, while sustaining a quality lifestyle for themselves and their family.

For years carers have been calling out for recognition and support. Unfortunately for those carers it took a change of government at the last election before carers started to get the level of assistance and support they need and deserve.

The level of support available to all carers has improved significantly under the federal coalition government, particularly in rural and regional areas. This was recognised by the Carers Association of Australia back in 1996 after the first coalition budget was delivered. The Executive Director of the Carers Association of Australia said:

The Government will establish a National Respite for Carers Program which will operate over the next four years and will also see the establishment of Carers Resource Centres across Australia. In the context of this budget, $36.7 million above the 1995-96 expenditure is quite a lot of money.

I was very proud to open last year in Townsville, my home city, one of those carer resource centres. The Executive Director, Ms Anne Marie Mioche, said:

The fact that the Government will be establishing Carer Resource Centres sends a direct message to all carers that this Government cares about them.

This government does care about our carers, and we will see this concern and care in the detail of this bill currently before the House.

The qualification for the carer payment will be extended to the carers of profoundly disabled children under the age of 16. Further, this bill also allows a person to stop caring for a another person for up to 63 days in a calendar year and still continue to qualify for a carer payment. This is an increase on the 42 days of respite leave carers were allowed under the previous Labor government.

It is a simple change which should have been made years ago. As I said in the House back in October 1996, home care more often than not means close to full-time care and people invariably lose touch with other aspects of their lives, such as friends, work and study.

Home care, particularly for someone suffering an acute or terminal illness or for someone living with a profound disability, is a very physically and emotionally tiring task. It is, in my view, an act of love. A few years ago a member of my staff was closely involved in the home care of his grandmother shortly before she passed away. He was only helping to care for her for a relatively short time but he said that those days were some of the toughest and longest of his life. Part of the measures of this bill will help ensure that carers sustain as good a quality of life as they can.

The contribution carers make to Australian society cannot be underestimated. There are about 1.5 million carers in Australia looking after and assisting people at home. This is a substantial number of people. Without carers, without the sacrifices they make and the time they put in caring for people at home, our health system would be groaning at the seams, if it did not collapse altogether. In deed, I think the latter would be more than likely the case.

I have seen estimates that state that home carers help save our economy about $8,000 million a year—quite an enormous amount of money. This pales in comparison with the amount of money spent on carer payments—29,558 people received the carer payment in the 1996-97 financial year at a cost of almost $230 million.

There seems to be quite a difference between the estimated number of carers in Australia and the number of people who receive some form of carer support payment, and I think this comes back down to a communication problem at the local level. I have tried to work hard with local carer respite workers to get the message out into the community that there are support services and mechanisms carers can access. Even so there are still times when people contact my electorate office quite literally at the end of their wits. Sadly, these same people are quite shocked when I tell them that there are support organisations and government financial assistance available to help them. They have simply not been aware of the support groups or services which are available. Australian author Bryce Courtenay said back in July last year:

Carers are the most unsung and under-appreciated angels in our society. They are the glue that holds so much of society's structure together. We cannot thank them enough for what they do. They are the selfless ingredient.

When one takes a careful look at the work home carers perform, I do not think anyone would disagree with the sentiments expressed so genuinely by Bryce Courtenay.

This government has taken big steps in the right direction, particularly in regional and rural centres like my home city of Townsville, to try to make life a little more easy for carers. Increasing to 63 days the period of respite leave a carer can take in a year is not only a reasonable and sensible decision of this government; it is also a compassionate decision. Extending the qualification for the carer payment to the carers of profoundly disabled children under the age of 16 is, likewise, an act of compassion and understanding on the part of the coalition government. Tonight I would certainly like to wholeheartedly support the measures in this bill.