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Thursday, 21 October 2010
Page: 1207

Dr STONE (11:16 AM) —The coalition of course support the Carer Recognition Bill 2010, but at the same time we are very disappointed with it, along with the advocates for carers across Australia, because it does nothing more than simply acknowledge that we have amazing, magnificent people in the community whom we call carers. It does not in fact give them a cent more financial support; it does not give them new programs of advocacy or respite. All of that, we are told, will come in time, but this bill says only, ‘This is recognition of the carers who are out there.’

I said they are magnificent people, and they are. There are over 2.6 million unpaid carers in Australia. Carers are of all ages and backgrounds, but obviously it is harder to care for a loved one if you are very young or very old—if you are over 80 and you are still caring for your 50-year-old or 60-year-old son or daughter who has a disability. It is much harder, too, to be a carer if you are in a rural or remote part of Australia even further from services and support. And it is much harder to be a carer if your household has a very low income. Of course, if you are a carer you are less likely to be able to hold a job yourself and you are less likely to be able to compensate in the household for the extra costs of looking after someone who may have special mobility needs or special dietary needs or who needs a house that is modified in some way so they can live reasonably.

We acknowledge today, in Carers Week, that this is an extraordinary group of Australians. There are 2.6 million out there and, but for the grace of God, go all of us. Some in this place in fact may be carers, but I would suggest that if you are a politician—a senator or member of parliament—it is almost impossible to make that 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commitment that perhaps our spouses or partners make for a loved one in the family, or extended family, who needs care.

Currently nearly 80 per cent of assistance required by Australians due to disability, illness or old age is provided by family carers. There are nearly a million carers living outside major cities and, as I have already mentioned, it is even more difficult to be a carer when you are a long way from services. There are 380,000 carers under the age of 26, with 170,000 of those carers under the age of 18. One-third to half of all young carers live in regional and rural Australia. Imagine trying to be a carer if you are under the age of 18, you do not have a drivers licence and you are in a socially isolated circumstance, perhaps the family farm. Imagine how difficult it is for that young person still to have a fulfilling life themselves and to have a proper education and realise their own potential if they are looking after a disabled parent, brother or sister or a member of their extended family and theirs is the job of providing care. In our Indigenous community, if you are between the ages of 15 and 34 you are almost twice as likely to be a carer as a non-Indigenous person in the same age category is.

Every year carers provide over 1.2 billion hours of care and this is worth some $30 billion annually to the economy. If carers decided overnight to literally stop—if they literally ran out of the capacity to do what they do and said, ‘No more!’—you can imagine the economy having to find $30 billion worth of alternative support for the people they are caring for. Too often we forget the extraordinary load that carers are carrying for our community. A primary carer’s role is the equivalent of a traditional full-time paid job of 40 or more hours a week in the labour market but, as I have said, our carers are not paid a salary. Instead they are paid a benefit, for those who meet the income and assets test criteria, or a carer payment or they may, under certain criteria, get a carer allowance. The carer allowance is not means tested, thankfully, but it is a comparatively small amount.

There are 2 million carers of working age, but they have to leave their jobs or they cannot enter the workforce or they work very substantially reduced hours because of the caring role that they undertake on behalf of the whole of our Australian society. Some 60 per cent of young primary carers, those aged between 15 and 25, are unemployed or not in the labour force. That is 60 per cent compared with 38 per cent of the same age group in the general population, and remember I have already said that Indigenous young people aged between 15 and 34 are almost twice as likely to be carers as non-Indigenous Australians. So imagine the handicap that those young Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have when 60 per cent of them are not employed. They cannot be employed; they cannot go and get an apprenticeship to develop their future employment skills and make themselves employable because they have this caring function and take up this caring role.

Only 4 per cent of young primary carers aged 15 to 25 are still at school. That is 4 per cent compared to 23 per cent of the same age group in the general population. So they are out of school; they are not in work; they are not doing future education and training. This younger primary carer group was given particular recognition by the coalition when we were in government. We set up special inquiries and we wanted special scholarships for them to help them compensate for their lack of access to further education.

Unfortunately it is this young group of carers who today simply get ‘recognised’—nothing more—and I think that is a dreadful shame. It is an indictment on this place and this Labor government that more has not been done for those young primary carers because, after all, these young people will, in time, be very significantly handicapped in their opportunities to develop their full potential—their full employment potential and their capacity and time to have their own families and to care for many others besides the person they are caring for at this very young age.

Carer payment, as I said before, is subject to an income and assets test, but for a single person it is $658.40 and for a couple it is $496. It by no means compensates for the effort that these people put into looking after people too frail or disabled to be independent. The coalition introduced the carer allowance. We made sure that there was support that was non-taxable, neither income nor assets tested, and paid through the social security income support payment. That was a very important measure we introduced.

When we were in government we particularly understood, as I said before, the significant problem for young carers. On 24 June 2009 Carers Australia released the final report from the Bring it! Young Carers Forum 2008. That report highlighted key messages and directions for the future that they hoped would assist young carers to identify care, study, work and access support.

I strongly recommend that the Labor government reads and responds to that report. Unfortunately we have not had a response. Those younger carers remain out there doing their incredible task, at the same time handicapping themselves for future full engagement in all of the opportunities this great country has to offer. It is one of my deep misgivings and sadnesses that the coalition was not re-elected, because our mental health budget was so significant. Certainly, compared to Labor, it was going to deliver real benefits to those with intellectual handicaps or mental illness, and there would also have been much better outcomes for carers. But we now have a minority Labor government, of course, and all we are getting today is this bill recognising the fact that these carers actually exist. The coalition understood too that respite was so important. We cannot burn out our carers and then expect them to somehow pick up the load.

Ms Hall —Why didn’t you do anything about it?

Dr STONE —The member for Shortland asked why we did not do something about it. I suggest she reads the record. When in government, the coalition developed a package of measures to improve the position of carers. We included more respite and the establishment of the National Respite for Carers Program. We actually did that. In 1999 we introduced the carer allowance. We also gave the first recognition to young carers and their specific needs through respite and information services. We funded the Young Carers Research Project in 2001 and in 2004 we funded the first carers’ summit, which was so important in having those young people step into this place. Some who were in parliament at the time remember that summit and the amazing, magnificent young people who took advantage of the opportunity. They told us what it was like to be looking after their loved ones, their elders in almost every case, and about the difficulties that they faced every day in trying to meet their own personal needs and their future employment and education needs, given that they were 100 per cent, seven days a week, 24 hours a day carers.

During the 2010 election the coalition released a range of policies to further assist people with a disability and carers, including a plan to establish a Commonwealth disability and care ombudsman and a $3 million policy to introduce a young carer scholarship. I commend the recommendations in our policy to the Labor government because they would make a difference to young people. When announcing her ministry, Julia Gillard forgot even to appoint a member of executive with specific portfolio responsibilities for disabilities and carers. What a disgrace! A few days later she rushed to fill the gap with an appointment of a parliamentary secretary. We had expected more because the then parliamentary secretary, Bill Shorten, had assured us that he really cared about the sector, the disability sector in particular. But then Prime Minister Gillard forgot to give someone responsibility for that area when she announced a new set of portfolios—quite extraordinary.

Let me quote from the Carers Alliance, a very important advocacy group. When they heard about this bill, in a media release of 18 March 2010 they said:

Carers Alliance is profoundly disappointed in the Carer Recognition Bill tabled yesterday … It is a very watered down version of what Carers Alliance has lobbied for in our campaign for family carers to be recognised by legal status with rights and entitlements to services … It is unfortunate, but this Bill is not even a first step, it is actually marking time, going nowhere and providing nothing but legislative platitudes. It is most unsatisfactory and very disappointing.

So I suggest the people in government right now go and talk to the Carers Alliance. I suggest you really do make sure that we go beyond the platitudes. Of course recognition is important, but what about legal status? What about better respite support? What about understanding that in my electorate, for example, there are 80-year-old women—and they are invariably women—who have been looking after adult sons and daughters with profound disabilities since their birth, and they are now worried sick about who is going to pick up the caring that they have been offering all of their lives to their sons and daughters if they themselves die.

We simply do not have the accommodation in our communities to replace the caring that parents have been providing in their homes. As the older carers transition into aged care support, we need to have places where their sons and daughters who need care can go during at least the daytime and then for overnight accommodation, before perhaps transitioning to care for 24 hours, seven days a week because their elderly parents will not be able to continue carrying the load.

All of those needs are out there, particularly in rural and regional Australia and in Indigenous communities. The bill before us from this government simply says: ‘Yes, we know these carers exist. Look, we are going to have a recognition bill.’ I say that you have got to do much more than that. The social inclusion agenda of the last government was a farce. The now Prime Minister carried that portfolio and I cannot think of a single thing she did to reduce social exclusion or to promote social inclusion in this society—not a single thing. All we saw was rural and regional people getting more and more distant from the resources and opportunities available in metropolitan Australia. We saw Indigenous Australians more isolated and disadvantaged, and I do not think that is fair. (Time expired)