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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 2273

Ms SMYTH (La Trobe) (11:46): I am very pleased to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Disability Support Pension Participation Reforms) Bill 2012. It is one of many measures this government have put in place to respond to the needs of people with disability. It is one of many measures we have put in place to ensure that those people have better access to services in our community, better opportunities to participate in the workforce as volunteers and more opportunity to improve their self-esteem and their community connectedness and to join with others in the workforce and contribute to our broader community.

We have heard a little in today's debate about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and rightly so. While it is in its early stages of development, it is an extraordinary prospective reform, an extraordinary thing that will transform the lives of those people with disability as well as the lives of their families, their friends and their social networks. It will open up opportunities for people with disability that will really change their lives considerably. So it was unfortunate to hear the somewhat negative reflections of the shadow minister in the debate earlier on the topic of the NDIS during the course of discussion on this bill. It was unfortunate to hear that because people in my community speak resoundingly about the importance of the NDIS and are hungry to be part of a significant reform and to have their views put forward at a national and a state level regarding the implementation of the scheme.

In the last couple of weeks I have been out knocking on doors in my electorate talking to people specifically about the NDIS. I can recall the circumstance of just one street in one suburb of my 127,000-constituent-strong electorate where I was astonished by the number of people with carer responsibilities, with profound disabilities or with children suffering intellectual disability or learning difficulties. There was an extraordinary range of people whose lives are touched by disability each and every day. It was remarkable that people were willing to speak about such an important national reform.

So it is with pleasure that today I am able to speak on one additional reform that this government have put in place and I commend the work of Minister Macklin, and indeed the member for Canberra for her contribution to some of the measures in this bill. The bill is really about reforming the disability support pension to enable people who have the capacity to do so to participate more fully in the workforce while at the same time providing an appropriate safety net. That is really what Labor are all about—ensuring that people who have the capacity to participate in the workforce, make a contribution to the community and improve their skills and their lives can do so through these measures, and so many of the other measures that we have put in place since coming to office; and ensuring that those people have access to a safety net that protects them and gives them the appropriate financial support to carry on their daily lives.

The bill contains some key reforms to the disability support pension and they are a part of the Australian government's 2011-12 budget package, members will recall: Building Australia's Future Workforce. It is a significant move by the federal government. It will improve support for Australians with disability to ensure that they are able to get into work where possible and that they are given appropriate financial support at the same time. We know that the government is committed to ensuring that people with disability can access those workforce opportunities where they are able to do so.

This bill will do three things which arise from those commitments in the 2011-12 federal budget. Firstly, it will allow disability support pensioners to work up to 30 hours a week before their payments are suspended, cancelled or affected. Members will know that the existing criteria for the disability support pension requires that a person has a continuing inability to work, and under the existing arrangements 'work' is defined to be work of at least 15 hours per week. The changes being made in this bill will allow disability support pensioners who would like to take up further work to test that capacity to work for longer periods, at the same time providing them with the safety net that they need. So it is an incentive to get involved in the workforce but it will ensure that people are not placed in any position of risk.

In the case of disability support pension recipients who will be encouraged to take up work under the changes in this bill, it is estimated that some 4,000 people will fall into that category. It is also estimated that around 3,900 recipients who are already employed will be able to work extra hours under these new arrangements. It is likely to affect a significant number of people in our community and will have flow-on effects for their families and those who support them and care for them. So it will certainly be a significant reform to have put in place. Secondly, the bill includes new participation requirements for the disability support pension to encourage greater workforce engagement by certain disability support pensioners who have some capacity to undertake work. And again, members will recall that his was a measure put in place under the Building Australia's Future Workforce package, arising out of the 2011-12 budget. So it means that certain disability support pensioners under the age of 35 who have a work capacity of at least eight hours a week will meet with Centrelink staff through an initial participation interview. From there they will put together a participation plan together with Centrelink to help them build their work capacity. That could mean that the person works with employment services to give them the skills they need to be job ready. It could also mean undertaking training, doing volunteer work or undertaking further rehabilitation. The participation plan is to be tailored to the needs and circumstances of the particular disability support pension recipient.

In relation to some of the comments from the member for Melbourne in his contribution to this debate, I should say that it is very important to note that participation in activities included in the participation plan will be on a voluntary basis. It is also very important to note that there will be exceptions to the new participation requirements where pensioners have a work capacity of zero to seven hours a week or while a pensioner is working in an Australian disability enterprise or the supported wage system. So, throughout the measures in this bill there are important safeguards put in place and there are sensitivities in there to ensure that the measures contemplated by the bill really reflect the needs of the particular person whose participation plan is being considered by Centrelink and the particular person who wants to get back into the workforce.

One of the key things that this government has been focused on is ensuring that recipients of pensions and payments are better connected to the other services and supports that they need in order to ensure that they can participate in the workforce or take on volunteer work to the extent that they are able to. The important function of a participation interview contemplated by this bill is such that it will better enable disability support pensioners to be connected to services they may need, such as mental health services, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and other community services. The bill has been considered in great detail, and those very detailed measures ensure that the participation of a disability support pensioner in volunteer or work activities will really suit their needs.

The third thing that the bill provides for is portability of disability support pension. This measure introduces more generous rules for disability support pensioners with a severe impairment that is likely to continue for at least five years and result in the person having no future work capacity. The changes will allow them to retain access to their disability support pension if they travel overseas for more than 13 weeks. Additionally, it will enable a disability support recipient who has a severe disability and who must accompany a family member who is posted overseas by their Australian employer to retain their pension for the period of the overseas employment. I commend the member for Canberra for her work in relation to that particular reform.

I said at the outset that this is but one of the measures that this government is putting in place in order to ensure that the lives of people with disabilities and their carers are improved and to ensure that they are given the best opportunities they can to participate fully in the community, to the extent that they are able. I should mention, in the context of this debate, the various things that this government has done to assist people with disabilities and their carers. Members should know that we have done some great work to increase pensions available for a variety of people throughout Australia. One of the things I will mention is that over 530,000 carers now receive an ongoing carers supplement of $600 for each person that they care for. That is a very significant thing for so many carers in our community, in suburbs in electorates such as the one I represent in La Trobe.

We have provided further support for specialist disability services, and members should know that this government is doubling Commonwealth funding to around $7.6 billion over 6½ years for states and territories to deliver more and better specialist disability services under the National Disability Agreement. We are looking for the states to reciprocate in their support of initiatives that the Commonwealth is undertaking, and we have good faith that they will continue to work constructively with the Commonwealth to improve the lives of those with disabilities and their carers. The Commonwealth has stumped a considerable amount of funding—as I said, it has been doubled for the delivery of more and better specialist disability services—and this is but one of the Commonwealth's initiatives.

Amongst the other things that we are investing in and reforming is supported accommodation for people with a disability. Members may know that this government is establishing a new, $60 million, Supported Accommodation Innovation Fund so as to build up to 150 innovative community based supported accommodation places for people with disability. I know very well, from the interviews that I have with constituents with disabilities in my electorate, that this is a really hot-button issue: ensuring that there is appropriate accommodation that is available to ensure that people with disability can be supported and can have, at the same time, the independence and autonomy that they want to be able to live in their own homes and be able to personalise things to their own needs. This considerable amount builds on our $100 million capital injection in 2008 to build over 300 supported accommodation places, which are on track to be delivered by 2012.

I mentioned earlier the NDIS and the extremely positive response to it in my electorate, and the hunger of people in my electorate to that reform. The government is also implementing a National Disability Strategy, which has been mentioned during the course of this debate. This is the first time that all governments have agreed to a joint, national approach for disability care and support. So it gives me great faith that the negotiations and the discussions which are being held at the moment in relation to the NDIS will be able to be undertaken on the same good faith basis. I certainly hope that that is the case. One of the other very significant things we have done in the area of disability is to launch the National Carer Strategy, Australia's first national carer recognition legislation. It is important to note that this includes $60 million in funding over the next four years so as to improve access to carer allowance and other carer payments.

Today I have mentioned a fairly full suite of initiatives that this government has delivered and is delivering in the area of disability and in support for carers. I am very pleased to have been able to speak in relation to the measures before us today. I know that disability organisations and advocates in my own electorate have been very supportive of so many of these reforms. In relation to supporting people in employment and ensuring that they are able to participate in the workforce I commend very much the efforts of Knoxbrooke Inc. in my electorate, which provides support and employment to around 112 people in Knoxbrooke Industries and Yarra View Wholesale Nursery. I was pleased to be out there a few weeks ago to see the fantastic work they are doing. I am pleased to be able to support them through my work as a local member and also to support them through the reforms we are delivering. (Time expired)