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Monday, 11 November 1991
Page: 2874

Senator HARRADINE (9.56 p.m.) —I rise to speak briefly on the Hearing Services Bill 1991. I notice that the Minister at the table, the Minister for Justice and Consumer Affairs (Senator Tate), is heavily engaged at the moment on other matters. Some of the problems that have been indicated by Senator Patterson and by Senator Lees will, of course, be of concern to the Minister. I know that the Minister is interested in this whole area. I would like to add my expression of concern. I will not go into the background of the NAL or the Industry Commission's recommendations.

  When the debate started I got into my computer to try to get the data on the NAL. I first raised questions with respect to the NAL and the possibility of the government at the time—I am not sure which government it was—closing the place down. I looked up the Historic Senate Hansard on the database and it was not there, so it must have been in the really old days.

  We have before us the Hearing Services Bill which, as has been said, is setting up the NAL—the statutory body. What worries me about all of this is that we have the provision of charges to be levied and a rather narrow area of eligible persons. With respect to batteries, $25 per year does not sound like a great deal. But that is $25 now. What about in five years time? What will the cost be then? As has been indicated by Senator Lees, there are families who have children with disabilities. The cost of batteries will still have to be paid out of the pockets of parents. Hearing aids are quite costly items. The greater involvement of the private sector in this particular area may bring down the cost of hearing aids and equipment. Nevertheless, my concern is that quite a large number of families will not be eligible for services from the NAL. I notice in the Bill that people receiving a family income supplement will be eligible for services from the NAL.

  But there are people just above that. For example, an electrician with a dependent spouse and two dependent children is above the FAS eligibility. If those two children are deaf or have hearing impairment, that inflicts a considerable cost on that family. It may be said that persons ought to be insured, but the enormous cost of health insurance at this point is of some real concern to those who have to pay it.

  We need to be careful as to whether what we are doing here tonight will set in place a means by which a user pays system will operate in the long term. I admit that this Bill does not, in the short term, go right along the track of user pays, but I believe that we should be very careful to consider what is being done in this legislation and to see whether it is appropriate. The unemployment situation at the moment is devastating. I raised in this chamber just the other day the fact that many families are not in the situation of being able to cope on one income. Therefore, those families have to seek two incomes—the major income earner in a full time job and the other income earner, the spouse, in a part time job. The latest unemployment figures show that one of the causes of the very slight drop in unemployment is that those women who have gone into the paid work force to gain part time employment have been forced, because of the recession, out of the employment force without compensation.

  What of those people if they develop a hearing problem? They will not be eligible for the purposes of this legislation unless they are receiving FAS. If they are just above the threshold for FAS that will be bad luck; they will not be able to receive assistance under this legislation as far as hearing aids are concerned. As I indicated, it is a very costly situation. So the recession will be a double whammy for those people. I make a special appeal on behalf of all those people who are paying their way, or attempting to pay their way, all along the line, are not receiving FAS and are forgotten.

  That is something I now rise to remind the Minister about. Again, I hope that because of his personal interest in this area—no doubt he is not satisfied with the legislation—the message will be sent very clearly back to the Minister in the other place: that we will be taking a very close look at the operation of this legislation. I publicly invite those who are affected to make sure that they make representations not only to the Minister but also to the Opposition spokesperson in this area, Dr Bob Woods, and to Senator Patterson, Senator Lees and me, so that jointly we can keep our eye on the operation of this measure and make sure that it does not go along the line of complete privatisation, and to make sure that the voice of the people who are not eligible under this measure is heard and heard effectively by ultimate amendment to this legislation.