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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6764


Senator DENMAN (5:41 PM) —I rise to speak on the Family and Community Services Legislation Amendment (Disability Reform) Bill (No. 2) 2002. Having undertaken voluntary work with the disabled community on the north-west coast of Tasmania, where I live, and having engaged in many discussions on the need for adequate funding and support, I express my strong opposition to this bill. This bill represents one of three painful battles that the disability sector have been fighting in recent times, along with the funding for the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement and the New South Wales SACS award. It is a very difficult time for Australians with disabilities—a time when, as one representative has commented to me, `Resources are stretched like never before, and it only looks like getting worse.'

While this strain on resources is being felt by many industries, it disturbs me that this legislation proposes cost-saving measures to the detriment of disabled Australians. Let us not forget that these are Australians who are sometimes invisible to much of society and also to this place. Through no fault of their own, they often rely on others to stand up for their rights. I fear that this government regards the disability sector as an easy target. The flaws in this legislation suggest a lack of understanding of the unique lifestyles of disabled Australians, and the proposed measures in the legislation are also short-sighted. This legislation is not in the spirit of the McClure report, which emphasised maintaining current benefit levels and said that increasing the work readiness of some social groups would require increased levels of public expenditure.

The Labor Party oppose this bill today, as we opposed the former bill announced at budget time. It is not good enough to hope that it will only be those with—and I quote the minister's own poor choice of words— `bad backs that aren't as bad as they should be' who will be affected by this bill; people with a range of other disabilities and illnesses, people suffering from mental illnesses and people living with HIV-AIDS, as Senator Greig has already mentioned, will also be affected. Before going on, though, I acknowledge that bad backs are legitimate and painful injuries that can leave someone incapacitated one week and fine the next. It is unfortunate that the comment about bad backs was made. It is negative comments like those that do nothing to improve employee and employer attitudes towards disabilities in the workplace.

This legislation does not contain adequate safety measures to ensure that after 1 July 2003 vulnerable Australians, who for very good reasons rely on the disability support pension, will not suffer from measures contained in the bill. This bill is a slight improvement on its predecessor in one area— that was announced in the May budget; otherwise, it still contains all the original flaws. The improvement in this bill is for the 650,000 people currently receiving the disability support pension and also for those who will be eligible before 1 July 2003. Their entitlements to the disability support pension will not be altered, and this knowledge is undoubtedly saving them considerable distress. The government's decision to allow this safety net period demonstrates that it is aware of the dangers of moving people with disabilities abruptly onto Newstart allowance and forcing them into a competitive work market. It is a shame that the same reasonable consideration cannot be shown to people after 1 July 2003.

From 1 July 2003, it is likely that some people who would have been eligible for the disability support pension will be forced onto the Newstart allowance and will receive $52 per fortnight less than those who qualified prior to that date. A new criterion will need to be satisfied that will require that individuals be unable to do 15 hours of award work, rather than the previous requirement of 30 hours, in order to access the disability support pension. These are harsh measures, and they will impact on the lifestyles of people with disabilities. It is inevitable that this bill will divide the disability sector by 1 July 2003, as it advocates a welfare system that contains inequalities and that discriminates. The Labor Party strongly opposes such a system.

It is unfair and illogical that two people with identical disabilities and similar capacities can receive different amounts of government assistance even though those two people may have similar needs and costs. That will be the effect of this bill. This bill chooses to divide those with disabilities not by the degree of their disability or need for a pension but simply by their timing. Applying such arbitrary criteria to the disability support pension shows a complete disregard for people with disabilities.

In its briefing paper produced as a response to the McClure report in 2002, ACOSS warned against tightening the eligibility criteria for the disability support pension in a way that would result in many people being worse off. Instead, it argues for a fairer and more positive approach to reform which aims: (1) to improve the resources and support that people need to participate fully; (2) to educate and encourage employers to view employment of people with disabilities more positively; and (3) to minimise the difference in the conditions of payment for the disability support pension and Newstart by increasing the pension levels. Yet in 2002 the Liberal government has chosen to ignore these suggestions that show a thorough and considered approach to reforming disability welfare. Instead, the government proposes legislation that will implement quick and easy measures that ignore the difficult financial position of people with disabilities and the social infrastructure that they require, even if their disability is less severe.

Commentary by the government suggests that these changes are necessary if we are to ensure that the payment continues to support those who need it. However, the reality is that due to the clumsy design of this legislation the proposed system will support some people a lot better than others, simply because they satisfied the criteria for the disability support pension earlier. This serves to make a mockery of qualities like fairness and equality that should be at the basis of our country's welfare system. The difference between the disability support pension and the Newstart allowance is a considerable decrease in payment for people who are likely to remain on low incomes because, for physical or intellectual reasons, they are not able to participate in open employment. This cut also represents a lack of understanding about the host of special needs and services that people with disabilities have to pay for—costs such as special shoes, taxis, mobility aids, a cleaner or a handyman. In all certainty, these special needs and services will not be any less expensive for disabled Australians after 1 July 2003.

I believe this cut to the disability support pension also begs a much broader question: what should the purpose of Australia's welfare system be? Should it be to provide assistance and support to those who need it to participate in work and society, and are we satisfying that goal? I believe that unless we provide adequate support and assistance through our welfare system we are not satisfying this goal—and that is highly undesirable. This legislation risks placing Australians in difficult living conditions. It is also heartless and un-Australian. I believe that, contrary to the measures in this bill, Australians are more sympathetic to the needs of their fellow Australians. I am confident that few would support a welfare policy that would make economic mileage at the cost of social responsibility.

It is easy to get lost in numbers when talking about welfare reform, but I think it is important that we also try and understand the unique context and situation of the many Australians with disabilities who stand to be affected by these changes. Anyone who witnessed the rally organised by the disability sector outside Parliament House on 19 June 2002 would probably dispute the invisibility of this group of people on that occasion. The disability sector have fiercely and energetically voiced their opposition to cuts to the disability support pension. At this rally, many disabled Australians and supporters turned out to express their anguish and dismay. While it was moving to see a group of people—for many of whom mobility is in itself difficult—go to the huge effort of travelling from many parts of New South Wales to rally the government, it also clearly showed the sheer desperation and fear many Australians with disabilities are feeling at this time.

I would like to spend a few moments describing a situation that has recently been brought to my attention on the north-west coast where I live:

It involves a 38 year old male. This man has an intellectual disability and displays challenging behaviour, as well as, suffers from underlying health problems. Previously, because of his skills and abilities, he has been successful in gaining open employment. In this employment, he was provided with one to one support to assist him in adapting to the workplace. However, despite his abilities, due to the challenging behaviour that he displayed on a number of occasions, and the associated threat he posed to his fellow workers, he is no longer employed and receives a Disability Support Pension. It entitles him to a mobility allowance that he relies on heavily for transport. It also entitles him to a healthcare card that is very important because of his underlying medical problems.

From my understanding of the difficulties this gentleman faces daily, it seems an unlikely choice of words to describe his situation as `fortunate', but he is fortunate—fortunate that his eligibility for the disability support pension was determined prior to 1 July 2003. Otherwise, as a result of this proposed legislation he would be forced to undergo an entire change of lifestyle.

Under this legislation, it is likely he would lose his disability support pension and be moved to the Newstart allowance to find open employment, as he has proved successful in finding employment before. Yet he has also demonstrated before that he is clearly unsuitable for open employment even when support was provided. In losing his disability support pension he would also likely lose his mobility allowance and health care card. This would make it very difficult for him, in the first instance, to meet his Centrelink commitments, such as attending interviews and training sessions, and also make him more vulnerable to suffering the financial penalties of being breached by Centrelink. Later it would be difficult for him to travel to and from work each day. Also, his medications would be more expensive as he may lose his health care card. While he is currently living independently, this has only been possible because of the support he receives from a community disability organisation. If he were no longer eligible for the disability support pension, he would likely lose his eligibility for support from this particular organisation. Without support, he could not live independently or participate in society as easily. The most likely outcome is that he would be forced to move in with his family, which would place his family under stress.

The government has told us that one of the motivations for this legislation is that the focus is on the capacities of the individual. That is all very well as long as individuals are not penalised for participating in work by losing valuable assistance or income. In the case of this young gentleman, the focus on his abilities would likely lead to his other special needs being ignored, such as his challenging behaviour, his underlying medical problems, his lack of mobility and the support he requires to live independently. This is not good enough. As a result of this legislation's short-sightedness the outcomes for this young man and his family would be devastating.

In a joint statement, released on 19 June 2002, peak disability and community groups acknowledge this shortcoming in the government's current approach to welfare reform and suggest that a `change of direction is needed'. They say:

Many people with disabilities and chronic illness want to work and would be able to do so with the right support. We believe income support policies for people with disabilities and chronic illness should emphasise capacities rather than incapacities. This means the focus must be on the removal of disincentives for participation in work and compensation for the extra costs of workforce and social participation to the degree compatible with capacity.

One of my concerns is that, while the government claims this legislation focuses on an individual's capacities, the legislation does not remove disincentives for participation in work or compensate individuals for the extra costs of work force or social participation.

On a number of occasions since the budget the government have indicated, under pressure from the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens, that there is room for movement on the cuts to disability pensions. They recognised immediately that the proposed changes were too harsh and not the fairest means to bring about welfare reform. The Labor Party acknowledges the need for welfare reform and supports welfare reform in the way that is indicated in the McClure report. We should work towards a system that rewards work over welfare. However, it needs to go beyond fixing a date to enact a harsher eligibility criteria for the disability support pension. It needs to allow people with disabilities to participate in and contribute to society without penalising them for all the things they are unable to do or taking away necessary support. It is ridiculous, not to mention grossly unfair, to have two people with exactly the same type of disability and a similar level of need each receiving a different type of welfare assistance from the government. Labor strongly opposes this legislation.