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Thursday, 28 June 2018
Page: 4324


Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (13:05): As I'm in the chamber, I'd like to take the opportunity to say a few words around this legislation, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payments for Carers) Bill 2018, and the broader topic. This period of the week, as all of us in this chamber know, is informally known as noncontroversial government business. That's an informal term which makes sense to us but which others listening to or reading this might think means that everybody agrees on all of this and there is nothing actually controversial about the topic matter. But, as the previous speaker made clear, there are certainly a lot of issues in this area, as to carers, about which there is concern and on which there is continuing pressure for better action.

Labor have indicated that they are supporting this legislation, so it will go through unamended. The legislation introduces a fixed and non-indexed family income test of $250,000 per annum for carer allowance and carer allowance (child) health care card only claimants, to apply to singles and couples from 20 September this year.

In that context, I want to take the opportunity to note the significant ongoing challenges that so many carers face. People across the political spectrum, in this place and the other place and everywhere around the community, will always make comments about how important and valuable the role of carers is, and how much carers are appreciated—and I'm sure all of those comments are genuine. But we do need to recognise that this legislation and all of the other commentary that people make around this issue occur in the context where there is growing inequality in our community and there are greater and growing pressures on a lower-income earner's ability to manage, in so many ways, whether from increasing energy costs, housing costs or transport costs et cetera.

There are carers in some circumstances—not all—who qualify for assistance through Centrelink for carers payments and healthcare cards and carers allowance, who often do have significant extra costs in relation to the care that they have to provide, as well as, of course, income-earning opportunities forgone, and other opportunities for life enhancement forgone which aren't necessarily measurable in terms of money or income. So they do make a significant sacrifice.

I want to take this opportunity to put on the record that those carers who perform that important role are often in circumstances where it is getting harder and harder. We talk time and time again about wage stagnation, growing insecurity in jobs, higher energy costs, higher housing costs and more instability or insecurity in people's housing, and about all of those other areas where it is getting more and more difficult for those who are not amongst the wealthiest. So it does need to be emphasised that this whole measure occurs within that wider context.

I want to take the opportunity to say something to anybody who is engaged with any aspect of support through Centrelink in the ongoing scandal. And it is a scandal, of not just inadequate but appalling service that people get when they try to get in contact with Centrelink. That is not a reflection on Centrelink staff; it is a reflection on the gross failure of this government, the previous government and the government before that. The problem has got worse and worse, as my colleague Senator Siewert and others in this chamber have said many times over the years. People who want to get in touch with Centrelink and related services for information will perhaps need to clarify how this measure we're passing today will affect them. It is incredibly difficult. We've seen the terrible decision of this government recently to contract out a supposed attempt to solve the disgraceful situation of the massive wait times or the massive call dropout rate that they have when they try to call Centrelink. A supposed solution is to contract out phone-answering roles to a private company—Serco, no less.

People who are on income support and all of the related entitlements that are attached to it have legal rights. They are people who have just as much of a contribution to make to our society. In particular, carers fit into that role. The Greens more broadly believe that we need to be looking towards universalisation of our social and income support services and recognising that we are part of a community where we are all interconnected, rather than continually trying to atomise people into individual groups and households and isolate them from each other, and then try to have them relate and engage with inoperative or poorly operating government services, such as what passes for service through Centrelink call centres today.

Whilst this legislation will pass today—and it is, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps a minor measure—it will affect some individual people. As I said, it all occurs in the context, whether it's carers or so many other people, where the level of support is not what it should be and not what citizens and residents of our community are entitled to. This is also in the context of the rollout of the NDIS. I won't divert too far from the topic of the bill by making a speech about the NDIS more broadly. I know that the government is working on it. I was at the start of an information session earlier today about how that is being rolled out. It's starting to roll out from 1 July in Brisbane—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Marshall ): Senator, you did indicate that you wouldn't stray into this area, but you seem to be straying into it.

Senator BARTLETT: The reason I'm mentioning it is that carers are very regularly, obviously, dealing with people who have disabilities and are engaging with the NDIS. This is a measure that affects carers at the same time as they are also having to deal with the changes in the NDIS. I'm simply saying that this is just another aspect of what people are having to deal with. Therefore, I think it's important to put on the record that individual pieces of legislation don't happen in isolation; they happen in the context of a whole suite of policy measures and in an ongoing situation of the very, very poor ability for people to get the information they need when they try to get it through places such as the Centrelink call centres.