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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2399

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (10:30 AM) —I am delighted to make a contribution to the debate about the Disability Discrimination Amendment Bill 2002. In doing so, can I say in response to the previous speaker that it is a commonsense outcome in a very difficult long-term situation. I believe the bill is an important milestone in the process that commenced under the last federal Labor government to fix access to public transport for all Australians. It required the disability groups to come together through the ministerial council at a federal and state level, and it forced all to face up to their responsibilities. It is not just a question of throwing dollars at a difficult problem. Can I also say that the process stands in stark contrast to the actions of the current government, which this week targeted unfortunate disability pensioners. In my mind, that is a classic schoolyard bully act that we have seen all too frequently from the Howard government over the last six years.

Access to public transport is a critical issue for regional and urban communities. That is why I speak on this bill today as the shadow minister for transport. The bill itself is a necessary step before the introduction and formalisation of disability standards for accessible public transport. It is interesting to note that the Australian Transport Council first discussed the need for action on disability access standards at their meeting in November 1994.

But before this, I look back at the work of disability activists and representatives—the people who, I believe, should really be commended for achieving the change that is before the Main Committee this morning. In this regard, I cite the publication prepared by the Disability Advisory Council of Australia in late 1992, when that council formed the Disability Advisory Council of Australia Access to Public Transport Task Force. The product of that task force is the report, coordinated by Angus Downie, titled Target 2015: a vision for the future—access to transport in Australia for all Australians.

Mr Quick —A good Tasmanian.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —Yes, a good Tasmanian and a very determined individual with respect to the need to make a breakthrough on this difficult front. That diligent and comprehensive piece of research presented a blueprint for change. That kick-started and helped to drive the end result that is before the Main Committee this morning. The report was an audit of Australia's provision of public transport, identifying access problems for Australians and visitors with disability and mobility issues. The report was released in August 1994; it played a key role in ensuring the Australian Transport Council addressed the need for coordinated action.

The first performance based draft standards for accessible transport across all modes were agreed to by the Australian Transport Council in June 1996. The draft standards then went into a process of consultation and the completion of a regulatory impact statement. Unfortunately, it has taken six years to reach the next significant step in the process: to finalise agreed, clear standards that require access improvements. It is an important step being taken today, as this legislative change provides the up-front certainty needed for the standards to come into effect. That is the key thing—getting the standards into effect, the formal adoption into law of standards for accessible transport. There is no doubt that these standards have been the subject of extended debate—and so they should have been—and modification to reach the end point that we are at today. What goes with that is compromise and dissent from decisions that must be made along the way to deliver practical outcomes.

Speaking from my experience as a trade union official, I commend the activists involved in developing those standards because that also required them to make some hard decisions to actually compromise in order to achieve the outcome that is finally before the House this morning. They are to be commended because they stood up and fought for what they believed was right, but, in doing so, they brought a commonsense understanding and a willingness to compromise to try and achieve the breakthrough that is before the House for discussion. I appreciate that in some circles in the disability movement there were disappointments with respect to whether or not they achieved the most desirable outcome, as against what was a practical outcome in terms of the reality of the political processes. That is, I suppose, part and parcel of your normal activities when you have to front up to involvement, representation and making decisions: you will never achieve a 100 per cent outcome.

As the standards stand today, there remain exemptions based on financial grounds to school bus services, small aircraft and non-RPT airports. I appreciate that the disability sector will continue to campaign on these items with the hope that, one day, access for all will be an implicit consideration in all transport manufacturing and infrastructure decisions. In the meantime, compromises have been made to ensure standards come into effect.

I share the criticism of the disability sector with the time it took to deliver these standards. The characteristic lack of leadership from the minister for transport again, unfortunately, came into play. I can recall that, when I came into this portfolio at the end of 1999, the delay and the impasse with these standards were some of the first issues raised with me, not just by the disability sector but also by the private bus operators because they had reached the point at which they had had enough. All they wanted was for this issue to be progressed and finalised. For that reason, in my first speech to the bus and coach industry conference in March 2000 I called on the minister to show some leadership and help get these matters resolved, to get them sorted, to actually be willing to make a few decisions rather than continuing to run away from his responsibilities, which is unfortunately the hallmark of his performance as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services.

At that stage, in early 2000, a genuine willingness to resolve these issues had developed between the public transport industries and the representatives of disability groups. As with many issues in this portfolio, there was no federal leadership interested in the problem and in helping to get their hands dirty and broker solutions. That is what the political processes are about: not just making speeches about what would be an ideal outcome but actually being willing to sit down, get on top of a brief, meet and consult with interested groups and then try to broker a solution where an impasse exists. Unfortunately, we do not normally see that in the performance of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services and Leader of the National Party, Mr Anderson. All we saw, I remind the House, was a press release and a sign of action on this matter from the government when they wanted a headline for the Paralympics at the end of 2000—again, all the tinsel around town but no practical application of activities to resolving a longstanding problem.

In the Transport portfolio, change and reform happen in spite of the current transport minister, not because of him or by his initiative. The development of these accessible transport standards is another case in point. I am aware that the state and territory ministers for transport are keen to see this bill pass. The states have taken on many of these issues before the standards are finalised. I hope the previous speaker, the member for Mitchell, is actually listening to what is occurring in his own state of New South Wales at the moment in the light of his comments here before I rose to speak.

Firstly, dealing with Victoria, my home state at the moment despite the fact that I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney—an area to which the member for Mitchell referred in passing this morning—I know that the state government has moved to change infrastructure for trams to improve accessibility for all Australians. You have only to move around Melbourne today to see the achievement on that front with the introduction of new trams and the tram stations that are being built in the CBD.

Turning to New South Wales, the New South Wales government has also been proactive. When the Carr government came to power, only five railway stations had been modernised to facilitate disability access. There are now 56 stations that have been modernised under the Easy Access Program, with about $4 million to be spent on each station. On a recent visit to my home suburb of Guildford in Western Sydney, I was advised by my elderly parents that it had just been announced that a lift was to be introduced to Guildford railway station to also facilitate disability access. So perhaps Mr Cadman, the member for Mitchell, ought to be a bit more honest in his presentations to this House about what is actually occurring on the ground in New South Wales after years of neglect, prior to the Carr government being elected, by his own coalition partners in New South Wales. Progress is being made, and so it ought to be made. These processes and achievements ought not to be politicised by representatives such as the member for Mitchell.

With respect to the bus and coach industry, especially the large bus operators and manufacturers, they desire to continue to move quickly to ensure that all buses are accessible. Access to exemptions from these standards will be subject to the guidelines currently applied by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission when it considers exemptions to the principal Disability Discrimination Act. The exemption process gets applicants for those exemptions into a process whereby they must engage in the access issues facing commuters or potential commuters that face access challenges. This engagement in the problems as part of applying for an exemption is an important step. The applicants must develop a plan and justify their case. These standards will be the norm. Any exemption must be scrutinised and disability and other affected groups consulted, and a right to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal applies. Through the codification of this process I believe we put in place a mechanism to fix all these access problems.

The bill before us prescribes the National Transport Secretariat as the organisation that the human rights commission can consult when considering exemptions to the access transport standards. I believe this is a curious role for this organisation. I would remind the Main Committee that the National Transport Secretariat was established by the Australian Transport Council to tackle broad strategic issues and reform that must be achieved across jurisdictions. A narrow technical advisory role on accessible transport does not, I believe, fit comfortably with the scope of that organisation. It is my understanding that the transport ministers at the state level shared this concern. As I understand it, there was quite a barney at the Transport Council when the matter was discussed. As I understand it, the end result is that this was another matter where the transport minister could not carry a sensible transport policy position in the federal cabinet. He was rolled, and told the state ministers that they had to cop it.

From the federal perspective, I put a series of questions to the minister for transport to cover off this issue. I had concerns that the National Transport Council would be diverted from its important task in terms of resources and focus. In response to my query, the minister has advised that the NTS commissioned a consultant in December last year to undertake a strategic level scoping study to help the NTS define its role in the exemption process. The minister also advised in his correspondence to my office that:

The Commission and other stakeholders from the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments, industry, and the disability sector were consulted during the preparation of the report. The report identifies a proposed process to undertake the role, the key stakeholders and their expectations regarding the NTS role and potential workload for the NTS. The NTS has also commenced discussion with the Commission on establishing administrative arrangements for the role.

I call on the minister for transport to table that report and the associated arrangements so that the House has a clear idea of how the Transport Secretariat will perform that role and address the stakeholders' expectations. Further, in relation to the NTS, the minister for transport has clarified for me the funding arrangements for this new role. I will also place this advice from the minister for transport on the record today. In doing so, I quote from written advice from him to me:

The Commonwealth has agreed to fund the NTS role. The NTS has entered into a Deed of Agreement with the Department of Transport and Regional Services for the period 1 July 2001 to 30 June 2002. The current agreement provides for upper limit funding of $150,000. This agreement will be negotiated annually with the NTS to fund the anticipated workload for future years.

I say here today that the opposition is not totally comfortable with this new role for the National Transport Secretariat. Our reasons are twofold. Firstly, there are some serious questions about the skill and expertise of the NTS to provide advice on exemptions. While I am sure that the expertise can be recruited, the opposition will monitor the outcomes to ensure they are rigorous. What is important with the exemptions is that they are given only after rigorous analysis, consultation and scrutiny. Secondly, the opposition retains some concerns that this role will detract from the broader role—the true functions of the National Transport Secretariat.

I place these concerns on the record as a clear indication to the government that we do not regard this matter as settled. This is a new initiative; it requires accountability and a willingness to make sure that the initiatives put in place as part of this process actually achieve the desired outcomes. I am also aware that my state and territory colleagues have had these arguments with the federal government, but the government has dug in and has not moved on the issue.

The concerns are correctly placed on the record, and we will monitor the implementation of these issues from here—the exemption process, how the NTS performs the role and the levels of support and Commonwealth funding for the NTS in this role. I am sure that I can also rely on my colleagues in the disability movement and in the state and territory governments to ensure that the cross-jurisdictional, strategic work of the NTS is not undermined as part of that process.

The availability of public transport services is emerging as a key issue to be tackled, especially in regional and outer suburban communities. The challenge is one that the federal government has to front up to sooner rather than later. The problem is that the current minister for transport continues to say that there is no role for the federal government in public transport, but believes he has a role in setting standards with respect to disability access. To say this is to shirk responsibility for the consequences of Australia's economic growth. Congestion and pollution are consequences of the growth of our cities, and public transport has a key role in addressing that congestion.

The Howard government must play a role in addressing these problems. It must look at the federal barriers and opportunities and work in a cooperative way with local communities, local councils and state governments. The opposition looks forward to seeing if the Howard government takes any action to try to do something about this matter, including what it is going to do regarding the outcome of the fuel tax inquiry, which was tabled in the budget papers this week.

In looking at the broader transport taxation issues, it will also be interesting to see whether the Howard government takes any action to address the imbalance in the fringe benefits tax incentives for car use, with no akin incentives for the use of public transport. Similarly, it will be interesting to see whether this inquiry into transport taxation tackles the GST and its application to public transport fares.

In closing, I commend the transport industry, disability and other affected community groups and departmental officials who have persisted with the process and put a huge effort into getting to where we are today. The process could have come quicker if we had leadership at the government level in Canberra. That aside, today represents a major step forward along a long path. I commend all those involved in getting to the point we have achieved.

The bill and the standards help tackle the access issues where public transport exists. A similarly large challenge for our community is to ensure that public transport is there to access not just in our cities and outer suburban communities but also in regional communities. That means the Howard government, side by side with developing these standards, has to also accept its responsibility to front up and actually do something on public transport generally in Australia, especially in regional communities and our outer suburbs. It requires a mental shift. It requires leadership and actually requires new ground at a federal government level. These are the big issues to be debated in this parliament because it is about equality of opportunity, it is about the greenhouse debate, it is about doing something in a practical sense to relieve the congestion in our cities. (Time expired)