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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2404

Ms ELLIS (10:51 AM) —I also have great pleasure in addressing the Disability Discrimination Amendment Bill 2002 that is before the chamber today. The bill allows a provider of public transport services or facilities to apply for exemptions from the disability standards. There is a number of obvious examples but one would be that compliance could cause an unjustified hardship. There is a range of other considerations as well to be taken into account. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, or HREOC, under the Disability Discrimination Act, is already able to grant an exemption from the operation of the provisions of that act but that power is not currently extended to grant exemptions to the disability standards that we are speaking about today.

The act formulates the transport disability standards under section 31 of the Disability Discrimination Act. The standards in draft form were published by the Attorney-General in September last year. I understand that the final standards will be tabled in the parliament following the passage of this particular bill. They will then take effect under section 31 of the Disability Discrimination Act. Under section 32, it is unlawful for a person to contravene a disability standard within that act. This bill is to provide consistency in the powers of HREOC, in other words. To allow the granting of such an exemption, HREOC will be required to consult a body prescribed in the regulations. The act states that body to be the National Transport Secretariat, funded by the Commonwealth and the states, which is to report to the Australian Transport Council.

The previous speaker, the member for Batman, outlined at great length our concerns in relation to that particular part of the act. It is not for me to add anything further at this point other than to fully endorse the comments that he made in relation to the NTS. As well as receiving that technical advice from the secretariat, HREOC will of course be able to consult with any person or body that it believes necessary when considering an application for exemption. I understand that a very large range of disability organisations have been involved in the consultation process to date. It has been made clear by those organisations that:

... HREOC to be the most appropriate body to undertake this assessment so long as HREOC has the appropriate resources to do the work. In addition a process involving consultation with interested groups similar to the current HREOC procedure for exemptions, must be applied.

I would endorse that totally. I want to refer to comments that have been made by representatives of the disabled community who have been involved in the process to date who, despite the compromises made, will be pleased to see the standards come into operation. I would like to quote a couple of their comments. They have said in part:

.. it is important to understand that Standards become regulatory laws which must be complied with. As such, State and Territory Transport Ministers have far less resistance from their respective `Cabinets' and Treasury in getting approval for upgrading to accessible transport. We are informed that if they are just guidelines, there will be far less compliance in a systemic way to making transport accessible. Their priority status would immediately drop.

They go on to say:

The Transport representatives and the Project agrees entirely with much of the concern expressed that we cannot afford for the Standards to be watered down any further as it becomes legal discrimination. We were very disappointed about the extension of the compliance timetable to 30 years for trains and trams but in reality, especially for trains, this does not mean people with disabilities won't be able to use them during this time-span.

It is very obvious that many people have had lots of input into these processes, and they should be fully recognised for their work and for their representation on behalf of many others within their organisations and within the disability sector generally. I personally would like to see the 30-year period reduced in a cooperative fashion, and I am confident that we could all work towards that, particularly given the work already under way in many areas, as outlined by the member for Batman in his earlier comments.

I would also like to put on record my thanks for the terrific lesson in history that the member for Batman has given us in relation to the whole process that has been undertaken over far too long a period. As members of parliament we often find ourselves saying to people, `Yes, we agree that there is a problem, but do you realise how slow sometimes legislative processes can be?' Whilst I and I know my colleagues always regret having to use those words, that is sometimes the harsh reality. This is, unfortunately, a very good example of that, given the interruptions due to elections and so on. The member for Batman very clearly outlined some of the work already under way within other states, in New South Wales and Victoria, and I know here in the ACT. There is no doubt that there are great moves afoot by governments at those levels to do what they can in a proactive way to bring forward the availability of accessible transport for people with disabilities. It is fair to say, and quite obvious, that people with physical disabilities particularly have enough to face up to without having their day-to-day lives, their chances of employment and their chances of participating in our community at an even level frustrated by access to transport. But the work that has been done in relation to this whole issue, whilst taking far too long, finally has come to this point.

It is also obvious that there is still much more to be done. I think that the passage of this bill is the end of one process but the beginning of the next—that is, to see what else can be done to ensure that the processes outlined here work; that the examination of the NTS as outlined by previous speakers is undertaken in a constructive fashion; that whatever work and change that are demonstrated to be required to allow better procedures should happen; and that the technical expert advice that is needed by HREOC when granting an exemption must be of the best possible standard. There is no doubt that if the NTS needs to be changed or resourced, or if another organisation needs to be put in its place—whatever is required—we should do it, and we should do it in such a way as will not extend any further the time frame that has taken us to the point we are at today.

In closing, I again make particular note—as did the member for Batman—of the activists in the sector who have brought the issue to the point we are at today. I also join with him in encouraging that sector to continue their agitation when they believe it is necessary to do so so that the whole question of public and other transport availability for the people they represent continues to be at the forefront of our minds. It is fair to say on reflection that the Paralympics held in Sydney really gave us—federal and all other governments—a focus, an opportunity, to put in a way a bit of tinsel around the issue. I would like to think that we could now move on from that. But sadly, and in reality, it takes the activists of the disability sector to keep all of us on our mettle, to make sure that we all understand and grasp entirely the needs that they have. None of those needs are impossible to meet—none of them.

With their help and their continued dedication, I believe we will get the sort of access to transport that they require. We are not silly here; we understand the difficulties that can present to some parts of that process, but so be it. I repeat: it is not an impossible task to meet their needs; it is a perfectly possible task. After this legislation is passed, we can get on and examine how to make it better, how to advance it quicker, with only one aim in mind—that is, to ensure that those people out there who need that access get it. We must no longer allow anybody, particularly within the political process, to tap dance around this issue and make grandiose statements at times when they think these might be good to be heard, and then not fully follow up with proper, determined work.

I join the previous speakers from this side in endorsing this legislation. At the same time, I thoroughtly endorse the historical perspective of the member for Batman. I recognise the people involved and the absolute requirement on all of us in this place to do what we can to ensure the continuing advancement of the issue and not just to think that the job has been done here.