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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2409

Mr SERCOMBE (11:20 AM) —The Disability Discrimination Amendment Bill 2002 is long overdue. It has been kicking around for some considerable time and was further delayed by the proroguing of parliament prior to the last election. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long to come before the parliament, but at least it is here. Whilst I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, you would be most vigilant in preventing me from talking about the budget in the context of this debate, nonetheless it is worth noting in passing that, at a time when the government is showing a quite mean-spirited approach to disabled people in Australia, at least there is some limited good news for that community in relation to some advances contained in this bill.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 contains the following objectives: to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities as far as is possible; to promote community acceptance of the principle that people with disabilities have the same fundamental rights as all members of the community; and to ensure as far as practicable that people with disabilities have the same rights to equality before the law as other people in the community.

In furtherance of those objectives, the act makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their disability in many areas of public life, including employment; education; provision of goods, services and facilities; access to premises, accommodation, clubs and incorporated associations; dealing with land; sport; and in the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. It is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the ground that they are an associate of a person with a disability, and it is unlawful to harass a person because of their disability.

In the last year in which the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission reported to the parliament, the commission had received 443 complaints under the Disability Discrimination Act. The majority of those complaints in the commission's report related to employment and the provision of goods, services and facilities. It is worth noting that transport, and access to transport, is a fundamental issue for disabled people. It is an issue on which the commission has been required to spend a considerable amount of time, covering a whole range of areas.

For example, in recent years the commission has dealt with complaints in relation to the accessibility of existing long-distance rail carriages, the question of scooters being permitted on buses, access to suburban railway stations, wheelchair access to local buses, wheelchair seating on coaches, air travel with oxygen, people requiring assistance animals on trains, railway station toilet facilities, taxi access for guide dog users, sleeping carriage access, accessibility of Perth buses, access to interurban trains and main terminal station, access to public transport buses, and access in country trains. So a very wide variety of areas of complaint about discrimination under this act have come before the commission.

This legislation is important in that context, because it enables a more systematic approach to be taken to complaints or issues of discrimination. It is a recognition in part that the complaint system in itself is not enough to address some of the systemic areas where disabled people face discrimination in relation to transport.

Very importantly, the legislation enables the processing and recognition of standards, which provide the benchmark against which disabled people can expect public transport providers to meet their needs. This is important not just for disabled people. It is important for the providers of public transport services because it enables them to have a considerably higher degree of certainty about what standards they are required to meet in terms of meeting the needs of disabled customers of their service.

In an excellent speech given by the Deputy Disability Discrimination Commissioner last year to the bus industry conference in Perth, a number of important points were made. The deputy commissioner referred to the importance of partnerships between industry and people in the disability field to minimise and eliminate discrimination. He referred to the introduction of open caption movies throughout Australia to benefit people who are deaf or hearing impaired and the announcement of a scheme by telecommunications companies to assist people with mobile phones that were causing interference with their hearing aids. These were two examples given of the benefits that can accrue both to providers of services and disabled people by a framework of cooperation, which this legislation provides.

In relation to public transport, the commissioner referred to public transport systems needing to establish uniform processes and to be clear about, way in advance, the type of infrastructure and rolling stock acceptable to meet the objectives of the act. For individuals to lodge complaints all over the country about different aspects of buses, for example—a situation that is now possible under the provisions of the act—is not necessarily the best way to make our transport system accessible; it is rather by creating partnerships and ensuring that standards are set and understood and, indeed, met. The commissioner also gave a picture of what the standards will be. He said:

They provide various `rules' for making public transport accessible. They do not just deal with physical access, although this is an important aspect of them. They deal with other issues such as access to signage, announcements, and timetables. Because the drafters of the Standards appreciated that infrastructure change cannot occur overnight, they include a timetable by which percentages of public transport must be wheelchair accessible—25% after 5 years, 55% after 10 etc going through to 20 years for buses and coaches. But the clock does not start to run until the Standards are tabled in parliament, which has not yet occurred.

Once the Standards are in place, complaints under the DDA about areas which are covered by the Standards will not need to demonstrate that discrimination has occurred—they will only have to show that the Standard has been breached.

This legislation we are debating today takes a giant step down that particular road which, as I indicated, is very much in the interests of providers of services as well as in the interests of disabled people. But vigilance is always required in ensuring justice for people in our community who are vulnerable, in this case disabled people.

In my home state of Victoria, towards the end of last year there were some particularly traumatic circumstances where several wheelchair-bound people were killed on level crossings. To his great credit, the Victorian minister for transport established a task force that included representation from the disabled community. That task force has produced some 23 recommendations, including recommendations to create a fund of $100,000 as a research grant to investigate engineering issues and to develop maintenance standards for level crossings. That is a very welcome initiative and I trust that the Victorian government—a very good government but not a perfect government—will now proceed very expeditiously to address the tragedies that occur periodically on level crossings in Victoria.

There are always further things to do. Just recently in one of my local newspapers a number of complaints have been emerging—not actually affecting a railway station in my electorate but a nearby railway station called Watergardens, which is a very new station; indeed, it has just been opened in recent months. The complaints are about the compliance of that station with reasonable standards for disabled people. For example, there have been complaints about the width of emergency exits, the height of ticket machines and so on, and so there is always a lot more work to do.

Even a very good government, a government—such as the Victorian Labor government— that is committed to high standards of social justice, needs to be continually vigilant in ensuring that adequate standards are continually met and services are continually upgraded. This should be done not only, as I have said, in the interests of disabled people but also in the interests of providers of services so that they have some higher degree of certainty about what the community expects of them.

I notice that the member for Kennedy made a guest appearance a moment ago. Presumably he was so inspired by my speech that he decided to absent himself. But, since the member for Kennedy has left the control of Chief National Party Whip in the hands of the member for Mallee, the standards may well have fallen. So we will rely upon the good offices of the member for Mallee to go and chase the member for Kennedy and see where he is.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Corcoran)—I think we can take it that he is not coming.

Mr SERCOMBE —We can take it that he is not coming? I have obviously converted him, and so I will sit down and allow the proceedings to go ahead.