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Thursday, 27 March 2003
Page: 13895

Mr BYRNE (12:53 PM) —Today I rise to discuss an issue of significant importance to people in my region, particularly those experiencing mental illness and the families and carers of those experiencing mental illness. I would like to address an issue that has been raised with me by some fine non-government organisations in my area—Eastern Region Mental Health, a mental health advocacy group called Midway and, in particular, the Mental Health Council of Australia. Each of these organisations made submissions to my office about the impact of the recent changes by the government to the Family and Community Services Legislation Reform Bill. Whether or not the government has actually thought about the impact on people who are the least able to protect themselves and are the most disadvantaged among the community is interesting.

I want to touch on the particular provision that impacts on those with a psychiatric disability in the area. We are talking about potentially one in five Australians. This relates to the applicants for the disability support pension, who must satisfy a continuing inability to work test, where the applicant must be unable to work for at least 30 hours a week at award wages due to a disability, illness or injury which attracts an impairment rating of at least 20 points on impairment tables.

The Howard government has amended the requirement from 30 hours a week over a two-year period at award wages to 15 hours per week over a two-year period. This change has had a significant impact on people with mental illness, which is one in five Australians at any one time. The psychiatric and psychological disability service pension recipients account for the second largest recipient group of this disability support pension. About 25 per cent of people who receive disability support pensions do so because of the long-term disabling consequences of an enduring mental illness. The amendments to this family and community service legislation will disadvantage a group which is already one of the most disadvantaged in society.

What it did not take into account, when these amendments were put forward, is the episodic nature of mental illness. The amendments that were mooted did not take into account that mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and schizophrenia are episodic in nature. So, when you come to assess whether these people can work 30 hours a week or 15—it has been reduced to 15 hours a week—someone who is experiencing schizophrenia and who is on medication may well be assessed as being able to actually work. But in many cases, particularly with people who are experiencing schizophrenia, these people may be able to work for a period of time but, because they experience a series of stresses et cetera or they come off their medication, they are unable to work.

According to this proposal, the changes that have been put forward by the government will mean that a number of people with schizophrenia—which is one of the most disabling illnesses in the community—will be put on to the Newstart allowance. So when these people have been working for a period of time and then they do not turn up to work or they do not fulfil their Newstart job search requirements, they will be in breach of their Newstart allowance. What that means is that someone who is experiencing a severe schizophrenic episode as a consequence of coming off their medication will come off their Newstart allowance and be in effect homeless. In an area like Dandenong, which has a very large number of people of non-English-speaking background, there are people who have suffered a lot of trauma and tension, particularly those from war torn countries—we have the highest uptake of refugees in Victoria. A lot of these people are suffering things like post-traumatic stress et cetera and are not actually getting appropriate diagnosis, treatment and care. These people are being put on a Newstart allowance when they should in fact be on a disability support pension.

There are long-term costs for the community. As a consequence of people with mental illnesses being put on Newstart allowance, they will not be able to fulfil their requirements, they will be breached and they will be wandering the streets without some level of income. In Dandenong we have had a big problem with heroin usage in our streets and there are fairly ruthless, callous drug dealers who are employing people who have psychiatric illnesses, as a consequence of them not having income. In many cases these people are out on the streets selling drugs instead of getting treatment, and over the past number of years a number of them—particularly in our region—have been killed. These are the most disadvantaged people in the community and they should have support provided to them to ensure that they can lead normal, ordered lives. But as a consequence of these changes that have been approved by the government, I am afraid that people with mental illnesses who will be put on to a Newstart allowance—where they will not be able to fulfil their requirements—are going to be put on the streets penniless. Frankly, for any government to put something like that forward with such a consequence is just an absolute disgrace.