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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1570

Senator COLSTON(6.59) —I am concerned about some aspects of the Queensland State scheme to provide aids for the disabled. I understand that this matter does not come within the authority of the Federal Government. However, I am compelled to raise it as a senator for the State of Queensland. I expect that my comments, as recorded in Hansard, will be read by the relevant authorities in the Queensland Government. I hope that these comments will be given proper consideration by the Queensland Government. What follows should not be taken as destructive criticism. I intended my comments to be constructive.

There are two schemes operating in Queensland which provide aids for the disabled. The Queensland Government, like other State governments, administers Commonwealth funds under the program of aids for disabled people-the PADP scheme. There is no means test associated with the Commonwealth funded scheme. I have always been impressed by the service which my constituents receive from the Commonwealth scheme, which is administered by the Queensland Government. As well, I understand that the Commonwealth recognises the good work carried out by Queensland officers in administering the scheme. The other scheme is the Queensland Government's own scheme for the supply of aids for the disabled. This differs from the Commonwealth scheme with respect to the range of aids which may be supplied. Yet the greatest difference is that the Queensland Government's scheme is means tested. I have no opposition to the idea of means testing, provided that the means test is fair and equitable. It is in this regard, namely, whether the scheme is a fair one, that I consider the Queensland Government's scheme should be improved. The problem with the Queensland Government's means test is that no-one outside the Queensland Government or the Government's administering departments knows what the terms of the test are. This leaves people in the dark, leaves them confused when they are told they are not eligible under the State scheme and sometimes gives the impression that it is not being administered fairly.

I would like to relate the details of a case which illustrates my point. I was recently approached by a constituent who had been given medical advice to wear elastic stockings. Such stockings are supplied only under the State scheme. When this lady came to see me, she had been told that she was not eligible for assistance because she had not qualified under the means test. Normally, that explanation would be satisfactory. In this case, however, it is not satisfactory because the public is unaware of the details of the means test. My constituent showed me her bank books. One held a few hundred dollars into which her age pension was paid. She regularly withdrew the value of her pension, so the level of that account remained fairly static. The other had, from memory, a balance of about $1,000. She was keeping this so that it would pay for her funeral. The lady had no other income or assets. My understanding is that she did not own her home, but was paying only a nominal rental for her accommodation. It seemed to me that under these conditions, this person should be eligible for aid under the State scheme for the elastic stockings which she had been advised to wear.

I therefore wrote to the Minister for Health in Queensland, Mr Austin, cited the case I have mentioned and asked him, amongst other things, what criteria were used to determine whether people are eligible for assistance. I shall read part of Mr Austin's reply, deleting my constituent's name. The part I wish to quote reads:

As stockings are only supplied on the State scheme, Mrs . . . was tested for her eligibility to receive these stockings and the result was that Mrs . . . did not qualify.

Eligibility for assistance under the State scheme is determined, amongst other things, by the applicant's financial capacity. The method of calculating financial capacity is by use of a formula covering the weekly income, weekly expenses, number of dependants, assets, outstanding debts, and the cost of the article sought.

Details of the eligibility criteria are not publicised in order to ensure, as much as possible, that applicants are not unduly influenced in the information they provide.

To my mind, this is totally unsatisfactory. Suppose the Commonwealth decided to issue age pensions where there were no details of the eligibility criteria so that, in Mr Austin's words, 'applicants are not unduly influenced in the information they provide'. There would be a hue and cry, and rightly so. Just imagine the behind the door deals which would go on if the Commonwealth ran its taxation system in such a vague way. This type of secret criteria is too open to abuse by the Government or its administration. To imply that, if the criteria were publicly known, people would be influenced to provide incorrect information is an insult to the vast majority of the applicants.

The Commonwealth administers many schemes where the criteria are well known. Indeed, copies of instructions for those who administer the scheme are available to the public. Of course, there is always a minor percentage who will abuse the system, but precautions are taken to identify such people. The idea of a secret means test such as that which I have described is not acceptable. It is open to abuse by its administrators and it runs the risk of applicants thinking that the whole system is shady.

I urge Mr Austin to review this secrecy surrounding the Queensland Government's scheme. By bringing it out in the open, people would be able to see whether it is a fair system. If it is not, the public should be able to lobby for a change. If it is a fair system, I imagine that Mr Austin's department would be spared of many needless applications being sent and processed. For the sake of both the Queensland people and the Queensland Government itself, I consider a change is necessary. It would be far better to see that justice is not only done in Queensland, but is also seen to be done.