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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9526

Ms JACKSON (5:08 PM) —I will start by concurring with many of the remarks that my colleague the member for Pearce made. I also congratulate the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on this report, Access all areas. It is a terrific report and one where I not only support the recommendations but also urge the government to implement the recommendations as expeditiously as possible.

Increasingly, the issue of access is gaining greater prominence in the community and, as the member for Pearce has indicated, not only because so many Australians—some one in five—have a disability but also as a result of our ageing population, where greater disability or a lack of mobility is becoming an increasing issue in the community. Frankly, it is wrong for people with a disability to be denied adequate access to buildings. This can have repercussions not only in a social sense but especially for their employment and it raises issues associated with social inclusion. I am particularly pleased that the report has not just determined that the issues of access are about access to buildings. I congratulate the committee on the broadening of the definition of ‘to place’. Indeed, it is only right and proper that people with a disability have access to all manner of opportunities in their lives.

The report seeks to achieve a number of objectives. The first is to recommend harmonisation of the Building Code with the current provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act by containing the access code as schedule 1. I applaud that. People in the past have done a good job with the Building Code, despite the fact that they struggle with different legislative and planning requirements across the nation. There has not been a clear and precise set of standards developed with respect to the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. The second objective of not only harmonising the act with the Building Code but incorporating the access code into the Building Code is something which we should congratulate. Apart from anything else, it will provide a huge opportunity for consistency in development and for certainty for building owners and people in the building industry.

I am also delighted at the recommendations which will see a shift from what has been very much an individual complaints based framework to a compliance based framework. I am particularly pleased with that change. That would be achieved by incorporating prescribed requirements into a code. That alleviates the need for us to wait for an individual to experience some sort of disadvantage or discrimination before a complaint can be made and, presumably, action is taken. This way we will see a proactive role to ensure that particularly new buildings are constructed in an accessible manner. Increasingly, we will also see the role of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner encouraging, through not only compliance but greater information, building owners and the like retroactively dealing with rectifying obstacles that are identified.

I endorse the approach of the committee, which is, frankly, ‘Let’s get something into place as quickly as possible,’ and the acknowledgement that anything in terms of standards is better than what we have now. I say that because clearly there are some, for want of a better description, kinks in the current code. The fact of the matter is that these regulations, if they come into effect as an access code, will have the greatest impact on new buildings and major upgrades. That is something that will have real value for people with disabilities. It is, no doubt, long overdue.

The code in many respects should be measured against the intent of the Disability Discrimination Act which applies now. On that basis it should not be onerous to implement the code immediately, because, frankly, people should have been complying with these sorts of standards. One would hope that current plans for buildings would not have been approved if they did not meet accessibility standards like those set out in the report and its recommendations. I am very pleased to say that I think this is the beginning of a better system for everyone. It removes business exposure to prosecution by complaint and ensures better compliance for disabilities.

The publishing of the report has created the opportunity for what is necessary dialogue with the broader community. I notice, for example, that the committee found it difficult to find accessible public hearing venues, especially in places like central Melbourne and Brisbane, which is almost unbelievable in 2009. That in itself immediately highlights issues that can be addressed. The report also touched on things such as—and I appreciate the debate—accessible rooms in our four- and five-star hotels for people with a disability. It was reported that many hotel staff were reluctant to offer available accessible rooms to patrons who appeared to have a disability for fear of giving offence. That is on page 97 of the report. I hope this public discussion and recognition of the importance of accessible public venues and buildings will begin to see accessible room requirements as a positive opportunity—indeed, a marketing opportunity—for the hotel and tourism industry.

On many, many pages the report stresses the need for haste in the implementation of change. It notes that there will be further research required, for example, in the area of dimensions of modern wheelchairs. It encourages that to be done as a matter of some urgency. But to proceed in any event is important. Again, I think this recognises the time that has been taken to get this far. Indeed, the member for Pearce referred to a particular quote that the committee includes in its introductory comments at paragraph 1.19:

In calling for a speedy conclusion to this process, the Committee notes that most submitters have also requested that the Premises Standards be introduced without further delay:

The standards are long overdue. The [Disability Discrimination Act] and the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act have been in place for 17 and 13 years, respectively. The industry has had 17 years to regulate itself and to progressively and cost-effectively implement changes that would meet their obligations under the Acts. Had they done so, many of the cost arguments mounted today would be irrelevant. Industry has in fact been cost-saving for 17 years at the expense of a large percentage of the population. It is now time to restore that balance.

I concur also with the quote from the Victorian Disability Advisory Council and with the committee’s conclusion that the premises standards should be introduced without further delay. I do note that the committee recommended that the Australian government provide funding for new research—they specify a 12-month timetable from the tabling of the report—into wheelchair sizes and the dimensions of building features necessary to accommodate them. I endorse that recommendation.

I understand that the data the committee had been relying on for the development of the standards was based on a study conducted in 1983. Frankly, we know that the population requiring accessible facilities is increasing and we know that the technology available to assist them is improving. It seems to me that to be unaware of whether that has meant that wheelchairs are changing shape, getting bigger or getting smaller or by how much seems to be a gap in the research and information available to the committee. I hope that that research will be able to be conducted and perhaps improvements to the code made in that regard.

In the case of my own electorate office, we found that a constituent with a child with a disability whose electric wheelchair would be unable to come through the front door of my office. With the support and approval of the Special Minister of State that resulted in some renovations to my office to ensure that we had access for all my constituents who may need to come and see me.

I referred earlier to my delight at the committee’s recommendations that the Disability Discrimination Commissioner be given power to investigate noncompliance with the premises standards and to be able to bring a complaint where there is noncompliance with the premises standards without requiring any individual complaint. I think this is an incredibly important reform. Our experience in this area shows that an individual complaints based system is less effective than it could be or should be—when I say ‘less effective’ in some cases it is totally ineffective—in bringing about the sort of change that would ensure not only social justice but improved social inclusion for people with disabilities. The process of pursuing a complaint can be lengthy and costly for the individual who has been disadvantaged or discriminated against in the first place. It seems to me not a desirable system when you are dealing with issues associated with discrimination. So I fully support this role for the Disability Discrimination Commissioner and I hope that this will hold drive change effectively across our community.

In conclusion, can I say that I would again urge the government to implement the committee’s recommendations expeditiously. It is clear to me that out there in the disability services sector—and certainly amongst advocates and representatives of people with disability—there is a great anxiety to see these changes implemented as soon as possible. I am also confident that the recommendations, if implemented, will drive positive change in our community.

In that regard, I could not possibly conclude today without acknowledging the disability services sector in Western Australia for the work that they continue to do in advocating for the rights of people with disability. I talk here about not only community based organisations but also our own Disability Services Commission in Western Australia. They understand completely that accessibility is critical to the full participation of people with a disability in all that life has to offer.

I am pleased that access has been the focus of substantial campaigns and public policy development in Western Australia. Indeed, the West Australian state government has a regime in place—and has had for many years—which requires all state government agencies and departments, as well as all local governments in Western Australia, to consider their buildings and facilities and to ensure that they have plans for disability access. Disability access and inclusion plans have been required to be tabled in Western Australia for some time, and it has helped provide some focus to this issue in Western Australia.

The Disability Services Commission, who have driven much of that change, have also campaigned successfully on this issue. I would like to close with a quote from their campaign:

Good access for people with a disability means good access for all people.

Again, I commend the report. I commend the committee, and in particular the chair, the member for Isaacs. I look forward to seeing the Rudd government, especially led by the parliamentary secretary in this area, act on the recommendations of the report at the earliest opportunity.