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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26716

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) (8:23 PM) —I want to respond to a couple of statements made by various speakers. I will not respond at all to Senator Bishop. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs will obviously be interested to read what he said but veterans know that they have been supported enormously by the Howard government. It is not just the issues that Senator Bishop raised but the support veterans get through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and a range of other measures that are relevant.

I want to attend to an issue that Senator Collins raised. It is an issue that the shadow minister keeps raising. I want to put it on the public record, as I have done before. It regards carer allowance for parents caring for children with a disability. We reviewed the cases of 67,000 parents who were receiving the carer allowance because it was believed their children had a disability. That review meant that about 37,000 people retained their carer allowance. The cases of about 30,000 parents who had a child with a disability were reviewed. I will enunciate the figures clearly and put them on the public record. I want Senator Collins to listen to this, because we are talking about truth and honesty in government. If you want truth and honesty in opposition let us put these facts on the record. The opposition keep saying that 30,000 people were stripped of their carer allowance.

Senator Jacinta Collins —That's true.

Senator PATTERSON —Senator Collins says, `That's true.' Let me tell Senator Collins, through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, that, of those 30,000 carers, 6,465 people contacted Centrelink and requested that they cease the allowance because they were not eligible. Did you hear me, Senator Collins? There were 6,465 people who said that they were not eligible and 8,305 people—

Senator PATTERSON —Senator Collins has had an opportunity to speak on this. There were three attempts on the part of Centrelink—two letters and a phone call—to ask people to return their forms and 8,305 people did not return their forms. Under Labor many people were getting onto a carer allowance because their children had asthma and they wanted a health care card. Senator Newman went out and talked to people in Centrelink, which was something that Labor had never done with the old DSS. I was with her one day when she asked an officer behind the counter, `What would you do if you could change things?' The officer said, `Senator, there are people getting a carer allowance basically to get a health care card because their children have asthma, and the costs of their puffers and other medications are high. I would change that because these children don't have a disability that requires a carer allowance.' And what happened? Of the 30,000 people in the review I think about 7,000 retained their health care cards.

We had 7,000 people who kept their health care cards, 8,305 who did not respond and 6,465 people who said they were not eligible. But Labor keeps going on about 30,000 people having been stripped of this. They want to talk about truth and honesty. If they want to talk about facts let us put the facts on the table. The shadow minister, Mr Swan, runs around—as does Senator Collins—going on and on and misrepresenting the public.

Senator PATTERSON —Senator Collins says no, but those are the facts. Senator Greig talked about carers. He said that people missed out on the carer bonus. They only got a carer bonus because we ran the economy efficiently. We actually saved money; we have a surplus. We have paid back $70 billion of Labor's $96 billion of debt, which we inherited. Labor racked up, in their last year of government, $10 billion of debt. There are kids in the gallery—who Senator Bishop was performing to—whose money we were borrowing. We were borrowing money from the next generation. The Labor government borrowed $10 billion in their last year of government. They left us with $96 billion of debt that those young people in the gallery tonight would have had to pay back. We were living off the future to pay for our needs.

The government said we should run our budgets in surplus. Because we have done that and because we have paid back $70 billion of debt, we are saving nearly $6 billion in interest. So we can give the backbone of our community, the carers, a bonus. Most people on carer payment would otherwise be in employment. There are about 2,500 who did not transfer to the age pension, but people were advised to transfer to the age pension before anybody knew about a carer bonus because those people do not have to have a review every two years of the case of the person for whom they care. Many people would find that review onerous. The age pension is more portable for those people who come from overseas and might want to go back to Calathumpia—I will not use the name of a country, because I do not want to discriminate. If people want to go back to their home country for a period of time their age pension is portable. There is always a cut-off point and we believed that we could give a bonus to those people on a carer payment who would otherwise probably have had the opportunity to work. Many people on the age pension who get carer allowance got a $600 bonus. This is something that was never, ever achieved under Labor because they never ran surplus budgets. They were always spending more than they received in revenue and borrowing from the next generation.

It is always difficult when you have these sorts of payments because you do have to have cut-off points regarding when a payment starts and who gets it. When Senator Greig talked about the carers, he failed to mention that within the last budget I was able to achieve half a billion dollars for carers. This very bill is part of that, to extend carer allowance. Of course, it does not pay on an hourly basis for the enormous amount of work that carers do in our community. Every day in this portfolio I go out and see parents caring for children with a disability. I see older people who have been caring for their children for 30, 40, 50 and 60 years—80-year-olds with people they have been caring for. I have been to the disability ministers' meeting and said to them that we need to do something about succession planning for these people. I could not get them to agree, in the first instance, to an advisory committee. They had to have a committee of bureaucrats to discuss it first before I could engage carers, but I thought I may as well take the first step with the eight Labor state and territory ministers. I think I have got a reasonable reputation for working with my colleagues from the opposite side at the state level in health, in this area and for women.

We have agreed that we will look at issues that affect people, including older carers. For example, as I said, an 82-year-old may look after a 60-year-old son or daughter with down syndrome who has grand mal seizures. They are the people we should be concerned about. I have instigated a committee of all state and territory ministers to engage in a discussion about how together we can provide for these people: how we can look at accommodation and how we can assist them in making plans as they get older and for when they die. The thing that concerns them most is: when they die who will look after their children? That most probably was not an issue 30 years ago. When I was at university doing child development and human development, it was not the case that a person with down syndrome lived to 70. A member of my family has a sister with down syndrome who is 70. It was not heard of 30 years ago.

We have to move—as we talk about the ageing of the population—on the ageing of our population with disability and the effect on their parents. I have moved some way with the ministers, though not as fast as I would have liked, and I have indicated that we will address some of the issues of succession planning for them. We gave $72½ million to get the states to do what they should have been doing: providing accommodation and respite for older people who care for people with a disability. We took up a 1981 agreement from when Labor was in government federally that the states would look after accommodation and respite care and the Commonwealth would look after employment in what were once called sheltered workshops but what we now call business services—supported employment. We agreed that we would address those issues. We have seen increased spending in disability services. There was $99 million in the last budget to address the issue of assisting business services to be more viable and to make sure that nobody in a business service loses their job. But the states need to come on board and carry out their responsibility. They have got increased GST to provide accommodation and respite for people who have sons and daughters with disabilities. We have given them an additional $72½ million to assist them in giving respite to people over 70. Senator Greig can come in here and talk about issues to do with carers but let me say that in the last budget I managed to achieve half a billion dollars for carers.

Another issue for me is young carers. Last week at the first young carers summit, which the Commonwealth government funded, I met young carers. The youngest there was 13 years of age. There were carers of 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19 caring for a parent with a disability—sometimes a mental illness, sometimes a degenerative disease—and often looking after a sibling—sometimes one with a disability. In this last budget we have given them five hours respite a week during term time and two weeks respite a year to enable them to continue with their education. This was particularly for young people at risk who have no extended family to assist them. You only had to sit with those young carers, as I did last week when we opened their conference and then again in the evening, to find out about the challenges they face. There was half a billion dollars for carers in this budget alone. It is all very well for the Democrats to come in here and say what they would do; they never have to be fiscally responsible. But to give credit where credit is due is appropriate. In the last budget we had a program for young carers, who have never featured on the landscape before and who are high in my priorities. I have some other ideas that I think could assist them. For older carers I am pushing the states into discussing a feasible approach for giving them some hope and some security about what might happen to their sons or daughters, if they are under 65, in terms of accommodation and, if they are over 65, in terms of accommodation and the Commonwealth's responsibility.

They are important issues that I believe need to be pursued. I am very pleased I have been able to start those discussions with the states and territories. This bill is not about paying people for caring; this bill is about recognising that there is an army of people out there caring for loved ones, for people for whom they have a responsibility out of friendship—whether it be a neighbour or an in-law—and for people who do not live with the person for whom they care. It is an issue which has been raised and to which we have responded. It has huge budgetary implications but I think it is appropriate in recognition of the work that the army of carers does out there. We can never, ever pay them in monetary terms. It is about recognising the army of people who care either for people in their homes and for those with whom they do not live. I commend the bill to the house.