I also rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Improved Support for Carers) Bill 2009 and the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Improved Support for Carers) (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2009. These very important bills arose from a review by the Carer Payment (child) Review Taskforce, which was instigated by the previous government in March 2007. The Rudd government has studied that review and agreed that carers deserve a greater level of support and, along with that acknowledgement, that the definition of carer needed to be changed. These bills reflect the government’s determination to support carers in the most difficult and demanding circumstances. The legislation gives effect to a number of measures aimed at improving assistance to carers from 1 July 2009 and has received wide-ranging support.
Carers play a vital role in Australian society and the Rudd government is committed to supporting them. Carers make huge sacrifices every day to look after their loved ones and this can place huge emotional and financial burdens on them. Carers deserve all the support they can get to help them in their efforts to make the life of someone they care about easier and to help make their own lives a little easier as well. It is the government’s role to provide this support to ensure that people can continue on in their roles as carers. Creating security and certainty for the carers in our society, who work tirelessly to provide both emotional and practical assistance to the person in their care, is a key part of the reform. Carers often face considerable financial burdens and the government has recognised this in the budget changes.
I could speak for my full allotted time just about young carers—those wonderful young people who give up so much of their lives to care for people they love—the sacrifices they make, and the trials and tribulations that they go through. But my time is limited so I will keep this speech a bit more general and save that for another day. Carers come from all walks of Australian life and enter into the caring journey at various stages throughout their own life. We just heard Senator Boyce mention the recently deceased fine Australian actor Bud Tingwell. I had the pleasure of meeting Bud Tingwell at a carers launch a few months ago. It just shows the background that these people can come from. There is no prescribed background for people who become carers. It can hit people at any time in their lives. It is not something you can necessarily really prepare for.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has identified that there are 350,000 Australians under the age of 25 who provide care to a family member who has a disability or a mental or chronic illness, with about 170,000 carers under the age of 18. But there are also over 454,000 carers over the age of 65 who undertake similar duties day to day—and quite often it is 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Nearly two million carers are of workforce age; but many have had to leave the workforce, reduce the hours they work or work below their skill capacity because of their caring responsibilities. Let us not forget that carers are the foundation of our aged and community care system. As part of the recent budget announcements, carer payment recipients will receive an increase as well as a new permanent carer supplement. Some $600 will be paid annually to people receiving the carers payment and there will be an extra $600 a year for people receiving the carers allowance. The $600 for the carers allowance will be given for each person in care. In addition to this the child disability assistance payment, worth $1,000 annually, will continue.
The illness, and especially the impending death, of a child is an experience I would not wish on anybody; but sadly many people suffer this traumatic loss as they watch their child battle illness. The Rudd government is doing everything possible to make life a little easier for people in this situation. We can make the suffering easier for those parents, dealing with the knowledge that their child is soon to die, and that is what we have done. Where children have a terminal illness there is a relaxation of the qualification rules. This will help ease the burden of working your way through the red tape of entitlements while at the same time trying to cope with the child’s illness. The current situation where the doctor must certify that the child has a terminal condition and is not expected to live considerably longer than a year will be replaced with a more general approach. The doctor will be able to assess the child’s illness based on the average life expectancy of children with the same or similar illness. This area has long been due for reform and I am pleased that the Rudd government has moved on this.
These bills also allow for carers to keep the carer payment or carer allowance when a child is in hospital. This is important as caring does not stop just because a child is in hospital receiving additional care, and neither do the costs. These changes should help ease some of the financial stress that carers go through and I welcome them. The reform will also make it easier for people to receive the carer payment (child). This will mean that people previously not eligible will have access to some valuable financial support.
The qualification criteria for payment under this legislation are fairer when it comes to determining who is a carer or not and so who is eligible for payment or not. Eligibility requirements will now focus on how much care the child needs rather than the limited set of medical and behavioural criteria that are currently in place. The measures contained in this legislation are included in the $822 million package made available in the 2008 budget to offer assistance to carers. As mentioned previously, these measures are being put in place in response to the report handed down by the Carer Payment (child) Review Taskforce. The task force found that the assessment process, which did not allow for flexibility, was resulting in inequitable outcomes.
The carer payment is available to people who are unable to undertake a substantial role in the workforce due to their commitments. As a result of these changes, an additional 19,000 carers will be eligible, taking the number of people receiving the payment to more than 26,000 from 1 July this year. The assessment will now be known as the disability care load assessment (child) and will improve both efficiency and effectiveness in even the most involved cases. This includes those situations where children have multiple carers, where carers have more than one person in their care and where carers are looking after both a child and an adult at the same time.
As well as the additional financial support, this legislation will see an improvement in the administration process, with easier claims processing and a dedicated team to deal with complex claims. The disability care load assessment will include a carer questionnaire as well as a medical practitioner questionnaire. The assessment will look at the functional ability, behaviour and special care needs for people under 16, as well as the level of care provided. The legislation will also allow for temporary situations where care is needed for recurring conditions lasting for at least three months but not exceeding six months. This provision will be able to be used for mental illness, cancer and brain injuries, just to give some examples. Short-term care will also apply for one-off incidents where care is needed for more than three months but less than six. As I have said, the government has also included a provision in the legislation to allow carers, in situations where the child in their care is hospitalised, to keep the carer payment and, in some cases, the carer allowance. Currently payment in these situations is limited to 63 days per calendar year. The new system will see the introduction of a 12-week review cycle.
This legislation also makes changes to some elements of the carer allowance in social security law. The carer allowance provides financial support to people who provide daily at-home care to a person who suffers from a physical, intellectual or psychiatric disability that is lasting and will affect the person for a lengthy period. The carer allowance is not means-tested and may be paid along with carer payments. People in receipt of the carer payment (child) will now be automatically eligible for the carer allowance.
Before I conclude I would like to mention that Senator Carol Brown, who spoke previously, talked about the unique issues with regard to Tasmanian carers, including our ageing population and the higher numbers of carers compared with other states. Once again, as there is a shortage of time this evening I will not repeat what Senator Carol Brown said, but I support all the things she mentioned.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that the Rudd government values the work of all Australian carers. To me, this is what being a politician is about—actually being able to make a difference to the day-to-day lives of those who really need our help. Even though parts of the bill are quite technical, it will put into action the provisions of the legislation. I am proud that the benefits will flow through to those who take on the caring role in our community. I know that the many challenges faced by carers will not end because of the changes we are making, but I do hope our actions help to make day-to-day life easier.
I would also like to acknowledge the work done by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Hon. Jenny Macklin, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, Mr Bill Shorten. Both Ms Macklin and Mr Shorten have worked hard to make long overdue changes in an effort to make life easier for carers. I have had the pleasure of attending various carer disability meetings with Mr Shorten when he has been in Tasmania and I know his commitment is deep and honestly felt. Carers have a demanding job and their lives are significantly changed when they undertake to look after a loved one. They need and deserve all the support they can get, both financially and emotionally. The Rudd government is committed to ensuring that the assistance required is provided and will remain committed to this.
I am pleased the Rudd government has made considerable progress in this area. I believe that this legislation, along with other measures that the Rudd government is implementing, will help ease the longstanding disadvantage that these wonderful people have experienced. I commend the legislation to the chamber.