ADJOURNMENT;People with Disability – 13 Mar 2012

Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, I seek leave to speak for 20 minutes.

Leave granted.

 Senator BILYK: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. People with disability face significant challenges in their daily lives, yet a society which should be helping them is constantly throwing barriers in their way. We have failed as a society to provide the equality of opportunity, support and resources that people with disability need and deserve. We have failed to support their carers and their families. This lack of support has taken a terrible toll on the quality of life and the social and economic outcomes for many people with disability, their families and their carers.

People with disability tend to have lower levels of education, employment and income and are more likely to have difficulties with housing when compared to the general population. Nearly one-third of people with disability live close to or below the poverty line, compared to one-tenth of Australians overall. Often people with disability are socially isolated. Tragically, people with mental illness are over-represented in our prison populations. Many of our public amenities—the things that mainstream Australia takes for granted—such as cinemas, swimming pools and public transport, are designed only with able-bodied people in mind. This is discriminatory and can deny people with disability the opportunity to participate fully in society.

As for the carers of people with disability, they are significantly more likely than the general population to experience depression. Around 50 per cent of carers experience depression compared to only six per cent for the general population. People with disability in Australia have the odds stacked against them when it comes to day-to-day living or taking advantage of the life opportunities that the rest of us take for granted. To put it plainly, Australian society has failed throughout history to provide people with disability the equality of opportunity that all Australians deserve.

The Productivity Commission, in the report on its inquiry into disability care and support, described the current system as ‘underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient’. The Gillard Labor government are determined to redress this injustice. That is why we are committed to the introduction of a National Disability Insurance Scheme, or NDIS. The introduction of an NDIS is a reform that is decades overdue. It is fitting that a Labor government should pursue this reform now, taking up the work of the Whitlam Labor government, which first pursued an NDIS in 1974.

The bill to introduce the scheme, the National Compensation Bill, was passed by the House of Representatives on 24 October 1974. The bill, had it received royal assent, would have provided coverage for all Australians who suffer a physical or mental incapacity. Included in the scheme was incapacity resulting from injury, congenital disability and sickness. Earnings related compensation was to be paid through the period of incapacity at a rate of 85 per cent of lost pre-tax earnings. The bill was introduced to the Senate on 30 October and referred to the Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. In its report, delivered in July 1975, the committee recommended that the bill be withdrawn and reconsidered. The Whitlam government was preparing to introduce a new national rehabilitation and compensation bill to parliament in November 1975 but did not get the opportunity to do this before it was dismissed on 11 November. Mr Whitlam outlined the case for his commitment to the scheme in a 1974 policy speech. I will repeat his words because they are as relevant today to the case for an NDIS as they were 37 years ago:

We are determined to place the security, the welfare of those who suffer incapacity through accident or sickness on a sure and certain basis—on the basis of confidence and freedom from financial anxiety for themselves and their families. Australians should not have to live in doubt or anxiety lest injury or sickness reduce them to poverty. We want to reduce hardships imposed by one of the great factors for inequality in society—inequality of luck.

It is a sad indictment of our society and on governments of both persuasions that it has taken almost 40 years to pick up the work of this important reform that Gough Whitlam started. Mr Whitlam talked about freedom from financial anxiety and he talked about the inequality that came about on the basis of luck. By having a system that fails to account fully for the true cost of disability we have allowed that inequality to continue.

This Gillard Labor government is moving in the right direction to deliver certainty to people with disability and their families. Equality of opportunity is at the core of Labor philosophy and has underpinned many of the great Labor reforms of the past 50 years. For example: the social security system and compulsory superannuation, which provide a safety net for unemployed Australians and ensure a secure retirement for all. There is Medicare, a system of universal health insurance that ensures that all Australians can receive the health care that they need regardless of their means. There is paid parental leave, which gives workers the opportunity to spend valuable time with their children in the formative years of their lives, and there is the National Broadband Network, which will give regional Australians access to the quality, affordable broadband enjoyed by their city counterparts.

The NDIS will build on these great Labor reforms. It will eliminate, as Mr Whitlam said, the inequality of luck. It will ensure that the support received by people with disability will be driven by need, not dictated by the state they are living in, the cause of their injury or illness or whether they were successful in an arduous and lengthy court battle for compensation.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Bill Shorten, the former Parliamentary Secretary for Disability Services and a passionate advocate for people with disability, often described the chances of getting adequate compensation for disability as a lottery. This was recognised by the Productivity Commission report, which not only recognised that support for people with disability is insufficient but that it is also unfair and inequitable.

Let me give you some examples of the problems that plague the current system. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated that in 2005 there were 27,800 people with disability on the waiting list for supported accommodation and respite care Australia wide. The waiting list does not account for all the people already receiving support that is inappropriate for their needs. For instance, in New South Wales alone over 2,000 younger people with disability are living in aged care facilities.

The various programs provided by the states, territories and the Commonwealth for disability support make up a complex maze that people trying to access the system find very difficult to navigate. Some families find themselves spending countless hours researching services and filling out paperwork, with no guarantee of success.

A major problem with the various state and territory schemes for funding disability support is their lack of portability. Moving across state borders means that a family that has been waiting for years to gain access to services ends up being pushed to the back of the queue. This significantly limits the career and educational opportunities for people with disability, as by moving interstate to improve their prospects they could actually end up being worse off.

Having separate state based support schemes also leads to grossly unfair outcomes because of the peculiar incon­sistencies between them. For example, each state and territory even has different definitions of disability for the purposes of identifying potential service users. While Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT only make reference to communication, learning and mobility limitations, the other states and territories also refer to self-care, self-management, decision making and social interaction.

A bizarre illustration of the inconsistencies in state and territory schemes is provided by a street in Tweed Heads that sits on the border between New South Wales and Queensland. If you live in Boundary Street and you are catastrophically injured in a motor vehicle accident, the quality and extent of the support you receive is based on which side of the street you live on. This is because the southern side of the street is in New South Wales, which has a no-fault motor vehicle accident scheme, while the opposite side is in Queensland, which has a fault based arrangement.

While there are plenty of examples in the Productivity Commission report of insufficient service provision to meet the needs of people with disability, I have had personal stories relayed to me of people who have lived these experiences. One example involves a constituent in my home state of Tasmania whose son has an autism spectrum disorder. At the age of 12 he had an IQ test and was found to have the intellectual capacity of a seven-year-old, however he often surprises with his cognitive abilities. For example, he has a great passion for football and is very good at recalling facts about the game, its history and players. There is much hidden potential in people with disability if they are provided with the proper support, and it is our duty to ensure this potential is realised. Because of his disability, my constituent’s son required one-on-one assistance from a teacher aide, who was provided to him throughout primary school. However this assistance was reduced during high school, and he had to share the aide with four or five other students, a situation which his psychologist described as ‘appalling’ and which has had a considerable effect on his learning outcomes. Her son’s quality of life is also affected by an inability to access appropriate housing, with her son’s severe asthma exacerbated by the continuous build-up of mould in the house they live in during a Tasmanian winter. On occasion he has been rushed to hospital in an ambulance because of the severity of his asthma attacks.

Of course stories like this one are replicated thousands of times across Australia. There are 4½ million Australians with disability, and 760,000 Australians under the age of 65 have a severe or profound disability. Half a million Australians are primary carers of a person with a disability and a further 2.4 million are non-primary carers. The Productivity Commission has proposed that the NDIS have three main functions. The first is to provide insurance against the risk of acquiring significant disability, promoting opportunities for people with a disability and creating awareness of the issues that affect people with a disability. This universal insurance scheme will ensure that every Australian is a beneficiary of the NDIS just as they are beneficiaries of the universal health insurance provided by Medicare or the no-fault motor accident schemes that operate in some jurisdictions such as my home state of Tasmania. Another proposed function is to provide information and referral services to people with or affected by disability.

Finally, the commission recommended that the NDIS fund individualised supports for any person who has a disability that is or is likely to be permanent where they meet certain criteria. The proposed criteria for support under the NDIS is that the person either requires significant ongoing support for self-care, communication, mobility and self-management or has a condition for which early intervention would be safe, be cost-effective and significantly improve outcomes. The commission estimates that the criteria for support would cover around 411,000 Australians. The commission has suggested some flexibility to provide support to some other people who would not be covered by these criteria.

The Gillard Labor government has been working hard to develop an NDIS for some time. The government has already secured state and territory agreement on the need for fundamental reform of disability services, established an advisory group of disability experts and advocates led by Dr Jeff Harmer to provide advice on delivering the foundations for reform and secured agreement from the state and territory governments to lay the foundations for an NDIS by mid-2013.

On 17 February 2010, Senator Sherry referred to the Productivity Commission for inquiry and report a national disability long-term care and support scheme. The inquiry was to assess the costs, cost-effectiveness, benefits and feasibility of an approach which provides long-term essential care and support for eligible people with a severe or profound disability on an entitlement basis and taking account of the desired outcomes for each person over a lifetime. The referral ordered the commission to include an examination of a no-fault social insurance scheme that would reflect the shared risk of disability across the population.

I would like to congratulate the commission for producing such a wide-ranging, well-researched and comprehensive report. The commission conducted a staggering 23 days of public hearings, hearing 237 individual presentations. They also received over 1,000 public submissions, of which more than 400 were received after the release of the draft report. The commission found that people with disability Australia-wide receive combined state, territory and Commonwealth government support and care worth $7 billion per annum. They estimated that an additional $6.5 billion of funding per year would be needed to provide reasonable care and support to people with disability over the long run.

On 3 December last year, the International Day of People with Disability, the Prime Minister announced that the government would establish a dedicated agency to lead the detailed design of the launch of an NDIS in select locations around the country. The Prime Minister also committed an additional $10 million for practical projects to help develop how the NDIS will work in practice. These demonstration projects will give the disability workforce, service providers and people with disability the opportunity to work with government on this essential design work.

The Australian government has agreed with the states and territories to agree to clear time lines for delivering on the foundations of the NDIS. At the first meeting of the Select Council of Treasurers and Disability Services Ministers, the Commonwealth, states and territories agreed to deliver these foundation reforms by mid-2013, a year ahead of the time line set out by the Productivity Commission.

This government’s commitment to the National Disability Insurance Scheme stands in stark contrast to the record of the previous Coalition government on supporting people with disability. Under the previous government, people with disability had to wait up to a year to get help to prepare for work through Disability Employment Services. By contrast, this government has delivered unprecedented investment in Disability Employment Services. In the 2011-12 budget we announced a competitive tender process for the Employment Support Service of the Disability Employment Services to provide an open and transparent process for selecting the best service providers and delivering the most effective services to job seekers with disability. Just last month we released an exposure draft of the request for tender, followed by extensive consultations with the sector. We also made a decision to remove the cap on these services, meaning that more people with disability than ever are receiving assistance to help them find and keep a job. More than 148,000 people are now being serviced by DES providers nationally.

While the Coalition government were in power, their contribution to disability services grew by a mere 1.8 per cent per year—less than the rate of inflation. In other words their funding went backwards in real terms. It would appear that even in opposition the Liberal-National coalition have learnt nothing when it comes to supporting people with disability. The education card proposal that the Leader of the Opposition took to the last election was to assist just 6,000 children with disability and their families. There are 164,000 students in Australian schools with special needs, so what did Mr Abbott propose to do for the other 158,000?

While the Opposition continues to tinker around the edges on disability policy, we are continuing on the pathway to serious reform. It has taken this Labor government to start making the serious steps towards delivering on the needs of people with disability, just as Gough Whitlam did over thirty years ago. The greatest threat to delivery on this major reform would be the election of an Abbott-led Coalition government with their lack of commitment to an NDIS. Any chance that those opposite will commit to an NDIS is made more remote by the fact that they have to make up for a $70 billion budget black hole.

It is high time that we delivered justice for people with disability in Australia. For too long people with disability have been treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and we intend to change that. While the government has been behind this reform for some time, I would like to thank and congratulate the thousands of Australians who have been involved in the Every Australian Counts campaign. I would like to thank my former employer, the Australian Services Union. They have been a very active participant in this campaign, and they and other participants should be proud of what they have achieved so far.

The Gillard government is acting to redress a great inequality in our society. It is a matter of great shame for Australia that it has taken so long for a federal government to act on this issue. The day the NDIS is introduced in Australia will be the day when people with disability can say they finally have the opportunity to participate more fully in our society. It is the very least that they deserve.