Monday, 28 May 2007
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008
I think that a measure of any government or society is the way that it treats the most vulnerable of its citizens. We can see what a government thinks of various groups of people by the way it responds financially and in policy. Perhaps similarly, the measure of a man or woman is at least in part how he or she responds to and considers the needs of those experiencing disadvantage, regardless of the obligation to do so or indeed of the rewards for such behaviour. The Christians in our midst might think of the parable of the good Samaritan.
The key test of decent leadership, in my view, is whether leaders appear to consider and care for people who have disabilities which adversely affect their ability to function and participate in our society, and whether they put energy and thought into devising policies which reduce disadvantage and the impact of disability. These are critical questions that we can ask of any government.
I was curious about the Prime Minister. What had he said over his more than 30 years in politics about peoplewith disabilities and government responsibilities for such people? I searched the Hansard record for any indication that the Prime Minister had previously shown an interest in people with disabilities, and I have to say that I turned up a very sorry record. He has often talked about disabilities in the economy as people with disabilities. In fact, if you look at the record, in 1982 he mentioned veteran disability pensions in his budget speech. In 1983, in a debate on an income tax bill, he mentioned exemptions for foreign pensioners with a war related disability. There was then a big gap until 1997, when, in a condolence motion, he referred to the fact that Lance Barnard had sustained permanent disabilities in war service. In 2002, when opposing a bill on embryo stem cell research, he mentioned disability as one of the roles of a committee to which he referred. In 2004 he referred to Betty Cuthbert’s ‘cheerful disposition in the face of that disability’—referring to multiple sclerosis. In 2005, in a ministerial statement on the Fair Pay Commission, he referred to their role in adjusting junior, training and disability wages. And that is really about it. He has never once spoken about policy or programs for people with disabilities in this parliament in all of those 30 years, let alone the discrimination that such people might face or the quality of their lives. To me, that says a lot.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that successive budgets tell a story of neglect for people with disabilities and their carers. I have spoken on previous occasions about the especially scandalous neglect of Indigenous people with disabilities. But I think it is important that we recognise, despite all the rhetoric about this budget, that if the Commonwealth had matched the states, whose performance is not perfect by any means, over the life of the last agreement with the states, for instance, on the average rate of indexation, we would have seen an additional $86 million available to maintain existing services. If it had matched them in percentage growth, there would have been an additional $232 million for services across Australia. If it had matched them in growth dollars, there would have been an additional $1 billion in funding for disability services in Australia.
I think we have seen a disturbing willingness on the part of this government to use people, particularly in negotiations with the states—people with disabilities—as pawns in disputes with the states about program responsibilities and funding. Despite the Senate inquiry recommending additional funding to meet unmet need, the government pre-empted consideration of the report and said point blank that there would be no additional funding, and they have been true to their word in this budget. The provision in the budget in comparison to the need is, frankly, scandalous. We have seen minor increases to partially reflect service cost inflation—not adequately—and growth in the cohort, in the number of people needing services, but there has been a dismal failure to grapple with unmet need, either in this budget or in the negotiations with the states. That unmet need is very visible to anyone who has worked in this sector or talked to a parent or, indeed, to a person with a disability—in accommodation, respite and day services, appropriate employment and occupational services.
I am told that the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report—a draft version is yet unpublished—indicates that in 2005 unmet demand for accommodation and respite services was estimated at 23,800 people being without those services. They estimate further that the demand for accommodation and respite services is expected to increase by 34,600 people between 2006 and 2010—the life of the next agreement—and yet the government has said that there will be no growth in funding to meet that unmet demand.
The budget does virtually nothing to address the critical unmet need in the disability sector overall. Only 48 of every 1,000 people under 65 with a severe or profound disability get accommodation support of any kind under the current agreement and we are told that is not going to improve. Indeed, if we look at those figures, it is only going to get worse.
The budget also failed to indicate any real support for critical new Commonwealth-state disability funding, as I say, to be part of that agreement due to be finalised by 30 June 2007. As one disability advocate put it:
Despite the Senate Committee report released February 2007 showing massive shortcomings in previous funding arrangements and 29 key recommendations, Costello—
and he might have said Howard, the Prime Minister—
has snubbed the 200,000 Australians with serious and multiple disabilities depending on the new CSTDA agreement for quality of life.
The Commonwealth’s budget forecast of funding indexation at just 1.8 per cent, with no additional funding for enhanced CSTDA, I have to say, left the disability sector in shock at what appeared to be a callous lack of compassion and fairness by this government. It is interesting that on talkback radio, the day following the budget, the PM got a call from Robert, a 47-year-old disability support pensioner. This budget, which supposedly had something for everyone, as Robert said, ‘had nothing for me’—a position the Prime Minister confirmed in that radio interview.
Sadly, that neglect by the government is actually mirrored in the media coverage. It was pretty hard to see anyone in the media picking up this point. There was practically no mention of the government’s performance in this area. Apparently, most of the newspapers, radios and television were dazzled with all the giveaways. I think we should look at the situation of people with disabilities—that so many of them were overlooked. People like a woman who contacted me—I will not use her name, although she gave permission to do so, because I think it is better not to—after I gave a speech some months ago about the whole need for the CSTDA to be completed before the election and properly done, following the budget. She said she has two disabled adult children, one with schizophrenia and the other with autism and a mild intellectual disability. She said something that so many of these people tell me:
I am exhausted from the continuous battle to get appropriate assistance for them. I am 62 and I hoped I would have a few years retirement of peace to pursue activities of my choice. Last year my daughter found an appropriate form of accommodation but she hasn’t been able to find anything at all for her son who is 37. I have been serving on committees in the area for the past 20 years. I have also worked four days a week to subsidise my children and I am separated ...
That is something that often happens to families with disabilities: they are blown apart. Life is physically and emotionally exhausting for many of these people and I give credit to the West Australian for covering the fate of two young retirees—if you can be a young retiree—Rosalie and Tony Sexton, whose story is very public so I feel I can mention their names. They are Mount Lawley residents, 64 and 65, who should be enjoying their new free time, but they are actually struggling to cope with caring for their son, Peter, who has Down syndrome, while sharing the responsibility of ageing parents and helping their daughter, a first-time mother. They are self-funded retirees on a pretty modest budget and they had hoped for increased funding, especially for disability services. They said:
We would like funding so we can find independent sustainable supported accommodation for Peter.
That is their son. The Sextons said they would then provide recreational and social support for their son but would be relieved of the exhausting primary care. But instead, as they found:
There’s no recognition of the unmet needs identified by the recent Senate inquiry. Extra dollars to families do not provide services, only band-aids and sweeteners as vote-pullers. In other words, we are disgusted.
They are not alone in that regard. There are a great many others. Mrs Sexton knows what she is talking about because she is a former registered nurse who worked for the Cerebral Palsy Association, and they wanted more support from the federal government after years of paying taxes. As they said, on the carer allowance, they will get the $600 one-off payment but they were bitterly disappointed. As Mrs Sexton said:
It shows utter contempt and disdain and a complete lack of understanding of the most marginalised in our community. We have both given our life to service—me at work and Tony fighting in Vietnam—and we just want help to more adequately support Peter’s needs.
That is what she said in that newspaper report. I have heard stories like that over and over again. As the Senate committee said when looking at the CSTDA, the weight of responsibility on countless families is a crushing and unreasonable one, and much greater community assistance in that task is urgently called for. What does the government say? No more funding, nothing in this budget, nothing in the CSTDA. In that negotiation, they have shown a belligerent attitude, the classic tactic of issuing ultimatums and refusing to negotiate sensibly. They offer, for instance, dollar for dollar matching with the states for accommodation needs but refuse to take account of recent expenditure by the states, which has grown much faster, by the way, than expenditure by the Commonwealth. And there have been reports in recent days that if the states do not respond to the current offer by the Commonwealth by 8 June there will be unspecified consequences, including the possibility that the very limited offer they have made will actually be withdrawn.
I remind members that the purpose of this agreement, the CSTDA, is to enable the states and the Commonwealth to work collaboratively—to work together, in other words—to develop and implement strategies to improve the social and economic participation by people with disabilities in the community and to provide access to appropriate support which best meets their needs and abilities. Instead, the Commonwealth is trying to negotiate one by one with the states and break up the CSTDA. The Senate committee, amongst other things, recommended: equitable funding on a per capita basis; indexation that was actually in line with increases in the cost of service delivery—something the Commonwealth will not deliver; they want outcomes based reporting; we all agree about that—and, importantly, growth funds for unmet needs and specialist services, to which I have already referred, particularly those in accommodation and support.
The Commonwealth appears determined at the moment to reinterpret the original intention of the CSTDA, which was to share administrative responsibility between the Commonwealth and the states and share financial responsibility for funding services and to work towards equality of funding between the states—something which has not yet happened. I think it is clear to anyone who fairly looks at this field that people with disabilities and their carers are not getting a decent deal. The government should heed the calls of the national CSTDA Community Alliance, which is a coalition of provider and advocacy groups, that, as they put it, are taking a stand for people with disabilities and their families, and they want cooperation between the governments, not stalemate.
Some members would have been visited in recent weeks by many families with members who have disabilities, although I noticed that some were rebuffed by their local MPs, including the Treasurer. I want to draw attention briefly to a number of other additional failures before I move to another matter. I am very disappointed, for instance, that the ABC is axing Talking Books, which means that thousands of people with visual impairment will lose access to recreational reading. The ABC says it is not profitable and, since the board members are mostly friends of government, I assume that reflects the priorities of the government.
We have also seen a failure by the government to develop a comprehensive response to the HREOC report on employment for people with disabilities. They are just ignoring the recommendations. We have also seen a failure to table draft standards for access to premises for people with disabilities, and we have seen the recent notorious example of people with restricted mobility being unable to gain access to job capacity assessment centres, part of the so-called Welfare to Work requirements. And of course we have got no indication yet of the government’s intention to ratify the UN disability convention, which would put it on the spot in relation to a lot of these failures.
I want to turn briefly now to another area which is often overlooked by this government—that is, the protection of heritage in Australia. There is a very important site on the coast of Western Australia which I have spoken about before in this parliament, the Burrup, the Dampier Archipelago. At least two areas have been nominated for inclusion on the National Heritage List. It is a fascinating area and without precedent both in terms of its prehistory and in terms of its significance for Indigenous people. It is of world significance, as indicated by the fact that globally now there is a campaign called Stand Up For the Burrup. People outside Australia appear to know more about the Burrup than Australians do, and certainly they seem to care more than this government appears to care, as indicated by people standing up outside world monuments to indicate their support to protect this very important site. They have demonstrated their support in Seville, in Spain, outside the Opera House, outside Carnegie Hall, outside the university campus festival in Grenoble, in Amsterdam, in Lyons, in Brussels, in Cape Town, and so on. Yet this government still cannot move itself to list this very important site. Indeed, the minister refused a request for emergency listing and has continued to delay the decision to list. More damage, unfortunately, is done to the site every day. There are alternatives, as many people have pointed out, particularly at Onslow. We do not have to further damage this very important site.
The reason I wanted to mention it again today is that I have had the good fortune to get access to a further report to the minister and to the department from one of the consultants, Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management. I hasten to add that the report did not come from her. It has not yet been publicised, but it certainly should be because it reinforces the strong advice that has already been given to the government that the archipelago in its entirety is of extremely high significance. Amongst other things, the report says that ‘no one area of the archipelago can necessarily be considered to be representative of the whole’. Successive governments, state and federal, have tried to carve out bits, saying that there is a whole lot more left, but the point about this site is that ‘no one area is representative. It is highly varied and it is cumulative’.
The other point that I think is worth making, and that is made in this report, is that only a portion of the archipelago has been intensively surveyed. We are destroying this without knowing what we are doing. The report also points out that industrial development has affected approximately 14 per cent of the entire landmass so far.
This research report undertook some very extensive additional work which had never before been done. Part of the problem here, as I have indicated, is that too little of this site has been properly surveyed. I want to read into Hansard some of the conclusions of that extended research program and the use of existing data. The report looks at each of the National Heritage List criteria and presents the data that support them. For instance, one of the criteria is that the place has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of its importance in the course or pattern of Australia’s natural or cultural history. The conclusion here is that the archaeology of the Damper Archipelago provides an outstanding and arguably unique example of long-term Aboriginal occupation of an arid littoral landscape for Northern Australia and that the art provides unique evidence of Aboriginal occupation and persistence within a desert landscape, including the transition to a maritime landscape.
On the second criterion, that the place has outstanding heritage value because of its possession of uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of Australia’s natural or cultural history, I think it is very important to recognise the conclusions here. The report states:
The cultural heritage values of the place are endangered.
… … …
It is estimated that there are well over one million engraved motifs on the Dampier Archipelago.
They are without peer. If you have not been there, you should. The report continues:
A significant number of valleys and foreshore pavement complexes contain many tens of thousands of individually executed motifs. There is a significant superimpositioning of motifs. The density of stone arrangements is also at the highest end recorded within Australia for such site types—
That is well in advance of anywhere else. It goes on to say:
... the area has operated as an aggregation locale for groups from widely dispersed areas over a long time period.
We are talking tens of thousands of years here being destroyed, apparently without regret. The report goes on to say:
The current footprint of industry on the Burrup Peninsula, and its anticipated spread, present both direct and indirect impacts which place cultural heritage—and the art of the Archipelago—at high-risk of being endangered.
The government needs to know that when it moves to list this site, as it now must, and it should not delay longer.
There are other criteria which the data clearly indicate that this site meets. For instance, the spectacular rock art of the archipelago is said to be as well known at the local, regional, national and international levels. Rock art specialists have either visited or worked on the archipelago and they have been unanimous in declaring it is one of the most aesthetically spectacular and information-rich art provinces they have ever witnessed—and yet we are busily chopping it up. The researchers were also asked to comment on the value of the place in its creative and technical achievement over a particular period of time, and again these are exceptional recommendations. The report says:
The rock art of the Dampier Archipelago demonstrates extremely high diversity in theme, style, mode of execution, dynamism, level of naturalism and abstraction and depiction of recognisable economic and social behaviours.
The language is perhaps a little off-putting, but the important thing here is that this is a site without peer. This deserves World Heritage listing; do not worry about National Heritage listing. I would say, frankly, that it perhaps deserves priority over the Flemington racecourse, which has already been listed.