Thursday, 21 October 2010
Carer Recognition Bill 2010
It is a great honour to address this bill, the Carer Recognition Bill 2010, in relation to carers and the way in which they are treated and respected within our society. I want to proceed in three phases. I want to, firstly, address the essence of the bill and the status of carers in Australia; secondly, look at the particular circumstances of children who operate as carers of parents with mental illness; and then, thirdly, address the maltreatment of one particular person, Robert Rice, and call for action on that immediately.
Let me deal first with the circumstances of carers in Australia. We know that there are at least 2.6 million unpaid carers in Australia. Their work is profound. The role that they play is socially critical. Yes, they take financial pressure off the Commonwealth but, much more importantly, they provide a human service and they help to create a strong society with a tendency towards greatness if they are given the ability and the support they need. Seventy-nine per cent of assistance required by Australians due to disability or illness is provided by these unpaid carers. If we take the entire state system and multiply that by four, that gives us the scope, the scale, the magnitude, of the work of the voluntary carer—the unpaid carer. So that is vitally important. The way in which we support them through the carer payment and the carer allowance, advances made under the previous government, is a sign of our health as a nation. This bill is a valuable step forward, although it is primarily about definitions and words and not about money. That, I accept, is the stage we are at. But the bill builds on the definition of ‘carer’ to broaden it, and that is a welcome element.
We know that there are 380,000 carers under the age of 26—young people who care for people with illnesses including congenital conditions and mental health illnesses. Of those, 170,000 are under the age of 18. That brings me to the issue of carers who are children looking after parents with mental illness. I was recently approached, on the basis of my own family circumstances, to be the patron of the Satellite Foundation. It has been a great opportunity. As a standard Australian male I did not talk about my mother’s circumstances for two decades, but an event led me to do so and that in turn led to my association with the Satellite Foundation.
What I would commend to the House is a proposal as an individual member of this parliament, not as a member of the Liberal Party or as a member of another party. It is not my party’s policy and it is not the Labor Party’s policy; it is something which I will seek to be policy on a non-partisan basis right across the House. My proposal is that there should be for young people who are caring for parents with a mental illness a program which would involve what I would call ‘camps and counselling’. It is a four-year program which we launched with the Satellite Foundation. They have valued this program at appropriately $5 million per annum. That is a starting point. We are happy to negotiate with either side of the House. At $5 million per annum over four years, the program would provide up to 8,000 places for either counselling or camps for children across the country who are taking care of parents with a mental illness.
I recently visited the Weston family in Ringwood. I will use their name because they were photographed and allowed themselves to be considered in the Australian newspaper. They are very fine people. The family consists of mum and dad and five kids. The middle child, Ethan, has quite significant Down syndrome conditions. Mum has suffered from some very, very traumatic mental illnesses but has been a great survivor. Dad is caring and the kids also have a very important caring role. These are the sorts of people who should have access to an ongoing process of constructive counselling, camps and retreats, a place of respite, on an annual basis—not as victims but as people who need to have support on the journey and to know that they are not alone.
To be able to help these people and thousands of other young carers is a profoundly important step forward. It is the niche within mental health that I wish to focus on. There are many people in this parliament and outside of this parliament who are doing great work, but I believe this is a gap. Over the course of this term, I want to work with both sides of parliament to achieve that allocation of funding. It is important, and I am very hopeful that we can do it on a non-partisan basis, with universal support. That would be a small step forward for the many thousands of children who, through no fault of their own, have an enormous weight to bear way beyond that of their years.
The third element that I want to raise in this speech is about a particular person who has been, in my view, badly treated under the current government. Robert Rice is an Australian veteran. He served with distinction in Bougainville and in Afghanistan. He is not a carer in the traditional sense, but as this bill is about the definition of ‘carer’ I think it is important that we consider his circumstances. As a decorated veteran from Bougainville and Afghanistan, he sought to make his way in small business. He was drawn into the government’s Green Loans program and paid $3,000 to go through the training and then, within a matter of days after making that outlay and completing that payment, the program was cancelled. He believed that it would be restarted, but that never occurred. He therefore lost possible income, and he has just had to sell his campaign medals. This Australian veteran, who, because of a government program, has had to sell his campaign medals, is a symbol of the thousands of assessors who trained, worked and sought to do something for the environment and then were betrayed by the government.
The message is very clear: there must be redress for Robert Rice so that he can regain his campaign medals and there must be redress for the other Green Loans assessors who are out of pocket. I would urge the Prime Minister to take up by the end of today Mr Rice’s case and the case for compensation, on a modest scale, for those assessors, those Australian small business people, who sought to do the right thing. I am happy to draw to a conclusion and to commend the bill but to seek action on behalf of Mr Rice.