House debates

Monday, 29 July 2019

Private Members' Business

Vision Australia Radio Funding

5:16 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that Vision Australia's radio broadcast is at risk of ending at the end of 2019 due to a lack of funding;

(2) acknowledges that:

(a) this organisation is receiving some Government funding, but more is needed to cover running costs; and

(b) 700,000 listeners tune into Vision Australia Radio each year and that there are around 800 volunteers across 10 stations in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and regional Victoria;

(3) recognises that due to changes in the funding received by disability support organisations following the roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Vision Australia needs to secure an extra $700,000 per year to ensure the future of the service;

(4) believes the Government can play a vital role in ensuring people with a print disability can remain informed and connected to their local community; and

(5) calls on the Government to provide greater funding support to Vision Australia to continue their radio service.

This is a very important motion. I welcome it being debated today. I welcome the government members and my colleagues who will be contributing to this particular debate and this motion.

The motion speaks for itself. It notes quite clearly that the Vision Australia broadcast is at risk of ending their service at the end of the year due to a lack of funding. This has been brought about because of the NDIS. The previous debate was about the NDIS. We've heard speeches in the parliament today in the 90 second statements about the NDIS. This is another casualty if the federal government does not increase its funding for Vision Australia Radio.

Who are they? They have about 700,000 listeners across Australia. They have 800 volunteers who help deliver local content through 10 stations, based in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and regional Victoria, including my own hometown of Bendigo. This service is vital to people who are vision impaired.

In this motion we also recognise that the changes to the NDIS have made it difficult for this organisation to go forward. Yes, they receive federal government funding. They receive a grant from the government from the communications department to help run the service but it is drastically short.

The rollout of the NDIS has stopped the block grants that they used to receive through various funding sources, whether they be state based or federally based.

There isn't the capacity under the NDIS for individuals to subscribe to Vision Australia to keep part of their package to help support this project going forward. I am pretty sure that most Australians would agree that they weren't aware that one of the unintended consequences of the rollout of the NDIS would see services like Vision Australia cease.

This is an opportunity for the government to step in. It is an opportunity for the government to increase funding to Vision Australia, to this vital service, to ensure that it keeps going.

I acknowledge that we want the states to have a role to play. It's also an opportunity for the government to engage state governments in how they can help support this radio service going forward. Let's not let it be another casualty of the NDIS. Let's fix this by increasing its funding.

Vision Australia have reached out to me and to many here to bring us into the studios to meet the volunteers and to talk to their listeners. It wasn't the first time that I have actually spoken to the listeners through Vision Australia Radio. Having had the opportunity a number of times over the years, I'm always struck by the professionalism and the pride of the volunteers and the fact that they take the time to read out local stories. It is so critical that people in regional areas get to engage with their local stories.

At about one o'clock every day they read out local articles, snippets from the Bendigo Advertiser, helping people who are vision impaired who haven't been able to read the paper that day keep up to date with what's happening. They are also quite often involved in broadcasting or talking about local events to make sure people know what's happening in their town. This is a vital service that helps people with a vision impairment stay connected and stay engaged.

The 800 volunteers, including the 50 in my electorate, really value what they do. This service is reliant upon volunteers. About 15 hours a week are produced locally in Bendigo, and it's about the same for all regional areas. This is the local content. But volunteers alone cannot keep this service going, and Vision Australia have outlined where they need the extra funding. They need extra funding to cover broadcasting infrastructure and network costs. They need extra funding for leasing, building utilities and maintenance. They need extra funding for employee costs. These are the basics that they need to keep the service going.

This is a vital service, and I'm hoping that by bringing this motion to the parliament today to highlight the challenges that they have we can see bipartisanship on this issue. I've reached out to the ministers, both the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts and the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and encouraged them to meet with Vision Australia and to find the funding to fix this gap. I welcome all the contributions that are being made today to show our support for the Vision Australia Radio service.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder for the motion?

5:22 pm

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (Monash, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. I seconded the motion and support the motion because this is a very important issue for regional Australia, and I commend the member for Bendigo for drawing this to the attention of the parliament. I've been blessed by having a centre for vision impaired persons for many, many, many years in the association of the centre for disability in Bindaree, which has supplied the exact services the member for Bendigo has just described—volunteers reading local news and local events on the radio, which is very important.

I too, along with my colleague the member for Narracan, Gary Blackwood MLA, met with Vision Australia the other day on their roadshow, which would have gone to Bendigo, to Ballarat, to Gippsland and across the southern states, where Vision Australia provide one of their many services. This radio service to vision impaired people is a service that doesn't only go to the 7,000 people that the member for Bendigo mentioned. There's a whole lot of cheats out there who are fully vision aware, who have perfect sight, but listen to this radio program to get the local news and to get local events to know what's going on. So, yes, we have 7,000 people listening, but it affects far more than 7,000 people because it affects the families around the 7,000 vision impaired people. We're talking about thousands and thousands of people who benefit from Vision Australia Radio.

A long time ago in this parliament, before the member for Bendigo was here, there was a member called the member for McMillan, which is an electorate that no longer exists. He stood up and said, 'When you introduce the NDIS—having a long background in disability services and chairing one of these organisations for more than 10 years—there are going to be problems.' And everybody said: 'No, there won't be. We'll sail through. There won't be any problems.' Well, the problems are now storming home to meet whoever's in power—whoever's in government. We have found there are going to be difficulties bedding down the NDIS. No-one's complaining about the price. No-one's trying to withdraw funding that is there and available from families. We're trying to deliver that. So why are we here going on about Vision Australia? Why does Lisa Chesters have to come in here and say, 'We've got a problem'? We have got a problem.

The question is: when the states handed over all responsibility for the NDIS to the federal government, did they hand over the money for the block grants, or did that disappear in the ether? I don't know. If I knew that, I'd be able to say, 'Come on, Daniel Andrews, come on, state premiers—stump up.' But I don't know whether that was a calculation in the equation. If I knew, I could say. I said to my parliamentary colleague Gary Blackwood MLA, the member for Narracan, 'This used to be your problem.' He said, 'Now it's yours.' Which is true. The federal government is taking responsibility for the NDIS, and vision impaired people come under the NDIS. There are parts of the NDIS where, very clearly, we have a responsibility to vision impaired people—there is no doubt. That service has been provided, but it's a different service to what was happening before, because even the states knew then that there had to be a block grant component. In the NDIS, to my knowledge, there is no block grant component.

So, we need a meeting between the communications department, NDIS and the states. Well, the states are saying: 'No. You got it. It's yours. You play the ball.' My problem is I don't want the $700,000 shortfall to interrupt at any stage the services that Vision Australia are supplying. I put to them: 'Are you top-heavy? Are you spending in areas you shouldn't be spending? Do you need to cut costs yourselves?' I think they said, 'That's a reasonable question, and we're looking at ourselves.' But the bottom line is that to supply the radio service they're going to need nearly another three-quarters of a million dollars. That used to come in block grants. There is no facility in NDIS for that block grant to come. So, we have a problem. We will address that.

The member for Bendigo has written to both ministers, asking them to meet with Vision Australia. I've put out that call to those ministers too: meet with Vision Australia. I said, 'After you've had the meetings, you come back to Lisa Chesters and Russell Broadbent and others. Talk to them and tell them what happened at the meeting,' and then we'll look at the issue once again.

5:27 pm

Photo of Patrick GormanPatrick Gorman (Perth, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My great-grandfather Arthur Stidwell lived in Gosnells. He caught the train to the Perth train station every day from Monday and Friday. He would then get on the Midland Line and go to Maylands for work. He was a huge fan of Ben Chifley, and he was completely blind. My grandmother Joan would read the newspaper to him every single morning. She was the service—in his home, for him—that now thousands and thousands of Australians get to have the privilege of through Vision Australia Radio.

My grandmother Joan wrote in her family history a bit more about his life working at the Maylands blind institute, which sits in the heart of the Perth electorate. She said, 'Dad was a good provider for his family, travelling each and every day from Gosnells to Maylands to work at the blind institute. He could have stayed home and lived on the invalid pension, but he chose to work as it meant more money for his family. He was a hair drafter. That means that he used to pull hanks of horse hair from the manes and tails of horses through beds of wicked looking steel spikes with needle sharp points to tease it out, later curling and cleaning it by different methods, including immersing it in boiling water. The Mainlands blind institute no longer exists in its current form. It is now home to a beautiful visual art—the WA ballet.

So much else has changed since Arthur Stidwell worked in Maylands. Employment opportunities for those with disability have increased. The disability support pension is far more adequate, although improvement could always be made. We have the National Disability Insurance Scheme and our education system is far more integrated. So, to go backwards by closing a service like Vision Australia would be a small cut with a very, very big impact. We have spoken a lot in this place recently about freedom of the press. That also implies that people have proper access to the press—that they can actually engage with the reporting on their government, their community, their nation.

Others have already done this, but I think it's important to go through some of the history of Vision Australia's radio service. It started as Radio for the Print Handicapped in the 1970s. It was first funded by the Fraser Liberal government—what a great achievement of the Fraser Liberal government it was to fund that service—in 1981, which was International Year of Disabled Persons. They handed over the cheque and this service started to go national. In 1988 it was granted an AM licence and free use of Commonwealth broadcasting facilities. The regional stations, which the member for Bendigo and others have highlighted, started in 1997, 22 years ago. The radio service is, in fact, one of those great examples of the power of government and community working together to create something for very little cost but with a huge impact for those who rely on it. If Vision Australia Radio 990AM were to close in Perth, people would lose access to Bible readings and media, including The West Australianand the stories of The Australian. They wouldn't know what Newspoll was today if they relied on this radio service as their primary source of news. The Australian Financial Review would not be available to them. And this radio service also dives into more niche areas of media, including Crikey and The Conversation.

There were always going to be challenges transitioning to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but, when we talked about those transition challenges, we imagined they were going to be big difficult challenges that would be hard to solve. Finding $700,000 to continue this service is not a big complex policy problem; it's something that the minister could resolve this evening. I'll never believe that the NDIS is truly fully funded if services like this are the sorts of services that start to close because we failed to transition from, admittedly, a system that had had its time to a system that will be, over time, much better for many thousands of Australians.

I commend the member for Bendigo for moving the motion and the member for Monash for seconding it. The member for Bendigo is a strong voice for people with disability and also a strong voice for people who work in disability services. The government should urgently resolve this policy challenge. There is no reason why Vision Australia's radio service should close. It provides a great service to my electorate of Perth and it's a great service for regional communities across Australia. Again, I commend the motion.

5:32 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm delighted to be talking about the importance of Vision Australia's work. We've got many passionate colleagues here that are looking at a particular service provided by Vision Australia Radio and those who rely on that service. Before we consider how we fix a problem, we need to, as the member for Monash pointed out, understand what actually brought us to this point. What we've seen increasingly with the arrival of the NDIS is a scurrying, predominantly by state governments, to find ways to throw into the overall NDIS as many services as possible, as briefly related to disability as possible, as a way of making sure that half of them get funded by Canberra. And you can understand that the government would do that if it possibly could.

The second question is to look at the direction of Vision Australia and whether they're the only group that can provide this service or whether there can be support through normal channels, like community radio and other services that should be looking after those who have poor vision. In this parliament we've got the Parliamentary Friends Group for Eye Health and Vision Care, and I really encourage every one of my colleagues to come along and support what are some of the largest events held in this building by a friendship group—that is, eye health and vision care. Enough of that advertisement!

If we're going to be investing more money—the extra dollar—into health care, the question is going to be, at the margins: where is it best spent? If we're going to step back and take a health lens to this, the question really will be: is the money best spent in radio by Vision Australia or in early intervention and picking up vision problems with kids? Giving some credit to the other side of the chamber, we know that the early preschool checks that were implemented by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had the problem that the healthy kids with worried mums turned up for the checks and we couldn't get the high-risk kids to be checked. The question with eye health, of course, is that the sooner we find a problem, like most forms of early intervention, the better the prospects are of success. Those who are most likely to benefit from the service are least likely to attend for a lot of reason that we collectively refer to as complex. But in New South Wales they actually did try to do this. Eight LHDs in metro Sydney and seven in regional New South Wales got together and said, 'Look, of the 90,000 children that are going to need some form of preschool screening for vision, let's set up a true universal vision test and just see how it goes,' and it's now famously known as the StEPS program. Let's remember that in the state-Commonwealth arrangement that we have here one jurisdiction is stepping out and trialling what has not been found to be cost effective in the rest of the world. Sure, New Zealand has trialled it—New Zealand does a lot of stuff that we don't do—and some provinces in Canada do universal screening. But most of the rest of the world doesn't do it, so we need to have the answers.

What they found when they offered screening to everyone and used a universal approach was that with the 90,000 children they found that 80,000 of them managed to be screened. That is an impressive achievement. Of those that got a full assessment, around 9.7 per cent were referred on for second checks and 9.6 per cent had definitive pathology that needed follow-up. When they broke up that group of four-year-olds in New South Wales, we found that there were those with amblyopia, which of course is a cause of vision loss in one or both eyes; those that needed refraction; then a small category with other conditions.

When you're going to do any form of additional expenditure, I'm encouraging the mover of this motion to take a more global view. It is not just a matter of harassing a level of government about whether a service is delivered. Asking where the dollar is best spent is a really responsible element of evidence based policy that we should be adhering to. What we have seen in the Steps program is an assiduous effort to do it. They have identified how many cases were picked up, how many staff were required to do it. You work on what's called positive and negative predictive value. That's basically saying that if you have a positive finding using a clinician, how many of that proportion genuinely had the condition? In negative prediction you're looking at those who were cleared. This is an even more important point when talking about vision care. Among those whom you've examined and determined are clear of conditions, how many genuinely don't have a condition? Because, clearly, telling someone that they're well when they're not is a big concern.

The cost economics are fairly complex. We want states, like Victoria for instance, to make the case financially that this is where money in eye health and vision care should be spent. I trust that Vision Australia is coming to us and saying that they would like to continue the radio service. I would go straight back to Vision Australia and ask for the evidence.

5:37 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank the member for Bendigo for bringing this very important motion to the parliament about Vision Australia Radio. This unique and long-running service is relied upon by people in our community who are blind, have low vision or a print disability, whether through age, a health condition or lack of literacy skills. Labor is deeply concerned about warnings from Vision Australia that it will be forced to close a number of its radio services at the end of the year as a result of a funding shortfall associated with changes that relate to the NDIS. Currently the Vision Australia Radio network incorporates 10 community radio stations across Australia. According to McNair survey figures from January this year, Vision Australia Radio has an average of 701,000 listeners per month. Each of these listeners tunes in for more than 10 hours a week on average. Without a solution, only four of the stations will remain, and the closures will severely reduce the ability of many thousands of people to access information in their preferred format.

Vision Australia Radio receives support, including government funding through the Community Broadcasting Foundation, sponsorship and philanthropic donations. What's more, the network survives thanks to the time and dedication of more than 800 volunteers who provide more than $2.4 million worth of value to the service. I acknowledge and thank them. Despite all this, Vision Australia Radio can no longer sustain its much needed community service given that shortfall. The listeners and volunteers deserve a government that will examine all funding options as well as options to alleviate operating costs. A number of Labor members will meet and have met with Vision Australia, and Labor has written to the communications minister and the minister with responsibility for the NDIS with these concerns. We call on the government to meet with Vision Australia as a matter of priority and explore all options to ensure that these vital radio services continue into the future.

Equality of access to media is a fundamental human right. Blind and low-vision Australians aren't getting a fair go. Already they miss out on audio description on TV, and now many of the Vision Australia Radio services they rely on face the threat of closure. Now in its third term, this government has failed to ensure delivery of audio description for blind and low-vision Australians on free-to-air television. Audio description is an additional feature that describes the visual elements happening on screen that sighted people take for granted. Australia is the only English-speaking country in the OECD yet to provide TV audio description. This is shameful.

Labor is a longstanding supporter of equality of access to media. In 2010 we initiated the investigation into access to electronic media for the hearing and vision impaired. In 2012 we legislated for captioning to improve access to TV for deaf and hearing impaired Australians and funded a 13-week trial of audio description on the ABC. In 2019 Labor took a policy to implement audio description to the federal election. Meanwhile, this government has delivered nothing other than a further trial of audio description and a report that they have sat on since 2017. It is now well overdue for this government to act when it comes to ensuring TV services in Australia are accessible via audio description. For six years the engagement of this government on disability issues in the communications portfolio has been disappointing. On all the evidence, their approach seems to lack a plan to make communications more accessible. That's after six years in government.

The National Relay Service is another case in point. The NRS is an essential service which enables Australians who are deaf, hearing impaired or speech impaired to make and receive telephone calls—again, something the overwhelming majority of Australians and we in this room take for granted. It was founded on principles of access and equity, and it is important these principles are preserved. The recent NRS tender outcome poses many challenges as it will seemingly require NRS users to stop using CapTel and migrate to an alternative service. Last week I received a briefing on these challenges associated with this decision. One aspect that deeply concerned me was that the briefing did not adequately explain what users of the CapTel services themselves considered the impact of migrating services would be. The plan for engaging with the NRS community and providing transitional support for service migration remains unconvincing and unclear. Australians with a disability deserve better. They deserve better from this government. How the NRS transition is managed will be an important test.

In conclusion, I again want to thank the member for Bendigo, who is a passionate advocate for all people needing services to enable them to access the media and enable them to access communications that we take for granted. Again I pay tribute to the volunteers and all the supporters associated with Vision Australia.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.