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Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 10 May 2011

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (13:26):  The Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2010 is a bit of a grab bag of miscellaneous measures with certain schedules in and then out, in and then out.

However, I will limit my comments to those schedules that we are debating. The Greens particularly welcome the amendments to the special disability trusts, believing that this is a very important mechanism that enables parents of children with a disability to put in place provisions to make them feel more comfortable that their children will be looked after when they are no longer there. I have been particularly supportive of and continue to support special disability trusts. I was an active participant in the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry that took place several years ago looking into them. Having said that, I am also aware that trusts are available only to a certain number of people and that we need to be putting in place, as Senator Boyce has just said, a range of other measures to ensure that those living with a disability are supported.

We will be supporting the amendments the government has put in place. They were raised very substantially through the committee inquiry and I think they will make the trusts much more usable for those that have established them and for those that intend to establish them. As Senator Boyce also highlighted, because of some of the barriers in the current legislation, people have not been setting up special disability trusts and we hope that these provisions will enable people to use that mechanism much more effectively and efficiently. 

Having said that, the government is aware that there is unfinished business on the trusts and more needs to be done. I know that in many states, particularly in my home state of Western Australia, there are people that are deeply concerned that they have already established accommodation for their son or daughter and are not able then to transfer that accommodation, those homes, into the trusts. I understand the government's nervousness about that and the belief that this would open up areas for other trusts. However, these people need our support. These people are trying to do the right thing and set up provisions to look after their son or daughter and we need to find a way to facilitate that. I for one will keep pushing until we do find a mechanism to transfer those homes—because they are people's homes—into the trusts. In Western Australia, parents are very worried that they are going to start hitting issues around asset tests et cetera. We believe more work needs to be done, so the government has a pass but 'can improve'.

We look forward to the government's looking at some of those other issues to enable the special disability trust provisions to be as effective as possible. The Greens joined with many people, including the coalition, to express our concerns with the government's original provisions under schedule 2 of this legislation. We were concerned that the provisions that dealt with the issues of change in the portability of the DSP payments would adversely affect a number of people where carers have to travel overseas for work purposes, so we are pleased that the government has now circulated amendments to this. We had serious concerns about the ramifications of the changes to the portability arrangements for recipients, particularly of course for those who are caring for somebody with severe disability who is dependent on a family carer. We had submissions from carers who are required to reside overseas for long periods. As we know, that schedule was referred to the Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs and there was a report tabled on it.

As I said, I am glad to see that the issues arising from that have been dealt with by the government. However, we do still have some concerns that there will be people whose carers need to travel overseas for other, very legitimate reasons and not necessarily just for paid work. For example, they may already be caring for somebody in Australia but have to travel overseas for extended periods to look after sick or elderly parents or to pursue higher education. We are glad to see that the amendments now refer to carers who are family members. We believe this has brought them into the definition of the guardianship orders and better recognises family care arrangements that can be complex and often fragile.

I just referred to the fact that some carers have to travel overseas for what we believe are other legitimate reasons and that they need to take the person who they care for with them. We understand that the government has acknowledged that they will review the operation of the new portability arrangements, starting no later than one year after the commencement of this section, and will include a report as to whether granting special consideration for work purposes is too restrictive and whether it would be appropriate to extend the qualifying circumstances to cover other extended absences from Australia for non-work related purposes such as caring for other family members. We thought this was a better approach than seeking to amend the government's amendment, because we want to see how that amendment operates, but we do think that there may be other legitimate circumstances that may penalise those caring for a family member with a disability.

One of the other issues that came up during the committee inquiry was the sensitive issue of the definition around severe disability as it relates to working age provisions. This is a very touchy subject and a very important issue. One of the issues that people constantly raise with me—and it was raised again in the inquiry—is that of carers who are caring for someone with a lifelong, severe disability who receive forms every two years and have to continue to say, 'Yes, my son or daughter or the person I care for still has a severe disability.' I have described before how the system works in WA. There are adopt-a-pollie schemes, where politicians are 'adopted' by a family with a child living with disability. The family that I have been adopted by was sent a letter when the child attained driving age asking, 'Has he got his driver's licence?' This is about somebody with a severe and lifelong disability. That sort of letter can be seen to be very insensitive by families, as their child will never have any hope of being able to live unsupported, they need 24-hour care and they will never have any hope of obtaining a driver's licence. I think we can do better than that in Australia. Yes, we need to have checks and balances, but that sort of thing should not be happening and it has been raised with me a number of times and was raised during the committee inquiry.

The Greens will also be supporting schedule 2, subject to the government's amendment, and we are pleased that the government was responsive to the committee inquiry. It again shows the usefulness of committee inquiries in reviewing legislation. I have circulated amendments to schedule 4. Schedule 4 is no longer part of this particular bill. I just need to highlight that I will, of course, not be moving those previously circulated amendments to schedule 4.

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