Second Reading Speech- FAMILIES, COMMUNITY SERVICES AND INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (CHILD DISABILITY ASSISTANCE) BILL

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (12.53 p.m.)—The Democrats support the legislation before us, the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment (Child Disability Assistance) Bill 2007, inasmuch as it introduces the child disability assistance payment. It will lock in an automatic payment of $1,000 each year to families receiving an allowance for caring for a child with a disability. That is an annual payment for eligible families in receipt of that carer allowance on 1 July. It is certainly preferable to have that locked-in in legislation, as something people know is coming, an entitlement that they will receive, than to have to rely on the vagaries of individual budgets to provide one-off payments.

I would be interested to see, at some stage, a dispassionate cost-benefit analysis of whether these various one-off lump sum payments that are becoming more fashionable these days are the most effective way of getting value for money in delivering income assistance to people in need. I do not actually have a fixed view on whether it is a good initiative and a good change that has become more frequent in recent years, or whether it is a less effective way overall of assisting people. Either way, as I have said many times before, there is no doubt that if there is one group in the community who could always do with more financial assistance of whatever sort, it is carers. So I am certainly not criticising the fact that it is being provided. I just think that, when we are spending public money and entrenching a particular approach, it would be useful to analyse whether that is the best way to assist people—whether we get the best value for our money and maximise assistance for the people who need it. We could probably benefit from having a review of all those sorts of things—perhaps after the election is out of the way.

As I said, people who are carers are, I think, amongst those in the community who can always—almost unequivocally always—do with more assistance, more recognition and more support. That is about more than just money, of course. One of the arguments in favour of lump sum payments like these $1,000 annual payments is that they do assist people in being able to decide for themselves how to get the support they most need—support that is tailored to their individual needs, rather than a predetermined type of assistance or entitlement to which people have to shape their needs or actions in order to gain access. It does mean that people can use this money in whatever way they choose to get the most benefit out of it. That is certainly an argument in favour of having these sorts of lump sum payments.

There is a need for continual monitoring and assessment of the nature of support for children, particularly children in their younger years. I think Senator McLucas was alluding, amongst other things, to parents of children with autism. That is a group of people for whom I think we need to do a lot better in assessing the extent of extra support that is provided and the nature of that support.

Children with conditions on the autism spectrum present in a wide variety of different ways. Autism manifests itself in a wide variety of different ways that, I would think, do not necessarily fit the fairly narrow medical assessment and diagnosis criteria that tend to apply with various conditions. We still need to learn a lot more about the nature of children with ASD, but part of that, I think, should be to learn more about the sorts of assistance that are needed and should be provided, to learn more about the type of support that needs to be provided. As I said before, that is more than just financial support, but when you are undergoing financial stress—even just as part of trying to provide that support—that makes it harder to get the other support that you may need, particularly emotional or social support. That is just one example, but it is one that I think needs more focus.

I was part of the Senate committee inquiry that examined the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement. I was not as involved in that inquiry as I would have liked to be but I was involved with it to some extent—certainly sufficiently to know that there is still massive room for improvement in that area. I would reaffirm the comments of Senator McLucas in a general sense: we really need to move beyond that state-versus-federal blame game. I am not just blaming the feds; I do not want to move into that role either. I think that all of us across the board, at all levels, need to move beyond that.

If there is one area, post election, that needs serious examination, an area that has not featured as much as it could have in public debate, that is the area of totally re-examining that whole Commonwealth-state arrangement—the federalism compact, if you like. Whether people think the best environment for re-examining that federalism compact is one with Labor state governments and a Howard-Costello Liberal federal government, or one with Labor governments at a state and federal level across the board, I do not know. People can make their own judgements on that; I have my views as well, but that question is for the electorate to determine.

I think there is a role for the Senate in that debate, post election. It is sometimes still called the ‘states house’. That is not terribly accurate but nonetheless it is a widespread view of the Senate’s role—certainly it was the nature of the Senate and the way it was structured coming out of Federation in 1901. We as an institution also have a need to examine ourselves, how we are structured and how we operate, as part of looking at modernisation, making the system work properly and fixing things that definitely are broken. The Senate needs to do a bit of re-examining along the way. As part of that we can play a role that is, hopefully, somewhat independent of or outside the government-to-government stoushes that go on between governments at the state and federal level to try to work through things in a more dispassionate and evidence based way to get the best possible outcomes—which, I might say, the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs did when it looked at the disability area and produced a non-partisan unanimous report. It is a great shame that the federal government has not chosen to act on it in a terribly constructive way. That is a bit of an aside, but only a little bit; it is linked to this wider issue.

One-off payments to help people who are caring for children with disabilities are important and the Democrats welcome them. But we cannot kid ourselves—and I am not suggesting that the government is arguing this—that these sorts of tacked-on payments and initiatives are enough to tackle the core problem, which is that we are failing in this area far too often with regard to people with disabilities and carers for children with disabilities—with some disabilities more than others. This is welcome but it is still far short of what is needed.

What is needed is not necessarily piles and piles more money, although that certainly would be of assistance in some circumstances; what is needed is better value out of the money that is spent. I know that is part of the argument that Minister Brough is putting forward and I can see some validity in that. Sometimes it is more a matter of the way you go about things rather than what it is you say you are trying to achieve, which I would be somewhat more critical of with regard to the minister. But the payment is welcome.

The Democrats have another concern. An amendment on this has been circulated; I will speak to that now to save time in the committee stage. This $1,000 payment is going to come under the so-called income management regime or the quarantining regime, where people’s income support payments or welfare entitlements are able to be controlled by government and people get told what they can and cannot spend it on and where they can and cannot spend it. The Democrats outlined our views on that issue somewhat reasonably comprehensively during the debate on the Northern Territory intervention measures, so I will not traverse that ground again. We have a preparedness to explore the workability of income management arrangements under set circumstances—to trial it in certain circumstances to see how well it works. We do not support—and we are quite concerned about—income management being applied across the board.

The income management regime is being applied across the board in the Northern Territory in a number of communities; it has come into operation this week. I imagine all of us in this place have received representations of concern about how that is being practically applied in parts of the Territory and whether it will be workable for people amongst those who most need income assistance. We are not convinced that this particular one-off payment should come under the income management regime, at least until there has been time to see how well the regime is operating. The one-off payment will not come into play on 1 July; so there is time to see, down the track with the next instalment of payments, whether the income management system is working in a way that would suit the one-off payments being included in the system. We think it needs a bit more of a go, basically, before we start lumping in the one-off payments as well. I am sure that most Australians still do not realise that it is now in law that anybody potentially down the track could have their payments quarantined and income managed on the basis of decisions made by a federal government about school attendance, child protection issues and the like.

I am not saying that that should never happen but I am saying that it has been put into law without a lot of people even being aware that it is there, and without very much examination of how it is likely to operate down the track. Governments will have the power to implement income quarantining without proper scrutiny because we rushed it through here a few weeks ago. It was done in such a way that most people do not even realise it has happened. In those circumstances I do not think it is desirable to be throwing new payments into that mix until we see how the income management arrangements operate.

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