SOCIAL SECURITY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (IMPROVED SUPPORT FOR CARERS) BILL 2009
SOCIAL SECURITY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (IMPROVED SUPPORT FOR CARERS) (CONSEQUENTIAL AND TRANSITIONAL) BILL 2009
Debate resumed from 15 June and 16 June, on motions by Senator Faulkner and Senator Wong:
That these bills be now read a second time.
Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (6.01 pm)-I rise today to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Improved Support for Carers) Bill 2009 and the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Improved Support for Carers) (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2009. These bills make significant amendments, giving more support to carers who receive carer payment in respect of a child. These bills, I anticipate, have the support of all sides of the chamber. A change of disability terminology and wider and fairer eligibility criteria significantly move us forward in the way we support carers of children with a disability and the children who have a disability or severe medical condition. The new assessment for eligibility, moving away from the existing method based on rigid medical criteria to the level of care required, will see carers involved in short-term and episodic care in receipt of the carer payment, including times when a child is in hospital, easing some of the financial burden that comes with caring for a child in such circumstances.
In recent months, following my appointment as the coalition spokesperson for carers, I have had the opportunity to meet and speak to many Australians who dedicate their lives to caring for others. These Australians are unpaid; they give their time, often 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide care, love and support, often at a financial, emotional and social cost to themselves. They are parents, grandparents, siblings, partners, relatives and friends. And every day they assist with personal care, health care, transport and other activities. Every day they find themselves the giver of first aid, counselling and pharmacology. Every day they are balancing the competing demands on their time. And every day they carry out a role which otherwise would inevitably fall to our public systems, our public hospitals and professional carers to do, which is a cost that society would otherwise have to pick up. Every day many of these people come close to breaking point-emotionally, physically, socially and financially.
Every day, despite the tough times that caring can bring, many carers will tell you that there is nothing more rewarding than giving unconditional love and care to a loved one. These carers are often quite extraordinary. But most take the view that it is just what you do as a partner, a parent, a relative or a friend. I must say that I welcome the introduction, albeit belatedly, of this legislation to the Senate. This legislation brings some further assistance to those carers who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in circumstances that have changed their lives. This legislation builds upon the former coalition government’s recognition that there was a gap in the level of assistance for families caring for children with a disability and is a further step in considerable progress in providing support to carers which began under the coalition. I must say it is disappointing that there has been such a delay in this legislation reaching the parliament. But I have no doubt that we in this place will at least unite in supporting the expansion of financial support for carers of children with a disability or severe medical condition.
The genesis of this expansion in financial support was under the former coalition government, with a review being initiated in March 2007 into the carer payment (child) to examine the ability to expand support for carers of children with profound disability or severe medical conditions. The review, which recommended a fairer assessment process and less red tape, was handed to the incoming Rudd government in November 2007. It took the Rudd government until March 2009-nearly a year and a half-to take action. Although I welcome the government’s belated action to support carers, it must be noted that it is unfortunate that it has taken so long to implement and that many families deserving of this support have had to wait unnecessarily.
For carers of children with a disability, there was a step up in support when in 1998 the coalition government extended support to carers of children with a profound disability and in 2006 further extended support to children with severe intellectual, psychiatric or behavioural disabilities. Also under the coalition, every year from 2004 to 2007, carers received a one-off carer bonus payment of $1,000 to each person in receipt of the carer payment and $600 to each recipient of the carer allowance for each person in their care. This was in recognition of the vital role that carers play in our society and the tremendous financial burden they carry.
At this point it should be noted that, in 2008, the Rudd government failed to recognise this and in fact wanted to remove support from carers by stopping the payment of the carer bonus. The Rudd government did not recognise at that time the value of our carers, and it was only after community outrage and opposition from the coalition that they belatedly backed down. Whether or not it was to smooth over that mistake of 2008, I welcome the news in this year’s budget that carers will continue to receive a bonus annually, which has been renamed the ‘carer supplement’. It is an annual payment welcomed by carers. Many carers spend it on much-needed items in relation to their caring role or on the care recipient. Knowing this payment will be received certainly helps this most vulnerable group in our community with their forward planning. I am pleased that the coalition initiated the review into carer payment (child) which has brought us to where we are today.
Mr Acting Deputy President Ryan, I understand this is your first time in the chair. It is good to see you there. I have enormous respect for carers and today pay particular attention to those carers of children under 16. To care for a child with a disability requires enormous commitment and patience-qualities for which I have huge admiration. Yes, as parents you undertake to care for your children until they are sufficiently independent to look after themselves-which, nowadays, usually seems to extend to well in their 30s-and, yes, part of being a parent is being there for your child in sickness and in health and through the ups and downs, achievement and mishaps. And that is no different for a parent of a child with a disability or a severe medical condition.
Indeed, they share the same hope for their child to achieve. However, a child with a disability or a severe medical condition does need that additional care and attention. Even with our occasional extended parliamentary sitting hours-which we were talking about a moment ago-we could never come close to understanding the continuous commitment to long hours by thousands of Australians who are providing a high level of support and care to loved ones each and every day. We all know-or should know-that carers of a child with a disability or a severe medical condition carry a huge emotional and financial burden above and beyond that of other parents. And when there is support, like the carer payment, that can give to carers of children under 16 the income support that they need, none of us should begrudge them that.
After all, the savings that carers provided to the community vastly outweigh any cost to the budget of this sort of support. It can be a huge challenge to adjust initially to the needs of a child who has a disability or a severe medical condition. The caring requirements of a child with a disability or a severe medical condition often go much further than that of day-to-day parenting. Their child, who is as loving as any other, may well be unable to independently undertake basic personal care and will require additional attention and support each day. To be cared for in the familiar surroundings and the loving environment of the family is often-and you would hope-the preferred option. But this can come at a cost. In these circumstances families often find themselves sacrificing their health, work opportunities and a regular social life to meet the demanding role.
Many parents also have the needs of other siblings to consider, and the carer payment is there to support carers in these circumstances. The carer payment provides income support to people who, because of the demands of their caring role, are unable to support themselves through substantial workforce participation. It is a payment in recognition of their full-time commitment to that caring role. Carers may not be on the payroll of a corporation and are far from receiving an income to match a private sector salary, but that does not mean that they are not making a significant contribution to our society. According to the ABS in 2008, a primary carer’s role is equivalent to a traditional fulltime paid job of 40 hours or more per week in the labour market.
Even when providing this high level of support, carers want to be part of the workforce, and many are juggling their own commitments to work and family as well as their demanding caring role. While we acknowledge that many carers choose to do this for the love of their child, there are some who are required to quit work and access the carer payment because the support services are simply not there. Even when that child becomes an adult, many carers of these children remain their carers as support services to live independently are not always there. Easing the financial burden is just one way that we can show our support for carers.
I have a great deal of respect for carers. Many struggle from day to day but have such strong feelings that what they are doing is their duty and-because it is their duty; it is just something that you should do-many in fact do not make a claim for the carer payment or carer allowance. Others, finding it hard in tough times, do make claims-and, as an entitlement, so they should-but even then things are not easy. There are also many others who have been unable to access these payments but now, through these changes, will have the opportunity to do so. Another matter which this legislation addresses is the situation of a sick child in hospital. It is never an easy time for a parent when a child is in hospital, and it is even harder when the parent knows that their child’s time may be short. It is never easy when a traumatic injury or the diagnosis of a condition turns the lives of a child, their siblings and their family upside down.
The extension of eligibility in this legislation goes some way to assisting those families who have unfortunately found themselves in that situation. For a parent to know they will receive some support whilst staying by their child’s side in hospital and then to be able to remain at home with them to give the love, care and warmth that a parent brings will give enormous relief to many parents faced with such a life-changing circumstance. One payment that the coalition government introduced which I do have some concern about, which is not directly touched upon by this legislation, is the carer adjustment payment. It was introduced as a oneoff, immediate, non-taxable payment of up to $10,000 to assist families to adjust following a catastrophic event where a child aged nought to six is diagnosed with a severe illness, medical condition or a major disability.
As a parent you always want to do the best thing for your child, and that can mean providing a great deal of care 24 hours a day. Choosing to do so at home, where the child feels comfortable, is often preferable. The government has not at this stage outlined what, if anything, will take the place of the carer adjustment payment when it expires in December this year. I raised my concerns during the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs public hearing in April and more recently during Senate estimates, as I do not want to see this group of people, who we have strived to assist, disadvantaged in any way. Assisting families to adjust to their new caring arrangements is important. Certainly the new carer payment (child) with wider eligibility will be welcomed, and some families will have access to short-term and episodic payments following the changes. But I urge the government to ensure that, beyond December 2009, families who find themselves in such circumstances and who do not have access to short-term and episodic payments are not disadvantaged in any way.
In recent months we have seen both the House of Representatives and the Senate inquire into the needs of carers and it has brought the plight of carers to the forefront of people’s attention. In a sense, we are all carers in our own way and in our own lives; it is just that some have a more demanding role than others. This particular legislation was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs in March of this year. I attended those hearings, and it was a good opportunity to hear first-hand how the implementation of this legislation will affect carers. It was unfortunate that we could not have heard from more witnesses to gain a better understanding of how best to support carers of a child with a disability. What we do know is that each situation is individual and each child’s care needs are individual. So the opportunity for peak bodies like Carers Australia and the Association for Children with a Disability to give evidence did give carers a public voice. It gave carers an opportunity to speak directly with senators about the key issues they face in relation to carer payment (child) and how assistance should be provided.
One issue that was raised at the hearings was the new assessment, known as the disability care load assessment
(child). It is widely accepted that the new concept of assessment will improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of assessments, bringing improved administration, better claims processing and the capacity for more complex claims to be handled by a dedicated team. However, the design of the test, which comprises a carer questionnaire and a treating health practitioner questionnaire, was highlighted as a key area to making the new assessment successful. If the questionnaires do not address the issues that carers face and if they do not ask the right questions then the implementation of the new assessment may not achieve what it has set out to do. Consulting with carers, the people we regard as experts in this area, about the questionnaires is very important if we are to get the assessment process right. It is important that dialogue with carers continues in order to ensure that the new assessment tool is written in the best way, is in the best format, asks the right questions and addresses the concerns of the people applying.
Clearly, no government or parliament could ever replace the thousands of Australian carers and the contribution they make to the lives of the people they care for. These carers are critical to enabling children with a disability to remain at home, where they would prefer to be, and to have the opportunity to thrive and develop surrounded by their family. Whether these carers choose to identify themselves as carers or not, it is our responsibility to support them in whatever way we can. As members of parliament, we can help to get the support framework right, but we can never seek to transform lives like those who are carers can. It is important that we recognise carers and support them in their valuable role. Although this legislation does not by a long way solve all the issues that carers in Australia face, it is a step in the right direction. The support and passing of these bills in a smooth, cross-party way marks a significant and welcome move forward for our Australian carers. I am pleased to see these bills moving through the Senate chamber at last. The opposition will support this legislation.