“Fair Australia” is one of a series of Headland Speeches given by the Leader of the Opposition, John Howard, during 1995.
The Address was given to the Australian Council of Social Service.
Thank you for the chance to address the 1995 ACOSS Congress, where your theme, “Social Justice: Fact, Fiction and the Future”, gives me an opportunity to outline the Coalition’s view of a Fair Australia, explode some myths and deal with some important specific policy issues.
ACOSS plays a very important community role in raising public policy issues relevant to the needs and aspirations of the disadvantaged in our community.
The people in this room are an important part of the glue which holds our society together. We won’t always agree on every detail of social policy, but we will always have this in common: a desire to provide greater security and fairness for those in need.
No Government alone can shoulder all the responsibilities or provide all the solutions.
However, with the Government, the community and the tremendous voluntary welfare organisations such as the Salvation Army, the Smith Family, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Wesley and City Missions, Centacare, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Board of Social Responsibility and tens of thousands of volunteer workers plus dedicated professionals, all working together:
We can prevent suffering from turning into despair;
We can provide the human idealism and faith needed in the modern world; and
We can ensure that the human capabilities of our people are fully realised.
I want to assure you today that the Coalition Parties, under my leadership, are committed to a relationship of openness, good faith and a productive exchange of views with ACOSS – as we are with all representative groups dedicated to enhancing community welfare.
I would be amazed if there were not occasions in the future where you did not question some of the actions of a Coalition Government.
But I give you this pledge: I want to do everything in my power to preserve the social fabric of this nation.
I want to work with you to ensure that every Australian has a stake in our society.
No Government can make things perfect but the challenge for Government is to make things better.
If the price of progress is human misery, it’s not progress. If change makes people worse off, it’s not reform.
More competition and more compassion are not contradictory but complementary.
We need a more competitive and a more efficient economy if we are to have a more compassionate society. Governments can never focus on the economy alone and assume that society will look after itself.
However, they must know their limitations, always remembering that it is the changed conduct of individuals which can reshape society for the better.
In my remarks today I would like to address two key issues:
First, the major social problems that now afflict sections of our community; and
Second, the key policy priorities and principles which the Coalition will bring to the challenge of addressing these problems.
I also wish to announce today a new pilot programme which I believe will help ease one of the nation’s human tragedies, and that is our homeless youth.
A TIME OF COMMUNITY UNCERTAINTY
For generations, Australians have seen themselves as a laid back and carefree people with an irrepressibly optimistic attitude towards life.
The Australian tradition of “she’ll be right, mate” has been very much the product of our strong self-belief that if you worked hard and looked after your family, this country would be able to provide the necessary opportunities to assure your future security.
Today, there is mounting evidence that the Australian sense of self-confidence is being eroded like never before.
In fact, if there is one word to describe the current mood of many Australians, and especially their belief in what the future might hold for themselves and their children, that word would be “uncertainty”.
After combating record interest rates and the highest unemployment in 60 years, Australians are now being told that they are enjoying the longest period of economic growth in decades.
But for millions of Australians, these claims have a very hollow ring to them. They are quite rightly asking themselves: “after all the pain and hardship we have gone through – supposedly to secure our future – what have we gained, and is our future any more secure as a result?”
Many know they must hold down two jobs to meet their mortgage and family commitments.
They are worried that one more interest rate hike could take them over the financial precipice.
Many know their homes are worth no more than they were before the recession.
They are worried that if they lose their job, they might not get another one.
They are worried that their children may not have the same opportunities that they enjoyed.
And they know that Australia is going further and further into debt to overseas.
And these are the concerns of the lucky Australians – those with jobs and with a roof over their heads. But as many in this room know only too well, there are many more of our fellow Australians who feel that a secure job and a home of their own are out of their reach.
In all these circumstances, is it any wonder Australians are feeling uncertain about their future?
Is it any wonder this uncertainty is putting greater strain on families and relationships?
Particularly when the Prime Minister says that this is “as good as it gets”.
IS THIS “AS GOOD AS IT GETS”?
Recent economic evidence suggests that, in a quite unintended way, the Prime Minister may be right – this could be as good as it gets under this Government.
Under Labor, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Australia cannot grow at a rate of much more than 3.5 per cent without blowing out the current account deficit and putting excessive pressure on interest rates.
Quite apart from the fact that it was Mr Keating who said that “if you cannot get 4 per cent growth you should give the game away”, one must ask what a maximum sustainable growth rate of around 3.5 per cent will do for Australia’s three quarters of a million unemployed.
Even if a growth rate of 3.5 per cent can be maintained throughout the remainder of the decade, it will be nowhere near enough to achieve the Government’s goal of 5 per cent unemployment which the Green Paper acknowledged would require an average annual growth rate of 4.5 per cent.
There is mounting evidence that we may be witnessing a bottoming out in the unemployment rate, whereby under current policies we are struggling to create enough jobs to offset the increased labour force participation rate, but unable to reduce the jobless rate much below 8 per cent, if at all. The last two months’ figures may show that unemployment is rising again and job creation is stalling.
We could face the daunting prospect of a new unemployment threshold that is at least two percentage points higher than the corresponding period in the previous economic cycle.
Given the obvious repercussions for the unemployed and community as a whole, we must do everything possible to prevent such a scenario from becoming a reality.
THE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DIVIDE
That there is a widening gap between rich and poor in Australia is no longer seriously disputed by anyone involved in the social policy debate.
Even Mr Keating was candid enough yesterday to admit that the gap had widened under Labor, although of course, he laid the blame on everyone and everything other than himself.
There are a large number of studies and statistics that amply demonstrate this human problem, and I mention just one because it clearly shows the extent of the social divide that now exists in Australia.
Between 1976 and 1992, the number of households in Australia earning between $22,000 and $72,000 a year declined from 65 to 40 per cent.
During the same period, the number of households earning more than $72,000 rose from 20 to 30 per cent.
But the number earning less than $22,000 doubled from 15 to 30 per cent.
This damning statistic tells the story of a nation with a long held egalitarian tradition being transformed in under two decades. It tells the story of a largely classless society facing the prospect of the collapse of its great equalising middle Australia.
THE CAUSES OF POVERTY AND INEQUALITY
Unemployment and family dislocation are the two principal causes of the growing levels of poverty and social inequality in this country.
There are now some two million Australians who are unemployed or who would like more paid employment.
It is no coincidence that, since the mid-1970s, the annual income gap between our poorest neighbourhoods where unemployment is sometimes higher than 20 per cent and our richest where unemployment is in the vicinity of 5 per cent, has widened by 92 per cent or over $20,000 per household in today’s dollars.
Nor is it a coincidence that younger single people, some of whom live in neighbourhoods where youth unemployment is in excess of 50 per cent, now make up one-quarter of all Australians in poverty.
Or that indigenous Australians, some of whom live in communities where there are virtually no employment opportunities, remain the most disadvantaged group in our society.
Study after study demonstrates that the jobless and those directly affected by unemployment are not only severely disadvantaged financially but also have reduced access to services and suffer from poorer health, housing and education outcomes.
There are now nearly 600,000 children in Australia aged under 15 who are living in families with incomes below the poverty line.
The extent to which family dislocation contributes to this disturbing statistic is demonstrated by the fact that nearly half of these children are in sole parent families which comprise less than one in five of all families.
Sole parents, three quarters of whom are separated or widowed wives, and their children continue to be the one socio-economic group in our society most likely to be in poverty.
At least one in five sole parent families are in poverty and sole parent families are between two and five times more likely to be in poverty than couples with children.
This severe financial disadvantage also means that sole parent families are less likely to have access to secure housing, and are significantly more likely to suffer from poorer health and education outcomes.
The Links between Unemployment and Family Dislocation
There is also mounting evidence of a strengthening two way link between unemployment and family dislocation. By this I mean that the unemployed are more prone to family dislocation, and dislocated families are more prone to unemployment.
The last 15 years of divorce statistics show a clear link between the number of divorces and the incidence of economic downturn.
Recent qualitative studies by organisations like Relationships Australia and the Australian Institute of Family Studies have clearly demonstrated the level of stress, resentment and disharmony that unemployment and business failure can put on family relationships.
The employment outcomes of sole parents continue to be significantly lower than couples with children. The proportion of employed sole parents is 13 per cent lower than the proportion of couple families with children in which both parents work. While unemployment among couple families decreases with the age of the children, it actually increases in the case of sole parents.
The jobless experience is also now crossing generations of families. In 1992, some 22 per cent of young people living with their parents were unemployed. However in couple families where one parent was not in the labour force, and the other was unemployed, this rate rose to 41 per cent while in sole parent families in which the parent was not in the labour force, it was 43 per cent or virtually double the rate for all families.
A TIME FOR SOCIAL COHESION
Australia remains one of the richest nations in the world. We have unequalled physical resources. We have a stable and democratic political environment. We have a healthy, basically well educated and motivated population. We are geographically positioned in the fastest growing economic region in the world.
For a nation fortunate to have such assets, our existing levels of poverty and inequality are unacceptable.
Notwithstanding our enormous potential and capabilities as a nation, the current reality is that a prolonged period of economic hardship has engendered a widespread feeling of insecurity in the Australian community.
I want to make it unambiguously clear today that we will not be eroding the safety net that underpins our social security system. I repeat, so that even my Labor opponents can understand:
We will not be eroding the safety net that underpins our social security system.
On the contrary, we believe that a strong and secure safety net is essential. As part of that commitment, I would like today to give you a number of iron clad guarantees.
We will not force workers off awards.
We will retain Medicare, bulk billing and community rating for private health insurance;
We will not place a time limit on the receipt of unemployment benefits;
We will maintain existing sole parent pension arrangements;
We will not introduce a $3 an hour youth wage;
We will maintain the real value of pensions and other social security benefits; and
We will not force people with disabilities onto unemployment benefits.
Let me also add for the record that, contrary to the claims of my Labor opponent, there is no secret plan to slash $10 billion from social welfare.
THE COALITION’S APPROACH
A Proud Record of Achievement
The Coalition comes to the debate on social policy with a record of past achievement in government that underpins our commitment into the future.
Many of Australia’s major social reforms in this century have been undertaken by the Coalition Parties or by our political antecedents, including the introduction of the age and invalid pension, child endowment and free pensioner medical and pharmaceutical programmes.
It was a Liberal National government that granted assistance provisions for deserted wives, introduced rent assistance, provided for the automatic indexation of pensions, introduced the Family Allowance and devised the Family Income Supplement which was the forerunner of the Family Allowance Supplement.
It was a Liberal National government that ended the White Australia Policy.
It was a Liberal National government that sponsored the 1967 referendum which removed any presumption that the Constitution could discriminate against Aborigines.
It was a Liberal National government that extended the humanitarian hand which saw so many Indo-Chinese refugees received into this country.
I cite these examples only to ensure that, in looking to address the current and future social policy challenges, the past is not misrepresented.
The Principles Underpinning our Social Policies
Today, I would like to outline a number of the principles that will underpin our social policy approach and the directions those social policies will take.
We take it as fundamental that sustaining and maintaining a fair and compassionate society in which individuals have the opportunity to succeed and prosper through their own initiative and endeavour requires a productive, competitive and growing economy.
A fair and compassionate society has a basic responsibility to assist the genuinely needy and disadvantaged through the provision of a strong and secure social welfare safety net.
The family is, and will continue to be, the foundation and most important stabilising influence in our society. Protecting and strengthening the family unit is the key to maintaining social cohesion and economic stability in the future.
A stable functioning family provides the best welfare support system yet devised.
The pursuit of the highest levels of employment possible, whereby everyone who wants a job is able to get one, must remain an enduring objective of any society which genuinely cherishes the independence and freedom of its citizens.
All Australians should have access to an adequate income, affordable housing, quality health care and a level of education that enables them to fully achieve their potential.
We must always ensure that our social welfare system contains effective incentives for responsible behaviour, independence and self-help.
Governments have a responsibility to provide a policy framework that enables these key values to be realised.
The final responsibility for decisions about entitlement for income support and the administration of the payment of that support should remain with government.
However, the community welfare sector is more often than not in the best position to provide advice and manage assistance at the ‘coalface’ in a way that meets the specific needs of the individual being assisted.
Recognising this not only increases the likelihood of positive outcomes emanating from an enhanced appreciation of the individual’s circumstances, but is also the key to reinvigorating the philanthropic and community ethos that has always played such a major role in fostering social equality in Australia.
Also, there must be a clearly defined division of responsibilities, not only between different tiers of government, but just as importantly, between various responsible agencies within each tier of government.
Finally, we must never forget that taxpayers have a legitimate right to expect that the system is as insulated as possible from abuse and exploitation.
COALITION SOCIAL POLICY PRIORITIES
Unemployment and family breakdown are the two principal causes of poverty and inequality in Australia.
Sustained Job Growth
There are some two million people in Australia today who want more paid employment than is currently available – three quarters of a million unemployed and 1.2 million who seek and are available for more paid employment.
The Coalition does not accept there is anything inevitable about that shortage of employment.
Nor is it valid to claim that it is merely a result of advances in technology or the globalisation of our economy.
The causes of the persistently high levels of unemployment in Australia are principally the result of domestic policies, and it is our responsibility as a nation to find the right solutions.
Australia has had for some time among the highest real interest rates in the Western world.
We have an industrial relations system which discourages the creation of jobs by imposing massive on-costs on employment, the majority of which have no direct link with productivity.
Small and medium size businesses are the engine room of job growth. Yet we burden them with a myriad of taxes, regulations and paperwork.
As an island continent, we continue to undermine our international competitiveness by refusing to have real reform of our grossly inefficient waterfront and coastal shipping sectors.
We drive too many of our top scientists and innovators off-shore.
Our labour market and training programmes have failed to achieve anything like an adequate focus on the needs of Australian enterprises.
These are some of the reasons why we cannot generate enough paid employment to meet the needs of a population that is keen and eager to work.
These are the problems that Labor has had 13 years to address – and has failed to do so.
The Coalition is confident that we will achieve significantly better future job growth than Labor could, for the simple reason that our policies will create a much more positive and encouraging environment for small and medium sized businesses.
In just one area alone – by providing more flexibility in the labour market – we will create greater job opportunities for the unemployed and there is ample evidence from overseas to show that countries with greater flexibility have lower unemployment levels.
As well, by generating a climate of greater consumer confidence and by introducing more incentives for small businesses, new job opportunities will be created.
It remains the case that the real hope on the unemployment front is to tap the massive job creation potential of small business.
Even with a more strongly growing economy there will still be many who will find themselves struggling at the end of the queue and locked out of jobs through no fault of their own.
Last May the Keating government announced its Working Nation manifesto to address the needs of the long term unemployed.
There were a number of aspects of the Working Nation approach we endorsed – a greater community focus on assistance, the concept of case management, the principle of a national training wage system, the contracting out of services to voluntary and charitable agencies.
A little over a year later we find that much of Working Nation has turned into a complex, bureaucratic maze which, in its first year, has actually put fewer people through programmes with poorer employment outcomes.
Teenage unemployment is virtually static. Apprenticeships and traineeships remain at their lowest level, as a proportion of the workforce, in three decades. The main job subsidy programme in Working Nation – JOBSTART – undershot its target by nearly 100,000 places and there is constant criticism from the unemployed, business people and the community sector about the over emphasis on registering programme placements rather than providing real opportunities for securing sustainable employment.
The Coalition considers that labour market and training programmes should be more closely linked to real jobs and to the real needs of business enterprises.
We will ensure that employers – who after all will be taking on the long-term unemployed – have greater input into the design, development and implementation of programmes.
We will encourage closer links between government training programmes and regional development plans, thereby facilitating a more co-ordinated, community-based approach to the unemployment problems that afflict many areas of regional Australia.
We will make certain that the ability of employees and the unemployed to access assistance is not unnecessarily constrained by rigid and bureaucratic guidelines.
We will recognise the value of meaningful voluntary work as a means of acquiring skills and work experience.
The Family – the Social Foundation of our Society
It is not possible to deliver a keynote social policy address without speaking about the unique role that the family has in the social fabric of our society.
Put simply, a loving supportive and stable family environment continues to be the best and most enduring system of social support there is.
Clearly family structures have changed over the years. For example we are marrying later. However, it is worth noting that over 80 per cent of Australian children still grow up in families with two married parents.
The families most likely to be in poverty are those where family breakdown has already occurred, and where a sole parent is struggling to raise children while attempting to make ends meet.
Without diminishing support for families where breakdown has occurred, there must be a decisive shift towards policies designed to prevent family breakdown.
This will involve greater attention to education in human relationships, to communication and conflict resolution and education for marriage. We must also give greater prominence to parenting education.
When a family is on the verge of breakdown there can often be a valuable role played by supportive services which can be best offered at a community level.
The resources currently devoted to such preventative and educational approaches are pathetically small compared with the resources outlaid to cope with the consequences of family breakdown.
It has been estimated that family breakdown costs up to $3 billion a year. Yet a meagre $2 million a year is provided to agencies which offer marriage education.
A Liberal/National Government will significantly readjust this balance.
More must also be done to meet one of the greatest challenges facing families today – and that is the juggling of work and child raising responsibilities.
With home mortgage repayments now 50 per cent higher than they were in 1983 and with real wages actually lower than in 1983, the choice of having one parent staying in the workforce or caring for the children full-time when they are young has been taken away from millions of parents.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies has found that up to 60 per cent of working families with young children would prefer that one parent stayed at home in a full-time caring role.
The Coalition will seek to improve parental choice by implementing policies which give families with young children greater freedom to choose whether one parent cares full-time for their children at home, or whether both are in the paid workforce.
We remain strongly committed to the maintenance of affordable child care for families who choose paid child care arrangements.
And we will implement workplace reforms to enable parents to more effectively blend their work and family responsibilities. These will include expanded opportunities for parents with young children to engage in home-based work, either as employees or small business people, as well as more flexible working hours.
For as long as anyone can remember, Australians have been an optimistic people. Each generation of Australians has given its children a better life. Indeed, to leave our children more than our parents left us has been the very definition of the Australian Dream.
Yet youth unemployment is now only marginally lower than it was during the recession. In some areas it is as high as 65 per cent.
Every year, tens of thousands of young people miss out on university places. Some 20,000 young Australians are homeless. We have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, and in rural Australia, the youth suicide rate is some four times the national average.
Too often, Labor’s response to the frustration and disillusionment of young Australians has been condescending and lacking understanding.
It is not an acceptable response to the youth unemployment crisis to tell young people to stay at school. Nor is it acceptable to respond to the frustration being felt by so many university students was by telling them to “get a job”.
It is a reality that many of the semi-skilled job opportunities previously available to young people have disappeared with the onset of new technologies.
Equally it is a fact that young people are finding that the opportunities for workplace based traineeships and apprenticeships, which for many are the stepping stone to meaningful long term employment, are virtually non-existent.
The first step towards overcoming some of these problems is, as I said before, to get small business going again to provide lasting jobs. As well, we need to give young people the vocational and general skills needed for their future.
Rather than offering a straightforward and accessible training system, a hugely complex regime has been put in place that has almost always attracted insufficient support from employers, and which has resulted in young people being churned through a seemingly endless array of labour market programmes with too little prospect of a job at the end.
We will be simplifying training arrangements and ensuring that the ultimate job providers have a greater involvement in the training schemes to make sure they suit their workplace needs.
New Homeless Youth Pilot Programme
In a country as well endowed as Australia, it is a deeply disturbing that we have such high levels of youth homelessness.
There are cases where young people have every reason to leave home. Equally, there are legitimate concerns expressed by some parents and community organisations that the existing system places too little emphasis on family reconciliation.
Today I announce that a Coalition Government will set up and fund a two-year Homeless Youth Pilot Programme that will be run in conjunction with voluntary welfare organisations, and which will put renewed emphasis on the importance of mediation and early intervention.
Participants in the Programme will initially receive a six-week transitional payment on the understanding that, during that time, they will assist the participating welfare agency in the preparation of a detailed report on their circumstances. The agency will also take all appropriate steps to mediate a reconciliation with the young person’s family or guardian.
At the end of the transitional period, an assessment will be made by the department of the young person’s entitlement for ongoing support. Importantly, that assessment will be based primarily on the report and advice from the agency directly involved. If there is no prospect of reconciliation with the family, a comprehensive support plan will be worked out between the agency and the young person.
The support plan will entail matters such as securing short and long term accommodation, access to employment, education and/or training, ongoing reconciliation efforts, management of financial affairs, developing support networks and, where necessary, assistance in relation to substance abuse.
The agency will co-ordinate and oversee the implementation of the support plan and will also provide a backstop should further problems arise after a young person decides to return home.
The parents or guardian will be kept fully informed about the young person’s circumstances unless there is strong evidence that he or she would be in physical danger if such information was divulged.
A significant research element will be built into the pilot programme thereby enabling outcomes to be analysed and used as the basis for further government action.
There will inevitably be knockers of this proposal. However, I have put it forward as a genuine attempt to find a solution to a problem which is generating intense debate in the community. There has already been preliminary contact with a number of agencies concerning the proposal. They have expressed in-principle interest and support.
I do not pretend that all details of this pilot programme have been resolved. As many of you will realise, this is not feasible from Opposition. In Government we will work closely with major voluntary agencies in the design of the pilot programme’s details and its implementation.
The fact that so many indigenous Australians continue to experience living conditions which are akin to those of a Third World country is a matter of national shame.
Aboriginal life expectancy in Australian remains between 15 and 18 years less than that of the general community. In some communities, the Aboriginal infant mortality rate is four times the national average.
Despite the fact that billions of dollars have been spent on initiatives and programmes designed to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage, our indigenous people continue to be significantly more likely to be impoverished, imprisoned, illiterate and unemployed than the wider community.
The Coalition recognises that the solutions to these problems will not come overnight.
However, we are committed to reducing the severe disadvantages faced by the Aboriginal people and the Coalition’s policy focus will be on improving standards and opportunities in health, housing, education and employment.
In government we will ensure that emphasis is on health care and housing infrastructure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Making sure that members of these communities have the resources and the skills needed to effectively manage that infrastructure will be a central element of our approach.
People from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds
One of the main reasons why Australia continues to be such an attractive proposition for prospective migrants is that, over an extended period of time, we have built an enviable reputation as a tolerant and compassionate society.
Notwithstanding this fact, it remains a reality that many Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds have considerable difficulty in grasping the opportunities and accessing the services that are often taken by granted by those in the wider community.
Unemployment among Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds remains nearly 50 per cent higher than the overall jobless rate.
Given the direct link between unemployment and poverty, this disparity clearly demonstrates that, as a nation, we have a duty to ensure that newly-arrived migrants are able to acquire the language and vocational skills needed to participate fully in the labour market.
The Coalition recognises that refugees, many of whom have fled dangerous or traumatic situations in their countries of birth, sometimes without their families or belongings, frequently experience considerable disadvantage and isolation for extended periods after their arrival.
This disadvantage and isolation is often exacerbated by their lack of any English language proficiencies, the lack of formal recognition of their skills and qualifications, as well as an anxiety about the impact of on-going events in their country of birth.
The Coalition is committed to policies that will ensure that newly-arrived migrants, and particularly refugees, have access to re-training and language courses. There’s no doubt that proficiency in English is a passport to greater opportunities in our society.
Like most Western nations, Australia has an ageing population. It is estimated that the number of Australians aged 65 and over will rise from just over 2 million today to some 4.8 million in the year 2031.
Australians want and deserve security in their retirement.
While older people are said to be less likely to be in poverty than other groups in the community, much still can be done to reduce the uncertainty currently being felt by many pensioners and self-funded retirees.
Pensioners continue to be subjected to a seemingly endless array of complicated changes to the income and assets tests. We have now reached the ludicrous stage where departmental officers are often unable to explain to pensioners their entitlement.
The security of a guaranteed hospital bed and access to the doctor of their choice are the main reasons why so many older Australians spend often significant proportions of their income on private health insurance premiums.
By contributing to their health care costs, these older people are reducing the pressure on public hospital waiting lists and saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
A Coalition government will provide incentives for taking out private health insurance which recognise the contribution that older people make to their own health care costs.
It is a matter of profound concern that dementia-specific facilities which save the government money by caring for older people who otherwise would be in nursing homes, face the prospect of closure under the current inflexible aged care funding regime.
The Coalition is committed to rectifying this problem by ensuring that the special care needs of older people with ambulant dementia in residential facilities are properly recognised in the relevant funding processes.
People with Disabilities or Mental Illness
The fact that a person has a disability or suffers from a mental illness should not, in any way, diminish their value as an individual or prevent them from actively participating in the community.
An estimated 3.2 million Australians have disabilities. For 2.5 million of them, that disability is serious enough to limit their ability to perform tasks normally associated with daily living. At least 250,000 Australians suffer from severe mental illness.
Poverty is a fact of life for many people with disabilities. A survey last year of nearly 2,000 people with disabilities in regional NSW found that 76 per cent of respondents had less than $90 a week to live on after paying their disability associated costs and disability induced debt.
In their recent report on the Disability Services Programme, “Working Solutions”, Professor Peter Baume and Kathleen Kay found that only 40 per cent of the minimal estimate of the potentially eligible population had access to Commonwealth funded employment services.
In spite of this fact, the Government has seen fit to withdraw support for section 13 services, commonly known as sheltered workshops. These services have allowed thousands of people with moderate to high support needs to become involved in the wider community and to experience a genuine sense of achievement. Surely it is not the role of government to deem that an established service which enjoys such strong public support is no longer appropriate.
The Commonwealth’s response to the concerns expressed by Brian Burdekin about the neglect of people with mental illness could best be described as half-hearted.
There are a number of areas where immediate and relatively inexpensive action can be taken to reduce the impact of mental illness. These include ensuring that there is a clear division of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the States, and improving GPs’ knowledge and appreciation of mental illness.
The Contribution of Carers
I would like to conclude with a few brief words about the vital, but often unheralded and largely unpaid, contribution that carers make in our society.
There are over 2 million people in Australia who care for someone in their own or in someone else’s home. Some 70 per cent of carers are women. A quarter of all carers list caring as their principal occupation.
The combination of an ageing population, deinstitutionalisation and early hospital discharges has put a greater demand on carers. Conversely, factors such as changing family composition and social attitudes, as well as the increased workforce participation of women, are likely to reduce the number of available carers.
The Coalition is committed to tackling a range of existing Government provisions which act as powerful disincentive against carers.
For example, the fact that recipients of the Carers’ Pension are only allowed to temporarily cease care for 42 days a year – or less than one day a week – places an unreasonable burden on carers.
The need for respite care is often sudden and immediate. The type of respite care sought can vary widely according to the circumstances of both the carer and the person being cared for.
In these circumstances it is essential that red tape be kept to an absolute minimum.
The Coalition will give a high priority to ensuring that carers have ready access to a wide range of flexible respite care options that are relevant to their specific needs.
Finally, let me again thank you for providing me with a platform to outline the Coalition’s concerns and policy directions in a very important area of government responsibility.
In recent times I and many of my colleagues have consulted groups represented here today and in the period ahead we will be having more to say about some of the areas I have touched upon today.
I will not be able to satisfy everyone. I realise that, but I am determined to achieve a proper balance between the imperative of delivering a modern, efficient economy and the moral obligations of the civilised society to care for its less fortunate.
I value the work you do and the challenge ahead for all of us is to lift people up, give real meaning to the words “A Fair Australia“, and to generate a new hope and confidence about the future.