TAX LAWS AMENDMENT (2009 MEASURES NO.5) BILL 2009 – BUSHFIRE RECOVERY & AUTISM
October 28, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12.12 pm) — I rise to speak on the Tax Laws Amendment (2009 Measures No. 5) Bill 2009. Without wishing to diminish the other schedules, which were so eloquently covered by the member for Dobell, I join the debate to mainly focus on two areas of particular concern to my community, being those issues dealing with the Helping Children with Autism package and schedule 6, which relates to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund.
As the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services and Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction noted in his second reading speech, schedule 3 exempts from income tax the outer regional and remote payment made under the Helping Children with Autism package. This payment is made to assist families with children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and who live in outer regional and remote areas to access otherwise scarce early intervention and education services. The amount of that allowance is $2,000, and I will discuss that more fully later in my contribution.
Schedule 6 provides greater scope for the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund Independent Advisory Panel to support the communities affected by the 2009 Victorian bushfires. In relation to the bushfires and the broader discussion, this is an opportunity for me to update the House on the recovery initiatives that are underway in Gippsland and to report some progress. It is now almost eight months since that tragic event. To begin with, I want to again put on record my absolute respect and admiration for the emergency services workers and all the volunteers who have rallied together so magnificently, not only in Gippsland but right across the state of Victoria. If there has been a single positive aspect to have arisen from this tragedy, it is the way it has united my community. The test that was put to the people of Gippsland was quite extraordinary, but the resilience they have demonstrated in the last eight months is something to behold and something I am very proud of as the member for that region.
We lost 11 lives in Gippsland at the height of the fires on Black Saturday and more than 250 homes in the 10 days where fires scorched across the communities of Ballara, Yallah, Callignee, Traralgon South through to Cornella and right through to Devon North. It was a very traumatic event and a tragedy on a scale that I hope none of us see again in our lifetime. There are probably people in the gallery here today who were affected by the Canberra bushfires, and they would probably understand the extent of the trauma that the people of Gippsland have gone through. In the immediate aftermath people have dealt with their losses. There was a certain degree of shock in our community, which is entirely understandable. But what has been on display, as I mentioned before, is the overwhelming support and the outpouring of generosity from people right across Australia. Everyone wanted to do their bit.
It was quite extraordinary to go to a place like the Traralgon South recovery centre and see trucks pull up, full of goods, the sorts of goods that you do not think of automatically—things like work boots and overalls for the men wanting to get back on to their blocks and start cleaning up; fencing and repair material donated by major agricultural companies; and cosmetic and medicinal supplies from some of Australia’s major providers, such as pamper packs for the ladies and those who had lost everything. So it was an incredible experience to be there in those early days and to see the outpouring of support that came from people right throughout Australia—from the corporate sector, from the voluntary sector and from individuals keen to do their bit.
We were very fortunate in Gippsland to be served by the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund. It went quickly into action. It secured several million dollars worth of donations from the immediate local community and was handing out cheques to people from day 1. I commend the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund for being able to dispense aid so quickly and when people needed it. Keep in mind that people were turning up to the relief and recovery centres with absolutely no form of identification, just with the clothes on their backs. To turn up and to have someone give them a cheque so they could go and buy some new clothes was something that they certainly appreciated.
The broader appeal effort, which this amendment deals with, raised $375 million. That is testament to the care and compassion of the Australian public. We hear a lot of negative stories in the media, but I think we should focus on this incredible performance by the Australian public. I am well aware of many school groups who held casual days, for example, or kids who held garage sales to raise money. They made donations of $10, $20, $50 or $100; and every little bit helped. I commend the Victorian Bushfire Appeal coordinators and Governor John Landy. The project is now chaired by Pat McNamara, a former leader in the Victorian state parliament. I commend them on the work they have done. It has been difficult for them to work through the parameters of the task before them.
One of the perhaps disturbing aspects of this issue, and the reason why I have taken this opportunity to speak today, is that there may be a sense in the broader community that the recovery has finished now—that we can all move on now that the media interest has died down and now that the bushfires are not on the front pages of the newspapers anymore—a sense that the communities of Gippsland, and the broader community of Victoria, affected by these fires have been fixed and it is all done and dusted. That is certainly not the case. We were very appreciative of the visits by the Prime Minister, the Parliamentary Secretary for Bushfire Reconstruction and several other ministers.
They made the time to come to Gippsland and to carefully assess the local needs on the ground. I urge them, if they have been to Gippsland in the past, to return in the future. They would certainly be welcomed by the community. There is a sense for some in the community that they have now been forgotten. It does not need to be a rational view; it can be just an emotional reaction to the fact that they have been on the ground now for eight months trying to rebuild their lives.
So it would do well for other members in this place to consider what opportunities they may have in the execution of their parliamentary duties to look for ways that they can get back into those communities. I am talking about not just Gippsland but also the broader bushfire affected communities as they recover from what has been, as I said, an incredibly traumatic experience. As time has gone by there is no question that the media interest has dropped and the visits from people outside the region have dropped. I get the sense now that the community is ready for more support in the sense of just knowing that people still care about them.
There have been some exceptions to that rule about interest dropping. The local media has been very focused on the recovery effort, and I commend the journalists in our area for their efforts in that regard. The ABC statewide radio program Drive is hosted by Kathy Bedford, a good friend and colleague of mine who has gone out of her way to try to keep in touch with the fire affected communities and make sure her listeners, right around regional Victoria, understand that they need to be there for these people for the long haul, because recovery is very much a long haul. People recover at very different rates. Some people seem quite remarkable as their resilience is incredible and they seemed to have bounced back very quickly. They have taken on enormous burdens in their communities and got on with the job of helping others and helping their own families. As for others, we are talking about six to eight months down the track and sometimes there have been delays in getting permits to start building and family breakdowns as a direct result of the fires because some people simply cannot go back to those communities; they do not want to move back and rebuild in the same location when their partner might think it is a very good idea to move back. That level of social disconnection or breakdown is a real issue that we are dealing with in Gippsland at the moment.
I have said many times in Gippsland that this will be a defining moment in our community and the lives of so many people. They will define their lives as to what they did before Black Saturday and what they did after Black Saturday. It will be a turning point for a lot of people. I am concerned for our young people in particular, that we have not always been fully cognisant of their needs given that they were very much at the firefront and were directly affected. I give credit to an organisation called Relationships Australia, which has gone out of its way in the past two weeks to hold an adolescents recovery day. Several hundred young teenagers came together for the day to enjoy some music and sit around with their mates in a relaxing environment. It is typical of the vagaries of the Gippsland climate that on that day rain poured down and washed out some of the events, a day when we were to there to reflect on a day when a 46-degree temperature scorched the area. So we had two inches of rain on a day when we would have preferred to be outside enjoying some of the other activities that were organised. Young people received some important messages that day to make sure they realised that they can seek help, that seeking help does not make you any less of a man or a woman if you are not dealing well with the trauma of the events that you have experienced and need to go out and get professional advice, and that it is okay to admit things are not necessarily going that well. I congratulate Relationships Australia for helping to build that bridge for our young people, so making them realise they have not been forgotten.
Obviously, the long haul of recovery also relates to the environment. The damage that has been done to the Victorian bush has been quite significant. If you travel through the bushfire affected areas now, you note the vegetation is starting to re-establish itself and it is greening up again. The large mammals one used to see are not there yet in any numbers, if at all. It is a long haul, and I give credit to the federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—and we have our clashes from time to time on a whole range of issues—for coming down to Gippsland and taking the time to see how the bushfires affected my community and also for making sure that additional Landcare funding is made available for the practical environmental work that is going to be required in the months ahead.
As I have mentioned before, there was very much a bipartisan spirit in the early days after the bushfires. The Prime Minister visited the area, as did the minister for agriculture. I had a chance to take the minister around to see the infrastructure work that is required, and the infrastructure upgrades are also going to take a fair bit of time to complete. That is why I am particularly pleased by the changes that have been made in terms of the tax treatment of the bushfire relief appeal fund.
One issue that seemed to slip through the cracks in the early days was primary producers’ need to repair and restore their on-farm equipment and activities, in particular fencing. We had hundreds of kilometres of fencing destroyed in Gippsland. I have seen the figures but they have escaped from my memory at the moment. I know there were thousands of kilometres of fencing destroyed across Victoria. Inevitably, in this area we are going to have future disasters, whether they be fires or floods, and we are going to lose fencing again. It almost seems as if it is going to be inevitable that we are going to again have this fight about what support is going to be made available to our primary producers when they are faced with such an enormous cost burden. We have a situation, one that needs to change, at a state level whereby where properties adjoin public land the state government does not assist with the replacement of fences. I think that is an issue that the state government needs to take on board coming out of this enormous tragedy across Victoria.
The bill before the House follows some pretty practical, common-sense discussions that were had with the Prime Minister’s office, with the parliamentary secretary’s office and also with the members for McMillan and McEwen. It ensures that our primary producers do have access to some of the funding. I think the Australian public is quite comfortable with that. The funding in the initial stages went to people who lost their primary place of residence, who had major loss of property.
But, given the magnitude of the fund—$375 million—I understand that the recovery fund committee have not been able to spend all the money at this stage. So it is quite reasonable to look at other options. I give credit to the government for moving in this regard.
In particular, changes provided for in the bill will allow the fund to provide long-term assistance to orphaned minors. I am not sure of the exact numbers, but I have read of many cases where young people have lost both their parents. It also provides reimbursements to individuals or organisations that have performed eligible charitable activities and it makes the discretionary payments I referred to before. The bill is certainly going to be well received by the people of Gippsland. It is a small but welcome step in recognition of the need for additional support as we go forward. I encourage all members and those of the general public who may be listening today to recognise that the recovery is ongoing. It has been an extraordinarily difficult and complex process. We are going to need continued support for communities and the people in them for many years to come.
I also want to refer to schedule 3 of the bill, which exempts from the income tax declarations the regional and remote payments made under the Helping Children with Autism package. Again, this is an important initiative and I commend the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services for taking it. We have an issue in our regional communities in particular. We need to make sure we are doing a hell of a lot more to provide decent levels of support and assistance to people with autism and their families. When the autism diagnosis comes, people liken it to a time bomb.
When it goes off, when the diagnosis is made, mums and dads return home and wonder what they do next. There is a lack of support services in regional communities. I have written to the minister on this in the past, and I understand he is working in that regard. This is a very positive step towards ensuring that people in rural and regional communities have reasonable access to services in the future.
Our carers are on the front line when it comes to providing a service for our nation. It is the toughest gig in town. Dealing with a child with special needs, whether it be autism or some other special needs, is exhausting. The parents are often confused by the layers of bureaucracy they need to go through to access services. It can be very difficult for them to keep their family unit together while they are dealing with so many other emotionally draining issues. I have met with several families in my electorate who have had the diagnosis of autism. The experience follows a very similar pattern.
There is a need for allied health services in the first place, but there is also a need for respite care. Families want to work their way through the system by using a one-stop shop approach. There is one program that has been very successful in the Bairnsdale community which I have written to the minister about. I congratulated him on the funding for it. That is the MyTime program. It provides a helper for up to eight children at one time to allow the parents to get together in a room and discuss their different ideas and the ways they are coping with a child with autism. Parents who have spoken to me are seeking the establishment of a one-stop shop which really helps them to identify support services and tells them where and how they can access them. I congratulate the minister for his interest in the issue. I also encourage him to continue to lobby hard for additional support services.
Some of the concerns raised by people in Gippsland link into the government’s new package of $12,000 over two years for children with autism spectrum disorder. It is a good package, but there are some concerns within my community in relation to how people can actually access the services and whether they are available to them. I have spoken to families about this, and the information they have given to me is that early intervention is critical when it comes to autism. It is those first few years where you can make a real difference in helping young people achieve their absolute best later in life.
There have been various international studies which have found that a young child with autism should have access to, for example, at least 12 hours of therapy per week, be it occupational therapy, behavioural therapy or speech therapy. But the package the government has implemented of $6,000 per year equates to about one hour per week. I know the families do not wish to appear ungrateful for that package, but it falls a long way short of where we need to go in the longer term. Low-income families and people from low socioeconomic areas have a great deal of difficulty in topping up the support services. It is only natural that parents want to get the absolute best for their children, but if you are a full-time carer obviously it can be difficult to earn the income to access the extra support services which are needed. I do commend the government for the autism support package which is available but I acknowledge that there is a long way to go in providing the services which meet the needs of our community.
Another problem with the package at the moment is that you must be an authorised provider to have the $6,000 spent on your service. In the early days, there certainly were not any authorised service providers in my region; that is about to change in Bairnsdale, I understand. In other regions where approved service providers are not available, it is still going to be a problem for the government, going forward. That is where the $2,000 allowance for remote and regional access fits into this package, but it is a real issue for children with autism in particular to be travelling long distances to access services. The children themselves do not travel that well in a large number of cases and it just adds another stress and layer of complexity for the families involved. So the $2,000 certainly helps, but we do have a long way to go in providing access to those types of services within the regional communities themselves.
I had the opportunity to speak to a paediatrician in Sale during the week who does a great job supporting children with autism. I think he has 150 children with autism on his books at the moment. He is comfortable with the package in that regard, but he does make the point that we do need to be investing more in our own young people in regional communities to make sure that we actually have those allied health services available in country communities in the future. Taking our young people with autism to Melbourne to access the services to use this funding is not an adequate solution for us. In the longer term, it simply will not change until more rural students are given preferential treatment to enter university courses and then given the opportunity to move back to regional communities to practise after the completion of their studies.
I thank the House for this opportunity to provide an update on the bushfire recovery efforts in Gippsland and also on the autism package. I commend the bill to the House.