Helping Children with Autism package

MACKLIN: Thanks very much everyone, for being here, with my Parliamentary Secretary, Bill Shorten, we're very pleased to be here at Malkara School today. If I can thank the Principal, Jenny, and all the other staff who are here today, and particularly for having us meet and play with the children, to really get a feel for the very, very important work that they're doing. We're very pleased today to be able to announce the detail of the funding for improved services for children with autism. This is the detail of $190 million, a very, very important announcement to improve particularly the chances for children, little children, and the need for them to get early intervention services. We've just seen here at this school the very important work that's being done with children, with little children, before they are ready to go to school, and all the evidence shows that early intervention is what counts.

If I can particularly thank Bill Shorten for the enormous amount of work that he's done to get this package to this point. Since the election, Bill's been out consulting widely with groups right around Australia, to really make sure that we get the whole package, in a shape that's going to help children with autism. We know that there are so many children who are not getting the services that they need, and this package, we think, will be a very good start to finally deliver some very, very much needed services to these children. I'll ask Bill to go through some of the details of the package, but I particularly want to emphasise that this $190 million package that we're announcing the details of today, will particularly help children under the age of six, get access to early intervention services. I'd have to say from the families, especially the parents that I've met, who do have children with autism spectrum disorders, each and every one of them say to me just how important it is for them to get access to early intervention for their children. They know that that can really make an enormous difference to the life chances of their children, I've seen it with my own eyes, and if I can just say to those families who've been waiting, who haven't been able to afford the early intervention services that they want, we're very pleased today to be able to put this money out, to make it available to parents, so that they can now get the services that they need. Bill?

SHORTEN: Thanks very much, Jenny, and I'd like to acknowledge to begin with the Federal departmental public servants who've worked so hard to get together this package. For the first time, we are seeing the National Government of Australia, the Rudd Government, assist parents with autistic children. This is the first ever, major national intervention to assist parents with autistic children. It's focused around early intervention, the mechanics of $190 million, that every parent who has a child before school age, probably mainly in the group, three, four, five-and-a-half, but every parent of a child who has a diagnosis of autism, some degree of autism on the spectrum disorder, every parent can receive up to $6000 per annum, the parent will go to an approved service provider, and the approved service provider will rebate up to $6000 worth of hours of care.

It is proven time, time and again, we don't know what causes autism, we don't understand fully what causes the neurological disorder, but we do know that early intervention makes a quantum difference in the quality of life of a child with autism, and of course their families. So there will be up to $12,000 available for parents across two years, we estimate that in the first year, based on Centrelink data, some 3000 families will be able to access this assistance, in addition, if you live in remote Australia, remote and regional Australia, there'll be an additional $2000 where perhaps families in smaller towns, can group that money together to bring out the paediatricians, to bring out the occupational therapists, to bring out the child psychologists. So there's money for especially recognising the difficulty of raising children with autism in regional Australia.

The second big feature of this is through the Department of Health, and Nicola Roxon, we will be able to provide now 20 new additional items for allied health professionals, for allied health professionals, through diagnoses, 20 extra items on the Medicare rebate list, which is available for parents of children between zero and 12. There'll be through Julie Gillard's department, significant assistance to train - to work with parents, workshops, to assist parents deal with the shock of the diagnosis, and how to find services. In addition there'll be training for thousands of teachers in the school system, so that if you have a child with some version of ASD, the teachers are able to work with those children.

We will be announcing in the very near future, the location of six long day care centres, which will provide focused and specialised assistance for children. In addition to these things, the early intervention money available for families, the schools, the workshops, the rebates for the 20 additional items, for parents of autistic children, and also with the long day care centres, we see this as the start of the journey to assist the states, and to assist parents with children with autism. Essentially this is a very large reconfiguration of what the previous Howard Government was proposing. The Rudd Government went to the election and said that they would be providing $190 million to help children with autism and early intervention, that promise is now being kept. And what we've been able to do is reconfigure what the previous government was going to do, and radically tilt a lot more resources into early intervention.

So the biggest thing that parents say to both Jenny and I as we travel around, we want to make sure our children get as many hours of early intervention, this is a significant boost in providing families the ability to assist their children grow up, and get the sort of support they need, so that they can do as well as possible in the future.

JOURNALIST: How much is new money, and how much was already pledged under the Coalition?

SHORTEN: The Rudd Opposition pledged $190 million, that was matched by the Howard Government, but what we're actually seeing now is what it's being spent on, and available, and we're happy to take you through it without boring you to tears, but the Howard Government was proposing a lot less into early intervention, and we've been able, through the cooperation of the sector, through the work of the expert panel that we've had advising us, through working with parents, we're now able to commit approximately $90 million of this $190 million package, specifically to parents, so they can get hours of additional, early intervention from occupational therapy, child psychology, paediatricians, the sort of things which will make a big difference for little children.

JOURNALIST: How many hours does $6000 buy in a year, do you have an estimate?

SHORTEN: It depends how much the professionals charge out their time at, so it is not easy to give a simple explanation. Some of the behavioural therapies are very expensive, so it's relatively fewer hours of that sort of treatment, but at an early intervention centre, where you've got service providers, we are optimistic that this will go a substantial way along, towards accomplishing many extra hours each week. It is not 1000 hours a year, our best estimate is that this is somewhere between 250, 300 hours. This is in addition to the pubic health benefits, this is in addition to what states are doing, I don't pretend that raising kids with autism is easy, I don't pretend that all the issues are resolved by this package, but we certainly do believe is this is the single largest injection of government money towards assisting parents, and autistic children.

JOURNALIST: Are there any estimates as to how many kids will be eligible for the entire $6000 rebate?

MACKLIN: There are around 9000 children that we estimate will benefit from the package, so you can see that that will really help a large number of families get access to early intervention. In many cases, certainly from parents who've spoken to me, they either haven't been able to find it, or haven't been able to afford it, so I'm sure that those children will benefit.

JOURNALIST: Is there anything for families of older children?

SHORTEN: This is principally an early intervention package. Travelling around, when we're talking to people, there'll be a lot of parents of children six-plus who'll say, what's there for us? And that's a difficult answer to give. This is dealing with early intervention principally, but I can say that there'll be 20 additional items available for parents to claim back, that's the practical things. There will be - we're setting up play groups, and some of these we're hoping to set up for children of school age, as opposed to just play groups for parents and children before school, so there's a play groups component. In addition, we're providing training for teachers and parents. I think that a lot more will have to be done on what's been traditionally the state area of primary and secondary school, we do this as a cooperative arrangement with the states, but obviously we're keen to work with the states going forward for children older than six.

JOURNALIST: Are you confident that there are enough health professionals out there to meet all the extra money for the $6000?

SHORTEN: There's no question in my mind, that just as there's a skills shortage in all aspects of Australia, this affects the health industry as well, but I know that we're working with DEWR, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, we've met with some of the professional groups to talk about their views, there's been a long history of neglect in terms of training people in the care, community and disability areas, but I'm confident that we're going to deal with that matter going forward.

JOURNALIST: Minister, changes to the Fringe Benefit Tax seem to be making their way through the Senate, how confident are you that this legislation will be in place before next week?

MACKLIN: Well in fact I need to get back to the Parliament in a minute to deal with exactly that, it's gone through the Senate, and it's coming back to the House as we speak, and so this is a very important issue, speaking as we are about families who are very much dependent on the non-government sector, we're very keen to see this measure through the Parliament this week, and following that, Centrelink will make sure that they contact any people - any families who may have been affected, so that we can deal with the Fringe Benefits Tax issues, and make sure they don't lose their Family Assistance, which they would have otherwise done. So we're very pleased that we were able to move quickly, once we were made aware of this problem, we understand that up to 85,000 people could have been affected by the previous government's measure, to change the treatment of Fringe Benefits Tax for family assistance, we've got the legislation into the Senate, it's now through the Senate, and will come back to the House, and I expect it'll be through the Parliament this week.

JOURNALIST: The Opposition have suggested that changes to meal allowances under the Fringe Benefits Tax may also hurt low income workers, what would you say to that?

MACKLIN: I think the number one issue we're seeking to deal with today, is a change that was made by the previous government that would have seen some families lose up to $100 a fortnight, so the critical issue for me today, is to fix this problem that they created, and I intend to do so.

see http://www.facsia.gov.au/Internet/jennymacklin.nsf/content/malkara_25jun08.htm