BILLS - Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2018 - Second Reading

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (13:33): Tonight, Australians will hear more news from the Treasurer about the Turnbull government's ongoing commitment to making Australia a better place and making this a better country for all Australians. The Treasurer will tonight outline some of the financial approaches the government is taking to ensure that we continue to progress. This is a government that not only looks after roads and bridges and hospitals and schools but also tries to help people and help families to achieve their best in the modern society in which we live. The name of this bill actually says it all: Family Assistance and Child Support Legislation Amendment (Protecting Children) Bill 2018. This bill is the Turnbull government's commitment to supporting families and to protecting the health and wellbeing of children. It's about prioritising the protection of Australian children. I certainly support the bill and I encourage all other senators to support this important amendment with the view to prioritising the welfare and wellbeing of all children.

The bill contains a number of provisions to help families and help children. I want to briefly concentrate on schedule 2, which is a policy that I know the Prime Minister—indeed, all of our government—is very committed to and very proud of, and that is helping more Australian children become immunised. Since our government first introduced the No Jab, No Pay policy in 2016, national immunisation rates have increased across all three targeted groups of one-year-olds, two-year-olds and five-year-olds, and more than 210,000 families have taken action to ensure that their children now meet the immunisation requirement.

Immunisation coverage rates for one-year-olds and five-year-olds have reached more than 93 per cent, as at June last year, and this is nearing the critical level of 95 per cent to provide what is known as herd immunity. That means when large numbers of individuals are immune to diseases and the chains of infection are disrupted, thereby stopping or slowing any particular disease. Acting Deputy President, as you know, and as all senators will know, this is vital to protecting children, and not only children but the wider community as well, particularly young babies who haven't yet been fully immunised and older people who, perhaps, cannot be vaccinated from preventable diseases.

As part of the 2017-18 budget, the government provided some $14.1 million over four years for ongoing catch-up vaccinations for almost 375,000 Australians aged between 10 and 19 and for more than 8,000 adult refugees and humanitarian entrants. The government also provided $5½ million to encourage Australian parents and carers to vaccinate their children. This campaign specifically targeted areas of low vaccination rates by addressing some of the myths and misconceptions that abound while at the same time explaining the benefits of childhood vaccinations for both the individual and the community in which they live.

Schedule 2 of this bill strengthens the current immunisation incentive measures to ensure that from 1 July this year children must meet immunisation and health check requirements as a prerequisite for families to be eligible for their full fortnightly entitlement to family tax benefit A. Currently, senators will know, because we've dealt with this issue before, that the No Jab, No Pay and Healthy Start for School policies link family tax benefit A end-of-year supplement for each child to meeting immunisation and health check requirements. The new measure that we're introducing now will replace this incentive and serve as an immediate and constant reminder to parents of the need to immunise their children and to access a health check for their four-year-olds on time.

The new measures will also ensure that all family tax benefit families, irrespective of income, continue to have a clear financial incentive to immunise their children. Under the new rules, if a child does not meet the immunisation or health check requirements, their fortnightly tax benefit part A will be reduced by around $28 per fortnight. Over the course of the year, this is the same value as the current end-of-year supplement, but the glory of this is that it serves as an immediate reminder to parents who may have just inadvertently overlooked it that their child does need to get the health check or meet the immunisation target.

Should the child not meet the immunisation requirements, families have 63 days to meet the immunisation requirements. This grace period provides parents enough time to comply with those requirements even if they experience a delay in vaccinating their child—for example, due to illness, being away on holidays or something like that. It also aligns with the 63-day grace period in which to meet immunisation requirements in order to receive childcare payments.

The bill, as well, makes technical amendments in relation to the approved form and manner in which an application for a medical exemption from immunisation requirements may be made. This change will further enhance the integrity of the measure and help ensure that only legitimate cases qualify for an exemption. The government believes—and I think the community generally has the same belief and expectation—that there is no excuse for parents who, for no valid medical reason, choose not to immunise their children. These parents are putting at risk not only their own child's health but the health of every other person's children as well. Parents still have the right not to vaccinate their child, but a family's choice not to immunise their children is not supported by the government, nor should such action be supported by taxpayers in the form of undiminished family payments.

I recall, when this debate first started, a group of people coming to see me, as one of their federal representatives. They were very much opposed to the vaccination of children. I recall meeting with them. They seemed genuine. They were committed to their view. I didn't quite agree with them but I listened intently to them, had a discussion with them and was, as I say, impressed with their sincerity. But as a community we understand the benefits of vaccination. It's vaccination not just for our own children—and grandchildren, as the case may be—but for all children. If our children are not properly vaccinated, we put other families and other children at risk. The bill doesn't mandate that families have to vaccinate; it just says: if you don't, you're going to lose some of these family payments. If that's the choice families make, we think they are putting their child and the community at risk of infectious diseases, and they will no longer be eligible to receive the full fortnightly family tax benefit part A payment. We hope that the incentives will encourage them to vaccinate their children so that Australia can achieve the vaccination rates we desire.

Can I conclude by giving some brief statistics on vaccination rates since the government introduced its initial No Jab, No Pay policy, in January 2016. About 246,000 children and their families have taken action to ensure that they now meet the immunisation requirements. Immunisation coverage rates for the one- and five-year-old cohorts have reached 93 per cent. In March 2018, 94.05 per cent of children aged between 12 and 15 months had been vaccinated—up 1.77 per cent since the policy started. Of children aged between 24 and 27 months, 90.52 per cent had been vaccinated, and that's up by 1.21 per cent since the policy started. And the percentage for children aged up to five years is up 1.64 per cent since the policy started. The immunisation rate for Indigenous five-year-olds is now over 96 per cent.

When large numbers of individuals are immune to disease, chains of infection are disrupted, stopping and slowing the spread of disease. I think this is good policy. I urge the Senate to support this bill in all its provisions, but particularly the provision to encourage even greater immunisation of children.

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