24 February 2020
The strength of a government can be determined by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members of the community. The Morrison government is devoid of empathy and of compassion and treats those who require extra assistance or a hand up with contempt. This is the government that refuses to raise the rate of Newstart for people who are doing it tough, trying to find work, because that money would apparently 'go straight into the pockets of drug dealers'. This is the government claiming to owe no duty of care or recompense to people they sent illegal robodebt notices. This is the government that ignored advice from the Department of Health to fund more home-care packages while 16,000 senior Australians died on the waiting list for their approved package. Now this is the government that has cut funding to CapTel services at the expense of deaf and hearing-impaired Australians.
I have had constituents from Aspley, Deagon and Chermside reach out to me after receiving a letter from this heartless government advising that they had decided to cut funding and withdraw CapTel from the National Relay Service. The CapTel handset is a critical tool that gives deaf and hearing impaired Australians the independence and freedom to make and receive calls by transcribing a caption of the conversation. The average age of a CapTel user is 80 years old. Here is a picture of the CapTel handset. As you can see, it has a big screen to help older Australians read the text. Here is the 1980s-style teletypewriter that the Morrison government now expects hearing impaired Australians to use instead of the CapTel handset. Look how small the screen is. How is a person in their 80s supposed to read this screen?
The big question is: what was the huge cost blowout that forced the Morrison government's hand to cut the funding? How heavy was the drain of funding for the CapTel handset on their precious surplus? It was $10 million a year. The Morrison government has stopped funding CapTel handsets to save $10 million a year. This is a government that is so devoid of empathy that it is not even willing to preserve the ability of senior deaf Australians to access modern telecommunications technology for the cost of $10 million a year. In Senate estimates we were told there had been a blowout on the cost of operating the NRS which led to a capped tender of $22 million a year instead of approximately $32 million a year. As the shadow minister for communications previously pointed out, there has been no cost blowout. Australia's ageing population and increasing longevity has driven the increased need for relay services.
I wrote to the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts on behalf of my constituents and urged him to reconsider the government's decision. I told him about one of my constituents, Teresa, and how the CapTel handset has changed her life. Teresa is an 80-year-old pensioner who lives independently in public housing in Chermside. She was very reliant on CapTel to get in touch with her daughter and her doctors and with community service programs like the Burnie Brae Centre, St John Ambulance and Lifeline. Teresa has never used any other service to help her use her phone. Like a lot of older Australians, she does not have a mobile; she doesn't know how to use one. Before getting a CapTel handset, Teresa had to catch the bus to the doctor to make an appointment in person because she couldn't use a regular phone. She couldn't call her family and she had to wait for her daughter to come and visit or send her a letter. She spent a lot of time alone and she was confined to her house. She reached out to me because she was terrified that without her CapTel handset she would become isolated and lonely like she was before. She was scared about how she would call for help if she fell over again. She said she felt like a dog that needed to be put down.
In response to my correspondence to the minister for communications, I received a weak and disappointing letter that restated the government's decision to cut funding without concern for her or any of the thousands of hearing-impaired Australians that use CapTel handsets. The letter did not address any of the issues I'd raised about the TTY system, like the fact it transcribes 85 fewer words per minute; it doesn't use a controlled network; and it doesn't automatically loop in a transcriber, meaning users have to call the relay service to arrange their call. The response I received was typically arrogant, cold and matter of fact. The decision is final, there is no turning back. No wonder they have engaged an empathy consultant! But clearly he can't help everybody all of the time.
Thankfully, in January of this year, a US provider of CapTel services stepped up and announced they will temporarily keep the CapTel handset running for Australia's deaf community despite the Morrison government's cutting its deal with them.