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Oct 31, 2011
Geraldine Mellet

“The tide is turning” – Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes was one of the speakers at a forum in Perth on Oct 26. Read his speech here…

Good morning.  I acknowledge the nyungar people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.  It’s great to be back in Perth.  it’s also great to have the chance to talk with you about the NDIS.  I’ve been a strong advocate of the scheme for some time.  

Peter and I are the sort of warm-up act for the politicians at this forum.  But I hope, as with many rock concerts I’ve attended, that there isn’t still a large group out at the bar getting refreshed, and waiting for the main acts. 

And I don’t always agree with politicians.  As Garry Gray will tell you, I’ve criticised his portfolio area, and the previous government, for having a shameful record of employment of people with disability in the Commonwealth public service.  And just last week I criticised Immigration Minister Bowen for the unreasonable delay in responding to the report of a Parliamentary Committee on how our immigration system treats people with disability.  

But on the NDIS, I am in violent agreement with the other speakers.  If these schemes come to fruition, they will be the biggest reform in the disability sector in our lifetimes- and in my case that’s quite a while.  

On many disability rights issues, we’re used to a glacial pace of change.  It’s over 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared human rights for everyone, without discrimination — but somehow managed to miss mentioning disability.  It’s 30 years since the International Year of Disabled Persons.  It’s already 20 years since the start of drafting of Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act.

 We’ve spent decades trying to build a society that’s fit for all of us to live in.  Chipping away at the barriers that exclude men, women and children with disability from full and equal participation in, and contribution to, our society.  Certainly, we’ve seen progress.  On issues like access to public transport, and buildings, and information and communications.  But it’s painfully slow, patchy, and incomplete.  

And in some areas we’ve much to do.  People with disability continue to have no choice but to live in institutional environments, including the disproportionate numbers in our prison populations.  Things like disability employment rates in the Australian Public Service — going backwards, not forwards, over the last two decades.  And this in a period where technological developments ought to have been reducing, or eliminating, many barriers.  

Years, in fact decades, go by in our work, and in the lives of people with disability around Australia, with barriers still shutting people out and shutting people in.  

But sometimes, a moment comes when change happens very fast.  And what’s striking in the disability rights area, is how much agreement has been achieved in recent months, and how quickly: not only that there is a serious problem that has to be addressed, but on what the way forward should be. 

The groundbreaking recommendation for a NDIS was initiated by Bruce Bonyhady at the 2020 summit.  And we had the report of the Disability Investment Group recommending an NDIS, and an early investment in a major disability research and policy body.  And after government resolved to look further into this issue, the Productivity Commission delivered its final report on 31 July 2011, recommending a national disability insurance scheme, involving close to doubling of current funding for disability services and supports, and major shifts towards consumer choice.  Just 8 days later, the Prime Minister, the Assistant Treasurer, the Minister for FHACSIA, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disability were out in public releasing the report, committing in principle to implementing it, and allocating $10 million for initial processes to work towards implementation.  Almost immediately, support for the recommendations came from the Opposition (both by its Leader and its disability spokesman) and by most State and Territory Governments.  And just 10 days after that, the Council of Australian Governments signed on- Not to every detail, but to working in quite a short period to having an NDIS in place.

 And leading up to the release of the report, and day after day in the Federal Parliament since then, members from both sides, and the cross-benches, support the implementation.  I can’t remember any other major public policy initiative in the last 30 years with support like that.

 How did this happen?

 We should acknowledge first up the work of the Productivity Commission, and the decision by government to ask them to conduct this inquiry.  This is a report with great weight — and I don’t just mean the two volume paper version.  The Productivity Commission has done people with disability in Australia, and the nation, a great service — highlighting and analysing exclusion, and loss of opportunities for people with disability, as major economic issues worth significant investments to address.

 I’m not saying the battle is won.  But the tide is turning.

 The Productivity Commission report provides strong analysis, supporting the argument by a number of organisations over the years, that an NDIS would have overall economic benefits likely to substantially exceed scheme costs, by facilitating greater economic and social participation by people with disability, and families and carers.  The report also gives welcome emphasis to the point that limitation of individuals’ social participation, and life choices, is itself an economic issue, even when it can’t be measured directly in dollars.  This is consistent with the approach of Treasury, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which both emphasise human wellbeing, rather than solely GDP, as the appropriate measure of economic progress.

 The report shows that thwarted potential, and limited life chances, for people with disability don’t need to be invisible to policy makers, and to the wider Australian community, if we decide to look.  And that social and economic arrangements that exclude, or restrict, participation by people with disability is felt in people’s lives.

 For too long, people with disability in Australia, and their families, have been paying for disability with social and economic exclusion, and lack of choices.  As a whole, Australia has been paying as well — both economically and socially — by missing out on making the most of the contribution that the millions of people with disability in this country have to offer.  Bill Shorten has said that this is as unjust, and unacceptable, as putting a wall around one of our capital cities, and condemning everyone inside to inferior life chances and outcomes.

 The Productivity Commission has shown evidence that better equality in economic participation, for people with disability, could bring billions of dollars of economic benefits, and that a society which effectively includes all its members will be a more prosperous, as well as a fairer place.

 The report does not neglect the human dimension of all this.  There are passages which describe starkly the injustice faced by people with disability right now in Australia, and present an irresistible case to change it.  Here’s one:

Mike has an annual income of $150’000, which he spends on basics of life, but also holidays, a nice house and a car.  In contrast, Mary, who has a severe disability, has an annual income — after government transfers — of $25’000, and she gets around half of her reasonable personal care needs met.  Beyond the basics, she can’t buy the things that Mike can.  She is so poor that she can’t afford to top up her support needs to an adequate level.  She would need another $15 000 to do so.  She can’t get out much, she needs a nappy because she can’t get enough personal care, and she endures discomfort and indignity.

 There are many people like Mike in Australia, and relatively few people like Mary.  Under the NDIS, 15 ‘Mikes’ give up $1000 each …  Mary now has an income equivalent to around $40 000, and the 15 ‘Mikes’ have $149 000 each, only a very little lower than before.  The loss in wellbeing experienced by each Mike is low.  The gain for Mary is high.

 Of course, being able to present this sort of story, and analysis, depended on listening to, and taking seriously, the experience of people with disability and their families and organisations, and relaying that experience to the public, and to decision makers.  Also critical was the extensive input from a wide range of organisations.  To mention just one, the Business Council of Australia were clear in their support for an NDIS.

 Another key factor has been how clear and consistent the message from people with disability, and their families and organisations, has been.  I pay tribute to the continuing work of the Every Australian Counts campaign which recently registered its 80’000th supporter.

 Overwhelmingly, it was recognised that support for an insurance approach, rather than other possible responses, such as expanded welfare schemes, would be a key factor in moving disability issues from a welfare-charity model, to one based on rights and entitlements.  And also, in ensuring that a scheme promotes access and participation in all areas of life, rather than only providing an improved funding model for segregated services and segregated lives.

 Despite how many of us there actually are as people with disability in Australia, disability has too often been strangely invisible in public discussion.  Media professionals tell us that nothing cuts through like real human stories.  And we’ve seen that in the media response to the report, which has been overwhelmingly supportive.  I am immensely encouraged by the enthusiasm of some State leaders to move forward with large scale trials as early as possible.

 I’m also very encouraged by the decision by the federal government to allocate $10million immediately to start work on the governance arrangements for the NDIS.  That sounds small compared to $6,5billion, but it is a critical investment.

 We all know that question asked continuously by kids during long car trips- are we there yet.  The answer right now is no, but we’re well along the way.  And its discussions such as this, and the momentum of the campaign by 80’000 Australians, which will get us there.

 Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.


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