A Matter of Public Importance in Parliament

On Wednesday, 18 June Senator Lisa Singh (Tasmania) spoke in the Senate on a Matter Of Public Importance. This is what Senator Singh said:

“He (Graeme Innes) works tirelessly to advocate on behalf of people living with a disability, which accounts for 39 per cent of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s caseloads – the largest component of the commission’s work, which continues to increase each year – yet soon his role will no longer exist.

“Graeme Innes has been the Disability Discrimination Commissioner since 2005 and, as well as undertaking roles as the Human Rights Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner during his tenure, he has been the full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner since 2011. In that time, he has been an advocate for individuals and communities affected by discrimination, engaged Australians in a national conversation about human rights and worked with the public service and the private sector to break down barriers to people with a disability.

“At budget estimates, he told me that he spends at least 60 hours on average each week working in his field – no wonder, when you consider that complaints on the grounds of disability account for about double the next highest category; at about 39 per cent of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Mr Innes believes that complaint levels that high indicate the level of issues and concerns the disability sector faces. Along with helping manage this enormous caseload, Mr Innes has also been an integral part of shaping the new National Disability Insurance Scheme.

“The position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner was established in 1993. For more than 20 years, commissioners have been at the forefront of securing access to work, education, premises and services for people with disabilities. But the fight for the rights of Australians with disability is set to become a group effort after changes announced in the Abbott government’s first budget. It was revealed that each commissioner has agreed to take a share of the disability workload as it relates to their existing portfolios-as it is the only choice they have under this budget constraint. So, in addition to their current full-time workloads, each commissioner will take a slice of the 39 per cent of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s caseload.

“It remains to be seen how they will juggle already full-time roles alongside disability discrimination responsibilities-an additional 60 hours a week, the current workload of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner-without compromising the current quality of their own work. The promised appointment of a spokesperson with a lived experience of disability at a downgraded level from commissioner does little to compensate for the loss of Mr Innes in that role. The commission has been dealt a devastating hand and is making a genuine effort to deal with this blow; however, integrating this role should never have been an option.

“As the NDIS rolls out across the country, it is more important than ever for there to be a federal advocate devoted to those the scheme is assisting. Equally, people forced over and over again to go through reassessment for their disability support pension as a result of the budget deserve to have a commissioner looking out for their rights.

The last time the Abbott government altered the arrangements for commissioners, the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, gave the new commissioner a courtesy call ahead of the announcement. Mr Innes has been in contact with Senator Brandis’s office and the department since the start of this year trying to discover the fate of his position, but the very first Mr Innes heard that his contract was not going to be renewed was actually on budget night. Buried in the budget papers is a line that callously notes that the dismissal of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner ‘will achieve efficiencies within the Human Rights Commission’. Mr Innes is entitled to be a little angry, I would think, but he is surprisingly philosophical about things. As he noted at estimates:

‘The first that I knew about this issue was when I read it in the budget papers. That was a bit surprising to me because it has been the normal practice in my experience at the commission for there to be discussions when these things are going to occur. I had been contacting the minister’s office and the department for the past three or four months, for several reasons. Firstly, obviously I was interested to know what plans I should be making or whether there was any consideration of the possibility of reappointment. Secondly, and more significantly, the previous appointment process, in my view, put the commission at significant risk of losing its A status under the Paris principles, because there was not an open appointment process and I was keen to encourage the department and the minister to appoint a disability discrimination commissioner through an applications process – which has been the practice-and through an open process because I was concerned, from the commission’s point of view, about the risk to our A status. So I was not provided with the opportunity to have those discussions and, as I say, the first I knew that the position was to be downgraded was when I read it on the night of the budget in the budget papers.’

“That is the way that Mr Innes found out about the downgrading of his position – his position as a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner. That is no way to treat this Disability Discrimination Commissioner, who has been in his role since 2005. It is absolutely disgraceful.

“We know, of course, that the terms for individual commissioners are set in statute and Mr Innes understands that it is the prerogative of the Attorney-General to appoint commissioners by whatever process, or lack thereof, that he chooses; even if it contradicts the Paris Principles of an open application process. With characteristic vigour, however, Mr Innes has prosecuted the case for a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner and has spoken out against the downgrading of his role. As Mr Innes described in Senate budget estimates, people living with a disability in Australia continue to be disadvantaged. He said:

‘I have done major work in the last 12 months on access to justice-achieving, if you like, freedom of speech and equal access to the justice system for people with disabilities, where we are over-represented both as victims and as offenders and alleged offenders. We get half the educational outcomes: 25 per cent of people with disabilities achieve year 12 and 50 per cent of the general population achieve year 12. Also, 45 per cent of us live in poverty.’

“Forty-five per cent of people with disabilities continue to live in poverty, yet the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, is taking away the person that can advocate for and represent them.

“Ahead of what the Abbott government had always foreshadowed was going a tight budget, Senator Brandis made the curious decision to add a commissioner while at the same time taking away more than $1.5 million of funding from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s budget. Clearly the Abbott government’s decision to appoint Tim Wilson as the freedom commissioner has come at the expense of Australia’s first full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Clearly the Abbott government has prioritised freedom commissioner over having a Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

“The issues faced by the disability sector are complex and multifaceted. Disability transforms the perspective of those it affects-a point that Mr Innes made to the estimates committee when arguing for a full-time commissioner. But we know that when a former fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs, and a personal friend of Senator Brandis, Tim Wilson, became the freedom commissioner in February, it hit the Australian Human Rights Commission’s budget by around $700,000. Something had to give, obviously. To cope with the new budgetary constraints, the commission will be forced to relegate the disability discrimination role to a part-time role or a shared responsibility. I think it is absolutely shameful that there will no longer be a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner when I have outlined the weight of the caseload that the commission faces and the issues facing the disability sector in Australia. So many Australians living with a disability will no longer have a full-time advocate.

“During budget estimates Mr Innes described some of the issues that he dealt with as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. I quote:

‘I have dealt with issues of concern in Brisbane, where audible traffic signals are turned off at night; so there is effectively a curfew for people who are blind or who have low vision. I have dealt with a range of issues arising from the budget, both positive and negative. The roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme: I have been very involved in its development and roll out and the benefits that that will bring for people with disabilities; the impact of the budget in a range of other areas; the disproportionate impact of any medical co-payments on people with disability-related illnesses; the disadvantage for people on the disability support pension who are being assessed again when they have already been assessed for that; for people under 35; the problems with regard to employment for people with disabilities, where we work at a rate 30 per cent lower than the general population.

‘This is a significantly disadvantaged sector and I am dealing with issues that relate to that every day that I am in this role… I do not suggest for a minute that my colleagues and staff at the commission will not continue to work very effectively in this role, but that will be a significant disadvantage to them and to the disability sector in Australia.’

“That makes the impact of Senator Brandis’ decision, the Abbott government’s decision-reducing the commission’s budget and no longer having a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner-fairly clear.

“I particularly want to draw on impact that Graeme Innes has had in his role. He has had such an impact in our Australian community in dealing with issues to do with disability from his own personal experience. I think he summed it up very well during budget estimates when he said:

‘I think there is little doubt in my mind, having been a commissioner for some eight years, and in the mind of the disability sector, that the disability sector is significantly advantaged by having a full-time disability discrimination commissioner with lived experience of disability and with knowledge of the disability sector. My lived experience of disability goes through all of my life. My experience in the disability sector started in my 20s, so I bring to the role 30 or 40 years’ experience. Whilst all of my colleagues at the commission are skilled and I have a lot of regard for them, none of them would be able to bring that experience to the role and, in my view, that would be a significant downgrading of the position.’

“I stand in support of the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, who has asked Prime Minister Tony Abbott to reinstate the Disability Discrimination Commissioner as a full-time role. What Australians with a disability have had for all of these years is someone who understands too well the challenges they face, who has empathy for their difficulties. What they need for the future is a full-time commissioner who can imagine an Australia without barriers for people who are born with or acquire a disability.

“Mr Graeme Innes was that man and will leave a lasting legacy. He has been an extremely powerful advocate for people with disability, working hard every day to ensure that people with disability have access to the same rights and opportunities as all Australians. That is the kind of society that we should want for all people, and that is the role that Mr Innes has been able to provide. Labor thanks Graeme Innes for the remarkable work that he has done at the Australian Human Rights Commission over the last decade on disability rights. He is leaving a lasting legacy. It is just such a shame that Senator Brandis is so short-sighted and is doing this terrible injustice for people in the disability community.” (end of quote).

 

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