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Saturday, 14 June 2014

Comment: Why are we abolishing the Disability Discrimination Commissioner? | SBS News

Comment: Why are we abolishing the Disability Discrimination Commissioner? | SBS News



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    Disability
    Discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes sits with his guide dog during
    the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs legislation committee
    hearing in 2012. (AAP)

He works tirelessly to advocate on behalf of people living with a
disability, which accounts for 39% the Australian Human Rights
Commission's caseloads. Soon, his role will no longer exist.
By


Lisa Singh



11 Jun 2014 - 4:45 PM  UPDATED 11 Jun 2014 - 8:22 PM



The position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner was
established in 1993. For more than twenty years, commissioners have been
at the forefront of securing access to work, education, premises,
services for people with disabilities. But the fight for the rights of
Australians with disabilities is set to become a part-time battle after
changes announced in the Abbott Government’s first Budget.

Graeme
Innes has been the full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner for
the last three years. 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 private sector to break down barriers to
people with disabilities. At Budget Estimates last week, he told me that
he spends about 60 hours working in an average week.

No wonder
when you consider that complaints on the grounds of disability account
for about double the next highest category at about 39 percent of the
work of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Along with
helping manage this enormous caseload, Mr Innes has been an integral
part of shaping the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).


As the NDIS rolls out around 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 again to go
through reassessment for the 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 had
been in contact with Senator Brandis’s office and the Department since
the start of the year trying to discover the fate of his position.

But
the first Mr Innes heard that his contract was not going to be renewed
was 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. But he is
surprisingly philosophical about things.

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) 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 spoken out against the
downgrading of the portfolio.

As the NDIS rolls out around 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 again to go through reassessment for the Disability
Support Pension as a result of the Budget deserve to have a commissioner
looking out for their rights.

Ahead of what the Abbott
Government had always foreshadowed was going to be a tight Budget,
Senator Brandis made the curious decision to add a commissioner while at
the same time taking more than $1.5 million of funding away from the
AHRC.

A former fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs and a
personal friend of Senator Brandis, Tim Wilson became the first ‘Freedom
Commissioner’ in February, hitting the AHRC budget for more than
$700,000. Something had to give. To cope with the news budgetary
constraints, the Commission will be forced to relegate the disability
discrimination role to a part-time, or shared, responsibility.

Senator
Brandis has been quick to point out that commissioners have sometimes
taken on dual roles. Perhaps he was making such a point when he gagged
the Race Discrimination Commissioner from offering comment to Estimates
on the government’s proposed changes to race hate laws, but gave Mr
Wilson free rein.

Given that almost half the disability
complaints received by the AHRC relate to employment and that Senator
Brandis has chosen to frame questions of employment as issues of freedom
and tradition rights in his first Australian Law Reform Commission
reference, perhaps Mr Wilson will soon be supplanting all his
colleagues.

One hopes not. Though he has repeatedly asserted the
fundamentality of the right to free speech, Mr Wilson’s response to the
Abbott Government’s unprecedented censorship of public servants on
social media was to recommend they look for a new job. However unlikely
such a simplistic prescription is to work for public servants (or young
people) it is doubly unlikely for people with a disability.

The
issues faced by the disability sector are complex and multifaceted.
Disability figuratively and literally transforms the perspective of
those it affects, a point that Mr Innes made to the Estimates when
arguing for a full-time commissioner:

“I just think the time
that a full-time commissioner has to put to that, plus my lived
experience of disability and my knowledge of the disability sector, are
absolutely required to continue the commission's work being at the level
that it is.”

What Australians with a disability have had for
the last three years is someone who understands the challenges they face
and has empathy for their difficulties. What they need for the future
is a full-time advocate who can imagine an Australia without barriers
for people who are born with or acquire a disability. 


Lisa Singh is a Labor Senator for Tasmania and is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney-General.

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