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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 4404

Senator BOYCE (5:17 PM) —In rising today to speak on Senator Parry’s motion on government service delivery, I wish to discuss the report Enabling Australia by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration of its inquiry into the migration treatment of disability. I thank both the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, Bill Shorten, for assisting in developing the terms of reference and causing this inquiry to happen. The inquiry was developed initially in response to the well-publicised case of a Victorian doctor, Dr Moeller, and his family, which included his son with down syndrome. Because Dr Moeller’s son had down syndrome the whole family was going to be prevented from becoming permanent residents of Australia. That case was resolved quite happily amid quite a lot of publicity. There are dozens and dozens of other cases like this every year in Australia which do not get the same publicity and are resolved sometimes far less happily.

The main report of this committee contains 18 recommendations. If all those recommendations go ahead, there will be some very real and positive changes in the migration treatment of disability. I commend them to the government. We received some surprises, some shocks, in doing this inquiry. On that basis, I draw people’s attention to recommendation 15, which deals with creating a priority visa category for refugees who have sustained a disability or condition as a result of being a victim of torture and trauma. The committee was shocked to hear evidence that refugees from countries such as Rwanda and Sierra Leone were being refused visas to come to Australia because they were amputees. They are amputees because their government or other forces in their countries were amputating limbs as a way of exercising some control over the population. It struck everyone on the committee as horrific that people who had been so traumatised in their own countries were then doubly traumatised by not being able to come to Australia. Amongst the very many excellent case studies in this report there is one about a Rwandan mother who was refused the opportunity to come to Brisbane to see her two daughters because she was an amputee and because of the other very serious disabling injuries that she had received through being shot by her own government during a civil war. It is wonderful that an inquiry like this can bring out such information.

If the 18 recommendations of the main report are adopted, there will be some real and positive changes to the migration treatment of disability. But I would suggest, and I have done in additional comments that I made with Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, that we can go a lot further. Our additional comments are entitled ‘Dismantling the deficit model’. Our main recommendation is that the government remove the exemption of the Migration Act 1958 from the Disability Discrimination Act 1992—in other words, stop having a disability criterion for people who are coming to Australia either as migrants or as refugees.

There have been two arguments in the past as to why you might have special criteria for people with disabilities to ensure that they do not affect Australia’s society. The first goes back to this historic view—it is really a relic of the past—that perceives disability as a disease, as something that you might catch, something that might be infectious or certainly something that the Australian population needs to be protected from. We have come a lot further in terms of how we understand disability and how we distinguish between the very reasonable and real need that we have to protect Australia from genuine public health risks and the need to ‘protect’ Australia from people with disabilities.

The other reason given for adopting special disability criteria is the view that people with disabilities would flood into Australia and use up all the services that are currently available. Certainly there can be no argument that there is restricted access to services for people with disabilities in our society now. It is restricted for Australians. But the suggestion that there would be this flood of people with disabilities coming here is quite bizarre and was certainly spoken against by numerous witnesses to the inquiry, including Dr Rhonda Galbally, who was instrumental in developing the government’s Shut out report. She said:

We have never seen a flood to Australia. We have seen genuine families applying to come here or people in refugee situations where they happen to have a family member with a disability who they declare … I think that it is like the mythology of the yellow hordes flooding down from China argument.

Dr Galbally also described the view that there would be no services left for genuine Australians if we allowed people with disabilities to come to Australia willy-nilly as a ‘furphy’. I can only support her in that view. I think we must recognise that, if we apply the Disability Discrimination Act to our Migration Act in the 21st century, we see there is overt discrimination. It is a relic of the old days.

I spoke earlier about some of the things that shocked me during this inquiry. It was at the Sydney hearing that both Mr Graeme Innes, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and Professor Ron McCallum, former dean of law at the University of Sydney and currently the Chair of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, made the point that, if they were not Australian born, they would not have been allowed to come to this country. To me that demonstrates how foolish it is for us to sit down and assess what a four-year-old Graeme Innes or a five-year-old Ron McCallum might be able to contribute to this country by trying to apply some sort of actuarial tables on the social and economic benefits of people with disability. The answer is that we do not know what ability to contribute to our society people with a disability have. When people with disability come from circumstances where there are poorer education services, poorer community services and poorer therapy services, we particularly do not know what their capability is.

One of the case studies provided to the committee is that of a man who was the first-ever blind person registered as a teacher in South Australia who we initially tried to send away. He successfully appealed, but he and his family went through all that trauma and there was all that cost to the government before he succeeded in being allowed to stay. There are other examples of people with severe disabilities who have come here and then, because of the treatment available, gone on to make a real social and economic contribution to the country.

I would very much urge the government to accept that we have plenty of criteria to wrap around ensuring that migration to and refugee settlement in Australia are well controlled, well within our means and safe for Australia. There are plenty of other criteria available to use. We do not need to add disability criteria to that. It is no longer reasonable to assume that, because someone has a disability, they cannot contribute or that their family, in net terms, would be a burden to Australia. It is just not the case, and we should stop pretending it is. We should acknowledge that because of all the other criteria there is not going to be a flood of people with disabilities trying to come into Australia. People will have to meet all the other criteria, and that will be reasonable.

One other recommendation that is made in the additional comments, which is based on the first recommendation not being accepted, is that we should acknowledge that rejecting temporary visa holders as permanent visa holders solely on the basis of the birth of a child with a disability is discriminatory and we should develop protocols to address this. I am aware of couples who have come to Australia on temporary visas and conceived and given birth to a child with a disability in Australia and, on that basis alone, have been refused permanent resident visas. These are, on every other count, the Dr Moellers of the migration world—well-educated people with very senior positions who would, in anyone’s terms, be a great addition to the Australian community but who have had a child with a disability in Australia and have then been put in the position of not being able to continue to pursue their attempts to become Australian citizens.

I think all use of disability criteria against migrants and refugees is discrimination but I think this form, where a child who is conceived and born in Australia is the cause of a family being discriminated against, is a particularly offensive form of discrimination. I would urge the government to add that recommendation to the list of the other 18 in the event that they are not prepared to accept the idea that we should simply take the disability criteria completely out of our Migration Act.

In the spirit that this inquiry was conducted, in the spirit that the terms of reference were developed, as I said before, by Minister Evans and Parliamentary Secretary Shorten and in the very sensitive way that the whole inquiry was handled by all members of the committee, I would hope that we could move to remedy this situation and to stop discrimination against people with a disability who simply want to call Australia home.