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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 974


Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) (5:27 PM) —It is a pleasure to be speaking on the Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 today. It is fair to say that in Australia, the prejudice faced by people with disability is entrenched, systemic and subtle. It is experienced by people with disability every day, and it shapes all of their experiences and interactions with the wider world. To the difficulty in walking or seeing or speaking is added the treatment that they suffer and the discrimination they receive when others in our community might dismiss or ignore them, be it on a bus, in a workplace, in a job interview, in a shop or in a school. Some Australians with disability and impairment are made to know by other Australians that they wish they had never been born. I have spoken to mothers with two disabled children who have had unknown strangers speak to them in shopping centres and say, ‘Why did you have a second child?’

Australians are not malicious as a rule. But when it comes to impairment and disability, all too often there is unfortunately still in Australia a two-class society. It is not good and it is not appropriate that some Australians with impairment are still commonly treated in what can only be described as an unAustralian way. Impairment is a fact of life. You can acquire it through birth, through the blink of an eye in a motor car accident, in a workplace or indeed just through the passage of age. What, however, disables people with impairment are the attitudes within the community at large which focus solely upon a person’s impairment and not upon a person’s ability. I believe, and the Rudd government believes, that this sits badly in our democracy and that it sits badly with our culture of mateship and with our history of neighbourhood communion and kindliness that some people are still treated this way. I do not think it is too much to ask that people with an impairment be given a fair go.

This is modest legislation which we are debating today, but I believe it is another step towards normal human decency that we should go this far at least. Like all prejudice, prejudice against people with an impairment is born of ignorance and a lack of empathy with the experiences of others. It can come in the form of attitudes ranging from the patronising to the hostile. People with impairments continually have to deal with systems that have been designed without a thought for people who might have a physical or intellectual impairment or, indeed, a mental illness.

People with impairment know the frustration of living with barriers which, in the case of many of them, could be minimised or avoided with just a little expense and a small amount of thought and flexibility. Imagine if because of my skin colour, or if because of my gender I was refused entry on a bus, or refused a job, or refused entry to a school or university, or if I were refused the ability to own my own house. There would be an appropriate hue and cry in the nation. Yet all too often Australians with impairment suffer worse outcomes than other Australians because of their impairment.

As I have said, it is not the disability or the impairment of the person that is the problem; it is the neglect and the belief of too many in our society that disability is a bottomless hole that can never be fixed, and that no matter what you do you cannot solve the problems of those with impairment. I recognise that some impairments will not be fixed, but I do strongly believe that the barriers put up by the attitudes of others can all be removed. It is true that there have been improvements in attitudes over recent years. But people with disability are routinely treated in ways which no other group in the community would be expected to tolerate.

The Disability Discrimination Act came into effect in 1992. It was the first piece of federal legislation that made it illegal to discriminate against people with disability. It is amazing to think that fewer than 20 years ago people with disability in some parts of our Commonwealth had no legal protection against prejudice and discrimination. The cases which the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission see every day reflect this: the woman who was refused a job as a telemarketer because she was blind in one eye, the man in a wheelchair who was told that he could not board a flight, the many people who have not been allowed to bring assistance animals into buildings. All of these people had to fend for themselves, pushing alone against the immovable barriers of ignorance and prejudice.

Today we are debating necessary improvements to that landmark piece of legislation. This bill will clarify and improve the operation of the Disability Discrimination Act and other human rights laws. It will enhance the protection offered to Australians with disability. It will ensure that where it is possible to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate people with disability, these adjustments will be made. This bill recognises that for people with disability to be fully included in society there will need to be positive changes made to accommodate them. People with an impairment should not be made to beg or complain or fight for these changes on their own. They should be provided to them as a right, because they are Australian. The bill will also clarify that discrimination on the basis of the disability of a person’s associates is illegal, as is discrimination on the basis of a person having a carer, an assistant, an assistance animal or a disability aid.

The bill will also bring the act up to date with scientific advances by making it clear that discrimination on the basis of a person’s genetic predisposition to impairment is unlawful. It will help enforce what we believe and what the Attorney-General believes are reasonable measures. This is an important part of the Rudd government’s ongoing commitment to enhancing the rights of people with disability and pursuing our goal of greater social inclusion.

The Disability Discrimination Act was reviewed by the Productivity Commission in 2004. The review was a rational, economic view of the legislation. The review found that the act had produced net benefits for the Australian community. The Productivity Commission also found that the objectives of the Disability Discrimination Act can only be met by legislation. We believe that non-regulatory approaches can complement the operation of the act, but they can never be a substitute for regulation protecting the rights of all. Australians with disability look to this parliament for leadership on this issue, and that is what we are delivering.

A major battleground in the area of disability rights is, of course, the workplace. It is shameful that employment rates for people with disability in our nation are still at around 50 per cent, compared with a much higher percentage for the rest of the Australian population. What has been going on in the long years of the economic boom, which have come to a recent close, that, whilst most Australians have increased their prosperity, all of the indicators of fairness and a just life for people with disability have been going in the opposite direction? These are ugly numbers which reflect poorly on the nation.

People with disability want the same opportunities for fulfilling and productive work as the rest of the population. People in this nation deserve to have a chance to contribute and to be useful regardless of impairment. If we can make just some adjustments to help this happen then all of us benefit. We need to create an understanding that employing people with disability is not a burden; it is not an act of charity; it is not too hard. In fact, it is a solution which provides dignity and benefits for all.

Unfortunately, there are some employers whose attitudes towards people with disability are mired in the past. The disappointing comments from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, reported on page 4 of today’s Australian Financial Review are typical, I believe, of outmoded attitudes—attitudes which, I suggest, cloak unthinking prejudice and a layer of economic rationality. The comments focus solely on the perceived negatives of this bill. They allege it will have a negative effect on businesses, which will be forced to make adjustments to accommodate the needs of staff with disability. How outrageous that businesses should be forced to try to enjoy the benefits and the fruits of the whole diversity of the Australian workforce. I am sure that the same arguments were made against putting in toilets for women in workplaces or for the idea that people of colour could not work for the same wages as the rest of the Australian workforce. This is the category of comment to which those comments by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry belong.

This legislation does protect the rights of employers. It clarifies that no employer will be required to undergo unjustifiable hardship to meet the needs of a person with disability. Imagine: Leo who cannot hear, Frank who is in a wheelchair, Stephen who has a communication difficulty—is it unjustifiable hardship to employ these people? Imagine if we did not have Ludwig van Beethoven, who could not hear; Stephen Hawking, the great scientist and physicist; Franklin Roosevelt, who was in a wheelchair. It is true, unfortunately, that in Australia some people when they go for a job interview with these impairments would not get past the interview selection process. How many Beethovens, Roosevelts and Hawkings are we missing out on in this nation because of the inability to move beyond looking at someone’s impairment to the whole person?

The attitude typified by the comments attributed by the media to the ACCI is outdated, antiquated, moth-eaten and fusty. The attitude of immediately thinking about the potential problems of hiring people with disability, rather than thinking of what they, with all their skills and experience, can contribute to a business, is the biggest barrier that people with disability face. The Human Rights Commission says that some employers cite an increased risk of worker compensation claims as a major barrier to employing people with disability—another straw man argument, a fig leaf to prejudice rather than an argument based on evidence. There is no evidence available to support this allegation. Similarly, the cost of work based accommodation is sometimes mentioned as a deal breaker in employing a person with disability. This is despite evidence from the United States suggesting that most modifications cost under $500.

Employers who have employed people with disability—and there are many, from small to large business—tell me that people with disabilities tend to remain longer in the same job and have fewer injuries at work than those without disability. Some people at the ACCI should get out and talk to their members who have made efforts to hire people with disability—and I know that there are efforts within that organisation to promote the employment of people with disability. That is why I was even more surprised by the comments reported today. I do believe that when you are an industry leader, be it in a trade union or as an employer, you have an obligation to lead, not to discourage. Furthermore, there was speculation, a vague spectre, that passing this bill would ensure that people with a drug, gambling or pornography addiction could be classified as disabled under this legislation. These claims are irresponsible, scaremongering and factually wrong. This is insulting to thousands of Australians with serious disabilities who will have their rights safeguarded by this bill.

It has been said that there is no clear policy rationale to introduce these changes in a possible recessionary period. Since when have basic civil rights been based on the performance of the ASX or the Dow Jones? Using the global financial crisis as an excuse to deny fundamental rights to Australians with disability is simply prejudice disguised as reactionary economics. And there should be no way that we should be asking people with disability to take a backward step in their pursuit of equal rights or to continue to be at the back of the queue. If we did that, and if we do not push through with this bill, we might as well just admit that we consider people with disability to be second-class citizens.

The bill we are debating today is supported by the Productivity Commission, the Australian Law Reform Commission and parliamentary committee recommendations. The opposition signed up to the vast bulk of the recommendations when in government but unfortunately never had time to implement them. Indeed this bill is supported by the many businesses represented by the Australian Employers Network on Disability. I think some of the dissenters, as reported today in the media, should talk to any of the 86 members of the Australian Employers Network on Disability, companies that have already made a commitment to creating a level playing field and to drawing on the skills and talents of people with disability in the workforce. They include companies such as IBM, Woolworths, the National Australia Bank, Qantas, Telstra and KPMG. They have not found barriers. They have taken steps to employ more people with disability and to provide valuable work experience for young people with disability. Woolworths have employed an extra 287 people with disabilities since 2005, thanks to a very, very constructive partnership with that outstanding organisation Disability WORKS Australia. NAB employed an extra hundred people and was the first Australian company to lodge a disability action plan with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

This bill is one that benefits us all both in an economic sense and by enriching our society by helping unlock the potential of people with disability. In the long term the challenge of Australia’s ageing population can only be met by ensuring that the human potential of Australia is used to its full. We are a very small nation of the world, and we are not a nation that can afford to avoid, and to discriminate against, a vast pool of talent, which is people with impairment. We need to be employing and engaging older Australians, people with disability and Australians from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

This bill also contains safeguards to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of age. These provisions, which simply bring age discrimination laws in line with other discrimination laws, have also been questioned by some. However, policies to boost the number of people with disability in the workforce are long overdue. This legislation is needed to spearhead a cultural change in the way that businesses view people with disability. I am saddened and a little embarrassed to report that the number of people with disability employed by the Australian Public Service has declined over the last 10 years. This is not a failure on the part of people with disability; it is a failure of leadership, one which this government is determined to reverse.

This bill reaffirms the Rudd government’s commitment to upholding and strengthening the rights of people with disability. It reaffirms our belief that our community has a duty to take the reasonable steps that are required to deliver equal access to people with disability. Let us be very clear today: this bill does not solve all the entrenched discrimination and second-class status which Australians with impairment undergo every day. The fact that Australians with impairment cannot shop in the same shops as other people because the shops are not designed to allow access, and the fact that Australians with impairment do not enjoy comparable levels of home ownership, comparable levels of access to tertiary education and the same level of income security and job employment as other Australians is a disgrace.

This bill is an attempt to rectify some of these wrongs, but it is fair to say, I believe, that discrimination against people with disability is one of the last frontiers of long overdue civil rights reform in Australia. Civil rights do not finish with legislation but they are certainly helped by legislation. For too long the voice of people with impairment has been one which has been shoved to the bottom of political priority. Indeed, we in this government have an opportunity in this parliament, through this bill and through other measures, to increase and provide equal treatment for people with disability.

It is not correct to say that this nation is too poor to afford the solutions which provide lifetime and lifelong care for people with disability. It is not correct to say that the issues of impairment are insoluble. It is not correct to say that we cannot find early intervention to assist each child born with impairment to try to get the best they can out of the education system. It is not correct to say that this country cannot afford the correct and fairest educational outcomes. These problems have been a long time in the making and they are not easily solved. But why is it that when it comes to disability we say that we can cover a percentage of the need but not the whole need? In other areas of endeavour, of social justice, fairness and equality in Australia, we have formed the view that we can solve problems. When it comes to disability we say, ‘Mmm, it’s a bit hard.’ We adopt the metaphorical attitude of kicking a stone around with the toe of our boot. We shrug our shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know how the carers and families do it; I don’t know how those marvellous para-Olympians do it, but really, they have their problems and we can’t solve them.’

This bill is, in a minor way and in a modest way, recognition that we can in fact provide equal treatment in this nation. This nation cannot claim to be a fair society when we have so many Australians excluded from participating equally in it. I believe that it is not up to people with impairment to demand the rights to which they are due; it is up to the rest of us to demand on behalf of people with impairment, and their families and carers, the rights which they are due. This proposed legislation does go some of the way. To quote Martin Luther King:

Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.

We may not be able to immediately change people’s negative attitudes to disability but we can ensure that people with a disability are given the opportunity to achieve their potential and be included in society. Access and fair treatment at work are fundamental sources of dignity and identity for people. By helping achieve them, I believe that we can start the process of changing attitudes in the long term and ensuring that people with a disability are at the centre of our society, not consigned to the margins. I commend the bill to the House.