“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” – Ghandi
When George Brandis, in one of his first actions after coming to
power in 2013, sacked Disability Commissioner Graeme Innes and replaced
him with the IPA’s Tim Wilson to be the Commissioner for bigots, we were
given a frightening example of the blatant cronyism that has become a
hallmark of the Abbott government.
Graeme Innes was Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner
from December 2005 to July 2014. During that time he has also served as
Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner for three and a half years and as
Race Discrimination Commissioner for two years.
Graeme is a Lawyer, Mediator and Company Director. He has been a
Human Rights Practitioner for 30 years in NSW, WA and nationally.
As Commissioner, Graeme has led or contributed to the success of a number of initiatives. These have included the Same Sex: Same Entitlements inquiry, which resulted in removal of discrimination across federal law; the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and its ratification by Australia.
Graeme was also crucial to the development of the National Disability Strategy and the Disability (Access to Premises – buildings) Standards 2010; as well as the establishment of Livable Housing Australia.
He has also been an active high profile advocate for the
implementation of cinema captioning and audio descriptions and, as Human
Rights Commissioner, undertook three annual inspections of Australia’s
Immigration Detention facilities.
Graeme has been a Member of the NSW Administrative Decisions
Tribunal; the NSW Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal; and the Social
Security Appeals Tribunal. He has also been a Hearing Commissioner with
the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
He was Chair of the Disability Advisory Council of Australia, and the
first Chair of Australia’s national blindness agency, Vision Australia.
In 1995 Graeme was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). In 2003, he was a finalist for Australian of the Year.
Tim Wilson, on the other hand, has no qualifications or experience to
recommend him for the job. He worked at the Institute of Public
Affairs for seven years, serving as Director of Climate Change Policy
and the Intellectual Property and Free Trade. He was a vocal critic of
the Human Rights Commission and during his time there the IPA called for
the abolition of the commission. Apparently his criticism of the HRC
faded away when he found out how much he would be paid.
Tim Wilson now has a total salary of $389,000 plus vehicle and
telephone expenses after the Remuneration Tribunal approved a travel
allowance of $40,000 and a “reunion allowance’’ of $16,800 in addition
to his base salary of $332,000 — back dated to February 17 when he took
up the job.
This becomes even more obscene in light of the subsequent treatment of the disabled by the Abbott government.
Just under half of Australians with disabilities live at or below the
poverty line. For the 30% who can work, poverty wages are the norm. The
quality of life of Australians with disabilities compares very badly
with other developed countries; in fact, it ranks as one of the worst in
Some employees with disabilities are paid as little as 9% of the
minimum wage – or 99 cents/hour, $8/day, $40/week – including some who
work for government-supported Australian disability enterprises.
Over the last five years, some 10,000 employees with intellectual
disabilities have sought to be paid more by pursuing a class action
lawsuit. According to the federal and high courts, these employees have
been illegally underpaid in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act
for more than a decade. They are entitled to be compensated by the
federal government. Instead, the government has done everything it can
to block that effort.
In November, the federal government brought a bill before the Senate,
designed to thwart the employees’ class action to recover their back
pay. It was unprecedented; under the proposed law employees could accept
half of their back pay in exchange for giving up their right to recover
the other half. If they didn’t accept the offer, the government made it
clear that it would continue to resist and delay the back pay claim in
the courts for years.
The government lied to the crossbenchers in the Senate, claiming the
employees would only recover half of their back pay in court after
deductions for legal fees (false: it’s a pro bono case) and income tax
(false: mostly the employees come under the income tax threshold).
Jacqui Lambie, then still a PUP senator, parted ways with her colleagues
and together with John Madigan and Nick Xenophon voted against the
bill, which was defeated by one vote.
Within hours of the vote, Mitch Fifield resumed his lobbying of the
crossbench senators, advising them that he would reintroduce the
government bill in February 2015.
A few days before Christmas, the federal government cut funding to
disability advocacy groups hoping that no one would notice. It did so
shortly after reneging on its commitment to reform multinational
corporate tax avoidance, a multi-billion dollar industry.
Groups which lost funding include the Australian Federation of
Disability Organisations, Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia, Blind
Citizens Australia, Brain Injury Australia, Deaf Australia, Deafness
Forum of Australia, Down Syndrome Australia, the National Council on
Intellectual Disability, Physical Disability Australia and Short
Statured People of Australia.
All up, these funding cuts are said to have affected around 140 groups who deal with about 200,000 individuals.
The cuts also hit groups working with homeless people, including
National Shelter, Homelessness Australia and the Community Housing
This, too, will exacerbate existing problems. According to the most
recent data, an estimated 105,000 Australians are homeless while some
254,000 used homeless services in the last year.
From the beginning of this year, those applying for the disability
pension will have to be assessed by a government-contracted doctor
instead of their own GP. Regular doctors will no longer be allowed to
approve new DSP applications.
If the government doctor finds they’re not completely unable to work
they could be put on the dole instead – which is about $160 a week less.
Instead of fixing a legitimate problem, ACOSS chief executive
Cassandra Goldie says the end result will be a modest budget saving at
the expense of greater poverty among those with disabilities who are
already doing their best to find work in a “really tough” and
discriminatory job market.
“We need a proper job strategy to open up job opportunities to reduce
discrimination against people with disability and we would like to see
the Commonwealth lead that charge,” Ms Goldie says.
Eligibility for the DSP had already been tightened under the previous
Labor government, including tougher impairment tables and job search
requirements. Over the past decade the proportion of working age people
receiving the DSP had remained relatively constant.
Last financial year, the Department of Human Services investigated
411 people for dishonestly claiming DSP, which clawed back $9.5 million.
However social security fraud represents about 0.02 per cent of payments.
Meanwhile, Kevin Andrew’s $20 million marriage counselling voucher
scheme is to be scrapped because, of the 100,000 vouchers on offer, only
a few thousand were taken up.
The appointment of “tough guy” Scott Morrison to the Social Services
portfolio does not auger well for the vulnerable in our society.
Dubbing himself the “Minister for Economic Participation” the man who
‘stopped the boats’ declared he will now ‘stop the bludgers’.
As they ramp up the attack on the most vulnerable members of our
society it is incumbent on all decent Australians to raise their voice
in protest and help defend the rights of those who are unable to defend