Speech by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Implementing and Monitoring the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in the Australian Social and Legal Context – Keynote Address

Location: Parliament House, Brisbane


Now, I would like to call on Mr Bill Shorten to speak. He’s the in the Federal Government. He is going to speak on implementing the CRDP convention. He will be addressing the present and future challenges. So if you come forward, please. Just as Bill is coming forward, I just went through some press releases at the time of the treaties committee. The Senate Committee was recommending the ratification of the Convention by Australia. Mr Kelvin Thompson, he was the chairman, made a president release and briefly described what was involved and he ended it with these words: “The convention reflects and affirms protections already existing under Australia’s domestic laws and has received widespread support”. I am sure most of you here would see there are flaws in that statement. One only has to think of immigration. So rather than look at that in a negative way, I would like to see it put up as a challenge so that we just don’t say as the Americans appear to, during the session that I attended they seem to think that, well, they had incorporated the articles in their domestic laws and at one stage they weren’t looking to ratify it, I understand. But if one looks at the articles, they go a lot further than the various pieces of legislation that we have in the Federal and the State spheres in Australia. So I will call on Bill, he’s the gentleman to my left, who is becoming very recognisable in Australia. He’s from all accounts very enthusiastic about the Convention. Bill, if you would like to address the meeting, thank you.

MR BILL SHORTEN: Good morning, everyone. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and pay my respects to elders, past and present. It’s a pleasure to be here. I also like to acknowledge the Attorney General of Queensland, Kerry Shine, Graeme Innes, HR Commissioner, Kevin Cocks from QAI.

Many of you are interested in the law. Now I did a law degree once upon a time so I learnt enough and I was even a lawyer for a brief inglorious period. But I am going to avoid talking to you about the law because many of you are more expert in that matter.

What I do want to do is tell you about the Olympics and give you a medal tally update. Australia has, as of last night, 11 gold medals, 12 silver and 12 bronze, which adds up to 35. I looked down the chart to see how Luxembourg, Sweden and Norway are going. Norway has one gold medal, Finland has one gold, the Swedes don’t appear to have got a gold and I am pretty sure Luxembourg is attending the games. The reason I talk about that is those four countries do disability better than us.

So what I am interested in, what to me is an important proposition, is when we have our Olympics fever, and I love watching Olympics, is why is it this nation is more obsessed about gold medals than it is about the rights of people with disabilities? That’s part of the challenge in the context of the UN Convention. I wonder if and I actually think what the Rudd Government stands for is that goal I think it’s actually part of Australian values, I know these terms have got cheapened and deflated over the years, but I do think a common set of values we believe in is equality and fair go. I think we are going to get there and I think we will change this focus on priorities in the Australian psyche and we can move disability up the chart. I think we are going to get there. Because no matter how much our community, media and politics can stray from that idea, I think the goal of disability which is a fair go is in fact as I said, the same as the values of Australian society, a fair go.

But I do believe that the waiting game needs to end for people with disabilities and indeed people who are concerned for them. Just as there are periodic movements in history, in political history, of civil rights, the time for change for people with disability has arrived. I think that people with disability have been the object of sympathy, perhaps; that they have scars they wear their scars as grievances, but when it comes and I think part of the challenge for us, and this is the scene setter I want for my observations about the UN Convention and ratification and the way forward is that the waiting game really has to end, in that the current Australian view I’m not criticising one side of politics or another. Not criticising Australians. I think our attitudes are not born of malice but of ignorance that we tend to count upon people with disability and their families and carers as people who will quietly endure, who will silently suffer, and will patiently wait. I think that we have come a long, long way. People in this room have been involved in the field of disability and promoting the rights of people with disability a lot longer than I have. I am a very recent joiner to the cause. Just as we have come a long, long way, we still have such a long, long way to go.

I really, really do believe that when we talk about this Convention, that the Rudd Government has done something effective and useful. I mean, it’s not the only thing that we have done but I would like to just talk what we need to do. I think there are many accomplishments but I don’t want to just issue a series of government press releases. What we do is for the record and I will touch upon them later.

I think our challenge is that impairment is a fact of life. We have different data sets to describe this. According the ABS, 20 per cent of Australians will record some form of impairment, there’s perhaps 1.2 million Australians with disability…and many of these people are under 65, many are over 65. So what I think is the challenge is that whilst impairment is a fact of life, it’s the attitudes of the community which disable people.

For me, that is at the core of the push to ratify this Convention and that is at the core of the Federal Government’s view about disability. As you are aware and Ambassador MacKay went into much more detail than I will try to do, which is good, it means I can say more than that and talk about what I think needs to be done on 17 July, one of the first western nations to ratify the Convention this year and 30 days later on 16 August it’s come into effect. I think that’s a good thing. I think the new government did push this. We did fast track the ratification of this Convention and we did so to ensure that Australia remains or indeed rejoins, depending on your view of the last decade and a half, at the forefront of the rights of disability. The Convention is part of the Government’s long term commitment to improving the lives of people with disability and their families. The Convention is aimed at removing barriers faced by people with disability and enhancing opportunities to participate in social and political decision making processes, recognises rights to education, health, work, adequate living conditions, freedom of movement and equal recognition before the law.

As you are probably aware the process towards ratification included a taping of a national interest analysis on 4 June this year and consideration by the Joint Standard Committee on Treaties…which recommended ratification on 19 June 2008. The national interest analysis involves substantial collaboration between government and non government stakeholders including the States and the Territories, fundamental partners in the governments of the nation, the disability sector, industry and other stakeholders and of course the broader community. These consultations confirm Australia’s legislation policies and programs comply with the obligation of the convention. The Federal Government moved quickly because it’s part of the broader work has been working on…looking at transport standards, access to premises, implementing the recommendation of the productivity…UN Treaty Committee to look at how the Convention has been implemented…established under article 34 of the Convention to receive and investigate complaints from individuals and groups of individuals after they have exhausted domestic remedies…including consultation, national interest analysis in parliamentary scrutiny and these processes have now commenced. We certainly have commenced consultations about whether or not we should become part of the Optional Protocol. The inaugural collection for the Committee has now been called in accordance with the timeline of the Convention. That election will be held on 3 November 2008. Countries that will be party to the Convention before the end of the nomination period have been invited to nominate a national for election to the Committee, nominations close on 3 September 2008. Our time to ratification has in fact secured Australia’s participation in that election.

Now, I appreciate it’s been a long process to ratify the UN Convention, I have the privilege of reading what Justice Kirby said to an earlier conference of this group about the processes from indeed the late 70s, in terms of this Convention, but I am pleased to say that the Australian Government has moved quickly. We are considering candidates for membership on the committee and we are mindful of the need to undertake this process quickly. So that we can nominate a candidate in a considered fashion without compromising the consultative process.

There’s some interpretive declarations which we have lodged. We comply with the obligations of the Convention. Several views have been expressed regarding the position of the Convention on substituted decision making and compulsory treatment. The interpretive declaration set out Australia’s understanding of our ability to continue our existing practices on substituted decision making, compulsory treatment which included the necessary safeguards.

This was recommended by the majority of disability sector organisations that were consulted by the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations and the Australian task force on CRPD ratification.

We have also made a declaration setting out Australia’s understanding of the interactions between the Convention and Australia’s immigration processes. The declaration clarifies that we understand that our immigration processes are in full compliance with the Convention. So I did want to say that is some of the key issues around the Convention that we see, but for me the part of my talk which is most relevant to the future is in fact this next part. These are the facts of the matter and I think you are very fortunate, Robert McClelland, the Attorney General will be able to pop in and attend some of the conference when he previously thought he couldn’t and again it reflects that people think that this is an important conference and the issues around disability are important.

But what I am interested in is really the future challenges. Now this government is doing a range of activities and I am very, very supportive of not surprisingly but I am very supportive of some of the moves that we have made, from billion dollar extra in terms of resources to the Commonwealth State Territory Agreement, we are working on a national disability strategy and employment strategy around people with disability and mental illness. There’s a range of activity underway. We are doing the work for better access to the premises standards. There is a fair bit underway.

Indeed today I am able to say that we are spending 1.5 million dollars extra in funding for advocacy groups, previously hasn’t been there. This includes 350,000 dollars to support the new president of the World Blind Union, Maryanne Diamond, who was elected unopposed in Geneva. The WBU represents 161 million people who are blind or vision impaired and we have an Australian woman, mother of four, being very involved in a whole range of activism in disability, blind issues in the disability cause generally. Now she’s world president and that is a gold medal which I hope we get to write up.

So there is a range of work underway. However, this is not all the future. It is easy, I believe, in politics and I say this with a brashness of being in poll six for at least eight months it is easy to see life in terms of a series of programs and releases. What does concern me though in the field of disability is some of the issues which have traditionally been put in the too hard basket. The lack of data is appalling. Why is it when I quote to you a figure about impairment in Australia, the most recent reliable statistic is 2003 in the ABS? That doesn’t mean that all my comments from here forward should not be viewed as a criticism of what has happened – but I would remind you to go to the start of what I said and we have come a long, long way but we have a long, long way to go.

The inability for us to identify what the data is remarkable. Jenny Macklin has made it a priority to start working with us to get the data we need to be able to work out where we are going.

I do understand the disability policy in Australia has been to some extent flat earth. Now what do I mean by flat earth? Back in 14th century, my mother church used to say that the world was flat. If you sailed too far you could sail off the end. Now, we have since proven that was just a theory which needed upgrading, to the fact that the world is round, but in terms of disability and the lived experience of people with impairment, I contend that the world is still flat.

You can acquire impairment through birth or ageing, or through injury. But at each point from when you have diagnosis you have then got to work out what to do or your family does. Then you have to find early intervention, that’s one set of systems you work through. You may have to deal with Centrelink, another set of systems. You then have to perhaps deal with child care, kindergarten and then you get into primary school. We have eight systems, States and Territories, heaven forbid if you want to move between the States. Then secondary systems, and all those tough questions of integration – mainstream or special. And then what happens when you want to leave school, then you have to work out, can I get a job? What sort of job is appropriate? Where do I get my vocational education? Indeed, perhaps I want to do further education. Then I have to negotiate the university system or the TAFE system.

I might want to get there by car or bus or train or tram, which we still have in Melbourne. Then perhaps I might want to catch an aeroplane, might be a Virgin plane. But then I might want to own a house or I might want to go shopping. I might want to enter a shop or a restaurant. There might even be a concept that I want to have a social life, a cultural life, a recreational life, full of the richness of living. Every point in that process, you fall off the end of the earth once you move between systems. The one which really has me, to quote Ella Fitzgerald, partly bothered and partly bewildered is aids and equipment. Imagine if you want to take your wheelchair interstate or your special bed or indeed your incontinence bed. No, no, you leave it at the border.

Perhaps I might want to have a system, if I acquire a brain injury, that in Victoria, you can probably get lifetime care, and in some other systems, you are better to crawl off to Victoria. How on earth do we get the system in Australia, where the quality of care depends on the manner of injury and the geography of where you acquire the injury? There’s no equity in that issue.

So the world is flat when it comes to disability. What we have to do is try and become Gallileos and establish the disability Earth is not flat.

Perhaps you want to run for politics. We have an idea in Australia that everyone can run for politics.

But let’s face it, if you have an impairment or a mental illness, if you have a physical disability, it’s a lot harder. It’s not impossible but it’s certainly a lot more unusual. I think the ability to run for politics is a basic right in democracy.

Perhaps you want to avoid the gaol system. And we have a look at the number of people with intellectual disabilities and learning developmental disorders which were never diagnosed and supported. It is not automatic; nearly 50 per cent of our gaol population have some learning developmental disorder, that somehow the system needs to scoop up people in that category. Let’s go to something even more mainstream. A job.

Luxembourg, they do better about employment rates than Australia. I mean, look at those Vikings – Norway, Sweden and Finland, what do they do? Somehow they seem to do things better. The other thing is why is it that we assume that people with an impairment should start at entry level jobs? We can talk about Frank or Leo or Steve. You know if I turned up to an interview these days with many employers and I was blind or had one leg or I was deaf or I was in a wheelchair and found it hard to communicate, chances are probably the recruitment agencies wouldn’t consider me. Yet, somehow we have managed to rule out “Leo” Beethoven, “Frank” Franklin Roosevelt or “Steve” Steven Hawkings. I wonder for those who make it through the system how many others do we miss and deny the richness of their contributions, much less the lives that they should have fulfilled.

The education system is far too difficult. The lack of support for people with disabilities is not acceptable. And there’s no point in pretending otherwise. The transport system, the shops part of my understanding on these issues, I do acknowledge in large part comes to me from some of the people in this room, like Kevin Cocks and Graeme Innes many of you, started to educate me on this, but if I couldn’t go to a shop, catch the bus/plane because of my skin colour or gender, that wouldn’t happen. The hue and cry would be considerable, justified, allowed and legitimate. Yet when it comes to disability all of a sudden it’s too hard. So how have we come to a state of affairs in Australia where we put the disability issues in the too hard basket? The standard responses are, well, I feel sorry for the carers. Don’t know how they do it. The other response that I get is it cost too much money. Bottomless pit. A lot of what I have it’s interesting how different times in your life reconnect you to things that you have read earlier. So I have been re-reading about what Martin Luther King would have said. He gave that great speech at Washington where he said the vaults of the nation are not empty for American Negroes. I think he said that for too many the vaults of this nation (USA) are empty and he contended they are not.

I don’t think the vaults of the Australian nation cannot afford disability. I think that we can afford to do more on disability.

I don’t think that a rich nation such as ourselves is incapable of making the terms of the UN Convention real.

I don’t accept that we can’t do something about the speed of escalators and the speed of lift doors closing.

I don’t accept that we can’t have more support officers in the TAFE systems.

I don’t accept that Australia’s public leaders can’t employ more people with disabilities.

I don’t accept that an ageing parent can’t be guaranteed that if they predecease their adult children with Down syndrome, their adult child will have independent accommodation.

I don’t accept that it’s necessary that we should have young people in nursing homes if that’s not where they want to be.

I don’t accept that if possible that we can’t have common schemes of lifetime care for people who acquire brain injury.

I certainly don’t accept that it is not possible for us to do far more to provide access to transport.

I don’t even accept that the that we need 20 aids and equipment schemes in Australia.

I certainly don’t believe that our tax system quite picks up the challenges of the expenditure on disability. For every dollar that government spends, families and communities spend 5 or 6 dollars. I don’t accept that we can’t leverage the investment which families are already contributing. I don’t accept that systemic advocacy should be viewed as a threat. We need systemic advocacy because it is the check and balance which keeps the system honest. Whilst individual advocacy is fundamental, not having systemic advocacy guarantees you to never learn. It guarantees to repeat the mistakes of the past as you deal with consistent change of individual problems. So I do think that there are plenty of future challenges.

This Government is committed to a national disability strategy, but I do think that the big challenge, the only thing what I believe will make the Convention real is a renewal of the picture, is a renewal of the ideas and assertion of legal rights what will make it real is fundamental change to the politics of disability. I know many of you started out from a legal view but politics is around. The two issues you appreciate are linked. And the politics of disability is not even about politicians. It is the community. It is how do we change the community’s attitude, get the 75 per cent of the community who don’t have the lived experience of disability. I support the human rights focus on disability, that is the appropriate frame but I do believe that fundamentally the disability sector needs to become a movement again. We have points in our history where reform the reform can replace the status quo. We are potentially at one of those changes but I do also understand that the real challenge for us is to get everyone focused on disability. The Convention, the efforts here of people are fantastic. The Rudd Government I know is highly committed to giving disability a chance, but wouldn’t it be great one day to see elections fought over the disability policies. I say that because I think my team is probably going to do better but we shouldn’t take that for granted. Why don’t we have competitions to vote for disability, the same way as we have push for gold medals?

There’s a quote I wish to finish on by Dr King the Government has moved well in terms of ratification, we are seriously contemplating the Optional Protocol. We seriously contemplate being part of the international committee. We are serious about a National Disability Strategy with employment focus, focus around quality standards of working with the States, engaging with the private sector, serious about all those things. But I think that this quote, though, sums up where I think we need to be on disability and changing the politics of disability and Dr King said: all people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be”. That is the challenge of this convention. Thank you.

ROBERT MCRAE: Thank you very much, Bill. The enthusiasm of Bill and the content of his delivery was heart warming. From QAI’s points of view, last year we were fighting for our lives in terms of the funding, systemic advocacy was at risk and the provision of it was at risk in Australia. It’s going to be replaced by 1800 number. Fortunately when the election was called the pressure was off us. But notwithstanding that, thank you very much for your words and everybody I am sure will be heartened by them.