Speech by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

National Convention Centre, 31 Constitution Avenue

Location: National Convention Centre, 31 Constitution Avenue


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Ngungawal people, and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

  • Keryl Neville, Chair of ACE
  • Donna Faulkner, Deputy Chair of ACE
  • Lucy Macali, CEO of ACE
  • Milly Parker, Ambassador, International Day of People with a Disability
  • Professor Trevor Parmenter, Director of the Office for Developmental Studies at the University of Sydney
  • Graeme Innes, HREOC Commissioner
  • Professor Bob Gregory, Australian National University
  • Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you Brett (De Heut, promotions consultant to ACE), and thank you to the ACE National Network for inviting me to speak today.

I know in previous days you’ve heard from my ministerial colleagues Brendan O’Connor and Ursula Stephens, so you should be in no doubt of the commitment of our Government to employment, people with disabilities and social inclusion generally.

I imagine there may be a little bit of overlap in what we have to say, so I beg your indulgence and will try to surprise you.

I envy you your three days here.

Conferences such as this are so useful, not just because of the conference program itself – which looks great – but because I know that both in the sessions and during the breaks, you’ll be catching up with each other and exchanging really practical and inspirational ideas.

You certainly had an outstanding keynote speaker on day one in Milly Parker.

I’ve got to know Milly pretty well over the last six months, and I am in awe of her.

She’s not only a fantastic human being, she’s a great self-employment success story too.

Milly is and Ambassador for the International Day of People with a Disability and has built an international export business, selling her ‘Happy Yappers’ dog biscuits all over the world.

As you heard on Wednesday, she was left with a serious brain injury after accident when she was just 21.

She couldn’t return to study, as her disability means she has trouble learning and retaining new information.

But she’s nothing if not determined, and though reading and retaining may be a problem, she is an ideas machine.

And the look on her face when she talks about the first time she received payment which had nothing to do with her disability, Social Security or the TAC, to realise what meaningful employment and independence means to people with disability – just as it does for everyone without disabilities.

That’s the message we have to get through to everyone, in the community, in business, and yes, in Government.

A lot of attitudes need to be changed.

Because I thought that in my old job as a union official I’d seen a lot of unfair actions.

But nothing prepared me for the eye opening experience I’ve had since the prime minister gave me the privilege of serving as parliamentary secretary in this area, the entrenched permanent second class status which Australians with a mental illness or disability have.

And it surprises and shocks me that in this day and age, in this lucky country, it’s still the case.

In the history of our nation, periodically certain ideas arrive.

When I look at the disability movement, it seems to move in a series of stops and starts.

Periodically you see progress, then periods of status quo, if not regression. Then the cycle moves on.

But reform is never a preordained outcome.

Reform has to be constantly battled for in every minute at every level.

As a famous American football coach once said, ‘victory isn’t measured in yards, it’s measured in inches,’ and that certainly seems to be the case for disabilities.

And I know that all of you here get up every day and work with and do the best you can to improve the position of people with mental illness and disability.

I’d like to take the next few minutes to give you an insight from the Government about social inclusion.

An insight into where I think some of the trends are going to go and where they need to go.

We must make mental illness and disability a mainstream political issue.

I am happy that there were two questions about disability in Parliament this week – I can’t remember that ever happening before, so maybe my constant lecturing is having some effect!

What I’m lecturing them about is that the issue isn’t that people have impairment.

Impairment could be episodic mental illness or physical impairment or intellectual disability.

Impairment’s a fact of life and we have to work with it, treat it, deal with it.

What disables people in our society is the attitude of the community towards people with impairment.

Many people are simply marginalised.

The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and my own boss Jenny Macklin made this an issue in last year’s election – the need for social inclusion.

There are too many groups of Australians who live at the edges of Australian society.

I believe that we all share the same values, but unless people with disability are at the centre of our culture, then our culture isn’t what it should be.

We are working on some new ideas.

Brendan O’Connor, and I, as you’re aware, are jointly chairing a strategy to look at how we get people to participate.

I’ve done nine consultations around the country.

It’s being developed in close consultation with consumers, peak bodies, employers, state and territory governments and experts.

A discussion paper on the Strategy has been released, and submissions can be still be sent in, as long as they are in by the end of this month.

The National Mental Health and Disability Strategy will outline how policy and programs across portfolios and State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments can work together to help people with disability and mental illness gain and retain work.

It will guide the design and implementation of measures concerned with the employment participation of people with disability and mental illness.

The Strategy differs from previous work in this area, and represents a coordinated approach between the areas of Government responsible for income support, education and workforce participation.

The Strategy will be working across the whole of Government and there is a Commonwealth working group as well as a process to engage the States and Territories.

We call it ‘communication’, and you know what? It works!

I’m amazed the previous Government never gave it a go.

.Instead, they were furiously trying to scare us all – remember?

Before the last election you’ll remember they said ‘oh, if you have coast to coast Labor you’ll have a red tide across the land, or whatever tired, old 1950s ideological analogy which used to pass for Howard government policy.

They were wrong. Unsurprisingly.

Having coast to coast Labor is a huge opportunity. I’m not going to pretend that the state issues and federal issues are easy, but at least there’s one less set of agendas to deal with, and there are huge opportunities for greater cooperation.

We understand that we don’t arrive at a blank page, that many of you know what needs to be done to improve participation.

We don’t say ‘we’ve discovered this shiny new problem, let’s do shiny new things’.

I believe many of the answers already exist in the community about how we can improve the participation of people.

Participation for this government doesn’t mean the punitive welfare to work approach, that every person claiming a pension has to be monitored and policed.

If people are on the disability support pension, my default position is that there’s a good reason why and we’ve got to work through how they can participate.

Participation is a right of citizenship – it’s that simple.

Societies must encourage it.

One of the things that gets you out of bed and through the day is the ability to participate.

Participation can be a job.

But it doesn’t have to be a 9-5 tie wearing job, it could be a part-time, it could be flexible, it could be the intersection of study and work.

People aren’t just ready, especially if they’ve had an illness, or been away from work for years, to just turn up and start work.

So you need a lot of pre-work support. From the TAFE system, right through to basic respect to good income support programs.

We understand that current income support program sends contradictory messages.

One the one hand if you’re on the DSP, you probably do want to hold on to it until you’re sure you’ve really got a real job and a better income.

You might be interested in having a go at something, but if you were to risk your whole pension and your health benefits to do it, this fear could stop you.

This is one of the issues we’re interested in tackling.

And taking this employment review further, what we’re also interested in is not just changing the attitudes of people with impairment, we also want to work changing the attitudes of the employers and the community.

I was talking about Milly Parker earlier.

Milly came and spent some time with me in Parliament House yesterday, we had some lunch, and I made her watch Question Time for her sins.

She was telling me about the speech she gave you on Wednesday and how she surprised she was to learn that there were only four people with disabilities – including her – in the room.

I was surprised too, to be honest.

There’s a lot of attitude changing needed across the board.

Not just employers, but employees, not just the private sector but government too.

I’m certainly not lecturing you on what everyone else should be doing. Government can and should be doing more to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities, doing more in providing leadership to change attitudes.

You need a holistic view of a human being to try and start participation.

This Government has a view that we should fit people into programs but how do we get the programs to fit the people’s lived experience?

Beyond the employment strategy, we’re building a national disability strategy.

I’m not going to get into the debate about the relative definitional status of impairment, disability, mental illness.

Suffice to say that if you cannot get a job in Australia, or you can’t get transport, you can’t get education, you can’t get meaningful and dignified income support – if you couldn’t get it because of your gender or skin colour, people would say ‘this is wrong’.

Legitimately they would say it is wrong.

It is wrong.

But what I’ve discovered is that if you can’t access decent education support, if you can’t access income security, if you can’t access home ownership numbers equivalent to society as a whole, or you can’t access work because you have a mental illness, or because you have a disability, well that somehow seems to be accepted.

That’s why I return to the point about second class citizenship.

And I think that affects people who work in the disability and community sector too.

By and large they are not renumerated for the effort they put in.

I say this not because you didn’t know this, but rather if you look at the history of wages in Australia, if you contribute with your intellectual labour and your physical labour, there’s way of measuring it.

But what our system has never done is sought to measure emotional labour.

In many occupations, say, if you’re a gardener at Parliament House, if you’re cutting the grass, you don’t have to like the grass, you don’t have to be motivated about the lawn mower, you can get annoyed at the sprinkler system when it doesn’t work properly.

For professionals in this sector, you’re not allowed to have bad days in the way other people are.

Somewhere along the line we undervalue people’s emotional contribution.

I do think we need as a government to be more switched on as to how we provide career paths, how we provide innovation in terms of industrial relations and human resource management, how we make sure that people don’t burn out any quicker than they might otherwise burn out.

One of the things that is truly moving to me is the emotional generosity of so many people in this sector, and we as a society don’t know how to value that emotional commitment, which is irreplaceable.

We are looking at other ideas, such as how do we get out of the perpetual funding crisis which besets the disability sector.

Last Friday, Jenny Macklin and I convened a meeting with national Disability Ministers, and we agreed to end the buck passing and agreed to the delivery of $1.8 million in crucial funding.

Ministers also agreed to start delivering immediately 309 new supported accommodation places funded by the $100 million the Prime Minister announced on 4 May.

This means that in total the Australian Government in partnership with the States and Territories have committed $1.9 billion in funding – the biggest boost to disability funding in the history of the CSTDA.

The $1.9 billion will deliver more than 24,500 additional disability places including:

  • around 2,300 in-home support services
  • 2,300 supported accommodation places
  • 9,900 individual support packages and;
  • 10,000 much needed respite places in a range of forms across Australia.

These 24,500 places will begin to ease the anxiety of people with disabilities, their families and their carers, many of whom have waited far too long for this support.

Not incidentally, this agreement will provide around four times the number of new places than under the previous government’s plan – which involved by-passing the states entirely.

So I am very proud to have been involved.

It’s a fantastic down-payment on a fair go for people with disabilities and their carers.

But when we look at the provisions of the future, we should never forget that commonwealth tax receipts are about 24% of the GDP.

So what’s going on with the other 76%?

How can we lock in, and I’m not using code for cost-shifting, but how do we harness the work that goes on beyond the government sector? How do we reward the investment that families, the not-for-profit sector are doing, and how do we attract more of the economic activity in Australia into the community?

Into creating outcomes which improve social inclusion, participation and equal rights?

We’ve created a committee of a number of business people who’ve had experience of family members with mental illness and impairment – their own lived experience in some cases, or long careers working in this area.

But they’re all pretty good at identifying the challenges of the system.

What are the disincentives which currently exist in the Australian economy which stop people investing in the future of their families, which stop people investing in the future of community services?

We all know there are many ageing carers whose major concern in life is what happens to their children as they get older, when they predecease them.

And that anxiety is a real and palpable anxiety. They’re keen to invest in the future of their families – how do they do it? There are plenty of anomalies in the system which stop people investing.

For every dollar the government spends in the field of mental illness or disability, the non-government field is spending six or seven dollars.

So just as we should appropriately keep trying to increase the allocation of government resources, we also need to appropriately be rewarding that non-government investment – how do we leverage off that community commitment to encourage and reward?

In saying all of that, I still want to return to what I think is the fundamental driver of what we need to do. And I say ‘we’ because it isn’t all the government’s responsibility, and it isn’t all your responsibility, it’s the responsibility of all of us. Fundamentally people with mental illness or disability in Australia are second class. Not because they should be – that’s a description of what I think the landscape is.

It’s interesting – I use the example of Sir Roden Cutler, he was the governor of New South Wales, an eminent career in public life.

1941 he was on the wrong end of an enemy artillery shell and he lost his leg.

He came back and had a marvellous career, contributed so much in so many areas of public life.

He died after a long career and in the statue they built to him in Sydney they gave him his leg back.

I pick this example because things which are treated with invisibility don’t get treated.

And that’s why ACE has done a good job getting all you here.

The real challenge here that I see as a personal mission for me in my time here is to make mental illness and disability visible, not invisible.

Because if we can make it a mainstream issue, I firmly believe that when the whole of the community understands that an impairment may make you different, may make you diverse, it may make you interesting, but it doesn’t make you stupid, it doesn’t make you unworthy, it doesn’t make you charity, it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to have the longest life full of quality.

And that’s where I believe the future belongs in terms of this issue.

And looking at all of you, I get a sense of the potential, of the possible and the powerful in you.

You’re working away at these issues.

People with disability and mental illness should be empowered to take control of their own lives. That’s a fundamental driver of reform and progress.

One way we can do that is to make disability and mental illness an issue of social inclusion and a mainstream political issue.

I’d like to conclude what I’m saying with the promise that we will have a national disability strategy.

We will improve, I believe, the opportunities of people with mental illness to participate, we will find ways to leverage greater investment, we will succeed in making mental illness and disability a mainstream issue.

We will also, hopefully I believe, provide more rewarding careers for people.

We need to ensure that people with mental illness, people with disability take their rightful role in leadership, in self-advocacy and indeed in politics in this nation. Which is where this nation should be.

In conclusion I’d like to paraphrase a piece by Karen Crumbliss, about the son of Japanese Nobel Prize winning writer Kenzaburo Oe.

Hikari Oe is an accomplished pianist and composer. Born in 1963 in Japan, he wrote his first composition at the age of 13. The CD, “Music of Hikari Oe 2” combines piano, flute and violin in a manner reminiscent of Mozart, Bach, and Chopin… Hikari Oe is now widely known in Japan and received the Grand Prix in the classical music section of the Japan Gold Disc awards in 1992. This is the highest award for classical music in Japan.

But, as Karen writes, there is another description of Hikari Oe.

He can be described as a person with mental retardation, near-blindness, minimal speech, seizures and poor motor coordination. He was born with a protuberance on the back of his head caused by a herniated brain. When he was ten weeks old his parents decided to proceed with a lifesaving operation, in spite of the doctors’ advice against it. Hikari spoke his first word at age six, identifying the call of a bird … Now at the age of 39, due to his disabilities, Hikari still lives with his family and is dependent on their support for many of the necessities of life.

I think it’s a beautiful point.

I believe all of us has an obligation to build momentum, to build some power, to build some participation and social inclusion.

We must regard the people with impairment, people with disability, people with mental illness as equal citizens with the right to the longest possible life full of quality.

And I think the time is right, with the goodwill throughout the nation and a new government to demand equal treatment for people with mental illness and a disability.

Thanks very much for listening.