Monday, 18 February 2019
Resolutions of the Senate
Disability Services; Consideration of Senate Message
I congratulate the Prime Minister on what he said then in terms of supporting a royal commission. First of all I'd like to acknowledge the presence of so many disability advocates in the gallery. You are most welcome. Many of you have waited seven or 10 years—indeed, some of you all your life—for this discussion, so I understand that today is a good day for you and I acknowledge that but for you we wouldn't be having this discussion here today. I acknowledge our guest from the Senate, too. I congratulate you on your advocacy as well, Senator Steele-John.
The problem of disability and the way we let people suffer abuse, neglect and violence is not a new problem. When I was Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services I thought I'd seen disadvantage in Australia's workplaces, but nothing prepared me for what I encountered with the second-class existence that people with disabilities and their carers among us in this country were all too often having. There is no doubt in my mind that there have been plenty of reports into how we prevent the abuse and neglect of people with disability, but I was persuaded by the report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee that was released in November 2015. Its first recommendation—so we've now known this for over three years—was:
The committee recommends that a Royal Commission into violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability be called, with terms of reference to be determined in consultation with people with disability, their families and supporters, and disability organisations.
The abuse and mistreatment of people with disability is Australia's hidden shame. We have been on notice about the issues for a very long time. I am pleased that by May 2017 Labor had joined the call, which others had been calling for, for a royal commission and I'm pleased now that the parliament's voting this way. The reason I'm pleased is that we need to address the core reason that people with disability suffer disproportionate abuse, neglect and violence. It's because, as a nation, despite progress we might have made on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and other things, we still devalue people with disability. We must recognise that one of the fault lines in this country about the way we treat people with disability is not that we're ungenerous to family members, not that we're ungenerous generally to people doing it hard, but that for some Australians the thought of people with disability is deeply uncomfortable because they're unfamiliar. They devalue people with disability; they don't understand the lives that people with disability have. I believe that this royal commission must address that problem. I believe that, with the way we talk about royal commission and people with disability, it can't be talking about people with disability; it must be talking to people with disability.
I think we have to recognise that all too often, for perhaps the best of reasons, this country has dehumanised people with disability. We take away their legal capacity to make decisions. We use the prism of protection. We infantilise people with disability. We use benign language and a benign approach quite often, and we seek to control them. But the problem with that approach—if we don't treat people with disability as true equals and if we let their impairment define their whole persona and their whole identity—is that once we start engaging in that attitude of control then we create the ability for malicious control to occur, where people can exert untoward and inappropriate control over people's lives. Once we have a debate where we don't acknowledge the legal capacity of people with disability or their legal identity, then we make decisions about their life. We make decisions where they live. We make decisions who they live with. We make decision about what they can eat, about what they can see and about control of their bodies. None of this is easy or comfortable.
What I also understood, from the time when I was Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services, is that in amongst Australia, the lucky country, every night there are literally tens of thousands—indeed, hundreds of thousands—of parents of adults living with a disability. These parents are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and they wonder who on earth will protect them, look after them, respect them and love them when they no longer can—this midnight anxiety. The National Disability Insurance Scheme was an endeavour to provide greater control to redefine people with disabilities from charity to consumers and to give families economic power in the relationship they have with the system. But we know that abuse going on. If we can't tell you exactly where and when, unfortunately, we can be absolutely certain that it is going on right now. It can be done in the best of interests or it can just be straight-out malice and violence.
Therefore, we need to have this royal commission. It needs to be broad. It needs to go to education, it needs to go to health and it needs to go to rehabilitation. We need to look at the situation of Indigenous people living with disability in our country. It needs to go to the ability to access services in remote, provincial and regional Australia. Not only does it need to go to the way that institutions interact with people with disability but it needs to also just go to the way people with disability are treated in our community generally.
This is a very politically contested time in Australia's politics, as we end the 45th Parliament. There was debate last week about what was the right thing to do and what was the wrong thing to do. I'm unequivocal that what we're doing today is the right thing to do. Of course, only the executive can implement a royal commission. We understand that. What I would just say to the government is that this is a good step forward. But what we also need to do is provide a time line. Yes, the states and territories need to provide their cooperation. But it wouldn't be the first time that a state or territory said no to a Commonwealth government and the Commonwealth steamed ahead. I accept that if there needs to be some discussion, that's good. But I really think we're capable of allocating a budget or working out how much it costs. We have allocated, if we form a government, $26 million. But if the government has a different view about a higher quantum, we obviously are not going to quibble with that.
What we also have made clear is that people with disability need to be at the centre of the drawing up of the terms of reference. We get that. That's one reason why—whilst Labor did put out principles, and we did two years ago—we want to hear the voices of the voiceless in this debate. This afternoon's resolution is a good resolution. I'm really pleased. I have a particular passion and interest in terms of disability and for what people with disability have taught me. In some ways, this is us giving back. This proposition has been on the books for too long. I am very pleased that we are doing it, but I do so on the basis that we recognise that this isn't just about examining a particular institution; we need people to go through their historical experiences. People who have never been heard deserve that chance to tell their story.
Fundamentally, I and Labor are voting for this royal commission because it's the right thing to do and because the evidence says it's the right thing to do. It has been our stated policy for the best part of two years to do this. But, even beyond all of that, we must redefine Australia's relationship with Australians who live with disability. We've got to revalue and re-evaluate our relationship. We've got to recognise that, whilst we are a nation that devalues people with disability, we will never get to the root cause of violence and the prevention of violence, abuse and neglect. But this is a very good moment and I'm very pleased to support it.