The Journey of Leadership

First of all I’d like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of indigenous people and that we respect their elders.

As a member of the Advisory Group I’d also like to congratulate the graduates and the journey that you have made and the leadership that you have – and will provide – in your communities.

We should also mark the support from Tqual and the Australian Government through Leaders for Tomorrow – which is part of the National Disability Strategy.

There is a journey that we make as leaders and it’s about the path from personal advocacy to leadership. I know that not all of you are leading in disability, or even want to lead in disability and why should you. But there are lessons from our journey in disability advocacy and leadership that can be applied anywhere.

For many of us with a disability this is a deeply personal journey that recall the poet St John and his long dark night of the soul. And as St John described there are steps and stages and some of these are very intense. It inevitably starts off being about us. About our disabilities. About some barriers in our own lives. About the ways we are treated within our communities or even our own families. At some moment we just say enough.

Individual advocacy, by which I mean advocating for our own supports, is something that we have all done and continue to do. Let’s face it – sometimes it’s just about survival.

Beyond that there is systemic advocacy which can be about sifting the opinions of a group of people, building bridges, finding common ground and taking your voice up the line to those who matter. It is working on behalf of people and it is decent and honourable. I think there is a lot of both kinds of advocacy around in the disability community and being done well. And then there is Leadership.

Leadership is different. Leadership is what it says on the label – it’s about leading. It’s about pushing ahead. Taking the broad view. Being prepared to make a case even when it is unpopular because you believe it’s the right thing to do and yet being ultimately accountable. Leadership is not just about being able to bring people together on views they already have, it’s about being able to take them on a journey to somewhere better. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of that than the statement last week by Chief of Army David Morrison on culture in the forces and its attitude towards women. He recognised that as a leader in an organisation sometimes you just need to say step up, get with the program or get out. I wish we had more leaders like this in public service and in organisations.

This thing is on YouTube and its on the army website – take a look and include it in your leadership toolbox. Leadership is also sometimes about being able to step back and sacrifice our own personal wants and needs for a bigger canvas.

To give you a very local example, I was once part of a disability access group that had become mainly concerned with physical access. It was one of those groups I was gradually becoming more and more uncomfortable with and I didn’t know why. One day we were having a discussion about tactile indicators that are on paths.

The group wanted me to lobby against indicators at an interchange because they were a bit bumpy for wheelchair users. I thought well the difference between me having a few bumps and a blind person being unable to navigate at all and falling in front of a bus or a train is immense.

To me it was unthinkable that you could choose self interest and it was then that I decided to work in a cross disability way. Leadership puts self interest aside.

Leadership also means picking your battles and making some decisions about the things you can fight and win and causes that you leave behind for a better day. Leadership concerns itself with results. With breaking through. With getting it done.

The campaign for an NDIS is about what can happen when we work together and forge the transition to leadership.

We are living in a time when disability is a force to be reckoned with.

When it can get support across the aisle for a levy on the paypackets of every Australian to finally pay for long term care and support for those who need it.

And a comment about disability can bring down the share price of an iconic Australian brand company by 2%. Who’d have thought that?

Having done those things this is not the time to take a break. The future is ours to shape if we want it enough. My organisation People with Disability Australia has opened our membership to be easy, online and free to every Australian with a disability.

We’ve done this because we are putting a stake in the ground, saying that disunity is death and we want to take everyone with us. We want debate. We want competition. We want elections. Kevin Boyce who is here tonight was elected a board member last year in a competitive election.

That contest is healthy and it is right. But this is not about us it is about what you can do for change. President Obama put it well during a famous speech in New Hampshire in 2008.

It was actually made into a song by Will I Am and if you are ever lost for inspiration YouTube it.

He said that no matter the obstacles nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

Well disability is 20% of Australians – there are millions of us and together we have started to change Australia. But our battle isn’t won:

• It’s not over while we have inaccessible buses and taxis that leave people stranded in the rain for hours; • It’s not over when getting a mammogram or going to the GP is too hard because the chair is too high;

• It’s not over while Australia ranks last in the OECD and our poverty and employment of people with disability is comparable to that of people in the Great Depression;

• It is not over while we have people trapped in lives of desperation and violence in boarding houses;

• It is not over while people earn a few dollars an hour for hard work in a factory just because they have a disability.

• It is not over while children are locked out of schooling or segregated in cages.

• It’s not over while an indigenous person with disability can spend a decade in jail without charge as a result of having a disability Our journey as leaders cannot be complete while these things continue.

That’s what’s at stake.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

But if we can keep going, if we call talk back radio shows, talk to our MP’s, sign petitions, boycott businesses that don’t step up; if you comment on blogs; spread the word on Facebook and Twitter; if you make the case with your friends, families, neighbors in the streets, if you get on board with PWD to campaign with us, to join with us and fight with us then – we will not just get DisabilityCare, we will change this country for good and forever.

And the test of that will be an Australia where people just like you – and maybe they are you – are not just visiting Parliament House, but are inside the green chamber and the red chamber: members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, sitting at the very pinnacle of our democracy and making the future that Australia deserves.

This is an abridged address given at the Leaders for Tomorrow Graduation Ceremony on Wednesday 19 June 2013 at the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House), Canberra.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.