United Nations Human Rights Day

Speech to the 2013 ACT Human Rights Day Panel convened by the United Nations Association of Australia, 10 December 2013

Thanks to Jonathan and the United Nations Association of Australia for the opportunity to be part of this panel for UN Human Rights Day.

Like other speakers I’d like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the lands of indigenous people and that we respect their elders.

I acknowledge the work of the previous speakers including Professor McCallum as Vice Chair of the Monitoring Committee for the Convention and Patron of this year’s IDPwD.

It is impossible in this week to begin any discussion on Human Rights without reflecting on the passing of Nelson Mandela a few days ago.

18 years ago in the midst of everything he had to rebuild in the wake of the fall of apartheid, President Mandela imagined disability as part of the pantheon of rights based movements needed in the new South Africa.

Speaking following the IDPWD on 4 December 1995 he said:

“The new South Africa we are building should be accessible and open to everyone. Disabled children are equally entitled to an exciting and brilliant future. We must see to it that we remove the obstacles, poor access to facilities; poor education; lack of transport; lack of funding or unavailability of equipment. Only then will the rights of the disabled to equal opportunities become a reality.”

Mr Mandela imagined this for the next generation of children – people coming of age right now – long before Graeme Inness talked so powerfully about the soft bigotry of low expectations or there was a UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability.

However these ideas are now unmistakeable in the profile that disability has in 2013 and in the Convention.

The Convention is a remarkable thing. It came out of the developing world and was initiated by Mexico.

Once a consensus agreement was reached in 2006 it became one of the most quickly supported conventions in history.

When it was opened for signature on 30 March 2007 there were 82 signatories to the Convention, 44 signatories to the Optional Protocol, and 1 ratification. This is the highest number of signatories in history to a UN Convention on its opening day.

My organisation – PWD Australia and especially our past CEO Philip French – has an extensive history with human rights instruments stretching back across the Ad hoc sessions in New York, The UN Decade of Disabled Persons and to the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, out of which we were formed.

Australia ratified the Convention on 2008.

It is comprehensive with 8 principles and 50 articles covering a range of issues in the lives of people with disability from education, access, employment, right to life and bodily integrity and personal freedoms.

Australia has been one of the first developed countries to be reviewed by the Committee, and their Concluding Observations reflect a high standard and expectation of a developed country.

The Committee recognised positive reforms that have been initiated by Australia since ratification of the CRPD in 2008 in particular the launch of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

There are some opportunities in the NDIS for Australia internationally if we grasp them. I note that our credentials in this area were mentioned by the Foreign Minister recently in New York discussing the UN’s millennium development goals, designed to eliminate global poverty.

The NDIS imagines not just more funding but a new funding paradigm where the individual purchases and controls our own outcomes

Around the world there is mixed take up of individualised funding, so if we do land the NDIS well it will be noticed. The reverse is also true.

Having hosted delegations in my previous work with FaHCSIA, now DSS, I know that there is a hunger for information about social policy and supports with our regional and strategic partners as they build social supports & react to demography in areas like ageing and disability policy.

Yet there are other areas where we can do better in our own domain and we should not shirk from these:

Our Disability Discrimination Act is weak and deficient compared to mechanisms in countries like the United States which has a long standing quality assurance, compliance and an enforcement power through an Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As a point of comparison these are not new progressive measures – the American ABA was passed in the 1960’s and the powerful American Access Board came into being under President Nixon. The ADA under President George H.W. Bush.

In Australia, the onus is on people with disability making complaints who risk having costs awarded against them. It is a risky and tedious process that walks half way between compliance and community education and does neither well.

It has failed to build root and branch reform despite some outstanding efforts by individual advocates like Graeme Innes. We need an overhaul to address systemic discrimination by allowing representative complaints.

Our record on jobs is poor. Australia is ranked 21 out of the 29 member countries of the OECD. Australia has the highest level of disability poverty in the OECD, with 45% of people with disability in Australia living near or below the poverty line. Figures released last week indicate that things are getting worse.

There are things happening to people with disability in Australia that are intolerable in 2013. These are ugly things.

We must end the unwarranted use of prisons for unconvicted people with disability, with a focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people . Take Marlon Noble WA ten years without charge due to his disability. We must also ensure that people with disability who are victims of abuse and neglect are heard. The Four Corner program St Anne’s Secret, bears witness to this also.

We still see the sterilisation of children without consent and people being clustered together in institutions.

Institutions are always bad. It is not the level of funding, the cleanliness of the walls or the number of excursions which somehow reform an institution – it is the act of congregating people away from the community that places them in front of harm and away from the exercise of rights. It is the trap that creates the prison.

These things are the arcane relics of another time – they belong with the 5 o-clock swill.

Yet they are still with us and they sit uneasily in a modern Australia modelling good behaviour to the world.

And we all know it.

But I see signs of hope and change.

The NDIS means that instead of fighting over leftovers we can make choices as we look beyond broken and archaic support systems which segregate or abuse.

Change to the mainstream is coming too, albeit slowly.

At the National Press Club and the National Disability Awards it was very good to hear Senator Fifield talking about the National Disability Strategy – the NDS – as well as the NDIS. I welcome the Ministers commitment.

The NDIS is vital and we need the NDS to deliver on its promise.

The NDS is a COAG agreement with direct link to CRPD and with 6 themes that relate to CRPD articles – these are
• Inclusive and accessible communities
• Rights protection, justice and legislation
• Economic security
• Personal and community support
• Learning and skills.
• Health and wellbeing
If we are serious about disability as a rights task we need a joined up approach that sees a unified project for disability.

It will be hard, especially in the implementation. But if we get it right then we will unlock the “exciting and brilliant” future for children with disability that President Mandela imagined eighteen years ago.

Thank you.

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.