Australia will soon be left without a Commissioner for Disability Discrimination - and with it a voice to advocate for the needs of some of the society's most vulnerable people.
By
Greg Jericho

16 May 2014 - 11:57 AM  UPDATED 16 May 2014 - 12:00 PM

During Wednesday’s Question Time, Clive Palmer had a bit of a snooze while sitting in the House of Representatives.  On one hand you can’t blame him because if there is ever a moment in parliament when having a nap is okay, Question Time is it.

But budget week is certainly a time to be awake because it reveals not just the government’s spending priorities; it reveals their priorities for our whole society.

The budget is so large that the 7 hours given to journalists to read and digest its contents is simply not enough.

In my time in the lock up on Tuesday I spent most of it poring over tables in Budget Paper Number 1. Given I write mostly on economics stuff, that’s where the broad picture data is. It’s where you find the increases in the total revenue and expenditure, where you find out if there have been cuts to higher education, to the health budget, and how much extra income tax they expect to take in.

Budget Paper 2 details all the cuts and new expenditures. While everything is included it’s a fair task to cover all the portfolio areas. It’s why most news organisations will have journalists focussing on certain portfolios.

But even then it’s easy to miss the deeper implication of some of the new measures and cuts announced.

For example the Budget Papers announced:

"The Government will achieve savings of $1.7 million over four years by reducing the number of Human Rights Commissioners by one. An existing commissioner will take on a dual appointment, following the next vacancy in July 2014. This will achieve efficiencies within the Human Rights Commission."

I saw this while writing a post detailing some of the cuts across all portfolios. I noted that it certainly complemented this government’s views on the lack of importance of human rights – especially as they were also cutting the Commonwealth Human Rights Education Programme – and then rushed for time I moved on to the next item that had been cut (there were a lot of them).

 

It wasn’t until I read Amanda Meade’s article in Guardian Australia and Nancy Haxton’s report on PM that the full implications of the cut became clear.

The Human Rights Commission (HRC), has eight commissioners who cover different and quite distinct areas. The next vacancy for a commissioner will be the commissioner for disability discrimination - so that will be the one on the chopping block.

When we put that aspect together with the statement in the budget papers, it means we have a government who thinks the HRC becomes more efficient when the person defending the discrimination of people with a disability is done by someone who was appointed to advocate for other areas.

Currently (by legislation) the HRC has commissioners for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social justice, race discrimination, sex discrimination, age discrimination, disability discrimination, and for children.

It also has a generic "human rights" commissioner currently held by Tim Wilson.

Mr Wilson, despite having previously argued for the abolition of the HRC, was appointed last year by Senator George Brandis to be our "Freedom Commissioner".  There is no actual provision in the Act for such a commissioner, so Senator Brandis said that this year he intended to "bring forward reforms to the Commission".

Well now we have seen the real "reform". It is the cutting of the disability discrimination commissioner, and keeping the bloke whose basic remit appears to be to stand up for the free speech of white males who write in the media.

Well, I am one of those white males, but as the dad of a daughter with an intellectual disability I can tell Senator Brandis whose rights I am more worried about - and it ain’t mine or Andrew Bolt’s.

I can also tell Senator Brandis that the discrimination I am most concerned about is not that done against me or people in my position, or indeed against any of the privileged few who think we have the "right to be bigots". It's the kind of discrimination that is practised against people like my daughter, who are often marginalised and who - depending on their disability - may actually be incapable of defending themselves.

Don’t give me any crud about Senator Brandis not knowing which commissioner was to be cut.

I was once a public servant (Senator Brandis for a short period was actually "my Minister"). I actually worked in an area which oversaw the appointments of government agency boards and we always knew who was due to retire. We needed to know this because we needed to regularly advise the minister of the fact.

Senator Brandis’ time as minister responsible for the HRC thus sees him to have appointed someone who wanted the HRC abolished - but who changed his mind and now takes a $332,000 salary - and to cut the role of the person charged with defending some of the most easily discriminated people in society.

What an utterly twisted set of priorities.

The Senator didn’t even have the courage or ethics to make the impact of his decision clear in the budget.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.