Comment: Why are we abolishing the Disability Discrimination Commissioner?

Disability Discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes sits with his guide dog during the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs legislation committee hearing in 2012. (AAP)

He works tirelessly to advocate on behalf of people living with a disability, which accounts for 39% the Australian Human Rights Commission's caseloads. Soon, his role will no longer exist.

The position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner was established in 1993. For more than twenty years, commissioners have been at the forefront of securing access to work, education, premises, services for people with disabilities. But the fight for the rights of Australians with disabilities is set to become a part-time battle after changes announced in the Abbott Government’s first Budget.
 
Graeme Innes has been the full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner for the last three years. In that time, he has been an advocate for individuals and communities affected by discrimination, engaged Australians in a national conversation about human rights, and worked with the public service and private sector to break down barriers to people with disabilities. At Budget Estimates last week, he told me that he spends about 60 hours working in an average week.
 
No wonder when you consider that complaints on the grounds of disability account for about double the next highest category at about 39 percent of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Along with helping manage this enormous caseload, Mr Innes has been an integral part of shaping the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

As the NDIS rolls out around the country, it is more important than ever for there to be a federal advocate devoted to those the scheme is assisting. Equally, people forced over and again to go through reassessment for the Disability Support Pension as a result of the Budget deserve to have a commissioner looking out for their rights.

The last time the Abbott Government altered the arrangements for commissioners the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, gave the new commissioner a courtesy call ahead of the announcement. Mr Innes had been in contact with Senator Brandis’s office and the Department since the start of the year trying to discover the fate of his position.
 
But the first Mr Innes heard that his contract was not going to be renewed was on Budget night. Buried in the budget papers is a line that callously notes that the dismissal of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, “will achieve efficiencies within the Human Rights Commission.” Mr Innes is entitled to be a little angry. But he is surprisingly philosophical about things.
 
Terms for individual commissioners are set in statute and Mr Innes understands that it is the prerogative of the Attorney-General to appoint commissioners by whatever process (or lack thereof) he chooses, even if it contradicts the Paris Principles of an open application process. With characteristic vigour, however, Mr Innes has prosecuted the case for a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner and spoken out against the downgrading of the portfolio.
 
As the NDIS rolls out around the country, it is more important than ever for there to be a federal advocate devoted to those the scheme is assisting. Equally, people forced over and again to go through reassessment for the Disability Support Pension as a result of the Budget deserve to have a commissioner looking out for their rights.
 
Ahead of what the Abbott Government had always foreshadowed was going to be a tight Budget, Senator Brandis made the curious decision to add a commissioner while at the same time taking more than $1.5 million of funding away from the AHRC.
 
A former fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs and a personal friend of Senator Brandis, Tim Wilson became the first ‘Freedom Commissioner’ in February, hitting the AHRC budget for more than $700,000. Something had to give. To cope with the news budgetary constraints, the Commission will be forced to relegate the disability discrimination role to a part-time, or shared, responsibility.
 
Senator Brandis has been quick to point out that commissioners have sometimes taken on dual roles. Perhaps he was making such a point when he gagged the Race Discrimination Commissioner from offering comment to Estimates on the government’s proposed changes to race hate laws, but gave Mr Wilson free rein.
 
Given that almost half the disability complaints received by the AHRC relate to employment and that Senator Brandis has chosen to frame questions of employment as issues of freedom and tradition rights in his first Australian Law Reform Commission reference, perhaps Mr Wilson will soon be supplanting all his colleagues.
 
One hopes not. Though he has repeatedly asserted the fundamentality of the right to free speech, Mr Wilson’s response to the Abbott Government’s unprecedented censorship of public servants on social media was to recommend they look for a new job. However unlikely such a simplistic prescription is to work for public servants (or young people) it is doubly unlikely for people with a disability.
 
The issues faced by the disability sector are complex and multifaceted. Disability figuratively and literally transforms the perspective of those it affects, a point that Mr Innes made to the Estimates when arguing for a full-time commissioner:
 
“I just think the time that a full-time commissioner has to put to that, plus my lived experience of disability and my knowledge of the disability sector, are absolutely required to continue the commission's work being at the level that it is.”
 
What Australians with a disability have had for the last three years is someone who understands the challenges they face and has empathy for their difficulties. What they need for the future is a full-time advocate who can imagine an Australia without barriers for people who are born with or acquire a disability. 

Lisa Singh is a Labor Senator for Tasmania and is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney-General.

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