Placing the individual at the heart of policy

by | Oct 19, 2023 | Ability News, Disability Community, Disability Sector

In the last days before the Voice Referendum, Senator Pat Dodson appeared by videolink to gave a heartfelt address to the National Press Club. Political Correspondent Mel Coade reports on the enduring meaning of his speech – which stressed, perhaps most importantly, the need to approach public administration with love.

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The WA Labor senator (and government’s special envoy for reconciliation) couldn’t make it to Canberra to speak in those final days before the vote. He was busy campaigning in the West, Yawuru country. His words, however, flew across the country as he insisted Australia urgently needs a new way forward to tackle Closing the Gap. 

This includes ensuring people with disabilities receive the highest quality of care and compassion in having their needs met.

‘Responding to those people with disability,’ Dodson said, ‘who are often not in a position to advocate for themselves – it is far more critical for us to be compassionate, to be caring, to show love, and to be accountable for the way we discharge our responsibilities to them.’ 

‘And … in responding to their needs in a care capacity but also a legislative capacity. There are many people in our society that need to know that they are loved and cared for.’ 

When the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability was established in 2019, its terms of reference included the obligations Australia had under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). 

Many of the 222 recommendations made by the royal commission in its final report last month place those with lived experience at the centre of decision-making that affects their lives and emphasises the importance of choice. 

Adopting these measures will, the royal commission said, ‘improve the way laws, policies, structures and practices can best support and empower people with disability.’ 

This is not just an Australian ‘thing’. 

United Nations Special Rapporteur Gerard Quinn explained as he gave his testimony to the royal commission, that reframing how society thought about disability could help ensure participation of people with all kinds of ability, as well as equality. 

Quinn said the CRPD reset how the government and society dealt with issues like disability by establishing a ‘new default’ way of thinking and behaving. These are based upon fundamentally core values: ideas like indigenous recognition and the proposed Voice to parliament. 

The final report said that ‘rather than excluding and alienating people who are disabled and different, it emphasises ‘what we hope and expect from each other, from every citizen, and to get the best from every citizen and to give the best opportunities to every citizen.’ . 

Quinn stressed the CRPD outlines ‘a form of inclusion that takes personhood and choice seriously’. This rejects negative and dehumanising attitudes about disability that drive violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. 

Emphasising personhood is also about elevating the ‘right and capacity of people with disability to exercise autonomy and choose how they wish to live. It changes the way we approach disability services, which should be less about maintenance, care and protection, and more about ‘autonomy, voice, choice and control – social inclusion.’ 

Another comparable principle between a best-practice, rights-based approach to disability policy and the proposed Voice to parliament for First Nations Australians is equality and understanding are implicit. 

‘Inclusive equality cannot be achieved by ‘fixing people with disability’ or forcing a person with disability to accept inaccessible and inadequate environments or services.’ 

‘Further, people with disability should not have to bear the onus of proving or persuading the community, institutions, organisations and governments to include them,’ the report said. 

Volume 9 of the Royal Commission final report addressed issues concerning First Nations people with disability. It described this cohort of Australians as “uniquely marginalised” and stressed their experience could not be separated from the ongoing impacts of colonisation, intergenerational trauma and racism more generally. . 

‘This continues in the over-representation of First Nations people with disability in child protection and criminal justice systems, high rates of institutionalisation, child removal and economic exclusion,’ the royal commission said. 

‘The prevalence of disability is much higher in First Nations populations than in the general population. However, First Nations people with disability face barriers to accessing culturally safe and inclusive services across many systems.’ 

‘First Nations people with disability also experience significant barriers to accessing and participating in the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which are exacerbated in remote and very remote communities.’ The Commission suggested that this ‘constitutes systemic neglect’.

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The Disability Royal Commission heard from First Nations people with disability (courtesy NACCHO Aboriginal Health News)

The Royal Commission’s final report also specifically noted the needs of First Nations people with disability were often overlooked, ignored or forgotten – and that their voices needed to be strengthened because policy frameworks and service delivery frequently failed to recognise and respond to their distinct needs. 

In his remarks for the National Press Club the Senator insisted ‘Aboriginal people need to know from the Australian people (and that’s why I’m hoping they’ll vote ‘Yes’ for at the referendum) that this is a message of love for the young people of this country. They are loved and cared for, and people want to see them have a future.’  

Dodson shared the experience of AFL legend Michael Long’s 650km walk from Melbourne to Canberra known as ‘the Long Walk’ – once in 2004 and more recently in 2023 ahead of the vote for constitutional recognition and a Voice to parliament – and an exchange the Aboriginal sportsman had with former prime minister John Howard. 

‘Long put it to John Howard: ‘Where is the love for my people?’. 

‘This is a rugged, Essendon top-grade AFL football player – I played football with his father – coming to Canberra, walking all that way with other people and putting this question to the prime minister: Where is the love for my people?’ 

‘Now, I think that’s a true question across the whole gamut of our society. How do we learn to love each other? And not to allow hate, fear, and ignorance to dominate the way we deal with difference and diversity within our society.’ . 

Dodson said creating government systems that responded to changing social attitudes was possible, pointing to the collective goodwill shown in supporting the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017 as one example. 

‘We showed that that level of diversity and difference was something that we accepted, and we get on with our lives – the [sky] didn’t fall in,’ Dodson said. 

In the end the ‘yes’ case didn’t win. 

This doesn’t stop us changing and going forward ourselves.

Watch the video