I rise tonight to speak to a very important issue, that of people with disabilities. I also wish to recognise the upcoming International Day of People with Disability, which will occur on 3 December 2008.
For far too long, people with disabilities in Australia have faced discrimination. There is a popular saying that the truest measure of a society is how it treats those that are worst off. For a nation that prides itself on its egalitarianism, Australia has a lot of work to do to address the needs of people with disabilities. It should be our mission, as the Australian government, to ensure that, to the best possible degree, every Australian who suffers from a physical or mental impairment has the same quality of life and opportunities for achievement as everyone else. Not only do we need to strive for equality of opportunity for people with disabilities; we need to encourage all Australians to lend them a hand when they need it and to always treat them with dignity and respect.
It has been the case throughout Australia’s history that people with disabilities have too often been treated as second-class citizens. In the 1950s, school leavers with intellectual disabilities lacked employment opportunities and ended up at home or in state care. This prompted an organisation in my home state of Tasmania, the Retarded Children’s Welfare Association, to construct a sheltered workshop with an adjoining residential facility for children with an intellectual disability.
The Hobart branch of the RCWA purchased land for the development in 1961 at Warrane, in the electorate of Franklin, and construction of the Oakdale workshop was completed in 1964. The workshop had an initial intake of 14 children. The adjoining residential facility, Oakdale Lodge, was built in 1970 and started with nine residents. Extensions then allowed the facility to accommodate 36 residents. Accommodation has been further extended over time with the construction of five independent living units on the Oakdale Lodge site.
In 1992, Oakdale Services Tasmania was established as a separate entity to assume responsibility for Oakdale Lodge. Today the residents are supported by a variety of programs, including acquired brain injury accommodation, youth services, a community living program and an ageing-in-place program. The ageing-in-place program supports seven ageing people with an intellectual disability to remain in their home with the support of their friends and family. They are involved in a range of occupational and community access services throughout the Hobart area. Oakdale Lodge does its best to ensure that its residents have the best quality of life possible. They regularly organise leisure activities, visits by entertainers and sporting personalities, and regular day trips and holidays, including interstate and overseas trips.
I was lucky enough to visit Oakdale Lodge recently with the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, Bill Shorten, and the member for Franklin, Julie Collins. Mr Shorten had already visited Oakdale Lodge, in December last year, and discovered, while talking to many of the residents, that they were passionate AFL fans. During his December visit Mr Shorten promised to return with some AFL memorabilia for the residents. He contacted AFL clubs around Australia, who generously contributed a variety of signed memorabilia, including items such as posters, jerseys, footballs and caps. It was a truly great honour and privilege for me to be invited to attend the event where these gifts were given out. Minister Shorten, Julie Collins and I not only enjoyed the hospitality of the clients but truly enjoyed seeing them so thrilled with their gifts.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank both members from the other place for their hard work and dedication in following through on this issue. I also give great thanks to the staff and volunteers at Oakdale Lodge for their hospitality. Their warm hearts and smiles show they are truly committed to their jobs and to their clients. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the clients highlighted the value of acknowledging and respecting people with intellectual disabilities.
After we had been to Oakdale, Julie Collins and I co-hosted a forum for disability service providers. Julie Collins is an incredibly hardworking member and she has quickly earned the praise of her electorate for the amount of work she does to actively listen to the concerns of her constituents, for whom she is an effective advocate. At the forum, Mr Shorten outlined the government’s plans for the disability sector to service providers in southern Tasmania. The forum also provided an opportunity for us to hear the concerns of service providers, and, more importantly, to hear their ideas about how the government can improve services and support for people with disabilities.
I am really pleased that the Rudd government is undertaking important work in the area of disabilities. Through our many initiatives, the government is giving people with disabilities the opportunity to better participate in the community. It is also important that our actions as a government fit within an international framework. This is why the Rudd government fast-tracked the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention was ratified on 17 July 2008 and entered into force for Australia on 16 August. The government is now consulting with state and territory governments on the optional protocol to the convention.
At the domestic level, we are currently in the process of developing a national disability strategy. The development of the strategy is aligned with an international trend that recognises that a whole-of-government, whole-of-life approach to disability issues is required to tackle the social and economic divide between people with a disability and people without a disability. The final strategy will provide an organising and monitoring framework for existing work. Furthermore, it will bring together other key initiatives currently under review or development.
These initiatives could include, but are not limited to, the national disability agreement, the inquiry into better support for carers, the National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy, the Arts and Disability Strategy, the Disability Discrimination Act Access to Premises Standard, and the Harmonisation of Disabled Persons Parking Scheme and Companion Card Scheme. The strategy will be developed in collaboration with state and territory governments. Through the strategy, Commonwealth departments can ensure that people with a disability are considered in the development of policies and programs and resource allocation.
The Rudd government is also demonstrating that we are serious about listening to the concerns of people with disabilities. In developing our National Disability Strategy, we need expert advice on the development and implementation of the strategy. For this reason, we have established the National People with Disabilities and Carer Council. The council’s membership has a broad representation, including people with a disability, their family and carers, community representatives and industry representatives. The first meeting of the council took place on 3 September 2008.
If we are to seriously address the barriers faced by people with disabilities, then it is important that we address the problem of discrimination against people with disabilities. The Disability Discrimination Act was enacted for this reason in 1992. The Productivity Commission undertook a review of the Disability Discrimination Act in 2004. Unfortunately, the previous government failed to act on the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s review. This is unfinished business on which disability advocacy groups have been crying out for action since the commission’s report.
The previous government left these reforms dormant for too long. The Rudd government, by contrast, is serious about addressing disability discrimination. We will introduce amendments recommended by the commission to clarify the obligation for employers, service providers and others to remove discriminatory barriers for people with disabilities. To complement our efforts in the removal of disability discrimination, we are examining ways to facilitate community engagement with people with disabilities.
Brendan O’Connor, the Minister for Employment Participation, and Bill Shorten are co-chairing a strategy to look at how we give people with a disability greater opportunities to participate in the community. There are over 300 submissions to the strategy. These consultations show that the Rudd government is serious about listening to ideas and suggestions about how we can help people with a disability.
It is important that the work we are doing complements the work being undertaken by state and territory governments. In my home state of Tasmania, the state government has committed—in conjunction with the Australian government—to a major injection of funds to increase the number of Tasmanians receiving specialist disability services by 25 per cent over the next four years. Just this financial year the Tasmanian government has introduced 12 more accommodation places, 75 more individual support packages, 50 more community access packages and 70 more respite places.
I commend the important work that the Tasmanian government is undertaking in supporting people with disabilities. It helps support the excellent work being done by our federal ministers who take responsibility for this area of policy, such as the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, who is undertaking reform of disability discrimination legislation, and the Minister for Employment Participation, Brendan O’Connor, who is devising strategies to help people with disabilities to become active and valued participants in the community. (Time expired)