The Mean Machine

scroogeAustralian people are a generous people. When the chips are down they are there to help. I was reminded of this on the weekend when I visited Marysville. Marysville is a town in Victoria that was flattened by the Black Saturday Fires in 2009. It still bears the scars of that horrific day. For miles one can still see the burnt landscape and dead trees that were caused by the flames of the fire. The town itself is still rebuilding. I remember that in the aftermath of the fires the Australia public responded with kindness. It donated money, food, goods and skills. All of which helped to get devastated towns like Marysville back on their feet very, very quickly.

There are many examples of the kindness of the Australian people. I am sure Queensland will tell you that Australians as one offered overwhelming support after the numerous horrific floods and cyclones that have devastated large parts of Queensland in the last few years. It is also worth noting that on the Easter weekend that Victorians donated a whopping $16 million to the Good Friday Appeal for the Royal Children’s Hospital. There can be no doubt that Australian people have big hearts and deep pockets.

The generosity of Australian citizens cannot be questioned. There is no doubt that when the chips are down the Australian people show their true colours. But for some reason the open pockets and generosity that is shown by Australia’s citizens is not matched by corporate Australia or the Government. In fact it could be argued that the Government and corporate Australia are downright mean.

Did you know, for example, that the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) has reported that there are 620 000 people with a disability living below the poverty line.[1] There are also  2010 figures provided by ACOSS in their report, Poverty in Australia, that suggest that 2,265,000 Australian’s, or 12.8% of the population, live in poverty.  If 620 000 people with a disability are part of this figure it means that more than a quarter of all people living in poverty in Australia have a disability. Surely this is Australia’s shame.

The 2003 ABS figures suggest that there are 1,238,600 Australians with a profound disability. One would be safe in making a broad assumption that most of the 620 000 people with a disability that ACOSS claim are living in poverty would have profound disabilities. Using such an assumption this means that more than 50% of people with a profound disability are living in poverty.

Is it any wonder then that Bill Shorten, the former Parliamentary Secretary of Disability, is on record as saying that a rich country like Australia can afford to support people with a disability better? Is it any wonder then that there is haste to roll out the National Disability Insurance Scheme?  It is a case of too little and too late.

That more than 50% of people with a profound disability can be assumed to be living in poverty based on accepted statistics is a national disgrace. Particularly given that Australia has had 21 years of successive economic growth. Particularly given that Australia is one of only seven countries with the vaunted AAA credit rating. It is a disgrace that Australia,  with its abundance of riches, has the highest rate of poverty among people with a disability from 27 Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development countries.  Is it any surprise that Sir Bob Geldof has condemned Australia for cutting its foreign aid when it is one of the only few countries that has not been hit by the Global Financial Crisis.

This much is true – AUSTRALIA IS RICH. But unfortunately, unlike its citizens, its social policy does not have a deep pocket. This is particularly so in regard to people with a disability.

It is not just the Government that is mean it is also corporate Australia. Last week the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Rail Corp spent $420 000 defending itself against Graeme Innes, The Australian Human Rights Disability Commissioner[2]. Mr Innes was outraged that rather than spend money on providing audio announcements for the blind on trains Rail Corp chose to spend nearly $500 000 trying to avoid its social and cooperate responsibilities towards people with a disability. This is corporate meanness personified.

While I agree totally with Mr Innes sentiments it also points again to the weakness of Australian disability discrimination laws … The power is with those that have the money. Even if Rail Corp did lose on this occasion very few people with a disability have the means to go to court. Particularly so when more than half those with profound disabilities are living in poverty.

Then of course we have the Cinema Access fiasco that demonstrates corporate meanness at its worst. The Big 4 cinemas are not only mean, they are clueless. Not content with having provided crap access in the past they have now provided access that is even more crap. They have foisted CraptiView on the Deaf and hard of hearing public. Almost as one this public has said it was awful. Despite this feedback they have continued roll-out the device en-masse.

What is worse the increase in access that was promised was minimal. Sessions with captions using CraptiView were still largely off-peak. It has reached the point where they do not even advertise caption sessions anymore. This is forcing the Deaf and hard of hearing public to constantly have to phone or even visit cinemas to confirm whether captions are available. One poor soul travelled 45 minutes to a cinema because he could not obtain any information about captions sessions either on the internet or the phone. All he wanted to do was take his family to see The Croods. There are six deaf people in his family and there are not enough devices anyway. And these cinemas won a Human Rights Award.

The mind boggles that the cinemas are treating a potential market of 3 to 4 million with absolute contempt. So frustrated has the paying deaf customer become that they have resorted to organising private screenings and open space screenings just so that they can see a movie with captions on the screen. Of the two sessions that have been organised in Melbourne it has been virtually standing room only so popular are captions on the screen. The Big 4 Cinema response to this obvious demand has been naff all. It is the height of corporate meanness.

It is one of the great paradoxes in Australia that a country whose citizens are famous for their fair go mentality and famous for the generosity of its citizens has Government and a corporate sector that is as mean as they come. Let us be clear – Australia is rich! Let us be clear Australia has had 21 years of successive economic growth! Let us be clear Australia CAN afford to provide the access to people with disabilities so that are able to participate fully within their communities.  The NDIS is but a pimple on the bottom of what really needs to happen in this country to ensure the needs of people with a disability are met.

Perhaps the starting point is Government and corporate Australia is to be a little less mean. They need to dig deeper into their considerable pockets.

4 thoughts on “The Mean Machine

  1. It would make the work of disability advocates much easier if we could link our arguments for a more equitable society to our Australian Constitution.

    Our problem is that when we are putting forward views to governments and the community, we base them on a United Nations statement or the Disability Discrimination Act.

    I wrote to a constitution expert, Professor George Williams. He replied:

    I agree completely with you, and think that the absence of these rights and statements in our Constitution is a major impediment to having important issues taken seriously. This type of material is very common in other constitutions, and the persistent attempt to keep our Constitution to matters of governance is a convenient way of marginalising this.

    It is significant that Australia now is the only democratic country in the world without some form of Bill of Rights or other clear statement of rights. This would normally be found in the Constitution, but it could also be found in other places, such as in ordinary legislation like a charter of human rights or human rights act (which NZ and the UK have).

    I talk a bit about these things in a recent Henry Parkes oration. It can be found here in text and as a radio broadcast:

    You might also find useful a recent report recommending that Australia have a national human rights act. It attracted tens of thousands of people in support, including many from the disability community. See:

    Unfortunately, the Rudd government rejected the change on the basis that it was too divisive…

    Best wishes


    George Williams AO • Anthony Mason Professor • Scientia Professor • ARC Laureate Fellow • Foundation Director, Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law
    Post: Faculty of Law • The University of New South Wales • Sydney NSW 2052

    • Yes Steve but its more than that. It needs not only legislative change but also an attitude one. It needs a shift in how one views disability … As a valued and significant participants in society … People do the right thing because the benefits are two way. I’m all for improving human rights and what nots but it takes a very long time. Not to say we shouldn’t but we need outcomes here and now …. Desperately because outcomes for people with a disability fom successive Governments simply are Australia’s shame.

      • Well said and I agree. But attitudes can take generations to change and even small shifts require enormous effort. Hence, in my view the need for a Bill of Rights. Keep up the good conversations. Steve

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