Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mind the Gap

On Friday night, I attended the gala presentation of the West Australian of the Year.

Don’t get me wrong – I was delighted to be chosen as a finalist. It showed that we people on the ground who experience disadvantage are able to be recognised for our work in the same way as others who have been brought up with power and prestige and wealth. The winner in my category, Nicola Forrest, is a deserving recipient - she has started up many programs and given away half of her wealth to charity alongside her husband Andrew Forrest, our nation’s ninth richest person. Andrew and Nicola have contributed enormously to the lives of the disadvantaged in our state.

But to me, the gap seemed immense. I did not grow up in poverty, but the trappings of the event seemed faintly obscene.

At $250 a head, my table was not filled with friends and family – many Divas gathered down the road to meet me afterwards at a (cheaper) venue and two of my six children were in attendance. Shadow Minister Stephen Dawson sponsored a seat for me to bring a friend or advocate of my choice.

The escalators took the finalists and guests up to a plush carpet trail lined with candles – but my daughters and I caught the (terribly sign posted) service lift to the third floor, which brought us up to a bored looking photographer who looked at us disinterestedly and asked if we would like our photograph taken for the Sunday paper. The ‘carpet walk’ was accessible, but not easily available.

And my ‘special moment’ of the night was when Lena Nyadbi, the winner of her category, got up from her wheelchair and walked with help up stairs onto the stage, prompting a blustering comment from the MC about how they wanted to ‘conceal the ramp because you could tell who had won and then Lena walked up the stairs anyway!’ Not a shining moment for universal design and inclusion.

Still, the event went well, the winners were without a doubt deserving recipients and the crowd were all lovely people. The event was fun and well organised. We ate, drank, laughed and were grateful to be included amongst a group of people who are shining stars in our state.

I must be a particularly perverse individual. I sat in my four hundred dollar dress, sipping champagne, feeling vaguely tinged with self-disgust. This world would be so easy to slip into, a world where disadvantage is a world away, where the problems of the rest of the nation aren’t really our own, are they? Bottoms up, more champagne. Smile, and the whole world smiles with you.

When Premier Colin Barnett announced (to thunderous applause) that the section inside the Horseshoe Bridge would be renamed ‘Yagan Square’, I wondered cynically whether homeless Aboriginal people would be able to sleep within it.

When I looked at the glittering dresses and the well-tailored suits, I wondered how much they cost. I remembered the smell of an op shop, which so many West Australian families are well acquainted with - invariably, over half of my Scout Troop owns only one pair of shoes.

And when Aboriginal performer Dr Richard Walley OAM stood with a cast of talented Aboriginal performers, all I could think about was the cost of the sea of screens and the impressive audio visual effects and what an impact they would have had on the lives of so many people living with disability and disadvantage in our state. When I looked at the faces of the young Aboriginal dancers, I could see only the faces of the six school age children who have been living rough in a tent on the side of a major metropolitan highway.

We should celebrate those who have contributed to our state and nation, without a doubt. But I also wonder how we can do more to profile the lives and achievements of the communities who live far on the other side of the divide.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Age of Entitlement

I read an opinion article by Gina Rinehart the other day. Gina, who is worth an estimated $19.89 billion, criticises welfare recipients for dragging the country into debt and says that ‘we are living beyond our means’.

‘Australians have to work hard or actually harder and smarter,’ she says. ‘The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.’

Treasurer Joe Hockey says the Age of Entitlement is over and it is time for all Australians to do their fair share of heavy lifting.

That’s the kind of commentary currently making headlines. Painting welfare recipients as scroungers and scrivers, advocating for policy that ‘gets tough’ on welfare recipients.

It’s also the kind of commentary that strikes fear into the hearts of people with disability and their families. Not because they’re bludging, not because they’re frightened of doing it tough. But because things are already so tough that people are not living, they are barely existing. And nobody seems to know, or care.

Consider this.

Australia is ranked at the bottom – 29th of 29 OECD countries – for poverty amongst people with disability, even below countries like Mexico. 45% of us are living near or below the poverty line.

In January 2012, the Government quietly brought in measures that would make 40% more people with disability ineligible for the Disability Support Pension. They changed the Impairment Tables, making it incredibly tough for anyone to go on a DSP – even if the cost of living is much higher for them because of their disability, even if they have no disability care and support funding.

In employment, we’re not faring much better. One of the most telling and challenging statistics is that Australia ranks 21st out of 29 OECD countries in employment participation rates for people with a disability. And let’s not forget the rate of people with disability employed in the public sector – a measly 2.1 percent.

In May of this year, the Australian Human Rights Commission granted the government an exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act. That means that for the next twelve months, employees in sheltered workshops may legally be paid as little as a dollar an hour – even though the courts found the practice discriminatory and ordered it discontinued.

Are people with disability doing it easy? Clearly, because there are planned measures being considered by Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews, who is overhauling the 15 billion-a-year disability support pension, the ‘most troublesome welfare entitlement’. Under those measures, disability pensioners will be re-examined by ‘independent medical experts’ at the Department of Human Services.

There is also a rash of recommendations in the Commission of Audit report that would be disastrous for disabled people were they to be implemented. One is a plan to make job seekers move to high employment areas.

Consider the Aboriginal family who has a strong connection to their rural community – will their disabled son or daughter move away from country and family and their informal networks of support? Think about the guy who has no funding and whose ageing parents provide his care – now that he’s no longer eligible for a DSP, will his family move off the farm to the city in order for him to be ‘more likely’ to get a job? And what about the people who require a wheelchair accessible home, or those who simply cannot afford city rental prices because of the poverty and disadvantage they are entrenched within?

There seems to be a lot of chatter about ‘the cuts we have to have’ and little about ‘what we’re going to do to support people with disability to get and keep work’. ‘Spreading the Budget pain’, with no recognition that what hurts a rich person’s wallet may actually cause the death of someone living below the poverty line. Not a word about investing in people rather than punishing them. And in the meantime, people with disability aren’t just doing it tough – they’re barely existing.

The Age of Entitlement. Sorry, Gina. Your lofty perch doesn’t allow you to understand disadvantage. At a dollar an hour, it doesn’t matter how hard you work - you’re never, ever going to be Gina Rinehart.

Image description - A cartoon by Crippen, with two men standing next to each other - one looks anxious. Walking away from them is the grim reaper with his trademark black, hooded gown and scythe. One man is saying to another: "I've just appointed him the new Chair of the Disability Benefits review team!"