Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (1.11 pm)-I rise today to speak on the Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. The coalition will be supporting this bill. This bill will amend a range of antidiscrimination legislation, but most importantly the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. It will also see some technical and cosmetic amendments, such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission changing its name to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Many of the amendments this bill makes arise from the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s 2004 review of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which was commissioned by the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, the Hon. Ian Campbell. The majority of the amendments in this bill seek to enact recommendations which were accepted by the previous coalition government.
Australia was one of the first countries, under the former coalition government, to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in March 2007. The then coalition government consulted widely with stakeholder groups, including disability sector representatives, to gain an informed position on the key issues. With the ratification of the convention in 2008, it is important that we now move towards shifting attitudes in Australia in respect of disability.
To the greatest extent possible, we need to break down the social and economic barriers that prevent participation in mainstream community life by people with a disability. We need to move away from the thinking that sees disability support as welfare. A person with a disability has the entitlement to participate in the community and the workforce. And a person with a disability, with the right support, can make full use of their skills, their talents and their capacities. This bill goes some way to ensuring the positive duty to make reasonable adjustments for a person with a disability-reasonable adjustments so an individual can exercise choice and more easily engage in the workforce, reasonable adjustments that will give a person with a disability independence and choice. The aim is to overcome restrictions that limit opportunity and provide particular challenges and barriers to seeking work. Reasonable adjustments, by balancing net benefits for the community without imposing undue hardship on the organisations required to make them, will, when the amendment is adopted, make it much easier for a person to apply for a job without feeling that they have to hide any possible disability.
I hope that with this amendment we will see more people with a disability in the workforce. I hope that individuals will feel more inclined to disclose in advance to a potential employer any disability related needs or modifications which are required for them to perform the duties of the job and that they will not feel they have to opt not to make a job application for fear of being rejected due to a disability.
People with disabilities are underrepresented in the workforce due to the attitudes of society and a lack of support. One of the greatest challenges facing people with disability is acceptance by the community. To be able to dine with friends, do the grocery shopping or be in a public place are aspects of life that we all take for granted. Acceptance of a person with a disability sometimes requires people to accept not only the person with a disability but also their use of an aid or their reliance on an individual-a carer-or on an animal, as assistance that they need to take part in daily life. This bill clarifies the requirements for an assistance animal to be recognised and also provides that discrimination on the grounds of a person having a carer, assistant, assistance animal or disability aid is equivalent to discrimination on the grounds of disability. The bill also makes clear that the definition of disability includes genetic predisposition to a disability. Access to community life and independence are important objectives for us all. I think all senators are committed to supporting initiatives to provide and improve accessibility, equity, opportunity and choice for all Australians.
It is easy for any one of us to mouth those words; it is much harder to deliver. I will just give one instance. The Productivity Commission’s 2004 review of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs into this bill both recommended implementing more accessible voting procedures for voters with a disability.
The coalition’s commitment to independence saw the introduction of a trial, at the 2007 federal election, of electronically assisted voting for electors who were blind or vision impaired. It is my belief that blind and vision impaired people should be able to take up their right to a secret ballot in future elections. The 2007 trial was seen as a success by stakeholder groups. To quote from Vision Australia’s submission to the committee inquiry into the 2007 federal election:
… it marked a milestone in Australia progressing toward a society which is fully inclusive of the needs of people with a disability.
It was therefore very disappointing on 17 March this year when the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters announced in a media release:
The committee has recommended that electronically assisted voting for blind and vision impaired electors … be discontinued.
After that release, I think very much in an admission of the committee’s failure to canvass alternatives, the committee chair, Mr Melham, said:
I don’t feel good about making the recommendation.
I think Mr Melham was recognising that simply saying that the trial will not be continued and there will be no future provision for blind and vision impaired people really was not an adequate response. As I said, my belief is that that option of a secret ballot should be there for blind and vision impaired people. The coalition government’s trial certainly provided a positive experience for many voters. Mr Graeme lnnes, Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, said of the trial in 2007 and his ability to cast a vote:
I had tears in my eyes … I was able to exercise what I regard as a very important democratic right.
I believe that is a right which should be available. It remains to be seen what the Rudd government will do and how it will provide a secret vote for blind and vision impaired people. I hope that the government does see its way to facilitating blind and vision impaired people to access that right.
The coalition supports measures in this bill that widen opportunities for people with a disability to gain independence and participate in the community. These amendments, by placing responsibility on all relevant parties to work together, will remove much discrimination that is currently faced by people with a disability.
This legislation is a move forward to achieving a more equitable society. I commend the bill to the chamber.