Senate Estimates Hearings
Community Affairs Committee
Senator Mitch Fifield
Mr Nick Hartland (Group Manager Disabilities and Carers FaHCSIA)
Dr Jeff Harmer (Secretary of FaHCSIA)
Senator Jan McLucas (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers)
Senator Claire Moore (Chair of the Community Affairs Committee)
Senator Sue Boyce
24 February 2010
E & OE
Subject: Appointment of Catherine Deveny as Disability Ambassador
If I could just ask about the criteria for selecting the Disability Ambassadors, please.
Senator, the Ambassadors were selected primarily with regard to the role that we thought that they would play which would be to advertise and garner enthusiasm for the International Day of People with Disability Awards.
They are. So were there criteria, or was it essentially an appointment by Government of people who were thought to make good ambassadors?
Essentially, it was an appointment by Government. We assisted in that process by providing suggestions, but the decision was a decision of the Government.
Generally, my understanding is that they are people who are enthusiastic about disability, people who are well-connected in the disability community, who have a reputation, who have a profile and are able to make a contribution because of their profile and energy. That’s primarily the basis on which the Department would have made recommendations to the Government. Many of them, as you’d appreciate, are closely involved in disability issues because they have either a family member or relative who has a disability.
Who was the decision-maker for the last set of Disability Ambassadors? Was it Mr Shorten as the Parliamentary Secretary?
That’s right, Senator.
It was Mr Shorten. OK thank you for that.
I think many of us in this room were at the Disability Awards at the end of last year, which was a great night Stella Young did a terrific job as MC. We had the benefit of the presence of the Disability Ambassadors that night, and I recall flipping through the program and hearing the Ambassadors mentioned. I thought Kurt Fearnley was a great appointment. Bill Mooney another great appointment. Gerard Gosens another great appointment, and he was an inspiring speaker on the night. But you could have pushed me over with a feather when I saw the name of Catherine Deveny as a Disability Ambassador. I was genuinely surprised.
I think it may be in the public domain now, Ms Deveny does have – how can I put it politely – an interesting turn of phrase. She has made many comments which I think would be inappropriate for a person who was to be appointed as a Disability Ambassador. And I just want to go through some of those and ask some follow-up questions to those at the table.
Ms Deveny said – or tweeted about the comedian Rove McManus and his wife Tasma Walton, who he married after his first wife died of cancer – she tweeted:
“Rove and Tasma look so cute…hope she doesn’t die too.”
She also had some comments in relation to ANZAC Day:
“ANZAC Day IS a glorification of war. They didn’t die for us, but because they were risk taking testosterone fuelled men with a pack mentality.”
Just a point of order we do have a lot of questions to get through, so Senator could please get to the question.
We will get to the question. As I said, there are four quotes of Ms Deveny which I would like to read, and then I will have some questions in relation to those.
This has been in the public arena. You know that.
Yes, I will get through this at a quick pace if I am not interrupted. I think that will save time.
Ms Deveny also has said, referring to people who live in outer-suburbs:
“The reality is that it is impossibly to watch these brainless retards belt the crap out of each other without enjoying it just a little.”
And Ms Deveny, in a column called Carols by Candlelight, said:
“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, because Mum was chucking her annual Christmas spastic.”
Now, I understand that Ms Deveny apparently has dyslexia, and has children with a disability. But I would have thought that the kind of deeply offensive comments which emanated from Ms Deveny would make her completely unfit to be appointed a Disability Ambassador, and completely unfit to be considered for an appointment as a Disability Ambassador.
You’re quite right, Senator McLucas – at the time that I ventilated some of these comments publicly after the Disability Awards, the Government’s comment at the time was that she receives no payment and works hard for disability. Well, that really wasn’t the point.
The Government has not at any stage disowned Ms Deveny. The Government has not at any stage said that this was an inappropriate appointment. So Senator McLucas, can I ask you, on behalf of the Government, if you think the appointment of Ms Deveny was appropriate in light of her offensive comments in relation to people with disability?
Senator, Ms Deveny is a parent of children with disability. I don’t think you can say that the language she uses can be attributed to her dyslexia.
I didn’t suggest that.
No, I don’t think you were. As a person with a disability, she works within a paradigm a frame where she can say things that you and I can’t.
Are you saying that Ms Deveny has a leave pass to call people with disability “retards” and to talk about mothers “chucking Christmas spastics” because she has a disability? Is that what you’re seriously saying, Senator?
I’ll be frank with you. I find it hard to defend. I find it hard to defend, but I acknowledge that as a person with disability, she has a not a leave pass but she has a space that she can say something that you and I can’t. I don’t find the words that you read out at all helpful. But I think you should acknowledge the different space that she occupies to you and I.
Offensive comments, bad behaviour and insulting people there isn’t an excuse for that. Having a disability doesn’t provide an excuse for that. And I think that people who have a disability would find that quite offensive, Minister, as have parents of children with disability.
I just want to read out to you part of an email I received, and I won’t mention the person’s name.
“As a mother of a young adult daughter with autism, what puzzles me with this appointment is the unadulterated hypocrisy of the Government. That it seems to be acceptable that our special needs community could be used as a stomping ground for jokes defies common decency. How has Deveny demonstrated her ability to adopt a person-centric approach and exercise respect with her repeated foul slurs made on the back of innocent people and slung towards others who she disapproves of? The word ambassador means someone who acts as a representative or promoter of a special activity.”
And from another person, whose name I won’t read out:
“I wish for Catherine Deveny to be immediately dismissed from her position as a Disability Ambassador. What a disgraceful insult to those with disabilities. Your appointment of Catherine is not only an insult that is tantamount to stupidity, I have no idea how you could have possibly made such an ill-informed appointment other than you have a poor sense of justice and/or humour.”
That’s from someone who works closely in the disability sector.
Minister, this is an opportunity for you, as the Government’s spokesman on Disability to show some leadership and to say that the appointment of Catherine Deveny was a mistake, the appointment was an insult to people with disabilities, it never should have happened and on behalf of the Government, I apologise.
I take your comments on board, Senator. I have trouble with this. I have trouble with this.
Do you think Minister Shorten made a mistake with this appointment?
I’m not going to make any judgement on decisions of my colleagues. But I concur that it has been a difficult that this has been something that has troubled me.
Minister or Officers at the table, were any of you aware of these comments by Ms Deveny before this appointment was made?
Yes, we were aware of the comments.
You were aware of these comments, Mr Hartland, beforehand?
Mr Hartland, did you or the department draw these comments to the attention of Mr Shorten before the appointment was made.
Senator, we’re getting awfully close to –
I wouldn’t hide behind that on this occasion Dr Harmer. I think it is an entirely legitimate question to ask and I think it deserves an answer whether Mr Shorten was advised of these deeply offensive comments before this appointment was made.
I want to be very certain about the answer Senator. I take your point, and I’d like to take that on notice. That is something that, unless Mr Hartland is absolutely certain, then I’d rather take it on notice.
Well Mr Hartland, are you absolutely certain?
No, I’m not. We’d have to review the advice that we put up Senator.
I would be extremely surprised, knowing the Department as I do, if these comments were not drawn to the attention of Mr Shorten if the Department was aware of them.
We’ll take that as a comment Senator and we will provide you with the answer.
I can provide some assistance here.
Thank you, Senator.
I can advise that Ms Deveny is no longer an Ambassador. The appointment was only for last year’s International Day, and it will not be renewed.
OK. So she naturally expired?
Did the others naturally expire?
Yes Senator, the appointment is for the International Day.
So Minister, today is the first time that the Government has actually made even a mild hint that there could be something wrong with this appointment. It stuns me that the Government didn’t disassociate themselves at the earliest opportunity from this appointment.
But Dr Harmer, could you please use your best endeavours to have the answer to the question as to whether Minister Shorten was aware of these comments before the appointment? If that could be confirmed, whether the Department provided that advice to the Minister before the appointment – if you could use your best endeavours to advise this Committee while it is still sitting this afternoon?
Senator I will do my best to confirm that we provided advice on that matter. I cannot go the extra step and be absolutely certain that Mr Shorten was aware. We may have provided advice but it may have been held in the office. Who knows.
You can’t know the state of mind of Mr Shorten, I readily accept. But whether that advice was sent to the office, whether that advice was sent to Mr Shorten?
I’ll do my best advice to find out whether that was the case or not.
Senator McLucas, I’ll give you a final opportunity before we move on to the next line of questioning to say that you think the appointment of Ms Deveny was wrong.
I would not reflect on the decision of a colleague.
Senator, it’s hard to get a bit of leadership out of this Government. This should be the easiest thing for the member of the Executive responsible for disabilities to say – to say that you think that it is wrong, unequivocally. To say that it is unequivocally wrong for someone to talk about a mum “chucking her annual Christmas spastic” – that that is wrong. That it is wrong to refer to people as “brainless retards.” Minister, that can’t be a hard thing to say.
I’ve said what I’ve said. It has troubled me.
Senator it’s on the record. You’ve made your point, and I think it’s time to move on.
I was intending to, thank you Chair.