Equality and the Gillard Labor Government
Closing Address to the Equality Law Reform Conference,
Human Rights Law Centre
Storey Hall, RMIT
26 July 2011
I'd like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation and pay my respects to elders both past and present.
I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today behalf of the Gillard Labor Government.
Federal anti-discrimination law
I was asked to address you on the consolidation of federal anti-discrimination laws. This is a reform project being led by my parliamentary colleagues, the Attorney General the Hon. Robert McClelland MP, and the Minister for Finance and Deregulation Senator the Hon. Penny Wong.
Many of you in this room are advocates for equality. And the law is an important tool in your armoury in the fight against unfairness, oppression and inequality.
I cut my professional teeth as a lawyer at Maurice Blackburn.
And I spent the majority of my professional life fighting for equality in the workplace. Often a fight that started on the factory floor of the ropeworks in Footscray or the steel mills of Albion would conclude before the learned benches of William Street, the Federal Court, or the then AIRC at Nauru House.
So I am witness to the importance of the rule of law in cajoling and promoting equality.
Labor has a proud history of promoting and protecting equality.
Equality is core to the belief and purpose of the Labor party that was forged over 120 years ago out of a collective struggle for equality in the workplace.
This is a struggle that has borne many proud achievements, from basic rights in the workplace, to the aged pension and Medicare and superannuation.
And the thrust of this tradition is also manifest in Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws that reflect through the legislature changing community attitudes to equality and inclusion.
The first of the four core Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws, the Racial Discrimination Act, was enacted by Whitlam Labor in 1975.
This groundbreaking reform was followed by the enactment of the Sex Discrimination Act by Hawke Labor in 1984, the Disability Discrimination Act by Keating Labor in 1992 and the Age Discrimination Act in 2004.
And this Labor Government has progressed the equality reform agenda substantially since coming to power in 2007.
We amended 85 Commonwealth laws to eliminate discrimination against same-sex couples and their children.
We were among the first nations countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2008.
We ended a decade of inertia by finally introducing the Disability (Access to Premises-Building) Standards and passing the Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Amendment Act.
And in June this year, we amended sex and age discrimination legislation to improve protection against sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of family responsibilities and breastfeeding.
The consolidation project
But this Government is conscious that anti‑discrimination law has become very complex.
We want to make it easier for people to understand their rights and to meet their obligations.
That's why a key element of Australia's Human Rights Framework is consolidating anti‑discrimination law into a single Act, to remove unnecessary regulatory overlap and make the system more user-friendly.
As part of that process, we will include protections against discrimination on the basis of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
Work on this project is well underway and the Government hopes to be in a position soon to announce further information, including details about consultation.
Progress on achieving equality
Viewed through the prism of the law, it is clear that Australia has made significant advances in achieving equality.
Yet the reality of pervasive pockets of entrenched disadvantage in Australia belies a deeper truth that I believe emphasises the limitations of the black letter law alone in achieving true equality.
Take the following by example:
- If you are an Indigenous Australian, you can expect to live a minimum of around ten years less than a non-Indigenous Australian, and you are 14 times more likely to end up in jail
- Women spend almost three times as many hours per week looking after children as men, chair only two per cent of ASX200 companies, hold only 8.3% of Board Directorships and earn, on average, 83 cents in the 'male dollar'
- And if you happen to be born with an impairment, you are less likely to finish school or get a job, more likely to end up in prison, experience discrimination more often and die sooner than people without impairment.
This is despite the heroic work of some formidable rights advocates – people such as the Disability and Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, Professor Ron McCallum, Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, Kevin Cocks.
And all of this despite the existence of robust legislative protections against discrimination on the grounds of race, sex and disability.
It is clear that there remains much work to be done by advocates such as yourselves.
But I would also put to you that it is clear that the law alone – the substantive right – is merely a factor in achieving true equality.
Just as money may deliver power, access to opportunity and economic equality is crucial in delivering true equality.
And it falls to governments, through the tax and transfer system, regulation and legislation, to create the policy settings to allow economic equality to be fulfilled.
Labor and economic equality
This Government is committed to the pursuit of economic equality. It is perhaps the core challenge for change politics.
Indeed, in contemplating the current state of the Labor movement, the journalist Paul Kelly recently wrote that "over the past 120 years much of Labor's foundational purpose has been achieved".
He is right. We have come a long way.
But he is also wrong – because significant challenges remain.
The Government is achieving equality on a range of fronts - and we continue to deliver this now on issues such as climate change (intergenerational equity), superannuation (ensuring that retirees have adequate economic power), pay equity (gender equality).
But I also believe that our best is yet to come.
There still exist transformative ideas with the potential to define and empower a population.
National Disability Insurance Scheme
I mentioned earlier that people with disability get a second class deal on almost every life outcome.
2 million people with a disability and their carers are in de facto exile in our nation right now.
There are enough Australians with a profound or serious disability to populate Adelaide.
And there are enough Australians caring for someone with a disability to populate Tasmania.
Those Australians are among our poorest citizens - and poverty rates of people with disability have been growing.
The long boom of the last 20 years has passed-by people with a disability and their carers.
Right now, more than 30 percent of households with a person with disability live on less than half the median income - but they pay the highest prices for the basics.
Economists believe the impact of disability amounts to around one third of household income.
In other words, having an impairment makes and keeps people poor.
Now if I were to build a wall around a city of 2 million Australians and tell every parent in that city that their child would be less likely to finish school, more likely to end up in jail, less likely to get a job, and more likely to die young – there would be outrage.
There would be a revolution.
Yet this is the fate of a child born with disability in Australia today.
Next Monday the Productivity Commission will hand to Government its final report on its inquiry into a long-term disability care and support scheme, otherwise known as a national disability insurance scheme.
A national disability insurance scheme would revolutionise Australia's approach to disability services.
It would replace a rationed, demand driven service system with a system that empowers the individual, based on need, with ability to purchase and direct their own system of supports.
It would enabling greater choice and control.
It would intervene early after acquisition or diagnosis with a disability and aim to maximise the economic and social participation.
It would aspire to the sort of economic equality that is required to address the inequality that people with disability experience.
It is an idea that should transcend partisan politics and the 24 hour media cycle.
This Government is committed to change.
An NDIS is a significant change, and it require significant Government outlay.
Our Government will consider the Commission's final report after it is delivered.
Any major change to the system needs to be sustainable and affordable - because that's the best way we can ensure any new system will endure and meet the needs of people with disability into the future.
And like any prudent Government, we will kick the tyres on the NDIS before signing any cheques.
But if we are serious about achieving equality – and this Government is – then it is the sort of idea that cannot be ignored.