Attention this week has rightly focused on the commission of audit; the review of spending that’s recommending dramatic cutbacks and restructuring as part of the government’s effort to improve the bottom line. But don’t be misled by the idea that, simply because a "commission" sounds independent, it’s in some way pure or apolitical. The "audit" finished exactly as it began – an ideological exercise designed to achieve a particular result.
This was always the intention and that’s why it’s reccomending slashing and burning with a blowtorch. Scorched earth would look positively fertile by comparison. No sector’s been left untouched, even to abolishing the Defence Material Organisation and selling off the Australian Submarine Corporation. The audit questions everything provided or done in the name of government.
This simply provides a veneer of objective cover that will allow the government to do what it always intended: slash spending and privatise services. At least the agenda’s clear and transparent. Sure, there’s waffle and rhetoric about how the Coalition’s preferred way of getting things done is better than the way they’ve occurred in the past, but there’s a clear link between actions (hacking away at what government does) and the results (pushing responsibility, and costs, back to you, the individual). This is government lite; Joe Hockey shrugs his shoulders and the message is clear. If you don’t like it, well, tough.
It matches our seemingly insatiable desire for tax cuts with the sort of services the money remaining in the coffers will pay for. White label Medicare and No Name education. This emphasises the role of the private sector.
And this is why a decision handed down this week by the Australian Human Rights Commission is so utterly bizarre and detached from the real world that it will squeeze the very people whose rights the commission is supposed to be upholding.
But all the noise and cacophony has obscured another, equally arbitrary ideological decision; one that’s aiming to overturn not just the Liberal’s agenda but Labor’s as well. The decision’s likely to have a devastating impact on the very people who don’t possess the resources, or have the resilience, to defend themselves and, adding insult to injury, it’s come from the very body that should be most attuned to the needs of the disabled.
Sometimes, the desire to achieve the very best can become the enemy of getting any worthwhile result at all and that’s exactly what’s happened here. In a virtually unreported ruling this week the Australian Human Rights Commission refused to allow business’ employing people with a disability under the BSWAT wage assessment tool an exemption from the Discrimination Act.
The effect of this is that disability enterprises (formerly called sheltered workshops) will be forced to pay employees according to the Supported Wage System within a year. And that’s the critical point. The businesses had requested three years to introduce the new wage rates. After all, they are not attempting to exploit people with disabilities – they exist to empower people, make lives worthwhile and bring positive changes to society.
The Commission’s insistence that these changes should be introduced within a year is capricious. Many won’t be able to, and these will be forced to close. Others will attempt to struggle on, although they’ll be forced to sack some staff so they can retain others on the new rates. The businesses will become places of tension and anger.
The current arrangements have developed over time and while there are problems that need to be fixed they are, by and large, working well. The organisations that actually employ disabled people asked for three years to bring the new arrangements into place. But that wasn’t good enough for the commission. It’s arbitrarily insisted it’s their way or the highway. The time limit of one year to introduce the new pay rates is unconscionable. It will result in closures of the very businesses that are supporting disabled people to lead valid working lives.
The Human Rights Commission hasn't just decided it knows better than a few random bureaucrats – this decision flies in the face of governments of both political persuasions. Not much unites Labor’s former Disabilities Minister Jenny Macklin and incumbent Mitch Fifield. They’re people with very different world views, and yet on this issue they were united. The commission, on the other hand, has given every indication it's living in a rarefied world where vague hopes and noble ideals take on genuine substance. Unfortunately this doesn't describe the real world that most people with a disability inhabit.
But the critical point is that, just like the commission of audit, the Human Rights Commission wants to start the new world now and this is the critical point that’s going to hurt disability enterprises.
Nicholas Stuart is a Board Member of the House With No Steps, an organisation that employs people with a disability, but using another method. The House was not directly affected by the Comission’s decision.