Peter Gibilisco and assisted by Bruce Wearne. A Special Minister for Disability.

Oct 20, 2015

Disability support and policy is currently undergoing much needed reform. Such reforms highlight the attenuated life chances of people with disabilities and how these can be mitigated by policies that emphasize the inclusion of people with disabilities into the social life of us all. There is much public money being spent on getting things right, and indeed many lives are at stake.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is a wide sweeping reform that seems to be trying its utmost to significantly improve the lives of all people with disabilities however severe or profound these may be. There is a constant need for significant government financial support for people with disabilities to promote their health and wellbeing.

All this has led me in times past to ask: should there be a specific Government ministry for people with disabilities?

But now I am wondering: how does this proposal relate to the recent change in Prime Minister and the Ministerial reshuffle? Should I be pleased?

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald (21 September) discusses the new arrangement of Ministers with special attention to disability. The article’s headline suggests that the Turnbull Government’s reshuffle of portfolios amounts to a loss for disability. But it concludes with the statement of the new minister, Christian Porter (who has replaced Mitch Fifield), that “people can be absolutely assured that disabilities is going to have front and centre care inside portfolios.”

The word “care” is interesting; it refers here to policies. In his portfolio statement it refers to people. This is a subtle reminder that policies need to be framed with care in order to care for people. But the statement on its own is ambiguous. My question is this: How can any one issue coming under Porter’s many-sided portfolio be “front and centre” when all the other issues to be dealt with under this “Social Welfare” portfolio also need to be addressed? I am not wanting to debate here. This is no quibble. The ambiguity confirms the suspicion that disability as a “front and centre” political issue may have lost ground in the ministerial reshuffle.

And so to my point. I suggest that disability should be covered by one federal ministerial portfolio with one minister just as there is one Ministry for Indigenous Affairs.

Of course the new Minister’s sincerity is not in doubt. I realise such an innovation would be difficult to implement. I also welcome his emphasis upon putting disability “front and centre”. That indeed affirms a principle of good ministerial oversight and what he has said should encourage people with disability to fight on for better outcomes. But as “disability minister” he is not simply the Minister for Disability Affairs; he is Minister for Social Services overseeing “Australian government social services, including Mental health, families and children’s policy, and support for carers and people with disabilities, and seniors.” (From the Minister’s web-site). And so the situation that confronts this minister is indeed complex with many issues “front and centre”.

My point is that the social structural complexity confronting those with disability has to be the “front and centre” focus of a specially designated minister (and department). How else can he, or she, deal with all the other issues that have to be “front and centre” to other ministers and other departments?

The people we are talking about are our fellow citizens who suffer from an infinite number of complex disabilities. It would make sense to have a Government minister who can articulate and define disability in human and medical discourse. It makes sense for a Government minister to be a political figurehead in overseeing impacts from legislation from other portfolios and ensuring appropriate adjustments. Such a ministry would be innovative with a massive work load. There are innumerable social issues to be addressed; the demographic features of disability across the country have to be regularly monitored.

Australia has a diverse population, with approximately 20 per cent living with disability.

There is also the shocking statistic that identifies that at least 45 per cent of these welfare recipients are living in poverty. This is  further suggesting that there is an appalling ignorance toward people with disabilities. Christian Porter has much work to do on this front. Australia, along with other OECD countries, should be developing a perspective on economic and social development that puts this fact “front and centre”.

A Government ministerial innovation that I propose here will help to upgrade the professional and analytical skills of our public service to find a new path to reach out and include all of our society. This is something that a disability minister would seek to implement.

Further: does the absence of such a specifically designated ministry already create an unfortunate stigma when it comes to the funding of disability services? Of course, this is a cultural problem even if many voices say there is a community-wide failure to acknowledge the problems confronting services to those with disabilities. How is this ignorance to be addressed without a Federal minister to give political clout to such a change in the general attitude?

We note that many voices are suggesting that proposed funding for the National Disability Insurance Scheme will be inadequate. And indeed the appointment of a Minister for Disability Affairs, as I am proposing, would require wise guidance from those in public life (as well as parliamentarians) who are well versed about life and its struggles. This is but one step to support a move beyond mere coping with life’s struggles to embrace a national generosity that reckons with the pleasures of freedom for all.

Peter Gibilisco was diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition called Friedreich’s Ataxia, at age 14. The disability has made his life painful and challenging. He rocks the boat substantially in the formation of needed attributes to succeed in life. For example, he successfully completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, this was achieved late into the disability’s progression. However, he still performs research with the university, as an honorary fellow. Please read about his new book The Politics of Disability.

Bruce Wearne was awarded a Ph.D. from LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia, in 1987, for a thesis examining the 20th–century history of American sociology. Having left university employment, he serves on the Editorial Board of The American Sociologist. He develops a perspective on South West Pacific politics at his blog:



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