Social Inclusion, Social Responsibility and Goldilocks

GAAD Talk 2013


In Australia, we have been discussing for years how we might provide greater assistance and care to those with disabilities. Last year, the government proposed a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), and this stimulated considerable debate, particularly about how it would be funded.

Two weeks ago, when asked if I would like to speak at the A11ybytes Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) event in Sydney, I suggested that rather than talking about the web, I would like to look at the question of social responsibility. I cited the proposed NDIS, which was basically in limbo at the time, as an example of our need to understand that social justice improvements usually come at a cost, that we should be willing to make.

The advertised title for the talk was, “Social Inclusion: Social Responsibility”.

GAAD presentation transcript

I have changed the name of this talk to Social Inclusion, Social Responsibility and Goldilocks

Last year, when the government expressed their desire to introduce a national disability insurance scheme, most people said what a good idea, followed by shaking heads and mutterings about the cost. The opposition started to run the “new great big tax” flag up the pole, and the government immediately ruled out the idea of a tax increase or levy.

Well, “a week is a long time in politics”, and it looks like we will now have disability care system, supported by both sides of parliament and, initially at least, it will be paid for in part by an increase in the Medicare levy.

It is great that we finally have a government with a couple of ministers willing to take political risks for the rights of the disabled, but thanks shouldn’t go to them – rather to the many in the disability sector who fought for this change; working not for days, not for weeks or even months, but for years and years.

Most in the community have expressed support for the disability care initiative; then of course there’s the man from Myers. Well, if as a result of this levy, spending in your shops falls rather than rises, let me suggest you look more closely at what you are selling and your attitude to customers, all customers, which of course includes some with disabilities.

Over the last couple of decades, one of the biggest advances in social justice has been the move from what could be basically called a ‘charity model’, where favours are dispensed to those in need, to the notion of ‘social inclusion’, where all people feel valued, their differences are respected, and their basic needs are met so they can live in dignity.

Now, about rights: We like to rejoice in the notion that we are all ‘created equal with inalienable rights’, but this hasn’t always been the case. Not that long ago the prevailing attitude to people with disabilities was “out of sight, out of mind”, except of course for those special, once a year, fund raising events.

Mounting pressure over a couple of decades from those in the disability sector combined with political and legal action, including the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act by the Hawke Government in 1992, saw attitudes change.

But, social progress and advances in human rights usually cost money.

Not that long ago, women who worked in the public service had to give up their jobs when they got married and those women who did work, got paid less than men doing the same job. Of course, things aren’t perfect today, but at least women now have a legal right to work regardless of their marital status, and they have the right to receive equal pay for equal work, even if it does mean a rise in the overall wages bill of government and industry. The vast majority of Australians today wouldn’t have it any other way, and some young people are truly amazed when they hear women didn’t always have these rights.

When women were being denied equal pay, many aboriginal workers in rural Australia weren’t being paid at all, receiving handouts of flour, sugar and tea instead. When the government finally introduced laws awarding equal pay to Aboriginal workers, and the black stockmen at Wave Hill station went on strike to get what they were due, many station owners complained about the cost of the equal pay decision, predicting it would be the death of the cattle industry in Australia. Most in the general community though, felt that this form quasi-slavery had to end, even if it meant that the price of a steak went up by a few cents. And of course, the industry survived.

In a more general sense, most of us believe that everyone has a right to education provided through government funded schools, and we should all be able to receive good health care regardless of how rich or poor we are.

If we are to continue to advance as a society the disabled in our community and their carers should also be able to enjoy the same rights as the rest of us, the right to education, employment, health, etc: In short, the right to a life of dignity that the community as a whole should be willing to fund.

People should not be denied the right to participate in education or work because they can’t afford the assistive technologies they rely upon. Nor should the lack of funds deny someone the rehabilitation treatment or the care they might require. Among my extended family and friends there are people with disabilities whose lives today would be immeasurably better if something like the NDIS had been introduced 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

Over the last year, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, has been calling for an end to the ‘age of entitlement’ – a little rich, in my opinion, from a man who was a Minister in the previous conservative government that managed to find a way to give out billions in tax cuts and benefits to those who were generally well off, but felt that providing more for the some of the most marginalised in our society would place an unnecessary strain on the budget. Hockey and Abbott expressing support for Disability Care now is terrific, but seven years ago when they were wearing the finance trousers, why didn’t they put their hands into pockets that were then stuffed with cash?

However, I do think the general point Hockey raises is relevant – we do need to think about how much things cost and who pays for them: But, I also think there is a great difference between what people see as ‘entitlements’, and what are the ‘basic rights’ of all people.

Rights are not God given, as some might suggest, they come from a recognition by humanity as a whole that all people should be treated equally, and sometimes these rights are enshrined in laws like discrimination acts to give them a little more force.

Entitlements’ however always come from government, often to promote the cause of greater social justice with things like unemployment or disability payments and Medicare. But sometimes ‘entitlements’ are given for crass political reasons in order to gain votes: A notable example being negative gearing for investment properties, which costs the government about the same in lost revenue as what it expects to raise for disability care through the increase in the Medicare levy.

The other day I overheard a very interesting conversation between two guys. One was going on about how unfair it was that his retired parents had to hide fact that they owned an investment property or two so that they were still able to get the full pension.

His mate agreed, mouthing some of the standard shock-jock arguments; ‘they worked hard all their lives and are entitled to their pension’ and of course, ‘it’s the government, they would prefer it if people sat around doing nothing, rather than trying to get ahead’. The conversation then turned to the NDIS and I leaned at little closer.

Not sure about this levy’ said one.

Yeah’, said his mate. ‘Fucking government, all they can do is raise taxes, and then waste the money.’

Now on one level this conversation is absurd, or even funny; but I suspect at its core it does offer us an insight into the thinking of many in the community. Today, is seems that nearly everyone, regardless of their needs, feels ‘entitled’ to government assistance, yet years of neo-conservative propaganda about the evils of wasteful big government and endless promises of tax reductions has meant no one is willing to pay for it.

Maybe things would be better if some of these feelings of ‘entitlement’ were balanced by greater social responsibility.

When it comes to the discussion about improving accessibility, it’s time we moved from blaming others such as governments and industry, to a greater acceptance by us all, that we need to place a higher priority on disability rights.

I think that as citizens of a civilised society we need to confront head-on that we have responsibilities, which should include a willingness to pay whatever it takes to ensure that those with disabilities are treated fairly.

I don’t know how many of you noticed the sad story a couple of days ago about how 70 millionaires, with a combined income of nearly 200 million dollars, had earned so little that they didn’t have to pay any tax at all. But, somehow they still managed earn enough to pay their accountants $33 million for creative writing services.

What they did was probably within the law, but was it socially responsible? I think not.

Unfortunately, I suspect many in the community would probably praise rather than condemn this sort of behaviour. But I am sure, that if 70 people on the disability pension were able to arrange their affairs so that they could get $200 million out of the government in one year, the shock-jocks, tabloid press, and the general community would go ballistic.

Contrary to what you hear in the media all the time, we don’t pay too much tax, when compared to the rest of the world, and it is sad that so many people think it is clever or cool to avoid doing so. It’s really very simple, without taxes there won’t be government services.

Remember Goldilocks? The pretty girl in nice clothes with ringlets in her hair who’s a little hungry and so feels entitled to help herself?

A selfish, social deviant, with little concern for the welfare of others: She breaks into the poor bears’ house, steals their food, trashes the joint, and then leaves.

A socially inclusive society is a society that cares equally for all its members.

Social responsibility requires a willingness to pay your fair share in this process.

Don’t be a Goldilocks, it’s not cool.

Thank you

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