When repression and injustice become orthodoxy then resistance becomes duty.

A response to – “Five degrees of separation: Why standards will not ensure quality in disability services”.

Written late 1990s. Not published

Michael Bleasdale and Rosemary Kayess have correctly pointed to the reliance of the States, Territories and the Commonwealth on Standards as a tool for improving disability services: and that governments have moved away from a rights focus to a bureaucratised delivery system. The passion for disability rights which was the hallmark of Don Grimes (the Minister) and Netta Burns (his Principal Private Secretary) and the people who worked with them to introduce the Commonwealth 1986 Disability Services legislation has receded.

However accurately Bleasdale and Kayess have described the separation of Standards from rights inspired outcomes it seems to me that the standards issue is not the most important one. Before I explain why I think that let’s take a Cook’s Tour of the process of government.

Governments respond to issues which the party in power sees as important to address:  for example, Family Trusts and tax avoidance by the super rich generally are not seen as pressing issues whereas one young unemployed person failing to attend a Centrelink Office to fill out a form soon finds out that the entire weight of government is available to force compliance. This is the policy quaintly named ‘mutual obligation’.

The standard response of Government to an issue which they see as important to address:  is to decide if the activity is to be promoted or repressed.

Either way the issue being addressed becomes conceived of as a problem: there is either too little of the approved activity, for instance not enough leaders of industry are involving themselves in St. V de P or too many single mums are luxuriating in ‘welfare dependency’.

  • Once the issue has become a problem for government then government must do something:
    legislate for or against the activity,
  • or regulate the activity.
  • If it can’t legislate it might try leaning on bureaucrats: Fraser and Viner made it harder for the unemployed without changing the legislation simply by stepping up their ‘dole bludger’ rhetoric.
  • Howard and Newman have managed to more than triple the number of unemployed people who have been breached in the last 3 years without substantial amendments to the legislation.
  • Howard and Newman too, have just increased the intensity of their ‘dependency’ rhetoric and relied on those who are desperate to oblige in Centrelink and the Jobs Network to cut people off payment.
  • So when it comes to the Disability area the question which needs to be looked at is: What is the issue being addressed by GOVERNMENT?

In 1986 the issues which Don Grimes and Netta Burns were addressing was firstly improving services to people with disabilities and secondly enshrining the rights of people with disabilities in legislation . The Labor Government did this directly by legislating, regulating and setting out guidelines for the behaviour of service providers and agencies. It did it indirectly by funding advocacy agencies.

One and a half decades later the legislation has not changed much, the regulations have not changed much and the Standards (guidelines) have not changed much. But there has been considerable change. Many of the super agencies are no longer capable of totally dominating the lives of the people they purport to serve. Brokerage and other forms of single delivery options exist and some advocacy organisations remain. Group Self Advocacy as a concept is alive and well. The tyranny of the sheltered workshop has been replaced for some by the tyranny of adjusting to the demands of a private employer whereas others who have been displaced from sheltered employment are entirely excluded from the workplace.

The inmates have become client then customer then the raw product of the disability service industry. Whatever their status someone always made/makes a quid out of their impairment.

And Government was there too; making savings, ensuring accountability and enforcing compliance with the legislation, with the regulations, and with the standards of the disability service legislation. If this was not enough there are all the requirements of the multitude of Tax Acts, State workplace legislation, the Federal audit provisions. To make it a bit more complicated the various levels of government often insist on different reporting periods and different statistics being kept on clients and services.

On top of this there is competitive tendering, under-funding (in the guise of accountability) and massive pressure not to criticise the Minister, the Government, the Department, or anyone else who might be friends of the Minister or the Government. All this has drawn many service agencies and some advocacy agencies into a corporatist structure in fine German tradition. It is little wonder that the jackboots of some bureaucrats click when ever the Minister is displeased.

Michael Bleasdale and Rosemary Kayess are correct. Governments have moved a long way from focussing on the rights of people with disabilities to be treated equitably. Governments have moved a long way from focussing on delivering decent services to people with disabilities. The plethora of regulations, standards, service agreement, contracts, tender processes, secrecy provisions, and all the rest are designed to make the third sector (the non-for profit sector) a pale image of the companies against whom they now compete. The inordinate involvement of church agencies in the Job Network, aged and disability services is designed to displace the symbol of worship from God to mammon.

The issue which the Federal Government is currently addressing is no longer the rights of people with disabilities but rather it is compulsion. The Federal Government initiated, funded and dictated McClure Report on “Welfare Reform” proposed that people with disabilities should be compelled to participate. The Government is concerned to compel disability service agencies to compete among themselves to a point where they are often exploiting their workforce, their volunteers and their clients. But above all the Government is determined to compel the agencies to be silent. Government wants the issue of disability disappeared. It wants people with disability silenced.

This silencing of the agencies is an attack on the civil rights of people with a disability. Now, at least as much as ever before, there is the need for people with disabilities to speak out, to refuse to be pushed out of electoral sight. The present Federal Government is not going fund advocacy agencies to speak out against the daily injustices inflicted on the decarcerated ex-inmates of mental hospitals trying to survive in run down boarding houses or the inmates (with intellectual disabilities) incarcertated in overcrowded prisons.

It’s time to insist on a new form of mutual obligation which recognises that when an unjust system of compliance is implemented each of us has a duty to resist. There is a need for an independent disability monitoring and advocacy service explicitly designed to enforce decent service provision for all people with disabilities. Such an agency would have to be provided with secure funding for at least 5 and hopefully 10 years or governments would quickly tire of its complaints against the system and close it down. Such an agency is only a real possibility if sufficient political momentum can be generated by people with disabilities, the disability industry and citizens who desire to live in a socially just society.

In the meantime whilst the existing legislation, regulations and standards have some utility in promoting the wellbeing of people with disabilities they are an inadequate response. They amount to little more than governments’ efforts to defuse disability as an electoral issue. They are the smokescreen which hides the failure of all levels of government to build a society which enshrines as a central feature the equitable treatment of all people with a disability.