ZONTA Port Lincoln Women’s Breakfast

Good morning everyone, and thanks to the committee for their work in pulling this great event together, and also I do appreciate the opportunity to share breakfast with you and hope I will be able to answer your questions and meet some of you personally!

I acknowledge the Nawu people as the traditional owners of this place, and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

Today I thought I would take the opportunity to talk a bit about my background, my life as an MP, leadership and employment.

Advocacy, and my wheelchair, are inescapable parts of my identity as a politician really. Of course my wheelchair gives me the freedom to be mobile – but it is also an essential part of the story of how I became the youngest woman elected to an Australian parliament.

Unbeknown to me at the time, my political journey began when I started a campaign of advocating for a new wheelchair. I was 20 years old and was still using the same wheelchair I’d had since I was 10! And in what was not an unexpected phenomenon of the human body I certainly had done a fair bit of growing between 10 and 20 years of age – and had outgrown my wheelchair.

Although Disability SA knew I needed a new wheelchair, I had been waiting for ages to get it and I just got fed up. I was constantly having to monitor with Disability Services when I might finally get my adult wheelchair. So, I set up a campaign on Facebook and all of a sudden people from all over Australia were interested – including David Bevan and Matthew Abraham from ABC Adelaide radio, and I became a bit of a regular on their program – telling their listeners the latest update in my long wait for a new wheelchair.

In every sense for me, the personal is political. Because it is action that takes us beyond our words, beliefs and thoughts to lead us to become that more respectful, fair, and equal society we want South Australia to be, and it was through this wheelchair campaign – where I was not only advocating for my own rights but also for the rights of my peers – that I was approached by Dignity for Disability (as the party was named at the time) to stand as a candidate in the 2010 election. In unexpected circumstances I was elected becoming something of an “accidental politician”.

I’ve seen some great changes for the disability sector in the seven years since I was elected. Australia now has a National Disability Insurance Scheme, or NDIS, gradually being rolled out across South Australia by 2018.

I have been proud to play a pivotal role in creating SA’s Disability Justice Plan as a way of giving a voice to people who were voiceless. This is something very close to my heart, and to put it in a nutshell, it means that people who had previously been denied justice will now have the opportunity to give evidence, including people with complex communication needs.

It is really bringing some people with disabilities into the justice system for the first time, and I am proud to say that SA has led the way with the Disability Justice Plan, and that other states are set to follow our lead.

So in some ways, the human rights of people with disability as equals alongside our non-disabled peers in the community are slowly being recognised.

But we still have such a long way to go.

People still ring up talkback radio and ask ‘why should I have to pay for someone else’s kid’s wheelchair?’, forgetting that tomorrow they themselves or their own child could so easily become members of the “disability club” becoming dependent on others for their showers and personal care for the rest of their life. That’s the reality of it, and of course it makes me angry that such attitudes still exist.

I want to see us tackle the issues that will make a difference, not only to our lives here, but to the lives of our sisters around the world. When so many women live in poverty, our own gender pay gap – currently around 18% – pales into insignificance, but, as I know you understand, there are still many issues to be tackled at home and overseas.

And in these times of broad macro-economic change for our state, we must strengthen our local economy by focussing on the micro-economic picture – because, after all, it is the only thing we can control.

It is important to the Dignity Party that this focus includes putting people at the centre of all that we aim to achieve.

It’s also key that we plan for more people with disabilities in our workforce – and if we develop the expertise there we can market that to other states and jurisdictions.

Frankly, South Australia is the shame of our nation when it comes to employing people with disabilities in the public sector, and Dignity Party say – no more excuses, no more bullying, let’s identify and remove the barriers to public sector employment for people with disabilities now.

There are roles for people with disabilities on Boards and management committees and it is important that people feel empowered and supported to take on these roles – whether paid or voluntary. The old disability activism saying of “Nothing About Us Without Us” comes to mind as a very important catch cry that describes why people with disabilities must always be involved in decision making processes at every level.

Of course getting people with disabilities onto boards and into leadership positions is important, however we also need to create a culture in which people with disabilities are also free to take on more ‘ordinary positions’ as well, after all it takes all sorts to make a world.

As someone who has written and performed in plays, one parallel that comes to mind is the push to have more disabled actors.

I encourage this, and I think it is a noble goal, however there is more to a great production than a leading lady or man, and wouldn’t it be fantastic to have more people with disabilities working in the theatre behind the scenes, doing the technical work of set construction, lighting, music, costume, graphic design and so on, and especially taking on the creative work of writing and directing plays and films which portray us well.

I think there is a role to legislate for quotas to get some serious job creation for people with disabilities happening, and this may be necessary if government and corporate sectors don’t increase their level of employment of people with disabilities, but I would see that as a short-term, kick-start policy.

Legislation, policy and obligations are, however just a small part of the puzzle. I just cannot emphasise enough that it is the shift in attitudes leading to broader cultural change that is vital.

I believe that both the Government and media in Australia have a role to play. I see that they can work to demystify disability and promote an alternative narrative.

In Australia, there are some businesses that specifically employ people with disabilities, called Australian Disability Enterprises, or ADEs. Their main industries are packaging, landscaping, recycling, cleaning and manufacturing. These usually offer part time employment, and currently they employ twenty thousand people.

In 2014, one hundred and sixty people moved out of an ADE job to work in open employment.

I am sure that many, many more people currently employed in ADE jobs could also transition to the open employment market, and I feel that paying them the pittance of an hourly rate they get in an ADE is cruel and insulting.

It is my fervent hope that this type of employment is phased out.

More needs to be done to encourage employers to employ staff with disabilities. There are already some wage subsidy incentives in place, but this needs to be adjusted to encourage longer-term employment.

There is strong evidence that people with disabilities are loyal employees, taking fewer sick days than their colleagues and overall having lower absenteeism rates.

Employing people with disabilities works on both a social and economic level, because it has been shown that increased diversity in the workplace leads to measurable bottom line business benefits.

The Australian Network on Disability states:

“The benefits of employing people with disability are immediate and measurable.

An Australian Government review of research found that workers with disability are no more likely to be injured at work than other employees.

Similarly, studies conducted in Australia and overseas have found no differences in performance and productivity, and found that employees with disability actually have fewer scheduled absences as well as increased tenure.

On average, employing people with disability does not cost any more than employing people without disability.

Assistance with the cost of making workplace adjustments is available through the Australian Government funded Workplace Modifications Scheme.”  

So, if an employer is looking at two potential employees, and one has a disability, statistically that person will be more loyal, and take less leave than the other candidate. These statistics need to be widely available, it is a story we need to be promoting more.

In Australia, we have an ageing community; it is estimated that four in ten workers will be aged 45 or over by 2020, that’s just three years away!

We know that disability increases with age, so clearly there are some significant workplace implications with this ageing workforce that will increasingly, by definition, include more people with disabilities.

Australia is also facing skills shortages, and economically, our employers and service providers simply cannot afford to ignore this substantial market segment of the community.

The most significant barrier for people with disability, however, continues to be stereotypical assumptions and attitudes of employers about what people with disability can and cannot do.

It is clear that people with disabilities must have equal work opportunities and equal pay when they perform work of equal value.

We also need systems in place to provide technical and vocational guidance, ongoing access to vocational training, support through adequate and appropriate placement services, work experience through the open labour market as well as ‘on-the-job’ support and training.

But not all of what needs to change is centred around the person with disabilities, because we need to overcome these barriers of ignorance in the community, we need to identify the thoughts that are preventing some employers from taking on staff with disabilities.

The education system at school and university level needs to be including modules on understanding people with disabilities.

We need to de-mystify disability and ensure ongoing disability awareness training in both the public and private sector.

And can I add there, disability awareness training needs to be more than box ticking, and if I may be frank: bum covering, and “cut and pasting” disability access and inclusion plans.

Valid, respectful disability awareness training is what’s needed. And it can be very well done by people with disabilities, also known as experts in the field!

This is something that I rarely do, but because it illustrates the point well, I just want to share with you a couple of examples from my constituent case files.

1          The first concerns a young man, university qualified, who couldn’t find work in his chosen field and was sent by a job network provider to work at a smallgoods company. His role there involved 4am starts, working in minus centigrade conditions, pushing 220 kilogram trolleys loaded with meats.

He ended up getting repeated chest infections, and his Dr recommended he cease the job. Despite being totally unsuited to the job, he persevered and worked there for 7 months. In working hard to gain a very good university degree, he expected to find meaningful work in an office environment. This man has chosen not to be identified as having a disability.

2          Another constituent (a wheelchair user) told me:

“I was left in the building on my own for over 45 minutes while hydrochloric acid was pumped through the air conditioning after a maintenance mistake. Every other worker in the building was evacuated.

A senior manager told me that I shouldn’t have a job due to my disability, and she forced me to print and deliver hard copy reports to her, although my able bodied colleagues only needed to email her the same reports.

I was required to perform the same tasks, with the same level of responsibility as my teammates while being classified at a much lower level I had higher qualifications than any other member of my team.

At work, I was responsible for allocating approximately $1.8 billion dollars. I had been working there for approximately 7 years, first joining the team as a graduate. I was classified as an ASO2 for the entire time (earning 51 thousand dollars per annum). Until my equal opportunity commission complaint when I was increased to an ASO3. My colleague was an ASO5 with no qualifications. Everyone else within finance with a university degree like me was a minimum ASO6 (earning 86 thousand dollars per year).

I took my dispute to the equal opportunity commission and attempted conciliation. Throughout this time the department threatened to withhold my severance package unless I withdrew my complaint.

Because I made the complaint I’ve lost my career. I’m hoping you will warn others and tell them to reconsider when thinking of making a discrimination complaint.

The commission withdrew funding because the Department made an offer to settle out of court. I wanted a ruling, because I wanted it publicly known that what happened is not acceptable. If I accepted the settlement there would have been no record that what the department did was wrong.”

That person, and I think of them as a brave person for what they did even though it was to their own detriment, moved interstate for a fresh start at building a career from the bottom rung of the ladder.

These are just two stories, there are too many more. These are recent examples from our own state, one a public sector role, one a private. Despite my constituent’s plea, I do not discourage people to take complaints about discrimination to the appropriate body.

So, having shared a bit about who I am and what I’m working on, I would like to turn now to what is important about leadership.

And I do warmly commend ZONTA for the ongoing role they take, both in empowering women from a wide range of backgrounds and becoming empowered yourselves in the process.

Leadership, to me, is about responsibility and connection. It can only really exist through co-operation and agreement with others.

Leadership is not simply a one-directional thing, because at times I think even great leaders need to become followers. They need to know how to step back into the shadows and allow others to shine.

Bringing people along to see the world the way you see it is not generally an overnight process. I encourage anyone who has an aspiration to be regarded as a leader to reflect on what it is that would draw them to see someone else’s vision before they expect anyone to share theirs.

I think that working through co-operation and collaboration with others creates the opportunity to share leadership.

To give you an analogy, based on my pre-politics life in the theatre, it takes an ensemble to put together a show, and having a moment in the spotlight as the leader or star doesn’t mean that is the only place you can be…

Moving back to wait in the wings and allowing others to shine, to display their jewels of talent and develop their leadership potential is in itself an act of leadership. I’m up for a society that works that way, respectfully, co-operatively.

It may be a cliché, but focussing on communication skills – and these days of course the ways we communicate are myriad – but as an example really getting back to basics and thinking about how we practice the art of listening – really deeply listening for the meaning that people are giving us, as well as being mindful when we respond to their words, is really important.

In what I think I can describe as playing to the gifts of my own personality, I find it a great strength to employ an empathetic approach in all my interactions with others.

And as far as leading a team goes, well there will be all the inevitable ups and downs of human existence over a period of time, and coming at these challenges from an empathetic standpoint is one way of giving people the reassurance and acknowledgement that we all have a lot in common.

Recognising the weak spots within your own skill set is useful, this can lead to noticing the abilities of others that mesh with your strengths to form strong partnerships.

Women, especially have come under pressure to show we can do it all ourselves, when really I see that greater strength lies in working out how best we can share the load.

There I go again, airing my humanity – and that is something that I don’t want to shy away from, the empathetic approach to leadership.

Valuing diversity in the community needs to be much more than “box ticking” – because unless we can move beyond a tokenistic engagement with people from diverse backgrounds, we risk falling into the trap of only using them as examples to fulfil our own needs.

There’s a useful adage that: “you can’t be what you can’t see” and I think that there are many levels of dysfunction in our society that sadly mean that good, strong, positive role models are lacking in some people’s lives.

When it comes to my own situation, I hope that young people with disabilities – whatever their politics may be – will see that fulfilling the role as an elected member of parliament is something that they too can do.

In my work as a parliamentarian, I am contacted daily by people in crisis – often due in part to the disproportionate chunk of their lives people with disabilities spend battling bureaucracy just to gain fair access to the world.

My primary goal is to make myself redundant…and this goal will be reached when having a disability in South Australia no longer constitutes a full-time job.

In every sense, I exist in my current position as a member of parliament to ensure that we get the paradigm shift both within government and the broader community that results in a deep understanding of what it does… and does not mean to live with a disability. It is about changing society by breaking down those attitudinal barriers.

So, from what I have seen, it seems that even with the best will in the world, far too many people involved – and that includes people within the health, community and disability sectors – do not respect the rights of people with disabilities. The personal is political, I think there are three keys to improving our society: “fairness, innovation, and respect”.

Fairness –  because we all deserve a fair go.

Innovation –  because we need to find the synergy of creative solutions, and

Respect – because it doesn’t matter whether or not you can help someone, showing them respect means we can all hold our heads high.

In conclusion,

In order to seize the power to change your society, look first to yourself, then to your neighbour and find ways of connection and co-operation. Because we are all in this together, and as active participants in our community, whether we happen to be leading or following, we need to take every opportunity to set ourselves the highest standards.

The personal is political, and it is only our action that will move us beyond our words, beliefs and thoughts to see us to become that more respectful, fair, just and equal society we all want South Australia to be.

I want to see a South Australia where the energy is palpable, where creative, thoughtful problem-solving culture thrives. It’s pointless to bemoan the fact that our young people are moving away – we need to support and encourage them to make this the place where you want to stay! Encouraging young people to have a go in business, and guiding them to get started is a fantastic way that we can grow a culture of success here.

Thank you so much for inviting me! It’s so nice to be here. I’m very happy to take questions, but if you have a question, and it doesn’t get asked or answered today, you are very welcome to email me later.

That’s it from me for now!