A few months ago as I was walking through the Melbourne CBD, a visibly inebriated woman kicked out towards my elbow crutch and yelled “Can you get your stick out of my way before I shove it up your fucking arse?” The man who was with her sniggered. None of the other peak-hour pedestrians saw fit to intervene.
The woman did not make physical contact with me and probably never intended to do so, but I was left shaken all the same. My balance has been compromised by multiple sclerosis; if this woman’s mock-kick had happened to hit the sweet spot, it could have caused significant injury. But worse than the threat to my physical safety was the reminder that for some people, my disability (possibly compounded by my racial otherness) is sufficient grounds for harassment, abuse and even violence.
Having come close to being treated as a football in the most literal sense of the word, I am more than on board with Scott Morrison’s plea for “disabilities not to be used as a political football” during the election campaign. Or at least I would be on board with it, if the Morrison government had not been playing a particularly cynical game of football of its own.
Morrison’s launch of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People Living With Disabilities finally delivered on one of the key recommendations of the 2015 Senate inquiry into the issue. Morrison no doubt hoped that his tearful speech with the brother-in-law who lives with multiple sclerosis sitting in the background (“to Garry, this is for you”) would trademark the royal commission as his personal initiative as he embarked on an election campaign haunted by the ghosts of prime ministers past and aspiring.
However, the disability advocates and organisations who had lobbied for the commission for years are pointedly referring to it as “our royal commission” and are determined not to relinquish ownership of the investigation into the abuse committed against them.
Celebrations over the launch of the royal commission have not reconciled disabled people to the decision to scrap the planned hike in the Medicare levy in order to fund the NDIS on the dubious grounds that the budget was now so healthy that it could be funded from other sources. Once again, Morrison cited the endorsement of brother-in-law Garry, who he said he had phoned with the good news before making the announcement. However, an adequately funded NDIS allows people to select their own service providers and liberates them to report the type of abuse that the royal commission is scheduled to investigate.
Over 60 disability advocates and organisations have called for John Ryan and Barbara Bennett to step aside from their role as royal commissioners “due to the real, perceived and potential conflicts of interest arising from their past roles” in the disability sector. Ryan oversaw residential programs for people living with a disability in New South Wales, while Bennett oversaw various disability-related schemes in her role as Deputy Secretary of Families and Communities branch of the federal Department of Social Services. The experience that Morrison cites as an asset for their roles as commissioners is exactly the factor that arguably makes them unsuitable for the job. Ryan’s reassurance that the judge overseeing the inquiry will prevent any such conflicts from arising and that he will stand aside during any investigation of projects over which he had oversight has not assuaged concerns from the community.
Any remaining brownie points that Morrison had managed to gain with the royal commission launch were squandered by Peter Dutton’s crass accusations that his ALP opponent for the seat of Dickson was using her need for wheelchair accessible housing as an excuse for not living into the marginal electorate. Morrison defended Dutton by telling us that he had accepted his Home Affairs Minister’s “humble apology”, that he doesn’t want to see us used as a “political football” and by yet again citing his disabled family member.
I was left feeling humiliated and vulnerable by the abusive incident with the woman who threatened to assault me as I walked through the city, but Morrison and Dutton represent a far greater threat to the interests of disabled people like me. Morrison can take his faux sympathy and (to borrow a phrase from the woman who abused me in public) shove it up his arse.