Bill Shorten urges Tony Abbott to reinstate disability discrimination commissioner

Five members of the Australian Human Rights Commission have lashed the government for ripping $1.7 million out of the organisation and defunding the disability discrimination commissioner role.

The commissioners' show of unity came as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten personally intervened in the matter on Tuesday by writing to Prime Minister Tony Abbott urging him to reconsider the decision.

Mr Shorten accused Mr Abbott of distorted priorities for axing the disability discrimination commissioner position after appointing former Liberal Party member Tim Wilson to a new $389,000-a-year ''freedom commissioner'' post last year.

''Disappointingly, you have prioritised the appointment of a so-called 'freedom commissioner' [Tim Wilson] within the AHRC at the expense of a dedicated disability discrimination commissioner,'' he wrote.

Mr Shorten, a former disability minister, described disability commissioner Graeme Innes as a powerful and tireless advocate for disabled Australians. ''I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision to abolish Mr Innes' position.''

Mr Innes, AHRC president Gillian Triggs, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda all questioned the removal of funding for Mr Innes' role.

Mr Innes, who is legally blind, said the decision sent a bad signal to the wider community and called for the decision to be reversed.

''What you are saying to the sector is that it is OK to have a commissioner who does not have a disability,'' he said.

''We we would never appoint a white person as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, we would be very unlikely to appoint a man as the Sex Discrimination Commisioner, we have rarely had a white person as the Race Discrimination Commissioner and we wouldn’t appoint a 25-year-old as the Age Discrimination Commissioner.''

He welcomed the government’s support for the NDIS, but said the budget placed pressure people on disabled people under 35 because their pensions would be reassessed, the Medicare GP fee would hit disabled people disproportionately disproportionately and it lacked a jobs plan.

Mr Innes, who was appointed by the Howard Government in December 2005, finishes in the role July 4.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said the commission would still tackle discrimination against people with disability ''but not to have an advocate with sole responsibility, that is disappointing''. This stance was supported by Ms Ryan and Mr Gooda and Ms Triggs.

Ms Triggs said: ''It almost certainly will be a dual position, we are not sure in which area.

''It is not a gaping hole, losing 50 per cent capacity, but it is a disapointment to lose that capacity.''

Freedom of speech advocate Tim Wilson, a controversial appointment because of his links to the Liberal Party,  declined to answer questions put to him and referred Fairfax Professor Triggs. Ms Mitchell was unavailable for comment.

Dr Soutphommasane, who originally referred questions to Ms Triggs, said he was disappointed there would no longer be a full-time disability commissioner.

A spokeswoman for Mr Abbott said: ''There was not a decision to abolish any particular position at the Commission. It just so happens that the next vacancy at the Commission is Mr Graeme Innes AM.

''There have been many dual commission arrangements in place under previous Labor and Coalition Governments.

''The Australian government is committed to providing protection from discrimination for people with a disability and will continue to provide a strong voice for the disability community under the new arrangements.''

Mr Wilson, a controversial appointment,  declined to answer questions put to him and referred Fairfax to President, Professor Gillian Triggs.

A spokesman for Senator Brandis confirmed the position was being merged and that all portfolios in the commission would continue to be represented, including disability discrimination.

The decision to cut $1.7 million over four years was part of Treasurer Joe Hockey’s push to save $36 billion over four years in the budget.

The story Bill Shorten urges Tony Abbott to reinstate disability discrimination commissioner first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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