Australia has a long history of feeding the disabled through a meat grinder

I’m finding it hard to get mad at Pauline Hanson. Over the past month she’s publicly contemplated whether or not the government should set up West-Timor style internment camps for Australian Muslims, continued her push to drown every capital other than Canberra by ignoring climate change, supported piss-testing the poor due to their class status, and torn apart the good reputation of Queensland politicians by being absolutely shithouse at hiding her corruption.

But the reaction to these proposals and behaviours pales when compared to the immediate backlash caused by Hanson mumbling to the senate a proposal to remove autistic children from schools, and the insinuation that the cost of educating them was being paid by ‘normal’ students who don’t get enough time with the teacher. By days end the Greens and Labor were digging their heels into her, while the LNP tried as hard as possible to disapprove of Hanson without articulating her actual proposal.

As a haver of autism myself, I felt kind of numb to it. I am, of course, morally repulsed by the concept of schooling run on social Darwinism. But when you consider what has been thrown at Australia’s minority of the intellectually disabled, and in many cases the greater disabled community as a whole, a proposal such as Hanson’s simply seems par for the course.

The LNP tried desperately to separate itself from Hanson without mentioning what she actually said – possibly because the last thing the Coalition wants is to bring up where it stands on the disabled and, namely, if they should be treated like human beings or money sinks.

Take the maiden speech of Minister for Social Services Christian Porter. The press gallery hemmed and hahhed over the political games at play, whether this was a man on the up-and-up, someone to replace Malcolm after their last moderate showpony imploded when he took the throne. Every disabled person, however, noted what he tweeted just before this clear showboating, since it spoke his agenda far clearer than any self-congratulatory prose directed square at the IPA ever could: ‘Disability burdens taxpayers $17 billion a year’. If you’re disabled, there are a couple of coded words you start to notice when folks are getting ready to fuck you over in a manner betraying basic humanity. ‘Burden’ is number two, beaten out only by ‘invalid’. And wouldn’t you know it, right after began the great purge, in the style of what we just saw in the UK.

In 2014, the same language was deployed by banal butcher David Cameron, which was followed by a tightening of rules to disability support requirements. Chemo patients were sent off into the streets resumes in hand, the autistic thrown out by landlords, and wheelchair users told a toe twitch made them perfectly capable of heavy lifting. The estimated death toll came to tens of thousands, worked to death or starved of special needs required to function.

So naturally, it was this plan that the LNP has adopted in its effort to slash everything that doesn’t line the pockets of themselves and their friends. In 2016, Porter’s department proudly announced that tightening disability requirements had successfully booted 34,000 people off the program, not to mention blocked countless others from enrolling. Considering that this went down at the same time as the Medicare freeze, a policy that has decimated rural Australia in particular, this can only be considered a nightmare. It was also the perfect time for Scott Morrison to take the NDIS and hold the policy hostage to attempt to pass further draconian welfare cuts that, funnily enough, would have fucked over the disabled anyways, by starving them of funds for four weeks post-application – but what’s a starving disabled person if no-one can see them? And what good is school for a disabled person if you’re just doomed to starve to death as soon as you leave the classroom? All of this for payments that don’t even break the poverty line.

Being forced under the poverty line is tough, but there’s enough wriggle room in the Australian government’s claim to simple want to reduce excess spending that one could reach the conclusion that this isn’t an attack on the disabled. After all, these are hard times (they aren’t) and we all need to give (some don’t).

But what truly pushes the limits are the deportations. Since 1958, the Australian Migration Act has allowed for the refusal of applicants who have a health condition on grounds that they would be ‘burdensome’ (there’s that word again) on the Australian taxpayer. What this amounts to in practice is a total blanket ban against the disabled obtaining residency in Australia for anything longer than a summer holiday. And it’s not like this is some forgotten scrap of legislation lost to time and memory. 1992’s Disabilities Discrimination Act gave explicit exception to the Migration Act to allow it to continue what verges on eugenic practices. And boy has it seen use since then. The number of applications rejected stretch into the hundreds (this figure does not include those who are already in the country when their applications are rejected).

Just earlier this year we learned the story of Sumaya Bhuiyan, a 16-year-old suffering from autism spectrum disorder. Sumaya had lived here for eight years with her mother, Dr Hague, which is kind of an unfortunate name to have when you become the centre of a human rights issue. Hague’s work visa was close to expiring, leading her to file for another in order to stay in the country. As part of the visa process, Dr Hague and Sumaya were made to take a health test; Sumaya did not pass. Australia’s response was to tell Hague to get her affairs in order and organise transport out of Australia within 30 days of visa expiration. The case was only reversed when it hit the headlines to national outrage.

Which is all well and good, until you discover that advocacy groups have been receiving tearful letters from folks targeted by this policy every single year. Since at least 1992, our government has routinely subjected those who have travelled from elsewhere to give to Australian society a cost/benefit analysis, and if for that quarter the potential cost of that individual is more than current benefit, they are ejected. This is the kind of action a government in a heavy-handed dystopia novel would take – and speaks volumes about how our institutions think of duty of care. If you are not able to be exploited for the benefit of those on the top rung of the social ladder, there is no place for you here. One of those great Hawke/Keating reforms.

But the most extreme form of Hanson-style discrimination is saved for young girls with intellectual disabilities. Sterilisation of people like us has been practiced by at least three quarters of the world, before either being abandoned or leading to the transformation of the state into a fully totalitarian nightmare. The same cannot be said of Australia, which took about 70 years after introducing spaying human beings to think up the Pacific Solution and fully embrace the ideals of Suharto. In order to stop the potential abuse of a someone with a disability, most countries adopted laws around sterilisation stating consent can only come from the patient (not a guardian on their behalf), unless it is the side-effect of an urgent medical procedure required to save said person’s life. In 1992, Australia declared fuck that, and made it so consent can come from the parents without the child being aware what is occurring, or if a court deems it necessary after reviewing the case – in both cases, even when the patient is capable of consent.

States have been permitted to handle record-keeping of sterilisation procedures in whatever way they see fit, resulting in a cavalcade of inaccuracies, errors, and refusals to cooperate. As such, we don’t really know how many people Australia has gone sexually repressed Nurse Ratchet on. The available records put the number of sterilisation since the ruling at 350–400, but independent studies have but the number at 1050 just between 1992 and 1997. The reasons guardians have given for pursuing such an option have ranged from ‘helping her cope with menstruation’ to ‘she couldn’t handle a child if she got raped’ to ‘I want to keep her our small and innocent angel forever’.

Our legislature has been given the opportunity to protect the intellectually disabled from treatment Penhurst staff would consider horrific. But we only know about this forced sterilisation program because, after massive pressure from People With Disability Australia, Women With Disabilities Australia, and the Human Rights Council, an inquiry into the practice was launched in 2012. The recommendations from when it concluded a year later included making it illegal to sterilise someone who has the ability to consent without their permission (which seems like it should have been a thing before) to blocking people from simply flying their kid out, having the procedure done overseas, and flying them back in.

But it did not offer a ban to the practice. Why? ‘The very, very constrained way of doing this, of forced sterilisation, was the better option,’ LNP Senator Sue Boyce explained. In case you want a response with actual substance rather than something a child clearly not listening in class says when called out, committee chair and sitting Greens Senator Rachel Siewert declared that ‘to make a clear ban (on sterilisation) outright, you also ban people’s rights’. To live in a country where you can’t even have a doctor effectively spay a person because they have downs, well that’s simply unthinkable.

Since then, the UN has called for an end of the practice of forced sterilisation because it violates the convention against torture. But as this declaration came shortly after Tony Abbott’s ‘please stop telling me to stop all of the torture, it’s really bumming me out’ outburst, and that Australia has only grown more proficient in torture since, it’s safe to assume this aspect of disabled life will remain a threat.

While the LNP are the reigning champions of treating the disabled like fleas carrying the plague, it’s worth remembering that our friends in the ALP aren’t much better. That inquiry was set up during the Gillard government; Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, and Rudd all deported the costly sick; and then there’s the issue of labour rights. In 2016, the intellectually disabled won a landmark victory: after years of being paid $1 an hour in return for their labour, a class action suit on behalf of 10,000 workers with intellectual disabilities were awarded $100 million in backpay from Australian Disability Enterprises, the government-supported agency that employed them. It was a landmark victory, and a national alarm that the protections for disabled labourers desperately needed to be strengthened. Hundreds pressed for an inquiry into the state of labour rights for people with disabilities in Australia, including members of the ALP. But, when the Greens introduced the idea in the senate, the ALP sided with the Coalition in rejecting it.

Now, we don’t even know the extent of the problem, only that such an issue does exist. But, on the backs of the treatment of workers by 7/11, Dominos and Woolies, it’s clear that workers’ rights are not on the table for any party.

Government in Australia has always seen us disabled peoples as an albatross around its neck, existing solely to bring down the excellence of others. Hanson is just one of the scant few both stupid enough to say the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet. So long as our institutions of government are shipping us out, or having us spayed like unwanted dogs, or justifying their starvation of us as cost-effective and pragmatic, I cannot be that anguished over the fact that one of our assailants didn’t bother to pretend this attack was anything otherwise. If anything, I’m glad that this time, the façade of necessity to abandon moral duty is being seen for what it truly is: a cruel attempt to pit the most vulnerable against each other.


Image: The Grinder / Kalle Gustafsson

Bee Spencer

Bee Spencer is a transgender writer interested in environmental issues. She holds a bachelor of science from the University of Melbourne and enjoys hailstorms.

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  1. Hello. I read Overland regularly and came across your article on refugees/turn back boats etc., which led me to this article. Thank you for your enlightening me on two topics I knew little of, and for giving me a deeper insight into these subjects. Also, I offer my congratulations on your writing and your no-nonsense style of journalism/analysis.
    All the best with your future.
    Merlene Abbott

  2. Hello. I read Overland regularly and came across your article on refugees/turn back boats etc., which led me to this article. Thank you for your enlightening me on two topics I knew little of, and for giving me a deeper insight into these subjects. Also, I offer my congratulations on your writing and your no-nonsense style of journalism/analysis.
    All the best with your future.

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