Ministers, representatives of disabled people’s organisations, distinguished delegates.
It is indeed an honour to be here today.
I’d like to thank our partners — the Government of New Zealand — for hosting this forum.
And I would particularly like to thank the Pacific Disability Forum for organising this second regional conference.
I met with Setareki Macanawai of the Pacific Disability Forum and Frederick Miller from the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Canberra in February.
They urged me to continue the leading role Australia plays as an advocate for inclusiveness.
I didn’t need much convincing.
Australia is a strong supporter of national development that meets the needs of all citizens.
I congratulate you all on the achievements of the last three days, with your focus on promoting actions on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [CRPD].
This conference demonstrates progress is being made across the Pacific to improve the lives of persons with disability.
Disabled people’s organisations, many of whom are represented here, are working with their governments to drive change for all citizens.
More children with disability are going to school and more people with disability are earning an income.
But what is also abundantly clear is that we cannot stop here.
We have a long way to go and we need to continue to work and act together to drive this change for a more inclusive region.
Disability-inclusive development in the Pacific
The Australian Government is committed to making sure Pacific Islanders with disability are included in, contribute to, and benefit from our aid program.
As Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister stated on the floor of our parliament in December 2008 when we, as a government, marked the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights —
“[Australians] believe in a fair go for everyone, everywhere, and that belief in a fair go means that as a nation we seek to make a difference and support human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world and at home…”
One of the most important ways Australia can help to advance human rights is to work with you and your governments to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and an inclusive society for all people with disability.
We are certainly working to do this.
In July 2008, the Australian government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Fulfilling the promise to make a practical difference, in November 2008 — we committed to a new aid initiative entitled Development for All: Towards a Disability Inclusive Australian aid program 2009-2014 .
Two years on, we are seeing progress as people with disability are benefitting from increased access to education and scholarship programs, more accessible public infrastructure, stronger disabled people’s organisations, and having a voice in the global development debate.
But I’d like to share my observations on three key elements that are helping to progress this issue.
The first is strong political leaders, because it’s clear that stronger leadership and collaboration between governments and civil society organisations across the Pacific is driving change.
Annual forums like this one are testament to this, as was the close involvement of your organisations in the development of the Pacific Regional Strategy on Disability.
In 2009, at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Cairns, Pacific leaders acknowledged in the Forum Communiqué that more attention needed to focus on people with disability.
They agreed a regional disability strategy needed to be developed in partnership with Pacific disabled peoples’ organisations and an associated plan of action for implementation was required to bring about change for Pacific Islanders living with a disability.
And at the first Forum Disability Ministers’ Meeting in the Cook Islands in October 2009 this strategy was endorsed — for the first time — with many of your organisations included as a formal part of country delegations.
This is evidence of active leadership and partnership at the highest level that will change the future for Pacific Islanders with disability.
I acknowledge and congratulate your efforts as leaders and drivers of change in this process.
Australia played a supportive role in these forums and will continue to do so, building on the work of Bob McMullan, the recently retired Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance.
As you know, Bob was a strong advocate for change in Australia’s aid program.
I want to continue in the direction he set and look forward to working with you over the next four years as the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat implements this strategy.
I also encourage you to continue your leadership, advocacy and actions as civil society leaders.
Can I take this opportunity to congratulate Pacific Island countries that have already ratified the Convention — Cook Islands and Vanuatu.
In congratulating Vanuatu, I pay tribute to the life’s work of that great regional campaigner for the rights of the disabled, Andy Lynch.
We all miss her dynamic presence here today.
I also note that three Pacific Island Countries have signed the convention - indicating your intention to ratify — and that many countries have national disability policies in place.
These are good foundations for us to work together to build a stronger and more inclusive Pacific.
Last week, in Papua New Guinea, I held a roundtable with the National Advisory Council on Disability which included members from the disability community, government and non-government organisations, churches and service providers.
The Government of Papua New Guinea, itself, is committed to signing and ratifying the CRPD this year and I was pleased to be part of discussions about actions taking place on the ground.
The second element is to ensure that we really do see action on the ground.
Because on its own political commitment and leadership is not enough.
We need to translate these commitments to action at the national, provincial and local levels.
We need to see real changes in the quality of life for people with disability in the community.
And there are great examples of this.
In PNG, I visited a Special Education Resource Centre run by the Red Cross.
Here children and adults with hearing impairment and their families are taught sign language to enable them to communicate, go to school and work.
And, where resources allow, children are supported to learn in mainstream schools and are taught vocational skills that enable them to work.
I met former students of the centre who have returned as teacher aides and are now supporting younger students gain an education.
Former students who now have jobs have progressed to supervisory positions in their workplace.
These students are ambassadors for, and an asset to, their country.
This is just one example, but it is a good one, of how actions on the ground are improving people’s lives.
As Parliamentary Secretary, I have been privileged to visit every member country of the Pacific Islands Forum.
I have witnessed the efforts of Pacific countries, many represented here, to address the barriers faced by people with disability to participate fully in community life.
And I have seen how the Australian aid program, and that of New Zealand, is helping countries to address these barriers — be it in the area of education or sport — more people with disability are being active citizens in their country.
In Samoa, during my first visit as Parliamentary Secretary last October, I had dinner with a number of Australian volunteers at the Australian Ambassador’s residence.
Sitting next to me were three inclusive education advisers who were in Samoa on volunteer assignments as part of the Australian Government’s $1.3 million Samoa Inclusive Education Program.
One of those was Rebecca Visintin.
Rebecca was working as a speech and language therapist at Aoga Fiamalamalama, which is a school for children with disabilities in Apia.
Rebecca told me how determined the students were to learn and go on to get a job and participate in their communities.
She also told me how committed the school, government and supporting organisations were to the education of those children and how the school used innovative methods such as role plays and visual prompts to teach the children.
Rebecca told me how valuable the school has been over many years in the lives of those children—helping them to participate now and into the future.
It wouldn’t surprise anyone here for me to say that Australians love their sport.
Pacific Islanders love sport, too, so it’s an easy fit for us to build people-to-people links in this area and do more for people with disability.
Through the Australia Sports Outreach Program, the Fiji Paralympic Committee and the Australian Sports Commission we are working to improve the quality of life of people with disability through sport.
Current and former athletes with a disability visit schools, train with children and help raise awareness among communities of the value of including people with disability in sport.
The program is enabling around 1,000 children in special education centres in Fiji to participate in sport — many for the first time.
I’m particularly excited about this program because of the potential for sport to highlight people’s abilities: what people with disabilities can do.
Which brings me to my third, final and most important point.
Not only do we need political leadership and actions on the ground but we also need to hear the voices of people with disabilities.
Hearing the voices of people with disabilities
Our collective understanding and efforts in ensuring development reaches and benefits people with disability have been bolstered by the strong cadre of leaders with disability in the region.
These people play a key role in guiding AusAID’s and your government’s work
I note the very important partnership Australia has with the Pacific Disability Forum and New Zealand Government to work with your organisations and support your voice and actions as leaders and advocates for Pacific Islanders with disability.
For too long we have not heard your thoughts, your ideas, nor benefited from your knowledge, your experiences and your contributions.
With nearly 1.4 million people with disability across the Pacific and PNG, to not hear your voice is to make the entire Pacific so much the poorer and weaker.
I have seen the impact your voice has had in creating real change in the lives of people with disability in the Pacific and I urge you to continue using your strong voices to achieve a fair society for all.
Through Development for All, Australia will continue to work in partnership with the Pacific Disability Forum and the Disability Rights Fund to support your voices locally, nationally, regionally and internationally.
I should note that Seta is a member of AusAID’s Reference Group which includes global and Australian leaders in disability, and which is playing an important role in helping to guide the implementation of the Strategy.
The Pacific region is getting stronger and your development efforts are reaching those who have been excluded for too long.
While there is progress, we need to do more to ensure rights are real for all people with disability.
I encourage your continued leadership, in partnership with the Pacific Islands Forum and Pacific Disability Forum, to support your governments in ensuring people with disability are included in national development.
The Australian Government stands ready to support Pacific countries to assist people with disabilities to access their rights.
I also make a personal commitment to use my position to raise the profile of disability as a development priority in the Pacific, to urge governments to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and to use the convention to guide action in all areas so that the rights of people with disability are realised in every community.
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