Maree Edwards is the Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in Victoria and has served in Parliament for the past 10 years. Maree is a passionate advocate for marginalized communities across Victoria and has led many inquiries, specifically into disability services.
Today, Maree shares her hopes for a more equitable future for all Victiorians.
You’ve authored many publications within the disability services realm. What drove you to research this sector and what changes would you like to see?
As Chair to the Joint Parliamentary Family and Community Development Committee, this Committee held enquires into Abuse in Disability Services, Autism Spectrum Disorder services and Peri-Natal Care in Victoria.
The Parliamentary Enquiry into Abuse in Disability Services was proposed by the Victorian Government to investigate why abuse is not always reported in disability services and acted upon, and how abuse can be prevented.
The committee consulted widely, seeking the views and experiences of people with a disability, their families and carers, disability services and other stakeholders.
The final report highlights the need to build a zero-tolerance culture supported by a skilled workforce to address the issues of abuse and made 49 recommendations.
The disability abuse prevention strategy is part of the Victorian Government’s vision for an inclusive Victoria, which supports people with a disability to live satisfying everyday lives.
This is Victoria’s first disability abuse prevention strategy and sets out actions the government will take to strengthen safeguards for people with a disability. A key focus of the strategy is on building the capacity of people with a disability to assert their rights and to act in their own interests.
Development of a new State Disability Plan 2021-2025 is underway with extended consultation now completed.
In 2020 the Victorian Government announced an additional $2.2 million in funding to support disability advocacy organisations to provide additional support during the pandemic.
These funds supported Victorian Disability Advocacy Program agencies with a 40 per cent increase in core funding and additional funds to support remote service provision. This aimed to ensure Victorians with a disability and their families could access additional advocacy support during the COVID-19 health emergency.
During your time in parliament, you had a lot of key achievements. For example, upgrading the show grounds and completing the Castlemaine to Campbells Creek Trail among others. What has been your favourite accomplishment?
There are so many important contributions that the Andrews Government has made during our six years in government including the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017, the Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Royal Commission into Mental Health, the Gender Equality Bill, investment in renewable energy, job creation, our record investment in education and health, and our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For me one of the highlights locally is the building of a new Kalianna School which is a specialist school in Bendigo catering for students aged 5 to 18 years (Prep to Year 12).
I passionately believe that the welfare and education of our children regardless of their abilities is our most important resource and that everyone has something substantial to contribute to our community.
I was also proud to Chair the Joint Parliamentary Family and Community Development Committee including enquires into Abuse in Disability Services, Autism Spectrum Disorder services and Peri-Natal Care in Victoria. I’m really thrilled that many of the recommendations from these enquires have been implemented by the Andrews Government.
The environmental strategies we have put in place as well as the appointment of Dr Gillian Sparkes as Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Victoria are important if we are to effectively tackle climate change as well achieve our target of net zero emissions by 2050.
Importantly, we established The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria which is the elected voice for Aboriginal people and communities for advancing Treaty discussions in Victoria.
As Deputy Speaker it was my privilege to be in the Chair to see through, the consideration in detail, of Victorian Assisted Dying Bill. The debate was long ̶ some twenty eight hours. However, this was an exceptional milestone for people who seek support and care at end of their life.
In the ten years you’ve been in parliament, how has the space changed for women?
Yes, there has been some advancement for women in parliament and the community but there is still much to do.
I think it is critical that family violence continues to be illuminated. It is our national shame that 49 women were violently killed in 2020. The Andrews Government is committed to preventing violence against women and children, committing to implementing all 227 recommendations made by 2015 Royal Commission into Family violence.
I am also pleased that we introduced the Gender Equality Act 2020 which will improve workplace gender equality in the Victorian public sector, universities and local councils. The Act commenced on 31 March 2021 and I very much look forward to seeing the improvements for women in the workplace.
There is still much to do to highlight the injustices and inequality that exist. Wage inequality for women will be a continued focus, as will support for our LGBTQI community, for CALD communities, for Indigenous Australians, and for people with disability.
I am passionate about continuing this work and making sure that I do whatever I can as part of a progressive Labor Government to bring about equality in all spheres.
Do you have any role models in your life who you draw inspiration from?
The wonderful and inspiring the Honourable Joan Kirner AC who was elected Victorian Labor leader in 1988 and became Victoria's first female Premier. She was a passionate feminist, a community activist and a strong supporter of state school education through the Disadvantaged Schools Program and the integration of children with disabilities within regular schools. These are areas that are very important to me. I met Joan Kirner in Parliament several times, and at various events. She always remembered who I was and which seat I represented. Her encouraging words were invaluable to me, and I had enormous respect for her achievements and her attitude to life and politics.
And of course, the Honourable Julia Gillard AC our first female Prime Minister. Among her many achievements were education reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. In 2012 she gained global fame for a speech decrying misogyny and how it manifests in numerous ways through male privilege. Gillard’s determined focus on delivering good policy in the face of enormous discrimination based on her gender was an inspiration to me.
What would be your advice to young women looking to follow in your footsteps?
The political life is not for everyone. But for me, to be elected to parliament and effect change is an absolute privilege.
Gender equality means that all genders are free to pursue whatever career, lifestyle choice, and abilities they want without discrimination. It has been shown that empowering women spurs productivity and economic growth.
Seek support to be courageous to speak out in the face of inequality, abuse or intimidation. Equality is not negotiable.
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