The Day the Steel Melted

Julia Gillard once spoke of having been a shy, reserved child who had grown a shell hardened by the rigours of politics and who had learnt the arts of ”holding a fair bit back, and hanging tough”.

”If that means people’s image of me today is one of steely determination, I understand that and I understand why,” she said in 2011.

The steel melted on the floor of Parliament on Wednesday morning. The determination dissolved into tears over her meeting with 12-year-old Sophie Deane who lives with Down Syndrome.

Introducing legislation to raise money for DisabilityCare Australia, Ms Gillard’s usual firmly-controlled demeanour abandoned her as she recalled the meeting. ”She took my photo,” the Prime Minister said.

In Queensland, she had spent time with a 17-year-old boy named Sandy who was burdened with a disability similar to cerebral palsy.

”When I met this young man he handed me a card signed by him and his mates to say thank you for what we are doing for people with disability – a card illustrated by the photo Sophie had taken a week before.’’

The fresh memories of those recent encounters loosened something within Ms Gillard.

Her voice wavered and became so raw she could barely make it to the end of her speech. ‘‘In years to come,’’ she said, ‘‘DisabilityCare Australia will ensure Sophie and Sandy and so many other young people will have the security and dignity every Australia deserves.

‘‘Over the past six years, the idea of a national disability insurance scheme has found a place in our nation’s heart. In March, we gave it a place in our nation’s laws. Today, we inscribe it in our nation’s finances.’’

The Prime Minister’s voice was by then all but beyond her command. The ranks of Labor MPs behind her seemed silently will her on. The Opposition benches before her yawned almost empty. The Prime Minister’s hands fluttered about as if seeking something that might steady her.

‘‘The people who’ve gathered here today from around the country to witness this debate knows what this means,’’ she whispered.

‘‘DisabilityCare Australia starts in seven weeks, and there will be no turning back.’’

Ms Gillard sought her chair but did not sit. She appeared dazed, shy, uncertain. Alone.

She was rescued by Disability Reform Minister, Jenny Macklin, who reached out and embraced her. Sophie’s mother, veteran disability campaigner Kirsten Deane, said she was not surprised her daughter had made an impression on the Prime Minister.

‘‘One of the things we’ve always said about Sophie is she’s quite unforgettable. She’s just like all the other 12-year-olds you know and just like every other 12-year-old she was really excited to meet the Prime Minister.’’

For Ms Deane, the budget, which set out a 10-year plan to fund DisabilityCare nationally, is the fruition of many years of hard slog.

‘‘Today is a really really important day for the country, because it means finally kids like Sophie and Sandi will get the support they need to get out there and do the things that they want to do,’’ she said.

Read the full story... (off-site)
National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)

Tony Wright

The Age

Date published:
Thu 16th May, 2013