National human rights award for Creswick’s Tony Clark

October 14th, 2023National human rights award for Creswick’s Tony Clark

Creswick’s Tony Clark has received the inaugural Kimberley Kitching Human Rights Award at the recent ALP National Conference in Brisbane, using the opportunity to advocate strongly for a cause so dear to his heart.

Words and Image: Eve Lamb

Creswick’s Tony Clark has received the inaugural Kimberley Kitching Human Rights Award at the recent ALP National Conference in Brisbane, using the opportunity to advocate strongly for a cause so dear to his heart.

A passionate advocate for inclusivity of people with disability, the Creswick-Clunes Labor branch member received the award from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

The citation on the award states: “For demonstrating an outstanding commitment to the advancement of human rights in Australia or globally”.

Deemed legally blind since the age of 20, the Creswick local was accompanied at the national conference podium by his guide dog Timmy and, in perfect timing, worked in a quick quip to assist the PM in ushering him to the lectern to accept the award.

“Take my elbow, Albo,” Clark tactfully advised without missing beat, before going on to deliver an impassioned speech to the 500 or so decision-makers in the room.

A member of the Victorian Labor Party since 2008, the Creswick local has spent much of his adult life challenging organisations, business and the Labor Party itself to be more inclusive and more accessible for people with disability.

“I took the view that I was going to use my blindness as a great strength,” Clark told delegates at the national conference that he attended with his partner Melanie Bellingham who is also a member of the local party branch.

“Those strengths are around tenacity, determination, thinking laterally, thinking outside that square, and persistence in the face of challenge,” he said.

These are all things Clark knows about first-hand.

“I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition when I was 19 and declared legally blind at 20. Tough thing for a young man of 19,” he said.

“I remember one of my greatest fears was ‘who the hell’s going to want to marry a blind guy?’

“And I did have a moment. It was with the Commonwealth Employment Service, the old CES. I’d just finished telling them I was looking for work. I had an honours degree in science in immunology.

“The response was ‘most people like you weave baskets’. I kid you not. And I have to be honest, people might not say it in those words anymore, but that’s still there. That’s absolutely still there.

“Attitude is the big thing and we all have some responsibility to think about how we can change,” said Clark who, besides his honours degree in science, also has a masters in communication, is a qualified company director, and chairs a board.

“I can tell you first hand of the passive discrimination and barriers that are out there that prevent good quality people getting jobs,” he said.

“We have higher unemployment. Higher poverty. These things have not moved for decades.”

Driven by his strong desire to see these things change, Clark has stood for Parliament three times including for the federal seat of Deakin in 2016 when he ran with the catchy slogan “No Sight, Great Vision.”

Believing that leaders should reflect the people they seek to represent, he ran for the seat, hoping to be a voice for the one in five Australians who are living with a disability. “When I got to 38, I thought: You know what? I don’t respect people who sit on the side and throw mud. I believe you’ve got to get in there… and government is what changes our community,” he said.

“It sets regulation, it sets job policies, it sets legislation. Everything comes from government and that’s where change can be made.” Although Clark didn’t win the seat of Deakin, the campaign trail nevertheless provided an opportunity for him to generously engage with the voters, the media, the ALP and the Parliament to get a fairer deal for people experiencing disability.

His decades of advocacy have resulted in the founding and formalisation of Labor Enabled Victoria, where, alongside Annie Payne, he has successfully argued the need for a Disability Action Plan for the party – a national first.

The Creswick local continues to advocate across the broader community to achieve greater access for people with disability to education, employment, economic opportunity, and healthcare.

Giving the example of the ALP’s quota system for gender equity, he is particularly keen to see quotas similarly introduced to ensure fair representation for people with disability in Parliament at state and national level.

“Twenty percent of people in Australia – one in five – experience some kind of disability. Yet we’ve only had eleven people with a disability in federal Parliament since Federation. Since 1901. It’s appalling,” he said.

Removing barriers to employment opportunities is also particularly high on his agenda for positive change.

“We are spending billions on billions of dollars supporting people with a disability and yet we are not taking advantage and grasping the value that they bring with their lived experience,” he told the recent national conference.

“I think the biggest barrier we face is perception and giving people an opportunity for a job.”

Clark said receiving the inaugural Kimberley Kitching award was “very humbling”.

“I’m incredibly humbled. It’s just Wow.”

Within his hometown the Creswick local is currently also advocating for a new scout hall.

“The current scout hall is in a flood zone and has been flooded several times,” he said.

“We want a new hall that’s fully accessible and can be used for the First Creswick Scout group and many other community groups as well. We want it to be built at a site near the train station and we’ve applied for $500,000 through the federal regional grant fund. We’re also seeking $400,000 through the state and working with our local member Martha Haylett.”

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