Improve disability access or pay the price: Moss

  • December 11, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

The Australian Financial Review
Dec 03, 2008

Improve disability access or pay the price: Moss
Paddy Manning  

Former Macquarie Group real estate chief Bill Moss has called for a tax on commercial properties that fail to comply with new standards on disability-access to premises.

Draft standards tabled in the federal parliament by Attorney-General Robert McClelland on Tuesday are intended to codify the obligation of landlords (under human rights legislation) to provide access for people with disabilities to new buildings (or properties undergoing major upgrades) that are open to the public. These include offices, shops and government buildings.

The obligation stems from the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which Australia signed. It is enforceable through individual complaints to the Human Rights Commission.
Disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes said there were 62 complaints about access to premises in the 2007-08 fiscal year.

“Like any area of discrimination, complaints are merely the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The real issue is the daily experience of people with disability being unable to access – or to easily access – buildings in our country. Few people take frustrating experiences such as these through to a formal complaint process.”

Mr Moss, who has muscular dystrophy, retired from Macquarie last year for health reasons after a 22-year career there. He said yesterday the commission was a “toothless tiger” and access standards in Australian buildings were “a disgrace”.

Mr Moss called on all state governments to introduce a new tax of 0.5 per cent a year on the value of all commercial and retail property that does not comply with the intent of the UN convention, with the revenue to be spent solely on improving the quality of infrastructure for disability services.

The tax should be introduced on all new and existing buildings from July 1 next year, he said.
“If they fully comply, they won’t pay a tax,” he said.

Mr Moss said the proposed tax was not a new property tax but “a tax on a refusal to give equality to people who have a disability, that’s what it’s a tax on”.

“I don’t want to wait another 10 years. It is so hard in Sydney to do business with the state of the buildings we have. You can’t work in that city and go from building to building, because a lot of the buildings just don’t have disability toilets.”

When he worked at Macquarie, Mr Moss oversaw the management of global properties valued at more than $23 billion.
“We ran our portfolio in accordance with the law,” he said yesterday. “But the reality is the law has not kept up with world’s best practice.”

The property industry has been involved in discussions over the development of the new disability standards for at least a decade. The new standards, designed to be mirrored in new Australian standards and called up in the Building Code, are estimated to carry a compliance cost of $620 million a year, offset by tangible and intangible benefits worth more than $1 billion a year, according to a regulatory impact statement.

“There has been enough talk on this. It is ridiculous that the building industry is saying we may not be able to afford this, when we all know that the great wealth in society is generated out of capital growth and income from property assets.

“For [Property Council of Australia chief executive] Peter Verwer to be talking about a negotiation between disability groups and building owners is a disgrace. He should be embarrassed.

“If people who own buildings want to rent them out for a commercial benefit and they are not prepared to provide working standards, where people who have a disability can attend work, then they shouldn’t be in the business. Comply or get out.”

At Macquarie, Mr Moss was instrumental in the creation of Lime Taxis, a premium service for people with disabilities, which was subsequently spun out of the group.

Mr Moss said state governments should require all new taxis to be accessible, as occurred in London