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We Must Remain Vigilant

The National Disability Insurance Scheme, now renamed DisabilityCare is a step closer to becoming reality after the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman signed an agreement with Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Brisbane. The agreement confirms the funding commitment of both levels of government to the disability scheme.

The deal will see Queensland contribute $1.9 billion dollars over the next decade and see the disability reform starting to emerge in 2016, before it is fully operational in 2019-20. In signing up, Queensland now joins New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory as signatories to the funding arrangements. That leaves Western Australia and the Northern Territory as the only governments still to put ink on the page.

Understandably, excitement is growing about the future of disability care in Australia and that has accelerated with each individual agreement reached between the state and territory governments and the commonwealth. People with a disability around Australia, their carers and families, are slowly rediscovering a long lost hope, that their needs might be sufficiently met by government. Of course there is going to be palpable excitement. Of course there will be some celebration.

But we need to be very careful about how we view recent events. As advocates and supporters of this much-needed reform we must not allow ourselves to get too swept up in the emotion of important days like yesterday. There is no doubt that commitments like that agreed to by Julia Gillard and Campbell Newman are a big step forward, but a lot can still go wrong between now and 2018-19. In fact, there is a need to continue to be cautious until well after the scheme is fully operational across the country. Things can still go a bit pear-shaped.

The first, but most surmountable roadblock is getting the recalcitrant state of Western Australia and the Northern Territory to agree to a funding commitment for the rollout with the commonwealth.

Western Australia wants to sign up but wants more decentralised control of the scheme in the state and that is fair enough, because service delivery should be based on a largely decentralised bureaucracy. Negotiations between WA and the federal government will continue and a resolution of some sort appears inevitable. But caution is still the order of the day here and both the state and the commonwealth must continue negotiations with an open mind and a desire for compromise on the specific issues WA has with the policy.

The Northern Territory will also need to get the pen out and sign a deal with Canberra for the full rollout of DisabilityCare. The NT Government just recently penned a deal to have their own launch site in the Barkly Region. In light of this, realisation of the funding for the full commitment surely cannot be too far away. But again, all possible eventualities must be taken into account, including the negative ones. even though 6 of the 8 states and territories have agreed to terms with the Gillard Government.

Bilateral agreements aside, there is still the issue of where the commonwealth, even the states, will get the rest of the money for the disability insurance scheme, despite the commitments to fund the scheme. At present the agreements are simply words between two parties and in the interest of making sure DisabilityCare happens, the positive developments must be viewed with the utmost wariness until the full policy has actually commenced.

The Opposition too, who will almost certainly be in government come September, will need to be pursued just as relentlessly over its commitment to the NDIS. There is bipartisan support but it means nothing until we actually see the policy up and running.

Finally, we must continue to run a critical eye over the policy even when it is operational. There may be shortfalls in standards of delivery and even funding and we should not be particularly surprised if either of these possibilities arises. In fact, it is completely within reason to expect that both problems may exist, though hopefully the  launch sites will allow enough time to remedy most, if not all potential issues.

With the agreements signed to date between commonwealth and state and territory governments, about 90% of Australians with severe and permanent disability and those that look after them can now have a little more hope.

We need to make sure over the coming years that the agreements are transformed from words on a page to deeds.

Gap Between NDIS Idea and Reality Narrowing

A not insignificant breakthrough has been achieved in the journey toward a fully-funded National Disability Insurance Scheme. The Gillard Government and New South Wales have reached an agreement on joint funding of the full NDIS, due by 2018-19. The deal brings the full scheme closer to fruition. However, there are still challenges which will need to be overcome before people with a disability can say with absolute certainty that the National Disability Insurance Scheme is going to happen.

Under the agreement the federal government has agreed to fund 51.4% of the cost of the scheme to NSW, with the state government set to fund the remaining 48.6%. Under the deal, in dollar terms, both the state and federal government will contribute over $3 billion to the scheme, with the commonwealth providing $3.319 billion and New South Wales $3.133 billion.

From financial year 2018-19, the major disability reform, under the Commonwealth-NSW agreement, would see 120,000 disabled people in the state have their needs met by the NDIS.

To have the biggest state by population being the first of the states and territories to sign up to the full disability scheme is a sizable coup. What the deal means is that 120,000 of the over 400,000 set to be covered by the full disability insurance scheme now have their future assured, at least on paper.

The announcement does not assure that the NDIS will go ahead, but it does provide a level of hope that has not yet been experienced by people with a disability, their carers, families and advocates.

There are another 5 states and two territories which will need to sign onto the scheme for the national project to go ahead.

The NSW deal could provide a catalyst for other states getting onboard with the disability reform, either when they meet with the Prime Minister at the Council of Australian Governments meeting tomorrow, or at some stage in the future after tomorrow’s COAG.

Today Queensland Premier Campbell Newman appeared to have changed his political tune about the reform, saying that he and his government are “very interested” in a deal like the one Barry O’Farrell and Julia Gillard reached today and that it is “very attractive”. He did however say that at this stage his government did not have the funds for the implementation of the policy.

Western Australia are at present looking at their own trial of a similar scheme to the NDIS, but they too could change their tune tomorrow when the Premiers and Chief Ministers meet at the COAG table.

And Victoria, a state closely aligned with New South Wales in terms of political allegiances could easily agree to follow the lead of the O’Farrell Government when the Council of Australian Governments meets.

It would appear likely that the state Labor Governments which have signed up to the trial will be prepared to sign on the dotted line, providing their formal support for a fully established National Disability Insurance Scheme.

An argument raised today, as it inevitably is when there are major reforms announced, is just how believable and enduring the agreement between the Australian Government and NSW will be.

It is true that the agreement lacks detail at this stage and that it might fall victim to politics. Six years is a long time away and governments, state and federal may fall in the meantime.

The agreement however is a commitment from the O’Farrell Government of New South Wales, that it can and will find over $3 billion dollars to fund a fully operational NDIS. Some of that will come from the approximately $17,000 per person that is spent at present by the biggest Australian state. The rest, the NSW Government has today agreed, will be found elsewhere in the state budget.

Even less of a worry is the prospect of a change of government at the state level.

In the event of a Labor administration taking power in New South Wales by fiscal year 2018-19, it would be unlikely that you would see them walk away from the O’Farrell commitment to help fund disability services. Indeed, it would be a politically stupid government that would choose to walk away from a commitment set to benefit so many people.

The prospect of more states agreeing to deals like the one between New South Wales and the ALP Government too might actually help the deal endure.

It is true that the commonwealth government will likely be a different one in 2018-19 and that in itself could provide problems even though the NDIS is the subject of bipartisanship.

Whichever side of politics is in power during the year 2018-19 will need to act on the NDIS and by then will well and truly be in a position to do so.

The next move or set of moves may come tomorrow, or some time in the near future.

The pressure from the disability lobby must remain strong. There are still five states and two territories which need to commit funds and the advocacy work cannot cease, even after the scheme is operational.

It’s International Day of People with Disability

Today, December 3rd is International Day of People with Disability. This worldwide day has now been running for 20 years, beginning as an internationally recognised day sanctioned by the United Nations. It is a day when disability should be in the forefront of the mind’s of policy-makers around the world. It is a rare day indeed.

But this year there is cause for some hope. For once it is not a blind optimism, far from it. A fully-funded National Disability Insurance Scheme is getting closer and closer. Five launch sites have been agreed to and funded jointly by state participants and the federal government.

At the same time though, the NDIS is far from a fait accompli. People with a disability, their carers and broader families, as well as disability services organisations need to keep the pressure on during the remaining years of this decade. We must do in order to ensure that government works towards allocating what will be upwards of $15 billion dollars a year towards the most important disability reform in the history of our nation.

International Day of People with Disability, as far as Australian domestic politics is concerned, is about much more than just ensuring that we have a well-funded and well-coordinated system for disability support.

This international day, according to the website is also about forging, across the global community, a broader “understanding” and acceptance of people with a disability. It is about how the broader population recognise the challenges that people with a disability face in both the poorest of countries and the wealthiest.

The day is also about other simple measures of a humane society. The International Day of People with Disability is also about trying to secure some of the most basic human rights.

Today is about making sure that we give people with a disability a level of dignity. Just as importantly, it is about pursuing and cementing the rights of the disabled and doing what we can as a society to guarantee the basic well-being of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

Finally, the day is about integrating people with a disability into society, rather than leaving them at the margins with little support or understanding.

Believe it or not, Australia as a developed nation actually has a long way to go in the way that people with a disability are treated. Among OECD nations, Australia is failing our disabled people.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers from late last year made for some truly sad reading.

In that report it was found that 45% of Australian’s with a disability were living on or near the poverty line. Far from on its own being a damning statistic, that number places Australia 27th out of 27 developed nations in terms of being at risk of, or in poverty.

It does not get much better in terms of employment prospects for people with a disability in Australia.

It was found that Australia is ranked 21st out of 27 nations in relation to employment. Only 31% of disabled Australians were found by that report to be in active employment.

With Australia faring so poorly in providing for its disabled community, then one can only imagine how those in the poorest of nations are coping and today is as much about their plight as it is about our disabled people.

Today is a day when all governments, including our own, must pledge to do better, much better in the area of policy development for people with a disability.

In terms of what Australia can do, well, there are two things which are particularly urgent.

The first is to do significantly more in terms of access provisions.

With or without a National Disability Insurance Scheme, access will still be a major issue for people with a disability. Better access provisions will mean more economic participation can be achieved, in conjunction with all that the NDIS will provide. Better access would also mean increased participation in a range of activities that most in society take for granted.

The second most significant thing that needs to occur is a better understanding and importantly, a deeper acceptance of disability. This is particularly the case for businesses, but also government and society in a wider sense.

This means highlighting abilities and not impairments. Too often, negative perceptions of disability cloud the judgement of otherwise bright people and this simply has to stop.

If we focus too much on the NDIS and what it will bring, then we will be neglecting our duty to remind policy-makers that there is much more to be done in the area of policy for the disabled.

We do however appear to be on a somewhat promising path.

Lessons From the Paralympics That Have Been Learnt and Can be Harnessed

The Paralympics have now been over for a bit over half a week. They were a top-class event put together by a masterful organising committee that also had responsibility for that other successful major event, the Olympic Games. Australia did so well. We put together the most successful touring performance of any Australian Paralympic team in history. That performance put us just two gold medals and a number of silver and bronze behind the strongly-funded hosts, Great Britain and just four golds and a handful of minor medals behind second placed Russian Federation.

But far from the phenomenal medal-winning performances and that of all the athletes across all nations involved, the London 2012 Paralympics have taught us some valuable lessons which can be harnessed to facilitate lasting change when it comes to the politics of disability.

Firstly, London put on an amazing show, on an unprecedented scale. These were the highest selling Paralympic Games ever. That mantle looks sure to be safe for quite some time too, perhaps never to be broken, ever. Nearly all of the two and a half million tickets allocated for the Games in London were sold, that makes a huge change to the usually relatively empty stands that our Paralympians tend to have to deal with every four years.

This says that London and Europe in particular “do” disability very well. It shows that people there view disability much more favourably than the much discriminated against and stigmatised disability community here in Australia. This could be a product of many things, but clearly disability and difference experiences a much greater degree of acceptance across Europe. That’s not to say things are great over there, disability has experienced cuts as the economic woes continue in that region.

A large contributing factor is probably how the welfare state is viewed in Europe as compared to Australia. There is less of a stigma to it in that region of the world. Those who rely on it are not discriminated against as much and are viewed as needing it and entitled to it, more so than Australians who tend to view welfare, even for those who cannot avoid it, with a level of disdain.

What the great spectator turnout at the Paralympics also shows is that disabled sport now appears, at least in Europe as just as elite and requiring just as much training, skill, ability and overall sporting prowess as the “able bods”.

But far from the lessons we can learn about Europe and how they view disability, we can also look at how they were viewed back here at home in Australia.

That story is almost as positive. As I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games from London consistently brought strong ratings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s digital channel, ABC2, as well as the original channel, ABC1. That means Australians were more than willing to give the Paralympics a go and the relatively consistent ratings throughout proves that people continued to be enthralled by the exploits of our elite athletes.

It shows that, as I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games have the ability to transform how we view disability here in Australia, not just the sporting abilities of those with impairments, but also how disability is looked at within the broader community.

The efforts of our Paralympians must be harnessed by disability advocates in order to continue to foment change in such a neglected sector of the community. It shows that the efforts of supporters of those with a disability may well not be in vain, that there is a positive view of disability that is growing across Australia. That growth may be slow, but it is something that can be pushed along just that little bit faster by displays such as the Paralympics. Stigmas are hard to break, some would say impossible, but you certainly couldn’t say that after the last two weeks.

Australia and the world is learning and learning fast about disability. But that means absolutely nothing if the lessons that have been learnt over the last two weeks are not actually used to further the interests of people with a disability. It would be nice if Australia could aim to be more accepting of disability than the Brits showed. You could call it the ‘Ashes of Acceptance’, since we love beating the Poms so much at contests.

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