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DisabilityCare, Geelong and the Decentralisation of Public Services

Planning for the NDIS, now DisabilityCare is coming along quite well. The only state yet to sign up to the full roll-out of the Gillard Government’s new plan for disability services is Western Australia. And just a few short weeks ago, the legislation for the funding of the disability scheme was introduced into the parliament and swiftly passed through both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

And on Monday this week the government announced that the headquarters for the government program will be in the Victorian city of Geelong. The move to base the head office of the scheme in Geelong came less than two weeks after the city took a big hit with Ford announcing it plans to cease production of automobiles in the country, a decision which will cost over 1000 jobs.

As a result of the government’s announcement, three hundred jobs will be on offer in Geelong, in what is being pushed as assistance to a town which will be beginning the transition away from large-scale manufacturing, at least as far as cars go, over the next three years.

But here we reach the first question. Is it really of great assistance to Geelong, and in particular, workers who will be leaving Ford Australia? Potentially. Some may be picked up over time by the DisabilityCare agency as they try to seek work locally. Some will inevitably retrain in another area, perhaps in public administration or disability services. But others will need to look elsewhere in Geelong, or perhaps much further afield.

What the announcement really is, in the way it was framed, is a symbolic gesture by the Labor Government, meant to appeal to the heartstrings.

Another claim put forth by the government is that it is an example of a commitment to the decentralisation of the public service. And it is decentralisation, in the sense that  the top brass in the DisabilityCare bureaucracy will not be based in the traditional heartland of the commonwealth public service in Canberra. Having a number of staff in the states and territories is also an example of decentralisation.

What this policy needs however, is a more deeply decentralised structure. Rather than simply saying that the top end of the bureaucracy should be based in one city or town or another, we should be spreading it around Australia more, on the basis of the population of each state and territory respectively. We ought to have decision-makers much closer to “the action”.

This reform is about delivering the best we can to the most vulnerable in our community. This means throwing as much as possible into a number of local areas, including major players.

Of course the CEO and some staff are going to have to be placed in one location. That is not a problem, but more senior staff should be spread around.

There are still other issues to be teased out in terms of making sure that the funding commitments aside from the levy are maintained, regardless of who is in government. And we must make sure that Western Australia joins in with the disability insurance scheme, or worst case scenario, offers a policy almost identical to the national one, save for possible improvements on how to administer it.

There is a lot still to be discussed, but the die has been cast and Geelong has secured some employment opportunities. But all care needs to be taken and in particular, lessons need to be learned, during and after the trial phase which commences in just a number of weeks.

Hopefully there will be no hard lessons in the coming years.

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.

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