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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.

Games and More Games, But Where to Now for the NDIS?

The latest Council of Australian Governments meeting has gone off with a bit of a hitch. The National Disability Insurance Scheme launch sites were front and centre of the COAG agenda today with the states and territories coming together to try and win a launch site, well in most cases at least.

At the meeting today in Canberra a total of three launch sites were announced by the Prime Minister Julia Gillard. South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania managed to reach agreement with the Gillard Government to co-fund trials in their respective states and territories.

But alas, a fourth and final trial location could not be found. The states and territories who will be hosting launch sites are all Labor administrations. Those loudest in their criticism of the government over the project, from a positive interest in at least trying to find an outcome, to in Queensland’s case, not having an interest at all in contributing funds until at least 2014-15 are all Liberal state Premiers.

Western Australia a Liberal state, under Premier Colin Barnett will at least be trying out their own version of the scheme, ‘My Way’ which the federal government will have a look at to see how their experiment at a state-based scheme goes. But really, all states should just get with the same program, but points for trying.

New South Wales and Victoria, on the face of it, seem part of the way there. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced that his state had $570 million for the trial, a not insignificant amount, over half of the commonwealth allocation in the May budget which put aside $1 billion for the four initial locations for the disability scheme.

Together with Victoria, the two states with conservative Premiers put together a joint bid. Their proposal was to cater for 15,000 people with a disability with the New South Wales part of the two-state agreement to be put in place in the Hunter region.

But again money was the killer here. The Prime Minister wanted NSW Premier O’Farrell to contribute a further $70 million for the trial and the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu an extra $40 million for their states to be able to have one of the four initial NDIS service areas.

The first point is that the money that NSW were willing to bring to the table was an extremely generous sum for a scheme which the Productivity Commission recommended should be fully funded by the feds.

Second, surely each of the three parties in the negotiations for the joint bid had the ability to make up the $100 million funding shortfall between them, whether that be either of the two states or the Gillard Government, or all three sharing the extra burden.

As far as Queensland goes, with relatively new state Premier Campbell Newman at the helm, the whole situation is far from encouraging. The Queensland Premier, Mr Newman came to the meeting of Australian governments proposing to spend not a single cent on a proposal for a launch site. Interestingly though, Mr Newman brought a proposal to COAG today for a launch site to be held in the town of Gympie, north of Brisbane.

But that of course was never ever going to translate into the northern state being granted the right  by the commonwealth to enjoy the benefits of being one of the first four places in the country to see how the eventually national scheme will operate.

The overall point is that all Liberal states were playing politics. It (the funding job) could have been done. Surely too, the federal government, in the knowledge that in twelve months time they will likely not be in power and not having to stump up further funds for the essential disability policy. were also playing political games.

What was interesting today and in the lead-up to the crucial Council of Australian Governments meeting was that the Northern Territory Government, under Chief Minister Paul Henderson, a Labor administration appeared relatively absent from the debate and discussion. The motive likely the upcoming election in the Northern Territory.

So where to now for the National Disability Insurance Scheme?

While the federal government should have followed the Productivity Commission recommendation to fully fund the scheme it is clear that it will never happen that way.

But it is clear that the NDIS just has to happen. People with a disability have waited far too long for a serious attempt at a framework meeting their basic but diverse needs in a converted national approach.

Like it or lump it, the states have to alter their stance on the project to a standpoint where they are willing to contribute more whilst still pushing for the commonwealth to fund the vast majority of the costly policy.

With a likely Liberal Government at the federal level next year, it is important that their in principle support, which appears to be wavering quite strongly, is converted into real support for following the already embarked upon implementation process.

Lobby groups, the state and current federal government will need to continue to put the pressure on the current federal Opposition to make their uncertain bipartisan support a reality. Nobody wants to see an incoming Abbott Government in power suddenly baulk when faced with needing to implement a policy that the Liberal Premiers have all had varying degrees of difficulty acknowledging is important.

But again, at the same time, the current administration at the federal level must take their share of the blame for what is a very worrying juncture in the NDIS debate.

All states and the federal government need to work together more and be more willing to compromise. They all have the means to contribute something. People with a disability cannot afford to miss out with another failed policy.

Marines in Australia Not Just Good For Our Australia-US Relations

Last night the first 200 of what will eventually totally 2500 US Marines arrived in Australia amid mass media attention in the dead of night, backpacks on, firearms strapped to their bodies ready to undertake ongoing joint exercises with their Darwin based Australian counterparts at Robertson Barracks. The first Marine deployment was welcomed at the airport by the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, the Minister for Defence Science and  Personnel Warren Snowdon, the US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich and Australian Defence Force brass and other personnel.

Australia and the United States have enjoyed a particularly good relationship since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, of which our southern ocean neighbour, New Zealand is also a part. That agreement was struck in the decade after World War Two where the US fought closely with Australians, including in the northern part of our territory.

This latest announcement and the now commenced deployment will only further that defence and broader bilateral relationship between our two nations as we head toward that much talked about “Asian Century” where greater US involvement in the security and economic activity of the nation is a necessity both for America herself and for the region.

The early days after the announcement brought some public disquiet from China, a nation firmly on the economic and military build-up march toward a modern economic superpower, uncertain just what it may mean for the peaceful bolstering of the military in China that any nation expanding rapidly would see as a necessity and a reality.

Our good friends of late in our region, Indonesia also took to looking at the deal with some scepticism and worry with what a greater US focus in the region may mean for it and those other nations around it.

Yet so far both those nations have been quiet in their commentary on the move as it has begun to proceed to the actual deployment stage of troops which has now begun, with crickets now for some time, even now the talk of the plan has proceeded to action.

This seems to indicate that initial fears have now been quelled by some quiet diplomacy between all the parties, recognising that the move should not be seen as a threat the the economic advancement of any nation.

Back home though, the now commenced US troop deployment will bring Australia another benefit outside of the security and bilateral relationship that such a project fosters and helps build further. This deployment of eventually 2500 US Marines will mean great economic benefits for the Northern Territory, in particular, Darwin.

On one count it will be great for the local small  and large businesses around the base where the troops will spend their deployment, with a steady additional income stream of significant numbers now available from a captive audience of troops who will frequent local businesses when recreation time permits.

Not only that, but tourism businesses around the Northern Territory and even those in broader Australia will benefit from the substantial tourist dollars that two and a half thousand troops will bring. US troops, will surely want to visit crocodile farms, wildlife parks and even enjoy the substantial fishing opportunities that exist in the Northern Territory.

The deployment has begun and the complaints seem to have died down markedly to basically non-existent. Now all that is left is for the Australian and United States governments to enjoy the greater cooperation between our two nations and the economic and security benefits that brings. Far and above that, the immense economic benefits should not be ignored and should be celebrated along with the other equally important benefits.

The Politics of Sweaty Palms and the Live Export Trade

Another day and another shocking video emerged overnight on Lateline, showing what is believed to be Australian cattle being mistreated in an overseas abattoir. This further shocking footage has led to Animals Australia and others, including some parliamentarians getting louder in their advocacy for the live export trade to cease altogether. This comes not a year after the live export trade was temporarily shut down by the Gillard Government, under Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig, until the government saw fit to reinstate it under assurances from the respective parties, a ban that caused the industry some woes, largely in the Northern Territory.

A new package of oversight was worked on over a period of time between the key stakeholders in government and industry with a focus on processes in an attempt to ensure that the horrific images would not be replicated anywhere else in the future.

Of course these dreadfully disturbing images have now been repeated in an Indonesian abattoir, in footage just as sickening, if not more than the previous recording.

Nobody ever said, after the legislation in response to the original video, that the same sorts of images would never ever see the light of day again, would never force us to think had we gone far enough. Indeed it was always that the legislation would have an eye to improving the welfare and livelihood of cattle that Australians send overseas, to a country which slaughters their animals in a particular manner for cultural and religious reasons. To attempt as best as practicable to cut out the practises which have led to such barbaric deaths.

The question is, do we need to get sweaty palms over this and engage in the kind of politics of panic that such an event seems to invoke? Or do we deal with it in a pragmatic fashion, realising that our cattlemen need that market and that the Indonesians would be assisted in having our cattle available to them, being in relative proximity in our region?

There is a cultural and religious freedom element in this argument, as has been said in the past, the methods of slaughter are part of long held ideas about the Islamic culture. Do we seek to deny any nation that right or do we engage with them in much better ways of performing their traditions which have animal welfare firmly in mind?

Yes, we could certainly look at better ways of monitoring the supply chains and the situation in individual slaughter houses and that is probably a fair argument. However, on this count we can also go too far, by having officials in another country too often in an oversight capacity we run the risk as a nation of offending the sensitivities of the Indonesian people and in a way their sovereignty.

What we must do is ensure that there is a stronger level of training provided to and observed by all abattoirs, not just in Indonesia, but in other similar nations. We could perhaps observe more times a year than at present, each abattoir slaughtering Australian cattle and provide the kind of ongoing training and updated equipment, with the help of Indonesia that would allow for the killing of our animals to be done much more humanely on a more regular basis

What we do not need is a sweaty palms, knee-jerk reaction in panic to an horrific, but as far as we know isolated incident which would see all live trade, not just to our Indonesian neighbours, but to other nations which practise Islam cease altogether. Both not acting further and banning the live export trade altogether are harmful in their own ways for both our reputation overseas and our economy. Nobody wants to see the kinds of nauseating images we have been exposed to in recent times, nor do many want to see our live cattle not being exported. Cool heads, not clammy palms must prevail.

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