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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.

A Tale of Two Election Campaigns and What One Means for the Other

The Australian Labor Party in Western Australia were roundly defeated at the state poll on Saturday. It would appear that the ALP have been reduced to just 19 seats in the 59 member lower house of the West Australian parliament. The WA Liberals could govern in their own right after Saturday’s election drubbing, but will not. Despite the huge win, Colin Barnett’s Liberal Party will again join with the WA Nationals to form a coalition government in the westernmost state. Together they won an estimated 40 seats.

It was not as big a win as the New South Wales Liberals experienced, nor the Queensland LNP, but it was a very significant victory for the Liberal team in Western Australia and an extra painful loss for the ALP in the state.

After such defeats – in fact, after almost all election losses, the usual questions are asked. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? Was the campaign strong? Were there external factors which influenced the result?

It is abundantly clear that there were a number of factors which, when put together, led to the election result we saw at the weekend. The electoral age of the Barnett Government was a factor as was the campaigns run by both the major political parties. The result was also undoubtedly influenced by the state that the federal ALP finds itself in.

We can learn a number of lessons from the WA result.

The first is that most political parties will almost automatically spend more than one term in government. That happened here after four years of minority rule by Colin Barnett and his team of Liberals and Nationals. But what might have shocked was the extent of the voters’ desire to see the Barnett Liberals serve out another four years in government. And in truth, the kind of result we witnessed cannot be simply explained as the electorate giving the government another chance. Voters clearly wanted to deliver much more than just another four years.

Both the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party ran strong campaigns. And both were praised in the media for their strong campaigning efforts. But obviously the Liberal Party ran the stronger campaign. It is impossible to argue against that assumption given the result. And both campaigns were also very positive and based around further developing Western Australia.

Since the results came in late on Saturday night, thoughts turned to what this meant for the Labor Party locally and nationally. Discussion, as it does after a string of poor poll results, also turned to the question of leadership. Funnily enough, there was no questioning of the suitability of the ALP leadership team in WA. Instead, talk turned to what the result might herald for the Gillard Government and its figurehead, Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

There is no doubt that the Labor brand is toxic. We discovered that pretty quickly after seeing Labor Governments fall around the country, in two cases, into a deep electoral abyss. But it is not WA Labor that is on the nose in a particularly major way, it’s the ALP in the federal parliament which people are particularly weary of.

Because it is the Labor name that is toxic, it really does not matter much about who the federal Labor leader and Prime Minister is. Even though polls say Kevin Rudd would win an election if he were to become PM again, realistically, the electoral prospects for the party are still dire. So if the federal parliamentary Labor Party heeded the calls of former WA parliamentarian Alannah MacTiernan, apart from an initial bounce and a prolonged narrowing in the election-winning lead of the coalition – there would not be the required poll surge past the opposition.

Perhaps the strangest part of the election result was the unwillingness of commentators to give much credit to the Barnett Government. The people are not particularly stupid. If they thought he was doing a terrible job they would never have given him as Premier, and his government, as much as an endorsement as they did on Saturday at the ballot box.

Saturday too was just another message for Canberra about what is coming their way in September. It has an inevitability to it. The result will cause further leadership rumbles, but whether or not the federal ALP go into a panic is yet to be seen.

It is however, unlikely.

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.

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