Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Alliance and Momentum

The National Disability & Carers Alliance is currently holding its two-day conference in Melbourne. The Alliance, comprising service agency peak body National Disability Services, Carers Australia and the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO), is running this event to further the conversation about the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme.
With an attendance reported to be in excess of 1000, I had imagined this might have the look and feel of a rally, like an American political convention with people wearing colourful hats and waving flags. Indeed, all the speakers appeared to give enthusiastic support for the proposed national scheme, beginning with assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten and continuing with productivity commission Patricia Scott, Parliamentary Secretary Jan McLucas, opposition spokesperson Mitch Fifield, Greens senator elect Richard Di Natale, and other enthusiastic speakers, including impressive voices from the advocacy sector such as Rosemary Crossley, Sally Richards, Damian Griffis and Stella Young.
However, it wasn't a procession of uncomplicated enthusiasm; there were plenty of people at the conference bearing the battle scars of previous policy discussions that did not deliver true and helpful change. Such scepticism is important because, although the Productivity Commission’s draft report is very encouraging, it is only a report, and the fact of its existence does not give certainty that it will become reality. Many architects have poured their hearts and souls into designs for buildings that never got built.
What is important is the message from the Productivity Commission, through Patricia Scott, that disability support should be regarded as a core responsibility of Government. This is a huge point and goes to the heart of the issue; if we believe that people living with disability have inherent value as human beings, and therefore should have access to the same opportunities as fellow citizens, then it is the core business of the government to ensure this is advanced and upheld.
Similarly, Patricia Scott noted that in the Productivity Commission's proposed model the individual person living with disability is front and centre. This is also a huge point as it is the definitive first step in formally dismantling a system of human services that, despite good intentions, has systematically depersonalised and commodified the people who come to it for assistance.
While there will continue to be a diversity of views about aspects of the proposed scheme, the nature of choice, perspectives on market forces and a host of other elements that might attract passionate debate, here is an opportunity for people in the disability community to find their common voice, for in that common voice lies perhaps the greatest hope for helpful change.
This was highlighted by Bill Shorten who declared that since his move to the portfolio of Assistant Treasurer he has lost none of his passion and anger for the issues he learned about when he was Parliamentary Secretary for disability. I am aware that, along with 999 other delegates, I missed the opportunity to ask Mr Shorten what specifically he might do in his Treasury role to help the Productivity Commission's recommendations come to fruition. Just like Charlie in the chocolate factory, Bill in the Treasury could, should, help good things to emerge.
Perhaps in anticipation of such expectations, Bill Shorten put out a three-word challenge to the delegates; discipline, perseverance and unity. The Productivity Commission completes its work in July but this is no guarantee that its recommendations will be taken up. If I read Bill Shorten’s challenge correctly, people in the disability community need to focus on the common good will that we might all see in a National Disability Insurance Scheme. Like a successful alliance during times of struggle, the focus is on the shared bigger picture, a common goal.
In which case, the most important thing right now is to build momentum, to give the big picture - a national scheme of individual funding entitlement - a life beyond the Productivity Commission. To paraphrase the plea from co-convenor Bruce Bonyhady, tell your friends. And tell them to tell theirs.