Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Matters of Public Interest
National Disability Insurance Scheme
Before I launch into the speech that I have prepared, I would like to associate myself with Senator Scullion's remarks. I agree wholeheartedly that Bill South made an enormous contribution to the advancement of Aboriginal Australians. He appeared before the Senate community affairs committee inquiry into the Stronger Futures bills last year. Without consulting the committee, I think it would be fair to say that he gave the most impressive evidence. Everyone was most impressed with his evidence and also the way he talked about and shared what the community at Robertson River had been doing. It really is outstanding. I know he played a key role in getting it started, and the community will continue to drive it.
I rise today to talk about some critical national programs that I have spoken about on many occasions during my time in the Senate. One of those is the National Disability Insurance Scheme, now known as DisabilityCare, and I want to talk about the importance of delivering on that scheme. I was pleased to see in the budget that there is an ongoing commitment to rolling that out. I was, however, really disappointed when I opened the budget documents and saw every state and territory listed except my home state of Western Australia. All the other states and territories must be so proud that they have now signed up and are able to deliver care and support to meet the needs of those living in their state with a disability, their families and their carers. Unfortunately, I cannot do that. I cannot stand up and say this program is also going to be delivered in my home state of Western Australia.
Our Premier has decided that WA does it better anyway, so he wants to hold out. That is actually holding out on delivering care, services and support for some of the most vulnerable members of the Western Australian community. I have admitted in this place on numerous occasions that WA does do it better than most states, but this hides the fact that there is a huge list of unmet need in Western Australia, that the people have in fact stopped applying for support packages because they are capped and because they are so used to being told no. I have described in this place before the race to the bottom that occurs. In other words, your story and your experience has to be worse than anybody's on the list so that you will get part of that mega-funding. So not only have people stopped applying; they do not apply in the first place when they hear how hard it is to get some support.
I strongly urge the Western Australian government to build on the good track record that we have and deliver a truly national system of disability care—it used to be called the National Disability Insurance Scheme—so we can truly say that it is national. I do not think it is beyond the wit of our Premier and our state to be able to ensure that Western Australians will enjoy the same benefits through this scheme as everybody else, to not hold out and to ensure that we sign that.
I have been very careful to consult on this issue with people with disability in Western Australia. I did that in particular during the Senate inquiry into the bills which passed through this place in March. Some providers, in particular, said—and fair enough—they were a bit nervous because this was a whole new change to the system and we needed to be ready. I really listened to that. And then I asked the people with disability themselves whether they wanted the scheme. The overwhelming response was yes. Did they want it as soon as possible? Overwhelmingly, yes. Did they want WA to be part of it? Overwhelmingly, yes. WA has helped lead the excellent campaign Every Australian Counts. WA has been a critical part of that. Does that not say strongly enough in itself that people living with disability in Western Australia do want to be part of a national scheme? So I am very strongly supportive of their calls also to ensure that WA is part of that scheme and builds on the positives that we have in Western Australia—because we can do it better.
Another area where I am keen to see the states continue their input and continue to step up to the mark is the area of Aboriginal health—in particular, the Aboriginal Health National Partnership Agreement or, as it is also called, the Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes agreement. I referred to the agreement in this place yesterday in speaking on a motion that went through the chamber in March. As we know, this is a critical component of the effort to close the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and non-Indigenous health outcomes. It is really important not only that this has adequate funds but that it is implemented in accordance with nationally agreed strategies to meet nationally agreed targets.
This particular agreement outlines some key priority areas which all states and territories have agreed to address as part of their Closing the Gap agenda. These including tackling smoking, primary healthcare services delivering effective services, fixing the gap in the patient journey, having a healthy transition to adulthood, and making Aboriginal health everyone’s business. Making Aboriginal health part of everybody’s business is absolutely critical to delivering on health outcomes if we are genuinely going to close the gap. This is a nationally agreed priority and there is an agreement on these targets.
On the cusp of the funding running out in June, I was really pleased to see in the budget last night that the federal government has committed to another round of funding beyond the allocation that was made previously. The original national partnership agreement and deal that was struck with the states in 2008 was worth $1.58 billion over four years, to which the states and the federal government made a contribution. The Commonwealth's contribution was slightly more than that of each of the states, at around $201 million.
I note from the budget documents that the new federal contribution is $777 million, which is $259 million per year over the next three years. This cycle of funding has been reduced compared with the previous cycle. This contribution again needs to be matched by the states. So far, as I understand it, only Victoria has given an indication that they will commit further funding. I understand they have committed around $61 million, yet there is no partnership; we hope they will commit to a national partnership.
It is absolutely critical, if we are going to address Aboriginal health and if we are going to close the gap, that we have a coordinated national approach. This has been well recognised. We do not want to see this become a political football and watch stand-offs again between state and federal governments, the way we have seen in the past on some other issues. We believe that Closing the Gap is a program that everybody has already pledged to support and we hope the new agreements and new funding cycle will be followed up very quickly now that a new Commonwealth commitment has been made to funding. We need to see the partnership negotiated with the states as an absolute priority. I hope that all governments, state and federal, are prepared to undertake that negotiation as a matter of urgency.
On the issue of securing stability, as I touched on a moment ago we are concerned that there has been a move back to three-year funding arrangements. This unfortunately is different from the acknowledgement that the Commonwealth government made just last year, when they locked in funding to the Northern Territory for 10 years. I have to say that that was on the back of the punitive approach under the umbrella of Stronger Futures. While I have made very plain in this place that we do not support the Stronger Futures approach, believing it is a punitive approach, I said at the time and I will say again that locking in and confirming delivery of 10 years of funding is a positive approach and was strongly supported by community based organisations in the Northern Territory. We do not believe it is appropriate to fund that on the back of the closure of other programs. One thing we need to carefully do is go through the budget documents to make sure that funding has not been taken out of one funding source to transfer to another, as happened for the funding for the Northern Territory.
When we consider the funding it is helpful to reflect on some research that the Healing Foundation published just recently, within which they note two critical factors that funders of genuine healing programs need to be comfortable with, including long-term outcomes, because healing work takes time. We acknowledge that, because we have said that we need a period of time to fix the gap in life expectancy; that is why we have set 2030 as the target for ending the gap in life expectancy. The agreements acknowledge that in the first place. We need to ensure that is reflected in the way we fund these programs. As I said, this work takes time, both in terms of establishing programs that respond to the community healing needs and in terms of seeing change with individuals and communities.
We also need to address the issues around uncertainty, because healing empowers people in communities to make their own changes, and therefore the pathways and individual outcomes of healing cannot be readily known in advance. In other words, we need to be empowering, supporting and trusting the community in this process. This is a powerful summary of the challenge and the opportunity that is required in working in genuine partnership with Aboriginal communities. Is the government prepared to take on the challenge of working in genuine partnership not just with other states but also with the Aboriginal community and particularly with individual communities?
The report that I quote from is a report prepared by KPMG and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, often referred to as 'the foundation', which provides program design guidelines for healing centres for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, drawing on both existing knowledge and practice in Australia and insights drawn from international experience. Healing centres have been identified by experts in the field of mental health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as a promising approach to realise the many social and economic benefits of increased cultural, mental, emotional and physical wellbeing—among them reduced youth suicide rates. This is a very promising idea, but I am concerned that it may have been slowed down yet again because so far I have not been able to identify ongoing funding for the Healing Foundation and for these healing centres in the budget papers.
Their work is critical work that forms part of the apology to the stolen generations. While I was critical of the fact that there has not been, and there is still not, compensation for the stolen generations, we did acknowledge that funding for this type of healing work is very important and needs to be ongoing. As I have said, I have not been able to identify in the budget papers ongoing funding because, like many Aboriginal programs, funding for this program ends this financial year—in other words, in the not-too-distant future. We believe that we need to continue to fund this very important work that provides for the futures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is very important that we invest long term into these programs, because we know that we have a huge task in closing the gap, which in some communities is a difference of 17 years in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. If we are really committed to closing the gap by 2030, we need to commit to long-term funding and not take two steps forward and one step back, whereby we provide long-term funding for some programs and not others. We change our mind and give some people four years' funding, three years' funding, two years' funding. We know from reports that organisations are overwhelmed by the number of separate grants, the different reporting cycles, the different grant cycles, the different funding cycles. We need to commit to long-term funding for programs that we know are going to work and help close the gap.