The National Disability Insurance Scheme needs a closer look

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There are many facets of the NDIS that could be working better (Screenshots via YouTube - edited)

With the election looming, now is a good time to examine how the NDIS is being managed by the Government, writes Michael Thorn.

IT IS NOW ELECTION SEASON and all kinds of polling matters. While regular two-party polling over the past several months has shown the ALP dominating the Libs, a couple of weeks ago there was a “blip” against the trend. The Coalition Government celebrated an IPSOS research group poll showing them trailing the ALP 51-49 on a two-party preference vote. While the Coalition was still presented as second best, the IPSOS poll did suggest for a fleeting moment that the floundering present-day Coalition Government could keep within electoral reach of the opposition between now and the time of voting.

It was an isolated poll that ultimately bucked a greater trend of fatalistic polling for the coalition; a subsequent Newspoll happening a week later reverted voting tendencies back to type with a coalition-annihilating 53-47 per cent. If there was one thing to learn from this past month, it’s the pecking order that the Fourth Estate holds to with the parade of polling brands and importance towards the actual poll results as second. Otherwise, the later worldwide reaction to the activities of a locally-born clergyman snuffed out any remaining attentive goodwill to be sieved from the IPSOS poll. So, we’re allowed to name George Pell as a convicted paedophile now? Cool.

Instantaneously, the centre-to-far-Right-wing hackdom received the IPSOS poll result as heartening news, the result seen as a glimmering indication of an electorate now observing a moment of failure from the ALP. It is safe to say that from this point until the end of this year’s election, any behaviour from House of Reps crossbenchers that can be construed as an act of authority over the ALP (particularly from “Mean Girl” women crossbenchers) will be desperately jumped upon by the conservative press to be presented as ALP weakness.

This prevailing media narrative of strength, power and overt sexism – and major party wants and wishes to revel within this narrative if it gets them votes – seems to be a theme that the Australian public responds to, that is if the present rhetoric from the usual suspects of conservative journalism is to be believed.

Whether one believes it or not, what this coverage does is at least push the attention towards the machinations of the powerful — the mythology of a powerful Australian democracy that is not beholden to minor intrigues. When the Australian Federal Government is seen as performing, might does become right. Such is the nature and self-aggrandisement of the Canberra politico-bubble, a condition that even our present PM gives a subservient and open respect toward.

While this narrative still serves a government desperate to perform whatever trick is needed to remain competitive for the upcoming Federal Election, it also adequately places shroud over other contemporary policy failures. Which brings matters to the contemporary policy known as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Commencing via a gradual rollout on 1 July 2013, with it to be completed by 1 July 2020, it is far from clear that the NDIS is effective in achieving its near-revolutionary aim of providing universal access to those in need. For those who have been observing, alarm bells regarding the NDIS rollout started to become loudest in 2017, with concerns raised in the mass media by researchers, government agencies, clients and various stakeholders on how the NDIS has been implemented nationally. 

These concerns coincided with two key documents examining the NDIS rollout — one being the 2017 release of the NDIS Productivity Commission Study Report, with major and well-publicised findings including the scheme falling behind schedule and falling under budget due to its under-utilisation by incoming NDIS clients. The second key document was a May 2018 study by Flinders University, giving a critical account of client experience of the NDIS and low levels of demand met by services.

Given that the NDIS rollout commenced more than five years ago, now should be a better time than any to examine if the current administration is handling the rollout effectively, especially since it is election campaign time. There are now NDIS clients and carers that have lived with this scheme for several years and their stories should be heard in relation to the future development of NDIS, with respect to the scheme’s original intentions of universal coverage. This is especially important since there are now accounts of people being turned away from the NDIS with new guidelines suggesting some likely applicants are not "disabled enough" to access it. This should really be a national scandal, but it is not.

Nor should the efforts of key advocates of NDIS be ignored by Canberra, including the activist group Every Australian Counts, the work the Australian Services Union has undertaken towards advocating for improved NDIS service policies and industrial regulations for NDIS service providers, and the presence of debate and critique on the NDIS through podcasting, e-articles and blogging as emergent communicative mediums. Articles are also beginning to emerge that challenge the market-based principles of NDIS and the service contradictions this creates when providing care for people with disability.

Such accounts help to open the debate on NDIS past the policy domain and into other more accessible social forums, creating alternative solutions, and thereby seeking to challenge current administrative approaches being undertaken toward the NDIS by the Government and the future alternative Government later this year if typical polling trends are to be believed.

The sounds from these disparate community groups are the hallmarks of a rising social movement asking for a better administration and undertaking of NDIS, just in time for this year’s election. We need to listen to this with concern and not be distracted by the boringly gaudy lights, crashing sounds and public fear inducement exercises of a Canberra that is grinding into election mode.

Michael Thorn is a union delegate, long-time worker within the community services sector and aspiring activist writer.

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