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WA should not rush to dump disability model

Originally published by David Gilchrist on 18 April 2017 in The West Australian.

People living with disability in WA bear the risk of any service model. Unfortunately, this risk has recently increased because we are once again tossing up between a national model and the current WA arrangements.

The national model is a risky venture because we don’t know how it will look at the end of the day. The risk to WA is that we give up a known entity and a bilateral agreement that stacks up well against other States and Territories, when the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.

Of course, the WA Government needs to assess its options as it tries to take initial steps in managing the State’s financial predicament. Premier Mark McGowan is quite rightly looking at priorities across all portfolios, recently foreshadowing a priorities review.

However, there are some compelling reasons as to why the NDIS question should be made part of that priorities review, considered in the light of all programs, and why time is on the Government’s side in making a decision.

For one thing, the Productivity Commission has started a review of the NDIS which will result in changes. Additionally, anecdotal evidence regarding the problems caused by the national model in other States does not bode well for people living with disability.

Finally, the NDIS has a new board and will shortly have a new chief executive. Therefore, the NDIS we might subscribe to now is likely to be different in a year or so — the time it will take to dismantle the current arrangements and enter a new bilateral agreement. Given this situation, a decision does not need to be made now.

The impact of moving to the national model will also be felt in the way services are provided. The largely not-for-profit disability services sector has a real interest in this debate, not because of the funding implications but because of the potential impact on service quality.

From a purely commercial perspective, the service providers can be agnostic — they can simply cut their cloth according to the funding arrangements of the particular model chosen by reducing quantity and quality of services they deliver.

However, this retrograde step is not in anyone’s interests much less the interests of people living with disability.

Importantly, service providers have a long history of supporting and enhancing the lives of people living with disability in WA.

The WA government and the sector have built an articulated, cogent service delivery framework that represents an important asset that should not be taken lightly. There are opportunities for improvement to be sure, but having been introduced in WA first, the sector’s commitment to increased choice and control for service users is advanced and will continue to develop under the current arrangements.

A decision to move to the national model will effectively dismantle the strong working relationship between the sector and government, dislocating the important linkages established in communities and between differing services — not all of which are disability services — which currently support people in an efficient and effective way.

It will also dismantle the capacity of the Government in service delivery, policy development and deprive the WA minister of the ability to be flexible and responsive to need as it manifests. It will dismantle an important asset that cannot be rebuilt if the wrong decision is found to be made.

“Importantly, service providers have a long history of supporting and enhancing the lives of people living with disability in WA.”

Importantly, I am not suggesting that the Government should not consider the prospects for change. However, I am saying that the Government has time.

Further vital information will become available before it needs to make the decision.

In order to reduce the risk to service users, to maintain flexibility and to have all the evidence before it, WA should hold to its present course, watch as the rest of Australia works to implement its system, and make a decision when it settles rather than while it is in a state of change.

This is not a long wait in the context of the decades West Australians will have to live with the decision taken.

We want to reduce risk and uncertainty faced by service users and maintain the hard won gains that WA has achieved over decades of investment in disability services — all to the benefit of those who rely on these services to live their lives.