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Mark Bagshaw
Two steps forward…?

The immediate signing of agreements for the full rollout of the NDIS with New South Wales and Victoria by our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and the Premiers of those two states, was a great step forward for people with disability in Australia. But in the next breath we lose our Minister for Disability! What's going on?

Malcolm Turnbull has certainly hit the ground running in his first few days as our new Prime Minister. What a difference a day makes.

In a single stroke he broke through the logjam that was holding up the agreements between the New South Wales and Victorian governments for the full rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in those two states.

You could almost hear the sigh of relief from the thousands of people with disability in NSW and Victoria who can now see a light at the end of the tunnel, and are now champing at the bit to experience firsthand the freedom of choice that they will have to decide the disability support they need to best meet their needs.

But only a few days later we get news that there will no longer be a Minister for Disability in the Turnbull Government! Well, Mitch Fifield didn’t actually carry the title – rather he was the Assistant Minister for Social Services – but for all intents and purposes his job was to ensure the success of the NDIS, and he certainly seemed to be focused on doing just that.

Now there is no Assistant Minister for anything under the new Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter. And he, it would seem, is very new to the portfolio – few people seem to have even heard of him before his appointment. And it’s a VERY big portfolio!

So what can we make of these mixed messages?

While it is anything but unusual to see new faces lining up for the traditional photo with the Governor General on the steps of Yarralumla when a new bunch of Ministers are sworn in – and sometimes a changing of the guard is just what the doctor ordered – there is an inevitable downside to the apparent revolving door that is the hallmark of political leadership. These are big jobs and they simply can’t be mastered overnight. Already everyone in sundry is knocking on the new minister’s door to “bring him up to speed”.

On the other hand, the change may also be a positive thing. If Christian Porter is coming at the portfolio without many of the preconceived, welfare-driven notions of disability, and is open to hearing new ideas, maybe the aspirational views of the potential for people with disability to participate in our community that we at The Able Movement and many others share might just get a guernsey.

And maybe this move acknowledges that the traditional role of governments in the disability support space, which has been about government maintaining tight control and calling the shots, will have to change if we are going to deliver a system of disability support under the NDIS that operates under a market-driven system and places people with disability in control. While of course government will continue to play an important role in the market-driven NDIS (as it does in every market), in theory at least it should mean that the Minister is nowhere near as heavily involved in the day-to-day operational aspect of the disability support system as in the past.

But hang on, we are a long way from having a fully functioning NDIS humming along on market-driven principles. We are still in the trial phase, and it’s almost frightening to think how much work needs to be done between now and 2018 when the NDIS is planned to be fully rolled out.

Now is not the time for the Federal Government to take its ministerial eye off the ball by dissolving the role of Minister for Disability.

And while in the longer term the amount of ministerial oversight of the disability support system might reduce significantly – and appropriately – it will never be the right time for the nation to take its eye off the ball on the massive and much broader issues facing people with disability in our nation.

Until every aspect of our society – every piece of infrastructure, every aspect of the law, every form of education, every product and service offered to our citizens by businesses, every job opportunity, every type of housing in every community, every form of recreation – is completely accessible to people with disability on a level playing field, there will always need to be a Minister for Disability at every level of government. There will always need to be a focus on addressing the needs of people with disability across all bureaucracies at the most senior levels. There will always need to be a voice for people with disability in our parliaments. There will always be a need for a powerful legal advocate for people with disability – yes, reinstate our Disability Discrimination Commissioner!

Our nation is on the cusp of the most incredible, wonderful breakthrough the world has ever seen for people with disability. We have the potential to close the participation gap for people with disability once and for all.

Let’s not blow it.

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