The worst of both worlds
Sue O’Reilly, who has guest written today’s column on The Angry Cripple is a freelance journalist and the mother of a 21-year-old son with cerebral palsy. She co-founded Australians Mad as Hell last year with Fiona Porter to campaign for an NDIS and established a charity called Fighting Chance to help people with disabilities pay for essential therapy services.
The other day, amid all the reactions to the Productivity Commission report recommending a radical new national disability care and support scheme, a reader of this column made what struck me as a
most intriguing comment.
Somebody calling him/herself NEFFA wrote: “Why don’t you all move to Cambodia and see how much government support you get there? Sometimes you need perspective to understand just how good you have it.”
Personally, I can see the appeal of this notion for all those many Aussies who fail to understand why their hard-earned dollars should help fund decent care and support services for fellow citizens with profound disabilities and their families. Put all us whingers and ingrates on rickety boats and push us off to sea, heading north! Problem solved.
But it’s OK, NEFFA - only joking. I appreciate this wasn’t the point you were trying to make, which of course was that compared to millions of people with disabilities and their families in poverty-
stricken Third World countries, those of us here in Australia are extremely fortunate. And guess what? On one level, you’re entirely right.
Coincidentally, my daughter has just returned from
Cambodia, broken-hearted at the suffering she witnessed of people with disabilities literally living on the streets. It made me truly grateful that, unlike one Cambodian father she told me about, I do not
have to send my severely disabled son from table to table at outdoor restaurants, begging for scraps of food (well, not to date, anyway).
Yes NEFFA, everything in life – everything – is indeed relative. In fact, whenever any of us 22 million or so Aussies are tempted to whinge and moan about our hospitals or roads or schools or whatever,
we should all instantly remember how fortunate we are compared to hundreds of millions of people in far less wealthy, stable and prosperous countries.
But is the fundamental point NEFFA was seeking to make truly valid? In reflecting on “just how good” – or otherwise - Australians with disabilities and their families have it, should we be comparing our country’s disability care and support system to Cambodia or East Timor or Ethiopia, to mention just a few benighted places? Or should we be comparing our system to that in place in other similarly wealthy, stable and prosperous First World countries, such as Canada, New Zealand or the UK?
People like NEFFA will find this hard to grasp, I realise, but just because we do not have limbless beggars in rags crawling around our railway stations, this does not mean that people with disabilities
in Australia and their families have got it “good”, at least in comparison to people in similar circumstances in other comparable countries.
Having lived for 12 years in the UK with my severely disabled son and studied the systems in place in NZ, Canada, Europe and the US, I do know what I’m talking about when I measure the Australian disability support system against those in other comparable countries.
And again, NEFFA, guess what? Australia actually has, far and away, the worst, most inefficient, most dysfunctional, most wasteful, most inequitable and most shambolic disability care and support
system in the western world.
Why? Because in stark contrast to the situation in most other wealthy countries, no one in Australia has ever sat down (before now, that is) and turned their minds to actually conceptualising and then designing a comprehensive, integrated, coherent, cost-effective disability care and support system. Instead, what we have here is a mish-mash of a system that has developed over decades in the most higgledly-piggedly way possible, with a plethora of disparate charities all struggling to meet basic support needs and a confusing, uncoordinated mess of different State and federal government programs.
The current system is like a 40-storey building erected bit by bit, without any overall design or planning and without anyone having actually gone to the trouble of putting in place strong, solid foundations. Layer after layer after layer has just been added over the decades, with the result that this 40-storey building now looks like something out of Christchurch.
It’s because this current system has got to the point where even sight-impaired Freddie can see it’s about to collapse that finally, finally, a wide, bipartisan range of key policymakers and politicians
have recognised that the only sensible option is to demolish the whole damn mess and start all over again, pretty much from scratch - and this time, design it properly. That’s what the Productivity Commission process over the past year or so has been all about, and a good, strong, coherent design is exactly what the Commission has come up with.
The “death spiral” state of our current system, to quote John Walsh, may be impossible for people like NEFFA (whom I would hazard a guess has no personal experience of it) to grasp. But if it’s not
fixed, and soon, it is most definitely going to collapse. And wouldn’t it be terrible if someone like NEFFA just happened to be walking underneath at the time?
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