I was at a Do on the weekend in Ballarat. Ballarat is a historical town in Australia famous for gold mining and considered the birthplace of Trade Unionism in Australia. Fair play and equal opportunity are very much rooted in the history of Ballarat. What better place than Ballarat to have a discussion over a few beers about the merits of our respective Deaf and hearing impaired advocacy organisations. After all, advocacy and representation of the layman are essential components of the history of Ballarat.
Our advocacy organisations can be compared to Trade Unions. Unions advocate and promote the rights of the workers. Our advocacy organisations advocate and promote the rights of Deaf and hearing impaired people. Our Unions exist and largely survive from the membership fees of its members. This is where the similarities end. Deaf and hearing impaired advocacy organisations exist largely and only if the Government deems them relevant enough to fund. Take government funding away and Deaf and hearing impaired advocacy organisations would fall in an undignified heap. Unions are largely independent of the Government and self sufficient, even if they do tend to favour Labor politics. (Democrat equivalent for all our US readers.)
Unions are generally rich organisations. In recent years they have struggled to retain their significance. Membership has dropped and Labor governments now try to put some distance between themselves and the Unions. Unions are not reliant on Government funding – they exist for and because of their members. This is a good thing because it means they can attack the Government when needed, without fear or favour. Can our Deaf and hearing impaired advocacy agencies claim the same thing?
If our Deaf and hearing impaired advocacy agencies are funded mainly from the Government how independent of the Government are they? I know for a fact that government ministers contact our advocacy agencies for advice. Whether they take the advice is another thing. It tends to suggest that the Government sees the advocacy agencies as extensions of their own departments. This happens not just with Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum, I am also aware that it happens with the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations.
In America there is great concern about advocacy organisations that receive funds from the Government. For example the Association of Retired People receives $73 Million from the US Government. $39 Billion is provided to all advocacy groups. (source:http://www.heritage.org/research/governmentreform/bg1040.cfm) The concern in America is that because the Government provides so much money to these groups that they, in fact, use these organisations to further the Governments purpose. What this means is that to keep their funding the agencies tend to fear rocking the boat too much. They largely promote and support the Governments view for fear of losing their funding. This should not be the case, advocacy agencies should feel free to challenge and even take Governments to court.
Very few advocacy organisations will come out openly and say that they are manipulated or controlled by the Government. But one wonders how much they hold back or fear really openly challenging the Government when their very existence relies on the funds that the Government provides. In Australia nearly everything disability is government funded even disability sections of the Australian Human Rights Commission. It is a little bit scary because it gives the Government enormous influence and control.
At the Do in Ballarat my friend complained that she had been told that Deaf Australia would not provide support to her unless she was a paying member. (Who she was told by, I do not know.) My friend felt that this was not fair. She felt that because she paid tax and Deaf Australia were funded by the Government, they are expected to support Deaf people and no one should have to pay membership. We then started discussing how independent Deaf Australia really was if they existed almost solely on Government funding. We discussed whether the Government should withdraw their funding if Deaf Australia were only going to support the 2 or three hundred people that had paid membership. There was no conclusion to the discussion, except to leave a lot of questions unanswered.
In 2006 the Australian Government commissioned a review of disability advocacy in Australia. The review suggested many things but two stand out. The first being the recommendation for a one stop shop to advocate for all disabilities. The second was the suggestion of a competitive tendering process. What this means is that the Government of the day believed that disability advocacy should largely come under one roof AND the organisation that can provide it should be the one that best meets the Government tendering process. The suggestions caused much debate.
Martin (Muzzling Disability) was particularly scathing of the recommendations. Martin does not think it was feasible that one organisation could specialise in all disabilities. He compares this to having Doctors who are General Practice types being used to carry out all types of Surgery – sounds like a good idea but ultimately is a crazy one. How does this relate to merging Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum? Deaf Australia must be jumping with glee.
More pointedly Martin argues that Organisations that compete for Government Funding have their independence and quality compromised. Rather than providing Advocacy as it is needed they provide advocacy as the Government prescribes it through their tender process. In a sense they can not challenge the Government in a way or do anything that is not permissible within the tender document.
Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum both have funding agreements with the Government. Their funding agreement would outline what is permissible under the terms of their funding. I have not seen the funding agreements of the two organisations so I cannot comment on what they are required to do. BUT, at least potentially, the funding agreement will restrict what the two organisations can and cannot do. If this is so, it is not a good thing.
This article is very scholarly compared to the previous articles about THAT AD. I could be wrong but I did not hear or see even a little bit of protest from our Deaf and hearing impaired advocacy agents in relation to those Ads. I know that the South Australian Association of the Deaf did make a complaint to the Cora Barclay Centre and were largely ignored. Did our deaf and hearing impaired advocacy agencies remain quiet for fear of upsetting their funder? Are the oral groups so influential in Government that Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum feared speaking out lest they get backlash? Scare mongering? am I? – Yes I am, but these scenarios have the potential to rear their ugly heads when the Government is so heavily involved in funding our Advocacy organisations.
What’s the answer? Beyond giving the Government the funding back and trying to exist independently I do not know. What I do know is that we have a flawed system at the moment with more questions left unanswered than answered.