Deafness United

ArmI was watching Sunday on Channel 7 hosted by the delightful Chris Bath. The less delightful Mike Willesee presented a story that centred on Clive Palmer. Palmer is, of course, a mining magnate and self-appointed leader of the Palmer United Party. Willesee was to have met Palmer in Boston with the Palmer United senate elect team. Palmer didn’t show citing at first that his planes radar was broken, then its toilet and then both. Meanwhile an incensed Willessee, angry for having been stood up, set about making a mockery of the Palmer United Senate Team. Eventually Willessee caught Palmer in Australia and the rest of this shoddy attempt at journalism involved following Palmer around a dinosaur park, looking at vintage cars and eating fine food while embarrassing Palmer as much as was humanely possible. While the journalism was shoddy one could not help but be petrified that Palmer and his senate elect team, come July, were about to be major players in the passing of legislation that would be critical for the future of Australia. It was scary stuff.

It is the Palmer United team that hold the balance of power in the senate. So much, in fact, that virtually nothing can pass without them. Thankfully they are opposed to most of the Abbott Government budget measures and intend to block them. But what of other crucial legislation? What about legislation that impacts on people with a disability. How much can we rely on them to support people with a disability? Palmer is a business man and everything is likely to be about what can benefit his business. With the NDIS at the cross roads and the future funding of many key disability organisations at stake; how much can we rely on the Palmer United Party and his senators elect to do the right thing? It is very worrying.

Right now our Disability Peaks are under threat. The rumour is, and one I have yet to fully confirm, that all Disability Peaks have been given a six month extended contract. At the end of this the funding for our peaks will be tendered out. The Peaks are the organisations that are funded to advocate for people with a disability. These are organisations like Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Physical Disability Australia, Deafness Forum and Deaf Australia – to name a few. They are not to be confused with organisations like Deaf Societies or Deaf Children Australia, though these organisations also have their funding under threat with the introduction of the NDIS. Service providers are faced with the challenge of revamping their business model to make themselves viable options under the NDIS.

It is the Disability Peaks that would seem most under threat. This is not the first time they have been under threat. Back when Howard was in power the Peaks also had a six month contract extension while their future was reviewed. In the end their future was resolved with a three year contract extension. This was not without controversy. Old timers will remember that Peter Costello, Federal Treasurer at that time, tried to make it a condition of their funding that peaks could not speak out against the Government. Thankfully he did not get his way.

Bill Shorten, during his time as the Parliamentary Secretary for Disability, also was known to be critical of Disability Peaks. Shorten was critical at the number of Peaks that existed and the fact that they often provided conflicting messages to the Government. Shorten advised that the Peaks needed to give a consistent message to the Government because if they could not agree on a way forward how on earth was the Government supposed to develop policy to meet their needs.

In the deafness sector Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum have often been at logger heads. They seem to be in a constant battle for territory. So bad did the conflict between them become that Shorten, shortly before he moved to the finance portfolio, had to organise conflict resolution between the two organisations. This author was part of the conflict resolution and not a lot of ground was given by either organisation.

More recently Deafness Forum were critical of Deaf Australia because Deaf Australia had the courage to question the Abbott Government about the future of the Auslan for Employment Program. A rumour originated from a prominent Disability Employment Service that the schemes funding was to be slashed by half. In a media release Deaf Australia asked for answers as to whether this rumour was true, among other things. Deafness Forum took the extraordinary step of publicly lambasting Deaf Australia for the media release. While they did not name Deaf Australia it was clear that the ‘prominent deafness organisation’ that they referred to as distributing misleading and scare mongering information was Deaf Australia.

Of course Deaf Australia had not mislead nor scare mongered, they just simply asked in an assertive way for the Government to clarify the future of the Auslan for Employment Program and other disability programs. Mitch Fifield, Assistant Minister for the Department of Social Services and responsible for disability, responded soon after and confirmed the Government had no intention of cutting the funding. This was a great outcome for Deaf Australia but Deafness Forum’s ill-advised and poorly disguised attack on Deaf Australia showed once again the divide between the two organisations.

Why Deafness Forum chose to attack Deaf Australia as they did is any ones guess. It certainly was not necessary.  What it did show was the danger of having two Deafness Peaks constantly striving to curry favour with the Government. It paints a picture of a divided sector and provides the Government with further evidence that the two Peaks cannot work effectively together.

Indeed it allows the Government to argue that having two Peaks is ineffective and that having one united organisation would be more effective. Let’s face it apart from the cultural and community focus which is, or should be, the sole domain of Deaf Australia the two peaks largely advocate for the same things.

For example they lobby for improved employment and education access, better early intervention services, better access to technology and support, better access to captioning and for better communication support, be it through interpreting or captioning. Sure one focuses on the needs of the Deaf Community and the other has a focus which is more medical but the two organisations largely duplicate each other.

Now there are many people who are pro Deaf Australia and many who are pro Deafness Forum. There are many who are also pro-amalgamation. Meanwhile the Government looks on and sees two organisations that largely are doing the same things and asks itself why they are funding two Deaf Peak organisations.

We all understand there are significant differences between what Deafness Forum represent and what Deaf Australia represent but many of us also are aware that the two organisations largely duplicate each other. When the Government sees the two organisations at odds with each other it is within its rights to ask whether the tax payer’s money can be better used to fund ONE Deaf Peak rather than two.

It would seem that all Disability Peaks are currently unsure of their future. The rumour is that at the end of the current six month funding the Government aims to revamp how our Peaks are funded. The rumour is that the Government is about to ask organisations to tender to provide the advocacy services that the Peaks currently are providing.

This could well spell the end of some Peaks because duplication is rife. The fact that Peaks are often warring with each other and sending conflicting messages does not help their cause. This includes both Deafness Forum and Deaf Australia.

Now may well be the time when Deafness Forum and Deaf Australia make an honest attempt to work out how they can organise themselves under one roof. It’s been tried before and it failed but in the current funding climate it may be wise for them to try again, if they have not already. The development of a business plan that shows how they can work as one unified Peak is essential even if, in the end, this plan is not required. The two Peaks need a coherent and influential argument that can show a unified front. If they cannot develop a unified approach and business plan that all political parties can understand. If they cannot, god help us if it is the inexperienced Palmer United Party, its senators and mad leader that are pulling the strings.

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