The Man Who Would Be King

Image is of a crown, gold with purple velvet inset

We used to call Damian Lacey the Empire Builder. He had grand visions for Deaf Children Australia in the early 2000s. His vision had merit. He wanted one brand for deafness. One brand to raise money, and one brand lobbying for the Deaf community and deaf children. By working together, we could achieve much. The problem was the timing. Australia was not set up for it at that time.

I was a Board member at Deaf Children Australia when Lacey was the CEO. I was very resistant to his vision as were a couple of other Board members. I liked his vision but, in my view, Australia was not set up for a one national Deaf organisation; at that time, at least. I felt we were better placed focusing on deaf children in Victoria, doing this well, and with the reasonably substantial wealth that Deaf Children Australia had at that time.

This was pre-NDIS days. It was a time when state Governments were responsible for disability funding. Governments of the time provided block funding for Deaf Societies to deliver services. As always, this funding was never enough. The Deaf Societies around Australia relied on fundraising to make up the shortfall.

Lacey was determined to expand. My argument was that if he was going to have a national organisation that serviced adults and children, it would be essential that the services of the organisation in each state were equitable. It would not work, I argued, if Victoria provided high class children services and South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland etc received an inferior service. I wanted Deaf Children Australia to do children services well in Victoria, rather than spreading itself thin all over Australia.

I had a more conservative view; Lacey did not. There was no stopping him. He got the majority of the Board’s support and pushed on. At the time, Deaf Societies all over Australia were struggling to stay afloat. The Royal South Australian Deaf Society had to merge with Townsend House, which eventually led to the Deaf community there, losing its spiritual home at 262.

I think Lacey may have offered to help the SA Deaf Society at the time, then known as Deaf SA. I have no idea what happened, but they decided against a merger with Deaf Children Australia and went for Townsend House. Nevertheless, Lacey pushed on. He eventually developed partnerships with the Queensland Deaf Society and the Western Australian Deaf Society. He may have tried for Tasmania as well, but they eventually merged with VicDeaf, now known as Expression Australia.

Lacey worked hard and for a time was CEO of WA, Queensland Deaf Societies and Deaf Children Australia. Deaf Children Australia even branched out into the Northern Territory. It seemed that Lacey had a vision and nothing was going to stop him. Despite good intentions, the partnerships that were established eventually were all dissolved.

I don’t really know all the details but the rapid expansion all fell in a heap. The Deaf Societies in question, all seemed to find some equilibrium and stability. Once that stability was established, the support of Deaf Children Australia was no longer needed. Rumour has it that Lacey delivered an ultimatum to one of his partners that they either did it his way or he would resign. They accepted his resignation. To keep a long story short, that was the end of that.

I have no idea of the business arrangements that went on. I don’t know how much money Deaf Children Australia channelled into these other organisations. But at the end of it all, the partnerships ended and the benefit to Deaf Children Australia appears to have been minimal indeed. Meanwhile, the Queensland Deaf Society, whom Deaf Children Australia originally “propped up“, have gone from strength to strength. Western Australia seems to be doing alright too. The Northern Territory Services branch of Deaf Children Australia never really took off, and they are now part of the rapidly expanding Deaf Connect.

I have a feeling that Lacey would have had a little more success in today’s climate. The NDIS means that the services sector is cherry ripe for a national approach. The business model has changed. Very few services now receive block funding. Services have to play the market. The power has shifted, somewhat, to the consumer. If a services organisation is to survive, they have to provide services that their clients demand.

That also means service providers have to be business savvy. They have to keep overheads to a minimum. Services have to turn over a profit otherwise, like any business that doesn’t make a profit, they will crash and burn. Indeed, many do.

It is now less about the community and more about the organisational survival. Those with the stronger business model will survive. Those that do not have a strong business model will become prey to larger organisations and are ripe for the picking. Ironically, Deaf Connect, who initially were propped up by Deaf Children Australia, are now the biggest player of all Deaf services.

Supposedly, profits from Deaf Connect and other services such as Expression Australia are to be used for the benefit of the Deaf community. How? I am not sure. They do Auslan translations of information such as Covid and other vital news. Beyond that I don’t see a lot. interpreters are provided for Government announcements, but I am pretty sure this is a profitable fee for service arm. Grants are provided to community groups. Discussions have been had about setting up Community Hubs for the Deaf community. I am not seeing a lot of evidence of this at the moment, but the profits are supposed to go back to the Deaf community.

Lacey, the man who would be King, is no more. He has seemingly been replaced by Brett Casey, the CEO of Deaf Connect. Deaf Connect started from a merger of the Queensland Deaf Society and the NSW Deaf Society. In a few short years they have taken over the services of the Northern Territory that were abandoned by Deaf Children Australia, They have recently taken over the services of Deaf Can Do in South Australia.

According to Deaf Can Do CEO, Heidi Limereff, speaking to The Advertiser, this is because Deaf Can Do have lost trust of the SA Deaf community and this trust cannot be rebuilt. As a result, Deaf Connect have received a “… significant amount of money” from Deaf Can Do to take over the services. No doubt this was the so called ‘TRUST FUND’ established from the sale of 262. One can only hope that Deaf Connect gives this significant amount back to the SA Deaf community, and do not swallow it up into their rapid growing coffers.

Ironically, it seems that Lacey’s original vision has come to fruition through the guise of Deaf Connect. Lacey’s problem was not so much his vision, but the timing of that vision. Australia’s deaf services were not ready for it at that time, politically or financially. Even more ironic, one of the organisations that Lacey and Deaf Children Australia helped to prop up, is now leading the charge to take over Deaf services all over Australia.

And what of Deaf Children Australia now? Well they are still there. Trying hard to find a niche in the NDIS market. Existing in an old building that is swallowing any profits that they do make for its upkeep. Lovely old building that it is, its up keep is not financially sustainable for a business. If Deaf Children Australia are to survive, hard decisions have to be made. They are sitting on millions of dollars of land that can not be sold because of heritage and Government caveats, much to their frustration. There is no room for sentiment and hard decisions have to be made.

What of the future of Deaf Children Australia? Perhaps a merger with Expression Australia. Is there room for the two of them? Can Victoria afford two CEOs, two sets of administration and competing services in such a small market?

Perhaps they are a target for the new king of the block, Deaf Connect and its Deaf CEO, Brett Casey. Who knows, but one thing is for sure, change is afoot. Watch this space!

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