McClure report is the start of a national discussion on welfare reform, not the end-game

The McClure Report should start a conversation, not be the end-point in welfare reform debate. Image sourced from www.shutterstock.com

The McClure review into Australia’s welfare system is an important milestone - but it is not the end game. The report, chaired by former Mission Australia head Patrick McClure, has undertaken an analysis of a significant and resource intensive system. It has generated a number of recommendations some of which are sound, some support laudable ideas and some appear to be less useful.

The report is important though because it does raise questions and issues related to disability support at a time when the National Disability Insurance Scheme is facing considerable headwinds and when the Commonwealth government is defunding or under-funding a range of disability services organisations and advocacy services. As such, the report should be taken as the basis for a national discussion rather than being an end in itself.

In terms of major recommendations, McClure and his colleagues argue that the number of payment types available to people receiving disability support should be reduced from over 100 to five. While those with a pathological bent toward characterising any administrative process as red tape might be excited by this proposition, it is clear that there are some significant, and hopefully unintended, consequences likely to affect people with disability if the government does not take a broader view.

People with disabilities are not all the same

A critical deficiency in the debate surrounding such issues today is the tendency to treat all people with disability as an homogeneous group as if all have the same needs. For instance, the payment types in existence currently have been created to meet real needs which are complex and not uniform. The consolidation of payment types, combined with the proposed increase in needs testing, will mean that many with disability will likely no longer be considered to be entitled to supports that they might otherwise have had access to.

Such supports are incredibly important in sustaining them given their significantly higher costs of living, particularly as they often face medical, health and other living expenses that are not optional, and because they often live on smaller incomes.

The proposed reduction in payment types combined with an increased needs evaluation regime are likely to work against these people’s interests unless the needs evaluation regime is extremely sensitive to the complexity of need. If not, the regime will simply represent an opportunity to reduce payments because needs-tests are likely to be more difficult to meet, the more conflated the payment types.

Therefore, it is important that those people with disability and their carers and supporters have a real and effective capacity to reflect on these proposals and to join the national conversation in order to allow the system to be designed around their needs. There is also a need for disability peak bodies and advocacy groups to have a very real say in how the objectives offered in this report are intended to be achieved.

Support systems are being removed

For instance, there is little doubt that increasing opportunities for meaningful employment is an important objective. However, there are two key issues here. One is that the onus to prove need will fall even more greatly upon people with disability in terms of their capacity for work and their continued need for support if they cannot participate. The second is that, while the objective of getting people with disability into work is always a very laudable one, the infrastructure necessary for ensuring a successful outcome in this direction is slowly being broken down by the Commonwealth government.

The Commonwealth government is keen to see more people with disability in work but is busily defunding or reducing the resources available to those advocacy and peak body organisations that are incredibly important in supporting this priority. Further, and even more paradoxically, government is also reducing the resources made available to those not-for-profit and charitable organisations that are creating employment opportunities for people with disability.

The cost to mission-focused organisations providing employment options, supporting people with disability in work or brokering opportunities are substantial. They are unable to continue to provide these services without an increase in funding to do so. Without these organisations, the almost universally accepted aspirations related to employment and set out in this report cannot be realised.

Overall, it is critically important that this substantial report is used to catalyse a national discussion focused on three issues: how will people with disability participate in the debate, how will we avoid the implementation of recommendations in ways that only reduce cost, and how do we ensure the not-for-profit sector is able to play a significant role here?