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Reform keeps grinding on

Disability Reform Council Ministers meeting in Brisbane last Friday

What it is

The DRCM isn't much of an acronym. It doesn't have an obvious meaning, like the NDIS, and it hasn't become a word, like Anzac. The ten people that make up the Disability Reform Council Ministers are, however, perhaps the ten most important people in disability in Australia.

Made up of disability ministers from all the states and territories (plus Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth), the Council reports directly to National Cabinet - a sign of the importance disability is now being accorded by the federal government.

The DRCM held its first meeting in Canberra on the 10th of February, and has met monthly since. New NSW Disability Inclusion Minister, Kate Washington, made the council complete when she joined its the meeting in Brisbane last Friday.

What it does

According the the website, the Council discusses ways to "improve and implement policy through Australia’s Disability Strategy (ADS) and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)". That's another way of saying that it basically co-ordinates disability policy across the country, and that's its official role. It's a way of getting policy turned into things that happen.

It's other vital role, however, is in providing an opportunity for the various ministers to, basically, size each other up and discuss matters informally with one another. This is particularly critical in the context of the exploding costs of the NDIS. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has already made very clear she doesn't want to lift that state's contribution to the scheme and it's understood Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is similarly against putting more money in.

Bill Shorten/Annastacia Palaszczuk: photo montage Brisbane Times,Alex Ellinghausen, Matt Dennien

This is the coming critical fight that the sector desperately needs to win and offers a clue as to why the role of the DRCM will be so important.

The coming fight

Last week the team under Bruce Bonyhady conducting the NDIS Review presented their interim work to the Council. What's so significant about this is that when the team unveils their options for change in October, they will cost money - and that has to come from somewhere.

The scheme is already being overwhelmed with surging demand for services. The problem is the way this exploding cost is being framed in the popular media already isn't friendly to the NDIS.

Just last week, one of the biggest selling newspapers in Australia, the Saturday Telegraph, carried seven letters critical of Bill Shorten's recent speech to the National Press Club.

"Get serious and dob in those rorting the system . . . this was always going to be ripped off. Was poorly thought out and put in place."

Comments such as these and those of a deluded writer who suggested the scheme now costs twice Medicare (it doesn't!) are ill-informed and just plain wrong.

Nevertheless they demonstrate that if the NDIS is to retain the social license it needs to receive government funding, there is a need to combat this sort of push-back. That requires keeping everybody on-side.

The vital role of the DRCM

This is what makes the DRCM so important.

Yes, it performs a coordinating role across state and national governments. What's most critical, however, is that it gives the Ministers (and their senior public servants, and other members of the sector) a chance to meet and informally test the mood.

What's more important than winning a battle is avoiding one in the first place. As the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said, "the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting".

This is the real aim of the DRCM.

Not to create a battlefield, but to provide a forum for genuine agreement on how to reform disability supports in Australia.

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