NDIS: Gladys Berejiklian backflips on plan to cut funding to disability groups

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The New South Wales government has done an about-face on plans to cut funding to disability advocacy groups, plugging a significant and unintended service gap created by the transition to the national disability insurance scheme.

Disability advocacy groups have fought a lengthy battle to force the NSW government to maintain long-standing state funding during and after the transition to the NDIS.

The NSW government had argued disability advocacy funding would be provided through the NDIS, negating the need for its involvement. It was a claim disability advocacy groups said was untrue, and at odds with recommendations from the Productivity Commission, which had urged state governments to maintain their funding to disability advocacy groups.

The loss of advocacy groups – which inform, lobby for and champion disability issues – would have undermined a key aim of the NDIS: to empower those living with a disability. It also added to nationwide fears that state governments would use the transition to the NDIS as a way of reducing their own funding, regardless of whether it was replaced through the federal scheme.

On Friday the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, relented and announced she would give up to $26m to advocacy services until 2020.

“During a time of major change for people with disability, the NSW government is committed to making the transition to the NDIS as smooth as possible,” Berejiklian said. “We understand the transition has created concerns for people with disability and I want to assure the community we have been listening to those concerns.”

The executive officer for the Physical Disability Council of NSW, Serena Ovens, helped lead the campaign to have the funding maintained. Ovens said disability advocacy groups were “very pleased to have the announcement made” and thanked the NSW government for the decision.

The prolonged uncertainty, though, had hurt advocacy groups. Many staff, fearing imminent closure, had left organisations and those remaining had to devote much of their energy to a six-month campaign to have the funding maintained.

The funding losses also came at a pivotal period of disruption in the disability sector, brought by the NDIS transition.

Ovens said the money was a “drop in the ocean” for the state government and having certainty late last year would have prevented staff losses.

“We knew that was what they were doing, it would have helped if we could have this conversation late last year at the latest,” Ovens told Guardian Australia. “If they could have said, ‘Look we’ll continue this, we’ll continue the discussions but we’re happy to put this money out there’.

“It’s a drop in the ocean … and we wouldn’t have been losing staff and we wouldn’t have been in the situation that we were in.

“But I’ll take the fact that they’re doing it now and we’ve actually got this on the table and we can move forward from here, which is really important.”

The federal government had leaned on states and territories to maintain the funding.

Late last year the federal assistant disability services minister, Jane Prentice, called on them to maintain an “ongoing investment”. She said their contributions were needed to sustain the national advocacy system.

“All levels of government have a responsibility to support advocacy for people with disability to ensure they can exercise their rights and freedoms,” a spokeswoman for Prentice said.

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