Privatisation victims tell their stories
Inquiry hears ‘raw, confronting’ testimony on disability care.
David Hetherington was not expecting to hear “emotionally harrowing” testimony from victims of the outsourcing of public services when he chaired Australia’s first national People’s Inquiry into Privatisation.
But evidence from families and carers of disabled people in particular shocked David and the other panel members of the inquiry: Yvonne Henderson, a former Equal Opportunity Commissioner, and Archie Law from Action Aid.
“I don’t think any of us three expected that an inquiry into privatisation, which many see as quite a dry topic, would generate such raw emotional testimony,” said David, from the public policy think tank Per Capita.
“We didn’t expect to come across stories that were so confronting.”
The inquiry heard from families of people with profound and complex disabilities who depend on NSW Ageing, Disability and Home Care service (ADHC) centres. It also heard from their carers, including NSWNMA members.
The state government is breaking up ADHC services and putting them out to tender.
It claims they will no longer be needed because clients will be funded to purchase services under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
The government has rejected pleas by families and staff to maintain core operations as a safety net for some of the most seriously disabled people in NSW.
“For decades, people have relied on the state system to care for family members who have very profound disabilities, sometimes from birth. Even with a good care framework they do it tough,” David said.
“When you remove that care framework, when you pull the rug out from under them, it’s an absolute kick in the guts.
“Patients get used to particular staff members and routines and suddenly their families are told, ‘we don’t know where you are going to end up but it probably won’t be here.’
The inquiry heard evidence about “a lack of consultation, of waiting three years or more for answers, uncertainty about where a loved one’s home will be, of choices being taken away, of being told that if you’re not happy, just find another provider.”
“It’s taking an horrific toll on ordinary Australians who we believe have a right to expect a decent standard of disability care.
“Changes that are being made for ideological or financial reasons are trickling down in very real ways to people’s lives.
“They are having an impact far beyond what is understood or thought through in the Treasury and finance departments which push these changes.”
David said the NDIS is a “significant improvement” for many Australians with disabilities.
But the accompanying privatisation has removed choice for people in state care.
“Their choices should include the right to continue arrangements that in some cases have served them for decades.
“Families are very scared about the implications of losing that choice. It will radically reshape their lives.”
David said most families who gave evidence felt it was too early to judge the standard of any alternative non-government care provided.
“However, in other sectors where public services have been outsourced to non-profit or for profit operators, the quality does slip over time.”
He cited the “very high quality public TAFE system which we threw open to competition. “Everyone will tell you now it’s been an unmitigated disaster.
“It’s cost billions in wasted subsidies. Employers say the quality of teaching has slipped enormously.”
He said staff in privatised disability services could expect to see pay and conditions come under pressure.
Hospitals and aged care had also been damaged by privatisation.
“Nationally, seven privatised public hospitals have failed and been subsequently handed back to the government, sometimes at great cost.
“At least another four hospitals have had services badly affected because of privatisation. Outbreaks of infections and poor services have been directly attributed to the push for profits over care.
“Within aged care, privatisation is linked to plummeting levels of staff, especially qualified staff, and resultant decreases in the levels of care.”
The inquiry, which was called for by Australian affiliates of Public Services International, visited 12 cities and towns including Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong and heard 112 oral submissions. There have been over 100 online comments on the inquiry’s website and over 40 formal written submissions from individuals and organisations.
David said it revealed just how extensive the privatisation process has been. In NSW it includes services as diverse as health care, home care, the land titles office, sport and recreation camps, prisons, ports, housing, the government trustees’ office, TAFE, the electricity grid and cleaning services – to name just some.
“Inquiries into aspects of privatisation usually take a narrow economic or financial perspective. It’s very similar to the Treasury perspective, which usually comes down to how can we spend the least amount of money possible.
“One reason I was interested in chairing our inquiry was I felt there were a set of personal and community stories out there about what privatisation was doing to people. I wanted to give them a voice.”
The inquiry is expected to publish its report in April/May. ■