We need to listen and learn

Around 90% of Australia’s population lives in cities within 50kms of the coast and inhabits an estimated one quarter of 1 per cent of Australia’s land area. That leaves 10% – fewer people than live in Melbourne – spread across 99.75% of a country that is around 32 times the size of the United Kingdom.

Trying to grasp the expanse of this country is mind-boggling for a city boy like me and, I imagine, for most of the 90% of urban-dwelling Aussies.

How then can we understand the unique characteristics of a life in remote Australia? Isn’t the best source of information the people who live there?

In a country as large and diverse as ours, it is foolish to believe that how we do things in the city, will work in the outback. Aboriginal communities have been particularly impacted by the lack of innovation and flexibility.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is seeking ways to better serve Australians with disability in remote areas.

We have invested in alternative commissioning – partnerships with Indigenous people and remote communities.

These co-designed approaches will be based on what communities tell us they need.

The first pilot site is in the Maningrida Region of the Northern Territory where governments at all levels, Indigenous representatives, and Indigenous communities are collaborating on a model.

This greater, more flexible reach into remote communities may also assist in uncovering unmet needs.

An example is a family who lived in a community just outside Alice Springs, whose son has a significant intellectual disability.

After the death of his wife, Greg took their son, Kevin to live in his home community in the Whitsundays. At 47 years of age, Kevin finally had access to the NDIS. Greg said Kevin only had an ‘existence’ before the NDIS, but now ‘he has a life’. And so does dad.

Listening to Indigenous communities about their unique circumstances will help the NDIS serve Australians with disability better and create culturally appropriate and sustainable services.

We have not put enough emphasis on ‘lived experience’ as a crucial element of policy development. We have not given the people who know their circumstances best a seat at the table where decisions on their lives are made.

An Indigenous Voice to Parliament will bring all the policy threads together so Australia can begin the end of intergenerational disadvantage and historical exclusion.

This opinion piece was first published in The Herald Sun on Friday 13 October 2023.

* Text updated on 14 October 2023.