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Do the federal political contenders care about mental health?

Opinion

With the federal election focused on presidential-style campaigining, many questions remain unanswered about pressing areas of social policy such as mental health, argues Geoff Harris.

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We are only days away from casting our votes in this federal election and if the research is right many of us are just deciding now who we will vote for.

During this campaign, we have been inundated by words like taxes, economy, infrastructure, education, climate change and health. While they are all key issues that impact on our daily lives and futures, there are also more immediate and pressing needs that we have not heard anything about.

During the campaign, we attempted to hold a forum where key parties would present their solutions to the unfolding problems around the NDIS and mental health services. We had to cancel our event because we were only able to confirm one sitting member –  from the ALP. SACOSS also had to cancel their election forum because only the ALP and the Greens would show up.

Reduced commitment to presenting party policies at public forums has been a concerning trend this election and we have noticed a distinct lack of discussion around social issues in the presidential-style and marginal seat-focused campaign.

Not all voters will be considering mental health policies this election, yet there are families struggling with uncertainty around programs and services sitting in hiatus.

Before the roll-out of the NDIS in South Australia, we had approximately $40 million in the annual budget for Commonwealth-funded mental health programs. The transition to the NDIS has been slower than the Commonwealth expected and the percentage of people from these programs who will remain outside NDIS will be much higher than predicted by the Commonwealth.

But unless there is a new specific commitment, from July 1, 2020, less than $4 million per annum will remain of the $40 million in federal mental health funding.

The NDIS is not here to replace our mental health system and was never intended to do so. There have been significant problems with the rollout to people with primary psychosocial disability particularly regarding support for those with complex needs.

The federal budget gave us disappointing news that with the promise of a budget surplus there will be an underspend on the NDIS of $1.6 billion. While these funds will stay in the NDIS,  there remains no stated intent to spend this money to rectify problems with psychosocial support.

This federal election we asked all the parties to tell us how they will fix the problems of the loss of mental health support for South Australians outside of the NDIS, problems within the NDIS for people with primary psychosocial disability and the growing problem of access to housing and support.

We used their responses to produce our report card, released today, which puts a lens on the Greens, the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal Party and Centre Alliance.

We found Labor had the strongest policy in the area of improving the NDIS which demonstrates a firm understanding of the many issues that need to be addressed. However, there was not enough focus on issues specifically relating to mental health support, with their approach aiming to fix many of the problems across the whole scheme. Labor recognised that significant support is required for people outside of the NDIS and promised to collaborate with the states and territories but there was no specific funding committed.

The Liberal response noted current efforts aimed at improving NDIS via a tailored psychosocial disability stream (announced in October 2018). But it is not clear how effective this will be as stakeholders continue to raise a range of concerns despite these proposed improvements. Regarding the loss of Commonwealth mental health programs, there was no acknowledgement of the problem emerging on June 30, 2020, nor any commitment beyond the current arrangements.

Centre Alliance said they would continue to advocate for improvements. The Greens, however, recognised that the current allocations are not enough and propose a $450 million investment in community mental health support services for people outside the NDIS.

Another key area we examined was social housing. Having secure housing is a key component to any person living well in the community.

The Greens provided a range of policies to double the amount of social housing across Australia. Meanwhile, Labor identified clear housing policies including a commitment to “build 250,000 new affordable homes over the next decade in partnership with the community housing sector for Australians on low and moderate incomes”. An additional $88 million over two years was identified for a safe housing fund and a dedicated federal housing and homelessness minister.

Liberal policies included $1 billion “to unlock new housing supply including social housing” and $16 million across two policy initiatives related to social and affordable housing and assisting young people at risk of homelessness. However, it is not clear how much new social housing would be created.

Centre Alliance noted the need for more affordable long term housing for people living with mental illness and undertook to “lobby state and federal governments” for increased funding and regional allocation.

Our full report card can be found here. We hope you can take a moment to read it and let it inform your vote this Saturday as mental health is something we all have.

And we know that half of us will have a mental health crisis in our lifetime, meaning the other half will be supporting someone or caring for someone who may one day need these vital services.

Geoff Harris is the executive director of the Mental Health Coalition of South Australia.

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