How the ACT’s planning . . .

sunset-3438271_1280.jpgThis is part of a series on people with disabilities and the Coronavirus. 

One thing we can all understand clearly is that life is lived locally.

Although in the past Prime Minister Scott Morrison has referred, disparagingly, to the “Canberra bubble”, today that’s not a black mark against the city. At the time, those words conveyed exactly what he meant: a separate, isolated world, somehow floating independently of ‘the rest of Australia’. This was, by definition, the real world where life was lived and things happened.

Today, not so much. Canberra’s residents have a growing smile covering their faces . . .

Three factors are responsible for this.

The first is it’s become obvious that ‘Canberra’ (and here we are using the word to refer to the broader mechanisms of government, rather than the city itself) actually does play a meaningful role in modern Australian society. You don’t need to agree with every action taken by Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy to admit the federal government has notched up marvellous achievements against Covid-19. As of this writing, although 96 people have died and 985 cases are still active, the pandemic’s reach in Australia has, generally, been staunched.

This is where the second factor comes into focus – the hyper-local environment, or the ACT itself.

Canberrans are often (perhaps quite rightly – ed) made fun of in the wider community for their perceived quirks. They – we – are seen as rigid, law-abiding and boring. We’re accused of acting, even in our time off, as if we’re kill-joy public servants obsessed with rules and regulations. If so, perhaps that’s the right way to act.

It’s kept case numbers low and the jurisdiction has consistently topped vaccination statistics.

Then there’s a third factor; the positive relationship that’s developed through the interaction between the territory’s government and the local community – especially vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities. The role of the ACT government, including Disability Minister Suzanne Orr is particularly relevant in this regard.

Orr’s early training (appropriately enough for Canberra) was as a city planner; perhaps that’s part of the reason she feels welded to this particular city. Another early factor – one she credits in shaping her political beliefs – was a growing awareness that government can play a big role in supporting individuals in need of extra assistance.

“People with disability have specific needs and support,” Orr insists, adding that such “needs cannot be addressed without a direct, targeted plan”.  Canberra has been an enthusiastic backer of the (national) Management and Operational Plan for People with Disability, or, to use one of the acronyms beloved of bureaucrats,  MOPPwD. Orr says this “has been crucial making sure that essential services can continue uninterrupted during this period.”

This requires much more, however, than large collections of guidelines. The recent and continuing infections in aged care homes in Sydney have demonstrated the critical need for bureaucrats’ words to be followed through with careful procedures. Similarly, everyone who steps aboard a cruise liner will be aware that a single, infected worker in a pantry can rapidly turn the ship into a huge viral incubator. That’s what Orr is ensuring won’t happen in Canberra.

It’s difficult to overestimate the vital role government has in establishing the standards in areas like disability housing. It’s easy to just ignore, or attribute to luck, the fact that there’s been no outbreak of Covid-19 in any of the many institutions and disability houses where PwD are living. Doing this would be like writing off or dismissing Canberra’s success in implementing effective quarantine.

You make your own luck.

That’s what Canberra’s done, at any rate, and Orr remains quietly confident that it will continue. It doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement – just that it’s a solid base to be moving forward from.



Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

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