Last week, we attended the WAAMH public forum on the WA State Election. WAAMH have kindly provided a dot point summary of what each party representative said at the forum. We’d like to share our own reflections which may help people understand some of these issues better leading up to the state election.
Four politicians attended the forum, each with ten minutes to speak and answer a few questions: Andrea Mitchell (LIB), Jacqui Boydell (NAT), Stephen Dawson (LAB), and Alison Xamon (GRN). The forum was well-attended with what looked to be over 100 people, however, questions from the floor didn’t really pick up until towards the end. Perhaps the most disappointing element was that the Liberals, the Nationals, and the Labor party did not provide any policy commitments at the forum. In that sense, the Greens came across as being more transparent and committed to a genuine dialogue about mental health.
The current WA Minister for Mental Health, Andrea Mitchell, opened with praise for the hard work that the Liberal government has dedicated to mental health. Her main focus was on a claimed 84% increase in mental health funding since 2008. Andrea also claimed as successes the fact that we have a WA Mental Health Commission, a Mental Health Plan, and a dedicated Minister for Mental Health. As a note, the WA Mental Health Commission was established in 2010, three years prior to the last state election. It is certainly positive that we have a Minister dedicated to mental health in the state government, however, that raises the question of why we don’t have a dedicated minister in the Federal Government?
Jacqui Boydell from the Nationals spoke from a regional perspective. She reasoned that regional development is not possible without investment in education, employment, housing, and mental health. Although there was a brief mention of using technology to connect people in regional areas to mental health professionals, the bulk of Jacqui’s speech was about increasing hope in regional communities by addressing other related issues, such as housing, education, and employment.
The Labor Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Disability Services, Stephen Dawson, added praise to the state government for increasing the funding for mental health. However, he raised questions about the level of attention that the WA Mental Health Commission gives to key performance indicators and outcomes when funding is allocated to the WA Department of Health. Stephen suggested that the current process lacks rigour and criticised the amount of mental health funding which ends up being spent on administration rather than actual mental health services.
Alison Xamon from the Greens gave thanks to the state government for increased funding too, but pointed out that there had been decades of under-investment by successive governments. She noted that most of the new funding went to the health system rather than community-based services. New targets for funding were proposed, including the formation of a Recovery College (my by a few “woo!” sounds from the audience). On the issue of housing, Alison was critical of the three-strike-eviction policy in WA which often makes vulnerable people homeless. She called for the development of hospital discharge and release options with better housing and support which may allow people to return to the living in the community. Alison expressed vehement opposition to the Criminal Law (Mentally Impaired Accused) Act 1996 (CLMIA Act), which she referred to as a blight on human rights, and called for the Act to be overhauled. Finally, Alison expressed concern that the needs of people living with psycho-social disabilities had not been properly factored into the NDIS.
Questions from the floor were mixed, but some of the responses from politicians were a bit concerning. On the issue of providing safe, stable, and secure housing for people living with a mental health condition, the Liberal candidate argued that “the government can’t do it all”. Similarly, the Labor candidate emphasised that funding is very limited and the budget will be even tighter in the coming year. No new policies or strategies were identified to resolve this serious issue. And on the issue of implementing the NDIS, questions and concerns about why the evaluation data has not been released before roll-out were largely ignored by the Liberal candidate. Andrea’s statement that “we want to make sure we get it right” didn’t explain why there has been such a lack of transparency before signing off on the implementation. Questions from the floor about access to affordable mental health care for those in need were responded to with vague references to connecting people with our existing programs, which are already struggling to meet demand. Mention of telehealth as a solution to regional services were frequent, but no specific policies or strategies about ways to actually implement and expand these services were suggested.
We can see why other political parties focus their policies on issues like finance, education, employment, and the environment. The reasoning seems to be that if we address those problems, then mental health issues will naturally resolve on their own. It’s a nice thought, but history shows us that approach doesn’t really work. When mental health is seen as a side issue, it becomes an afterthought, or a byproduct of other policies. Good mental health feeds back into all of those other issues. By putting mental health first, our party will change the political narrative to one where people and their experiences matter in every policy domain. We hope you’ll vote for us in a few years time at the next Federal Election. For now, we hope our summary gives WA voters a sense of who they might vote for at the coming State Election.