- By MIKE STEKETEE
March 10, 2012
KIM Jago captures in one person everything that is lacking in the support we provide to people with disabilities. For almost 19 years, she has been working for the Victorian Department of Justice.
Jago suffers from a degenerative muscle disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which means just making it to the office every day is a minor triumph. She needs help getting out of bed (by 5.30am so she can get to work by 9am), going to the toilet and dressing before settling into her wheelchair.
“I love working and having some independence,” she says.
To do so, she has cobbled together 19 hours of personal care assistance a week. Recently, the Multiple Sclerosis Society told her it would have to cut the 10 hours a week it was providing to two. “There is no way I can continue working without these eight hours,” Jago says.
She persuaded Wyndham City Council to cover the gap, but only for the next three months. In the wonderful ways of the bureaucracy, she was told she could qualify for assistance at work, which is no use if she cannot get there. Alternatively, she has been offered help to work from home but that is not an option in her job. This week, the MS Society told her it would restore her assistance for the time being. In the longer run, whether she can keep working depends on whether her application for state government funding succeeds.
If not, Jago, 37, faces the prospect of giving up work and, instead of paying taxes, going on welfare. She has put in an effort that would defeat most people for a still uncertain outcome, even though it is one that makes sense for her and for society.
When the Productivity Commission described the disability support system as “underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient”, it was talking about the situation facing people such as Jago. Her case also brings home the costs the present arrangements can impose on the economy and, conversely, how a national disability insurance scheme can become a net economic benefit. Under a NDIS, Jago would be entitled to the support she needs in the same way Australians are entitled to healthcare under Medicare. A curious bipartisanship has emerged on this issue. There is not a politician to be found opposed to an NDIS because the logic for it is so compelling. Julia Gillard said in November it would be “a defining achievement of this term of government”. Last weekend, after visiting a Melbourne family that has a son with a disability, Tony Abbott tweeted “the NDIS is an idea whose time has come”.
But there also is another bipartisanship: both sides of politics are fudging on funding. Beyond an initial $20 million, the government has yet to make any financial commitment to an NDIS. It is in a stand-off with the Liberal states, which say they will not agree to detailed discussions on implementation until they see Canberra’s money, whereas the government claims it can’t put up the money until it can do the detailed costings with the states. Abbott has said full implementation requires a return to strong budget surpluses.
The Productivity Commission estimates an NDIS would require an extra $6.5 billion a year, almost double the present funding from state and federal governments. As a result of Fair Work Australia’s decision on equal pay for community sector workers, the government has raised this to $8bn.
This looks like a lot of money, particularly within the government’s ridiculously rigid constraint of returning the budget to surplus next financial year. But the surplus would not be seriously compromised under the Productivity Commission’s proposed rollout of the scheme, which would require spending $600m in the next two financial years; spare change in a budget with expenditure of $380bn a year.
Moreover, there are any number of programs that should have less call on taxpayers’ money. As the Productivity Commission puts it, “Were government to be starting with a blank slate, provision of disability services would be one of its highest spending priorities.”
The commission does not envisage the government meeting the full cost until 2018-19 but spending would build up rapidly in the intervening years. However, the NDIS also is an opportunity for politicians to raise their horizons. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, it “is an economically responsible proposal, providing an investment in people with a disability and in the future of Australia. It pays for itself.” The Productivity Commission agrees: “The bottom line is that the benefits of the NDIS would significantly exceed the additional costs of the scheme.”
PwC says Australia has an employment rate of 39.8 per cent for people with disability. That is half that of the rest of the working population and puts 20 of 29 OECD countries ahead of us. The Productivity Commission estimates possible gains in employment of 320,000 for people with a disability by 2050 as a result of the NDIS and proposed reforms to the disability support pension. PwC adds that if Australia raised the proportion of employed people with a disability to that in the top eight OECD countries, the employment gains would reach 370,000. As well, about 80,000 carers could be freed to enter the workforce or increase their hours worked. National income could grow by $30bn to $50bn by 2050.
The option of muddling along with the present patchwork of schemes is no real alternative. The PwC report says the number of people using disability support services has been growing at 8 per cent a year and it sees this accelerating to 10 per cent a year as a result of an ageing population of carers and advances in medicine that are increasing the lifespan of people with disability. In short, the supply of informal (and cheap) care is declining while the numbers needing care is growing, shifting an accelerating burden on to taxpayers. An insurance scheme such as the NDIS would provide an incentive to minimise long-term costs, including through early intervention and encouraging people into work. People such as Jago deserve no less.
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