Skip to main content →
Share |
May 21, 2012
James O'Brien

Gillard’s driving ambition to take the fear out of disability

Below is an article that appeared in The Weekend Australian from Sue O’Reilly who has written extensively on the NDIS for The Australian.

In an attempt to allay the growing fears of disability reform advocates and counter increasingly strident accusations from political opponents that the Labor government is not serious about creating a National Disability Insurance Scheme – that it’s all just “a cruel hoax”, as many critics have put it — Julia Gillard points to the “lessons of history”.

“A hundred years ago, people used to be frightened about getting old, and a Labor government under Andrew Fisher removed that fear by introducing the old-age pension”, the Prime Minister says. “Fifty years ago, people used to be frightened about how they would pay for hospital treatment, and the Whitlam and Hawke Labor governments removed that fear by introducing Medibank, later Medicare.

“Today, anyone who understands the heavy costs of lifelong disability services and supports, fears becoming disabled or having a child with a disability. And I can assure you this Labor government is going to remove that fear by introducing a universal national disability insurance scheme.”

In an exclusive interview with Inquirer on the subject of the NDIS, Gillard points to her personal history to demonstrate her interest in disability policy issues and the problems with the state-based system for far longer than most observers have suspected.

“My dad was a psychiatric nurse at Glenside, one of the two big psychiatric institutions that used to exist in Adelaide, where many people with intellectual disabilities, as well as mental health problems, used to be kept under lock and key for life. And I remember as a child of only eight or nine in the late 1960s going with my dad to many ward parties and other social occasions there, mixing with adults with disabilities like Down syndrome,” she says.

“These were people who in those days were hidden away behind high stone walls, out of sight and out of mind as far as the vast majority of Australians were concerned. Then Glenside and all the other big institutions around Australia began to be closed down from the mid-1980s on, and that was a very vital and welcome social reform; but the problem is, of course, that successive state governments around the country failed to put in place the community-based services and supports that had been promised in place of the institutions.

“From the time I first was elected as a federal MP (for the outer western Melbourne seat of Lalor), one of the most recurring and distressing issues constituents raised with me — as is the case with all MPs, state and federal – was the dire state of the Australian disability care and support system which presently functions, as many people have pointed out, like a very cruel lottery.”

Up close and personal, as has often been remarked upon, Gillard is a warm, engaging and effortlessly articulate woman, many miles removed from the closed-down, almost robotic figure we see on our television screens, stiffly reciting apparently pre-prepared, over-rehearsed and sometimes not very convincing lines.

To have any chance of wooing a deeply hostile electorate, Gillard needs to start talking far more openly about her life experiences, thoughts, beliefs and feelings over these next “500 days”. It’s possible she has left it too late. But if she’s willing to talk in more depth about anything, it should be her government’s commitment to the landmark creation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme, proudly proclaimed by Wayne Swan last week as representing “a defining achievement” of the Gillard years.

It was Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, who got this particular ball rolling, picking up on the proposal for an NDIS prepared by Melbourne businessman Bruce Bonyhady, a former Treasury officer, the chairman of Philanthropy Australia and the father of two adult sons with cerebral palsy, for Rudd’s “2020 Big Ideas Summit” held in 2008.

Rudd appointed Bill Shorten as his government’s parliamentary secretary for disabilities, a junior and normally obscure post which the ambitious Shorten attacked with relish. He travelledhyperactively across the country and publicly blasting the dysfunctional, ramshackle disability care and support system he discovered as a “national disgrace”.

In a lower-key but more significant way, Families Minister Jenny Macklin also took up the NDIS proposal from early 2008, skilfully steering the idea of a universal, Medicare-like disability insurance scheme through the thickets of government policymaking and internal politics, gradually elevating the prospects of an idea estimated to cost at least $15 billion in its first full years of operation from the back of the queue to centre stage. In this month’s federal budget, despite all its self-imposed pressures to turn around a big deficit and deliver a surplus come hell or high water, the government committed $1bn over four years to begin the rollout of the NDIS from July next year in up to four pilot launch sites.

So it is Gillard, once again, who has actually delivered. Or has she? As critics have been quick to point out, $1bn over four years is nowhere near the amount the Productivity Commission said, in a report last July, would be necessary over this timeframe to fund the rollout of an NDIS to the estimated 410,000 Australians with severe and permanent disabilities who meet its eligibility criteria. In addition, the federal government has suddenly proposed that any state government wishing to get a share of the initial funding and a launch site – and the resulting local political kudos – must contribute 22 per cent of the new funding to provide individualised NDIS care and support packages, with the commonwealth contributing the other 78 per cent. This is not what the PC report recommended as the best option; it said all new funding, on top of the $5bn a year at present spent by the states, should be provided from federal coffers, not least because it is only the federal government that has a strong enough revenue base to do so.

All the federal-state manoeuvring and positioning of the conservative-led states of NSW and Queensland – not to mention Tony Abbott waiting hungrily in the wings for an election he is at present certain to win – is fascinating. However, that is probably not the right word to describe the reaction of tens of thousands of Australians with disabilities and their family carers, who can only watch in dismay and confusion as the federal-state war of words escalates.

Is this proposed landmark reform going to go the way of so many other proposed reforms, lost in a mire of federal-state brawling and endlessly tedious blame games? Has the Gillard government announced an impressive-sounding $1bn solely in the hope of scoring much-needed short-term political points? Or is this initial allocation in an extremely difficult budgetary context proof it is determined to proceed towards implementation “step by careful step”, as the PM and Ms Macklin insist?

Could the government, in setting its initial negotiating position with the states, be overreaching, as most states — in particular Queensland and very possibly NSW and Western Australia – may refuse to chip in? Or is it perfectly reasonable for the commonwealth to argue, as it does, that all states need to lift their contribution to a standard national benchmark?

Should states such as Victoria, Tasmania and NSW that have been relatively generous in their disability funding contribute less than states that have long underfunded services and supports, particularly Queensland and, to a lesser extent, South Australia? Is the government sincere in saying it wants to carefully pilot the scheme in test sites first to ensure it’s feasible before working out how to pay for it? Or is Labor cunningly leaving it to an Abbott government make the hard decisions?

“Yes, there’s a lot of work to do negotiating with the states and territory governments about hosting the launch sites,” Gillard says yesterday. “But beneath all the day-to-day political comings and goings, I’ve sat round a (Council of Australian Governments) table twice now with state and territory leaders talking about the NDIS, and I think we are starting from a perspective that we are all interested, and do recognise, we need to do more. “So I’m hopeful we will be able to work on that basis to get all the details of the launch sites agreed in the first instance, then work more broadly to get the whole scheme up and running.

“A billion dollars is a lot of money in anyone’s language, and certainly enough money to fund launch sites and get us started and we want to do that as soon as possible, which is why we are deliberately pushing on a year ahead of the Productivity Commission’s recommended timetable. “People with disabilities and disability campaigners have waited long enough. And while I’m not underestimating how much time it will take to get the full scheme up and running, we are determined to make a start sooner rather than later.” Another reason for the Prime Minister’s apparent confidence that at least four states will put up their hands to host the four launch sites is that she knows they are all facing a nightmare scenario, should the NDIS not eventuate.

There would be ever-increasing demand for expensive disability services and supports that could be met only by ever-increasing state budget outlays, far in excess of the $288 million the commonwealth is asking for in return for its $1bn. Plus, Labor knows the states cannot be at all sure of a future Coalition government riding to the rescue, at least in its first few years.

“The community now understands Tony Abbott will likely introduce the NDIS, and I would like to think he would be a lot more consultative and engaging in the development of the scheme,” NSW Disability Services Minister Andrew Constance said last week.

Yet despite Abbott telling a pro-NDIS rally in Perth at the end of last month that when it came to the NDIS, “I am Dr Yes”, opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey remarked on the same day that an NDIS “represented roughly an extra $1000 in tax for someone on $67,000 a year. Are Australians prepared to pay that?” The look on his face suggested he thought the answer was no.

Unless and until the Coalition stops sending out such mixed messages, therefore, the Gillard government knows the states realise the present offer is likely to be the best they are going to get, at least for several years. Indeed, Gillard is clearly counting on that fact, warning that “even enshrining the NDIS in legislation before the next election would not guarantee it could not be rolled back” by a Coalition government intent on delivering big budget surpluses.

Leave a comment

Join the campaign

Sign up to show your support and to receive updates from the campaign.