“When it comes to the NDIS, I am Dr Yes,” was Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s statement when he attended the NDIS rally in Perth last month.
He spent the day, as I did, speaking to people with disabilities, our friends, families and allies about the need for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
While I wasn’t so sure about him going all Dr Seuss on us with his rhyming and nicknames, I was greatly relieved to hear that the NDIS, a scheme that will change my life and the lives of other Australians with disabilities (those of us who are currently disabled and those who will be in the future), has bipartisan support.
The success of the NDIS depends on both the state governments and the Commonwealth saying “we will do this”. Opposition support for the NDIS is vital.
So when shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said at the National Press Club last week that while he supports an NDIS in principle, he can’t promise to fund it, our collective chests tightened again. The disability community has done a great deal of work to explain why government simply must fund the scheme.
We’ve hauled ourselves to hearings of the Productivity Commission to tell our stories. We’ve spoken to our MPs. It’s important to note that none of this has been fun. To stand up in a room full of people and tell them that you’re only allowed to have three showers a week despite your daily incontinence issues, as Lillian Andren did at a Productivity Commission hearing in Brisbane, is not fun. But preserving our dignity in this moment is less important than securing it for our futures.
To my knowledge, Mr Hockey has had very little engagement with people with disabilities and our families since the release of the Productivity Commission report. He did not attend any of the six rallies on April 30. He has no doubt read some harrowing tales from the Productivity Commission’s report, but that’s not quite the same as hearing them first hand.
Perhaps if he had heard Peter Darch, who was named WA’s Young Australian of the Year last year, talk about how he had to beg and plead for support to enter the workforce, he might feel differently.
Darch, who has been a quadriplegic since he was a teenager, explained to the Perth NDIS rally crowd, including Mr Abbott, that he needs 25-30 hours of support to sustain his full-time job as a youth development officer. Under the current system, he can only have 10 hours while in full-time employment.
The breathtaking irony is that if Darch were unemployed, he’d be entitled to 40 hours of care in the home. He’d also be claiming a Disability Support Pension. If he were unemployed, Peter Darch would cost the system much more. The cost to the nation would be far more serious than a simple economic one. The considerable commitment, skills and passion of this man would be wasted.
I can’t help but wonder if Joe Hockey would feel the same way if Peter Darch were his son, or his brother, or his friend. Or if, at the very least, Hockey had heard this story from the horse’s mouth. As far as I know, he hasn’t.
Wayne Swan, on the other hand, has engaged with us. As recently as last Monday, he attended a morning tea in Melbourne where he spoke with numerous disability advocates. He’s also attended other events and meetings with people with disabilities and our families. Wayne Swan knows why the NDIS is so important, because he’s taken the time to listen. If that’s the sole reason the NDIS got a guernsey in this budget, that’s fine by me.
I challenge Joe Hockey to spend some time with us, and then talk about not making any promises.
Now, I’m no economist, but I do know how investment works in general terms. In the UK, for example, there’s a scheme called Access to Work. This scheme is designed to meet extra costs in the workplace, or in accessing employment (including self-employment), that arise because of disability. So if, for example, you were a Deaf person who needed communication support in a job interview, your interpreter would be provided by Access to Work.
In Australia, a Deaf person attending an interview must take their own interpreter at their own expense, or ask the employer to provide one. Believe me, nothing says “I’m the best person for this job” quite like asking an employer to pay to interview you.
In the UK, disabled jobseekers are simply on a more level playing field, and so more people with disabilities are engaged in work. Extra costs of employing someone with a disability are met by the UK government. Has it sent them broke? Not even close.
A report tabled in the UK House of Commons states that “administrative evidence has shown that for every pound the Government invests in Access to Work, there is a benefit of £1.67, from savings on benefit expenditure and increased tax revenue.”
As I said, I’m not an economist, but that looks like making money to me.
In a doorstop interview on May 3 this year, Joe Hockey said that he supports an NDIS:
…but at the end of the day the money has to come from somewhere and there is only one pot of money and that is the hard earned taxpayers’ money and that’s it.
I have an idea. Let us put some money in that pot. Let us have access to privilege of being taxpayers who can contribute our hard earned money to the nation.
Currently in Australia, only half of the 2.2 million Australians with disabilities who are of working age are actually employed. For Australians without disabilities of working age, 80 per cent are employed. A report to the Australian Network on Disability says that, with an NDIS:
…closing this gap by one-third is an achievable – even a conservative – target. Many nations, including New Zealand have already achieved or surpassed these benchmarks and are already working the economic rewards.
Beyond the very basic benefit we’d see in having more people with disabilities paying taxes, we’d also have less people claiming the DSP. More money from taxes, less money on benefits.
In addition to that, we’re going to need to expand our workforce of those who provide our services. People will be employed as our personal assistants; those who help shower and dress us, those who assist us in our workplaces, those who can meet our physical needs so that we can participate in life. More jobs, more money in that pot.
Joe Hockey doesn’t need to look much further than Peter Darch and the UK’s Access to Work for the extra incentive he needs in “keeping promises”. Investing in people with disabilities will, quite simply grow the pot.
I don’t think the question is whether or not Australia can afford to do this. It’s how much longer can we afford not to.
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