The National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS for short is the most promising policy idea relating to disability in some time, perhaps ever. It’s something that needs to happen, should happen and where politics needs to be put aside and has been. It’s a long-term project, meaning much time to prepare it well, but equally and with the history of the Gillard Government as much time for it to fail. The policy idea desperately needs the big guns of politics and society, past and present to keep their collective eye’s on the ball to turn this great idea into a political reality.
Today the NDIS lobby group, Every Australian Counts, headed by former NSW government MP John Della Bosca made a wonderful choice, naming former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer from early in the Howard era the campaign patron.
Tim Fischer, like many parents in Australia knows just how hard the lives of people with a disability can be. He left politics, citing as a reason the need for he and his family to focus on the demands of helping out their son, Harrison who has autism.
Mr Fischer has been a long-term advocate of doing more for people with a disability whilst in public life and post politics, involving himself in the disability cause with different organisations in the field.
As someone with a disability I have had the opportunity of witnessing just how committed the former Deputy Prime Minister is toward improving the lives of people with a disability and how interested he is in hearing the stories of people with a disability.
When I competed at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games the man himself was the Mayor of the Paralympic Village. I will never forget seeing him moving around the village, that trademark hat adorning his head, welcoming athletes and team staff from around the world, shaking their hands and having a bit of a chat to as many people as possible on his journey’s around the athlete precinct.
Often on my trips to the dining hall I would encounter the sight of him sitting down with athletes, Australian or otherwise sharing a conversation with many of the mass of athletes that gathered in Sydney to compete at the 2000 Paralympics. Indeed, I even had the opportunity, sitting with a group of athletes when the Howard Government Minister came to say hello.
Far from the obvious benefits of having someone whose experience with disability is both close and personal, the political benefits of having a former MP, diametrically opposed to the Government which has proposed the scheme is a very important factor.
It is important position, both to keep the Gillard Government honest with fierce, but diplomatic advocacy on behalf of the Every Australian Counts group, a skill honed overseas, as much as it is t0 keep the Coalition honest and on track with its’ commitment to bipartisanship on this most important reform. This is particularly important when the Abbott-led Coalition seems closer and closer to taking the reins of government at the next federal election with implementation and commencement possibly occurring somewhere in what could be a second term of a Coalition Government.
This policy at present is still just really a thought and no money has yet to be committed to the implementation of the actual scheme, though rumours abound that there will be an allocation of sorts outlined in the forthcoming budget, just weeks away on May 8th.
Having Tim Fischer in the role of patron for the campaign, starting in earnest with the rallies next Monday in capital cities around Australia is a big step forward in the campaign and will help to keep the campaign on track from political idea at present, to reality.
The short period of time since the findings of a Productivity Commission report on a way forward for a National Disability Insurance Scheme and subsequent announcement of the Gillard Government and Abbott-led Opposition of support for such a project has been one of brilliant, euphoric highs for people with a disability and their families and carers and of painful lows. The last 24-48 hours have been no exception with both wonderful developments and potential roadblocks popping up as Premiers prepared for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting which took place today in Canberra.
Bipartisan support for the concept of an NDIS was quickly established in the short moments after the Productivity Commission report was released by the Gillard Government in August last year. An audible collective applause of people with a disability and those that support them could be heard across the nation back then when first the Gillard Government announced it would pursue the idea and soon after, the Shadow Minister for Disabilities, Carers and the Voluntary Sector, Senator Mitch Fifield announced Coalition agreement with the proposal.
Since then, interested groups have waited, for over six months now, with baited breath for an announcement of a commitment to funding this immense project, slated to cost over $6 billion dollars. That hasn’t come to date, however in recent weeks there has been immense speculation that there will be some allocation of funds in the forthcoming May budget for the much needed program.
There has also been much consternation over the words of the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in a recent speech to the National Press Club where the scheme was referred to as an “aspirational” target and something to be pursued when the budget is back “in strong surplus”. These comments were taken by many as a backing away of sorts from support for the idea of a NDIS and angered disability advocates.
But alas, today most of those fears appear to have been obliterated with the Leader of the Opposition using a press conference to again profess Opposition support for the essential proposal which would transform the lives of people with a disability, helping them with the massive costs of living with a disability and allowing many of them the ability to participate in the Australian economy.
Today Mr Abbott said that he and the Coalition would support the allocation of money in next month’s budget for the design and consultation work needed in the implementation of the NDIS.
Further to that, the Liberal Leader also proposed, in a letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard today that the parliament set up a Joint Select Committee c0-chaired by both major parties of interested parliamentarians to help progress the big change which is projected to take some years just to finish the implementation of the Medicare-like policy.
But as has been the roller-coaster that is the NDIS since the August 2011 announcement, it is far from certain that all the Premiers are onboard with implementation of the NDIS at this stage, while all do agree in principle with the idea of having an NDIS.
Both Queensland and Tasmania have stated in the last week and again in the last 24 hours that their respective cash-strapped states are in no position to fund the implementation of such a grand-scale initiative as the NDIS. Other states too have said that negotiations need to continue on the scheme, with all at least indicating “in-principle support”.
The Productivity Commission preference is that the Commonwealth fund the entire National Disability Insurance Scheme and this would appear, from interviews with the state Premier’s to be the major sticking point in moving toward implementation of the idea, giving the impression that the ALP Government is pursuing the states for money for the implementation of the NDIS.
It seems clear that the impasse over the scheme has a lot to do with the poor budget position that the states and the federal government find themselves encountering. This does threaten to derail the program implementation and indeed has been a reason for a lack of effort in relation to disability for some years, with governments of both shades not seeing disability as a major priority even though that constituency is large and growing, particularly in step with the rapidly ageing Australian population.
But there is a way forward toward the realisation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme to help those Australians that have a disability. That is for the states to use their current funding allocation for services that would be provided under the NDIS to put toward implementation of the scheme as the states would be using that money for disability services.
This method could be unpopular though, with commonwealth funding put on the table by the Productivity Commission report, with states wanting to use money saved in the event of full commonwealth funding for the insurance scheme for other budgetary priorities.
It seems clear that the bickering between the states and the federal government is set to continue for some time over a way forward on the NDIS, but with the Abbott Opposition seemingly showing a firm interest in helping the Labor Government implement the scheme over the entire process, there is hope that the states will be finally brought into line, but this may not occur for some time yet. The noise from disability advocates must continue until the full implementation and delivery of the scheme is realised, but the highs and the lows will continue.