The latest Council of Australian Governments meeting has gone off with a bit of a hitch. The National Disability Insurance Scheme launch sites were front and centre of the COAG agenda today with the states and territories coming together to try and win a launch site, well in most cases at least.
At the meeting today in Canberra a total of three launch sites were announced by the Prime Minister Julia Gillard. South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania managed to reach agreement with the Gillard Government to co-fund trials in their respective states and territories.
But alas, a fourth and final trial location could not be found. The states and territories who will be hosting launch sites are all Labor administrations. Those loudest in their criticism of the government over the project, from a positive interest in at least trying to find an outcome, to in Queensland’s case, not having an interest at all in contributing funds until at least 2014-15 are all Liberal state Premiers.
Western Australia a Liberal state, under Premier Colin Barnett will at least be trying out their own version of the scheme, ‘My Way’ which the federal government will have a look at to see how their experiment at a state-based scheme goes. But really, all states should just get with the same program, but points for trying.
New South Wales and Victoria, on the face of it, seem part of the way there. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced that his state had $570 million for the trial, a not insignificant amount, over half of the commonwealth allocation in the May budget which put aside $1 billion for the four initial locations for the disability scheme.
Together with Victoria, the two states with conservative Premiers put together a joint bid. Their proposal was to cater for 15,000 people with a disability with the New South Wales part of the two-state agreement to be put in place in the Hunter region.
But again money was the killer here. The Prime Minister wanted NSW Premier O’Farrell to contribute a further $70 million for the trial and the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu an extra $40 million for their states to be able to have one of the four initial NDIS service areas.
The first point is that the money that NSW were willing to bring to the table was an extremely generous sum for a scheme which the Productivity Commission recommended should be fully funded by the feds.
Second, surely each of the three parties in the negotiations for the joint bid had the ability to make up the $100 million funding shortfall between them, whether that be either of the two states or the Gillard Government, or all three sharing the extra burden.
As far as Queensland goes, with relatively new state Premier Campbell Newman at the helm, the whole situation is far from encouraging. The Queensland Premier, Mr Newman came to the meeting of Australian governments proposing to spend not a single cent on a proposal for a launch site. Interestingly though, Mr Newman brought a proposal to COAG today for a launch site to be held in the town of Gympie, north of Brisbane.
But that of course was never ever going to translate into the northern state being granted the right by the commonwealth to enjoy the benefits of being one of the first four places in the country to see how the eventually national scheme will operate.
The overall point is that all Liberal states were playing politics. It (the funding job) could have been done. Surely too, the federal government, in the knowledge that in twelve months time they will likely not be in power and not having to stump up further funds for the essential disability policy. were also playing political games.
What was interesting today and in the lead-up to the crucial Council of Australian Governments meeting was that the Northern Territory Government, under Chief Minister Paul Henderson, a Labor administration appeared relatively absent from the debate and discussion. The motive likely the upcoming election in the Northern Territory.
So where to now for the National Disability Insurance Scheme?
While the federal government should have followed the Productivity Commission recommendation to fully fund the scheme it is clear that it will never happen that way.
But it is clear that the NDIS just has to happen. People with a disability have waited far too long for a serious attempt at a framework meeting their basic but diverse needs in a converted national approach.
Like it or lump it, the states have to alter their stance on the project to a standpoint where they are willing to contribute more whilst still pushing for the commonwealth to fund the vast majority of the costly policy.
With a likely Liberal Government at the federal level next year, it is important that their in principle support, which appears to be wavering quite strongly, is converted into real support for following the already embarked upon implementation process.
Lobby groups, the state and current federal government will need to continue to put the pressure on the current federal Opposition to make their uncertain bipartisan support a reality. Nobody wants to see an incoming Abbott Government in power suddenly baulk when faced with needing to implement a policy that the Liberal Premiers have all had varying degrees of difficulty acknowledging is important.
But again, at the same time, the current administration at the federal level must take their share of the blame for what is a very worrying juncture in the NDIS debate.
All states and the federal government need to work together more and be more willing to compromise. They all have the means to contribute something. People with a disability cannot afford to miss out with another failed policy.
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.