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We Must Remain Vigilant

The National Disability Insurance Scheme, now renamed DisabilityCare is a step closer to becoming reality after the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman signed an agreement with Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Brisbane. The agreement confirms the funding commitment of both levels of government to the disability scheme.

The deal will see Queensland contribute $1.9 billion dollars over the next decade and see the disability reform starting to emerge in 2016, before it is fully operational in 2019-20. In signing up, Queensland now joins New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory as signatories to the funding arrangements. That leaves Western Australia and the Northern Territory as the only governments still to put ink on the page.

Understandably, excitement is growing about the future of disability care in Australia and that has accelerated with each individual agreement reached between the state and territory governments and the commonwealth. People with a disability around Australia, their carers and families, are slowly rediscovering a long lost hope, that their needs might be sufficiently met by government. Of course there is going to be palpable excitement. Of course there will be some celebration.

But we need to be very careful about how we view recent events. As advocates and supporters of this much-needed reform we must not allow ourselves to get too swept up in the emotion of important days like yesterday. There is no doubt that commitments like that agreed to by Julia Gillard and Campbell Newman are a big step forward, but a lot can still go wrong between now and 2018-19. In fact, there is a need to continue to be cautious until well after the scheme is fully operational across the country. Things can still go a bit pear-shaped.

The first, but most surmountable roadblock is getting the recalcitrant state of Western Australia and the Northern Territory to agree to a funding commitment for the rollout with the commonwealth.

Western Australia wants to sign up but wants more decentralised control of the scheme in the state and that is fair enough, because service delivery should be based on a largely decentralised bureaucracy. Negotiations between WA and the federal government will continue and a resolution of some sort appears inevitable. But caution is still the order of the day here and both the state and the commonwealth must continue negotiations with an open mind and a desire for compromise on the specific issues WA has with the policy.

The Northern Territory will also need to get the pen out and sign a deal with Canberra for the full rollout of DisabilityCare. The NT Government just recently penned a deal to have their own launch site in the Barkly Region. In light of this, realisation of the funding for the full commitment surely cannot be too far away. But again, all possible eventualities must be taken into account, including the negative ones. even though 6 of the 8 states and territories have agreed to terms with the Gillard Government.

Bilateral agreements aside, there is still the issue of where the commonwealth, even the states, will get the rest of the money for the disability insurance scheme, despite the commitments to fund the scheme. At present the agreements are simply words between two parties and in the interest of making sure DisabilityCare happens, the positive developments must be viewed with the utmost wariness until the full policy has actually commenced.

The Opposition too, who will almost certainly be in government come September, will need to be pursued just as relentlessly over its commitment to the NDIS. There is bipartisan support but it means nothing until we actually see the policy up and running.

Finally, we must continue to run a critical eye over the policy even when it is operational. There may be shortfalls in standards of delivery and even funding and we should not be particularly surprised if either of these possibilities arises. In fact, it is completely within reason to expect that both problems may exist, though hopefully the  launch sites will allow enough time to remedy most, if not all potential issues.

With the agreements signed to date between commonwealth and state and territory governments, about 90% of Australians with severe and permanent disability and those that look after them can now have a little more hope.

We need to make sure over the coming years that the agreements are transformed from words on a page to deeds.

Queensland Seeking to Pay the Fare for the NDIS Bus

It appears, less than a week after the last Council of Australian Governments meeting, that Queensland has jumped firmly on the National Disability Insurance Scheme bandwagon. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman today announced a “timeline” for providing funding toward the NDIS. Premier Newman also confirmed that he has written to Prime Minister Julia Gillard with a formal bid for a funding split between his state and the federal government.

Mr Newman has written to the Prime Minister and is seeking a 50-50 funding split between Queensland and the commonwealth for funding of disability services under the national reform to the disability sector. The Premier flagged this offer last Friday while in attendance at the COAG meeting of first ministers.

Campbell Newman has however reiterated that his government will wait until the budget is in surplus. Therefore he has said that the decision to commit money to the disability insurance scheme will be delayed by two years.

A further element of the promises today from the Queensland Premier was a pledge to begin increasing funding of the disability sector from 2014, with plans to reach the national average spend on disability by 2018, the year that the NDIS will be fully operational. This will mean, in dollar terms, an increase of $868 million over the four-year period from the current levels, very low compared with other states, to $1.77 billion in the year that the NDIS is due to come into force.

The offer is similar to the deal reached between New South Wales and the Gillard Government, a which will see the national government contribute a little over 51% of the funds for the NDIS and the New South Wales Government over 48% of the shared contribution.

The offer of an even share from the Queensland Government will likely receive approval from Julia Gillard. However, this evening the ALP Government has responded to the offer from Queensland, saying the spending plan does not contain enough funds for the full implementation of the disability insurance scheme.

The Australian Capital Territory has also committed to the full rollout of the NDIS. Because of the size of the population in the territory, the ACT Government has been able to guarantee that, just a year after the launch site is established, approximately 5000 disabled Territorians will start being covered by the full national disability scheme. And by 2016-17, the scheme will be fully operational in the territory.

There is however one element of the NDIS rollout that the Newman Government has not committed to. From the start of the negotiations at COAG, the Liberal Government in Queensland has refused to commit to funding a NDIS launch site, a minor commitment which would have cost between $20 and $30 million dollars.

It is somewhat true that a launch site in Queensland is now redundant, with five already agreed to in other states and territories. Well, that is true at least in theory. Originally the Prime Minister had called for bids from four state and territory volunteers, but thanks to a somewhat joint effort from NSW and Victoria there are now five.

Queensland offering to establish a launch site however, would be an inexpensive symbol of their commitment to the future of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, above and beyond the political promise they made today. A launch site in Queensland would be priceless in terms of the information it would provide. Another launch site in Queensland would help ensure that the full implementation of the scheme is informed by the best, most robust data available.

The next move requires Queensland to come back with a higher offer.

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