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The Will They Or Won’t They NDIS Game Rears Its Head

After a short period of time where discussion of the National Disability Insurance Scheme was almost completely non existent in the political discussion engaged in by the federal government we’ve seen in recent weeks a return to the discourse of the very important initiative. This is because the Council of Australian Governments, that’s COAG for the politically inclined, commences tomorrow.

Funding has been a key area of dispute between the states and the commonwealth and this has been telegraphed in the media ever since negotiations over the funding and implementation of the scheme began. This is set to continue in earnest at COAG as is competition over which states or territories have the privilege of hosting one of the four launch sites announced by the Gillard Government as part of the May budget. This announcement came with $1 billion over four years in federal funding for the scheme.

The states of course are crying poor, particularly Queensland, where the new Premier has inherited a budget deficit from the former Bligh Government of $2.8 billion and a debt of $64 billion for 2011/12.

The South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, whose state has agreed to put $20 million toward the policy but has said today “we don’t have the budget capacity to go further at this time”.

In Queensland’s case, the Premier will go to COAG asking for a launch site to be held in Gympie, north of Brisbane, but without a commitment from his state to put any money toward the launch site.

Premier Campbell Newman supports the scheme in principle but wants the commonwealth government to fund it and he is right with the latter part of the following comment where Mr Newman today said “we’re prepared to support the program, we’re prepared to support a trial site in Gympie, but they (federal government) must fund it and that’s what the Productivity Commission said”.

It is indeed true that the Productivity Commission in its advice to the government on the implementation of the important NDIS said that the commonwealth should fund the scheme.

But the commonwealth itself is limited to what it has available to allocate to the implementation of the policy. They’ve allocated that $1 billion over 4 years, that’s $250 million a year for the first four years.

That’s not to say they couldn’t have done much more, they could have. Instead of plunging more money into areas of spending that have had or will likely not have highly positive outcomes they could have contributed more of the billions of dollars they did allocate during the budget on a policy initiative that will help people with a disability engage in community activities.

Policy to help people with a disability has been chronically overlooked by successive governments of both political colours at the local state and federal level since de-institutionalisation. So the government must be praised for at least bringing this onto the agenda and trying to get outcomes in the area even though they’ve not exactly followed the policy prescription from the experts.

But back to the state governments and their response. They all want it, but some are much more willing than others, for differing reasons, to stump up funds for the Medicare-like project.

Regardless of what the Productivity Commission said about which level of government should fund the scheme and despite the wrong policy response from the ALP Government, all states do have the capacity to at least contribute some existing funds used for disability support were their respective states to win the right to host a launch site. The money would be going into providing the same services to the people in the areas chosen for crying out loud. Surely even Queensland could spare $20 million or at least something, a few million dollars perhaps.

It does appear increasingly like the federal government, aware that this time next year they may well be close to or have already lost government, are trying to look like they’re doing something on the issue while actually achieving much less than they’re capable of.

It’s also less and less likely a future Coalition government, who’ve announced strong support for the NDIS, but then had MPs unleash rhetoric which makes you question the sincerity of the bipartisanship will be willing to take up the political challenge and implement the National Disability Insurance Scheme. If not that, it is reasonable to at least question the cohesion and level of agreement within the party over such a big funding initiative. This would have the ability to collapse further once in government.

The important thing to note is that all levels of government do have the capacity to deal with the implementation of such a scheme. If governments didn’t waste so many millions and billions it could be done in a heartbeat. But the political games are now on and the political will of both the Labor Government and the Opposition are being and will be tested. So to the collective will of the states must be put under the spotlight. That first test has started and will accelerate tomorrow.

The Disappearing Act That is the NDIS

The National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS for short that the Productivity Commission recommended in August last year was seen as the hero that could help people with a disability with the immense costs of living with an impairment. It promised to do this through meeting the costs of treatment and equipment and aligning the states and territories with the same level of assistance as fellow states. It was received well by both sides of politics at the federal level after being instigated by the Gillard Government through Bill Shorten, at the time the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities. Both sides of politics and the Greens committed to supporting the policy idea. Not only that, the states, all of them at least in principle agree and continue to agree with the policy, even if some of them believe that they simply do not have the cash to contribute to what could be a game-changer.

The idea then headed to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) for discussion with the states who are needed on-board as service providers in the disability sector are currently under the purview of individual states rather than the commonwealth government.

It was just ahead of the debate commencing at COAG when the cracks started to appear in the bipartisanship and commonwealth-state agreement on the need to go forward with a the scheme. The federal Opposition committed to the NDIS, but only when the budget was back in “strong surplus” and not that long after, both before and at COAG the state consensus appeared headed for a small crevass, with in-principle support (read far from certain delivery) even starting to sound shaky.

Nonetheless, through all this time the ALP Government continued to hold up the NDIS as a must do and a great achievement of a Labor Government despite not even a trial or a strong agreement with the states to work toward a timeline or concrete progression on trials and implementation frameworks having been agreed to.

By then, the hopes of those with a disability and their carers and families had well and truly been raised, certainly too high for a policy that was and still is just a policy and at this stage a small step further to fruition.

At the NDIS rally the week before the budget and for a time before that, the Prime Minister and her government raised expectations even further, mentioning the insurance scheme at just about every opportunity, in just about every list of talking points for MP’s and ministers.

The highest level of hope was raised just 8 days from the budget at the Every Australian Counts rally in Sydney where the Prime Minister spoke, announcing that the NDIS would commence a year earlier with four launch sites providing services to 10,000 people with a severe and permanent disability, going to 20,000 the following financial year.

But the Prime Minister said we must wait until the budget for the digits on the funding allocation for the initial roll-out of the disability policy which we found out  would be $1 billion over 4 years, $250 million per year for those awful at maths. This is not an insignificant amount of money, but in the scheme of things, a small allocation for the four year period which would need a significant further investment by the future commonwealth government who the Productivity Commission be the sole funder anyway.

Alas, since the budget the crickets have come out in force with the NDIS doing a vanishing act from the political discourse that any illusionist would be happy to achieve in their act. For a government which held up the scheme as a centre-point of their social and broader policy agenda, it has certainly fallen off the radar in a more comprehensive way than any plane that has disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle.

It could certainly be surmised that this amazing Copperfield like disappearing act is down to wrangling between the commonwealth and states over the policy which has spilled out into the public domain and certainly stymied the progress of what is an important, much-needed and well and truly overdue policy response to an issue that has lacked any major attention since de-institutionalisation.

If the National Disability Insurance Scheme really is as powerful and as certain to happen as we were made to believe up until just weeks ago when it was front and centre of the debate then it simply must return to the political discourse in as big a way as it was less than about a month ago.

This could certainly have been avoided by adopting the Productivity Commission recommendation on funding from the outset. The states though could still contribute existing funds allocated to service provision in areas covered by people the Medicare like scheme would capture and provide for.

The question that must now be asked would be, is this just an illusory disappearance from the political landscape of the NDIS or is this a case of a real disappearance without a trace? The cynic would say it leans toward the latter.

None of the Political Players Are Blameless in the NDIS Political Game

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has been seen since the Productivity Commission recommended its establishment last year as the best hope that people with a disability have had for their unmet needs, needs that are almost impossible to reach for some, through no fault of their own. It was received with great fanfare by the Gillard Government, with Bill Shorten a key instigator in the Productivity Commission examination of such a policy move. The hope was raised further when the Coalition outlined bipartisan support for the very important initiative.

But alas, as swiftly as the idea of an NDIS has come around, so has the impression that the solid ground the idea was built upon, the unanimous support,  is now cracking beneath those who have a disability.

Th major political players in this are threefold. First there is the commonwealth government, then there is the Opposition and finally the state governments who at present provide many of the services that would be involved in the running of the future scheme and who have been a part of the political discussion of funding for the important new policy.

In the uncertainty that now clouds the future of a NDIS roll-out no single political player, be it state or federal government or the Opposition is without blame for what looks at the moment to be a shaky future for the not yet realised scheme.

From the outset, the Gillard Government ignored the Productivity Commission recommendation that the NDIS be fully funded by the federal government, the whole $13 or so billion dollars of it. This leaves it to the Council of Australian Governments to squabble behind closed doors and also apparently in public quite openly over just how much each state can or are willing to contribute to the implementation of the program.

The second major player, the states must also take their fair share of the blame for the growing concerns being raised over the future of an idea that has has not even began operating yet.

Even though the ALP Government should have stuck to the recommendation emanating from the Productivity Commission report regarding the commonwealth being the sole funder, the state governments are not, regardless of what they say, without the capability to contribute to the establishment and commencement of the scheme, particularly in combination with the $1 billion over 4 years that has been stumped up by the federal government, no matter how meagre that sum of money is.

The Labor Government sticking to the Productivity Commission timetable for the construction, implementation and operation of the insurance scheme would also help relax some of the long-term funding concerns which look to be playing their part in destabilising the entire process.

The state governments are surely able to funnel some of their funds allocated to delivery of services that would be covered under the scheme into the funding pool for the National Disability Insurance Scheme so that this essential project does not fall before it even has a chance at operation. That’s not asking any state to search for any extra funds that have been difficult to find for many state governments in recent years, it’s just asking for an amount of existing funds to head toward a new idea and only when the services will start being delivered in their respective states.

The other player that is crucial, particularly for the long-term success of the NDIS, the side of politics likely to be in government and needing to oversee the full introduction of the scheme is the Coalition.

Things started well when the Coalition were quick to signal bipartisan support for a long-needed but not yet delivered policy response to the immense and fragmented costs and services that people with a disability have had to endure. But from time to time support has appeared to go up and down like a yo-yo.

Just yesterday at the National Press Club, the Shadow Treasurer appeared to be backing away on behalf of the Coalition from guaranteeing the future funding of the National Disability Insurance Scheme despite assurances from others in the Opposition previously that the NDIS will continue to have bipartisan support. This statement casts some doubt on whether the Coalition are fully committed to contributing to the NDIS including from late next year when all indications are that they will be occupying the government benches.

It is understandable that the Coalition will be cash-strapped through a combination of factors, but they have indicated from the outset their bipartisan support for the NDIS and must make it a reality. There are no shortage of options for achieving the aim of a fully-funded NDIS, even if they cause minor short-term political pain, think a small levy and/or removing some of the wasteful garbage spending that the government simply needs to get out of doing.

The Opposition must continue to commit to the implementation and operation of the scheme which they were so swift to support. If it means returning to the original timetable to make it easier, then so be it, at least then there might be certainty over the future of a sorely needed policy.

What is clear is that all the players need to reach a compromise, make sacrifices and work together better, though with so many competing needs at the table this is already a very hard task, but people with a disability cannot miss out again.

Costings for Many Projects But Not the NDIS Until Tomorrow

Last week, to the excitement of many people with a disability and their parents and carers, the Prime Minister announced that in the budget to be delivered by Treasurer Wayne Swan tomorrow evening, the government would be allocating funds for a total of four “launch sites” to begin to deliver the Productivity Commission recommendation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. In making this announcement, the Prime Minister Gillard has hastened delivery of the policy to a full year earlier than outlined by the Productivity Commission in its recommendations on the matter.

In announcing the intention to deliver this funding allocation in the budget, the Prime Minister told the Sydney rally that they and other Australians with a stake in the policy would have to wait until budget night for further details, including the most important part of the package, the funding itself required to deliver the promise to reach 10,000 Australians with a disability beginning in July next year.

This, in light of the other budget announcements made by the government should be raising eyebrows in query of why one particular group has to wait until the budget is delivered to find out just how much it might cost when other announcements made have had costs attributed to them.

There are various projects that the government has announced, both new spending and cuts where practically full detail has been outlined, compared with the NDIS which has been teasingly announced, but lacks in detail on both cost and locations.

What we do know is that the ALP Government have, for some weeks and months now been holding the NDIS up high as very important and often placing it, if by words only at this stage, at the centre of their policy agenda and political communication with the electorate.

This could have much to do with the fact that the initiative is set to help over 400,000 Australians and their families to deal with the astronomical costs associated with having a disability including equipment and often regular rehabilitation. That’s a lot of votes that a government so on the nose with the public could do well to attract even though it would appear to be just in order to “save the furniture”.

So perhaps announcing the exact details of costs for the project on budget night would be in order to create great fanfare? Put a positive spin on a budget which is supposed to be tough and replete with cuts and budget tricks?

The in-principle support of the states is not without question and that could have something to do with the lack of detail released which would include negotiating where to commence the scheme and whether the states would be stumping up funds for the trials beginning next year.

Whatever it is, people with a disability have waited long enough for policy that will assist them when they cannot help themselves and will allow many to be able to fully participate in the basic daily activities that most in our society take for granted.

In any case there is not much over 24 hours until the detail is announced and interested stakeholders will certainly be watching closely to see whether they might get to test the new framework in just over a years time.

The Ups and Downs in the NDIS Process

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.

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