PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: If we were designing governments from a blank sheet of paper today and determining what should be our priorities to fund from the taxes collected from Australians, I think support for people with disabilities would be among the highest. Supporting people who, through no fault of their own, are born with or acquire profound disabilities must surely be one of the central reasons for having a government. It must surely be a mark of a modern and compassionate society to be able to support such people.
We do not collect taxes to put pink batts in people’s roofs or to initiative gimmicks such as FuelWatch or Grocery Watch. Rather, we collect taxes to do the things that cannot be done by individuals or by civil society, such as public infrastructure, defence and environmental protection. I believe that support for those with disabilities, particularly profound disabilities, falls into the category where frequently their needs cannot easily be met by their family or by civil society.
This is a fundamental reason why I so strongly support the concept of a national disability insurance scheme, and it is one of the reasons why Tony Abbott says so strongly that the NDIS is an idea whose time has come. The concept at least is to provide adequate support for people with disabilities, regardless of how or when they acquired the disability. This will be the breakthrough of the scheme if it is properly funded and executed.
In the time I have available today I would like to cover three points: firstly, the state of disability support presently, and how an NDIS could overcome some of its problems; secondly, what this particular bill in front of us proposes and the challenges that will confront us, particularly financial ones; and, thirdly, I would like to touch on a quibble I have with the government regarding their insisting on sometimes politicising the matter, despite everyone’s desire to put this issue beyond partisanship.
Let me start with the first item: the present state of disability support. I believe everybody in this chamber realises that the system of support for Australians with disabilities is broken. The level of support a person with a disability receives can depend on numerous factors, such as, what state they live in and whether the disability is congenital or was acquired, and, if acquired, whether it was in the workplace, in a motor vehicle accident or in some other context. Workers compensation and motor vehicle accident insurance provide coverage in some states, but not all. But if you were born with a disability or acquired a disability later in life it can be a completely different story. What that often means is incredibly long waiting lists and queues to try to get some of the services you need. The result is that many people with a disability are left without the assistance they need.
Many people from my electorate have come to see me about the proposal for a national disability insurance scheme to discuss how it potentially would impact on them and their family. One such person was Adam Holleran, a 17-year-old man who came with his 22-year-old sister, Gemma Holleran, to speak to me about the disability insurance scheme. Adam is a person with quite profound intellectual disabilities but is still physically quite capable. He enjoys doing things such as horse riding and recreational activities such as swimming. But, because of the lack of support the family presently receives, they have great difficulty in being able to provide Adam with any of those recreational facilities to provide the social inclusion they are seeking. They have been placed on a waiting list for an individual support package. It could take them up to two years to get some additional assistance. Gemma Holleran said:
We need help now, not in two years, when the stress and strain has skyrocketed. Much more needs to be done so that families get what they need and when they need it, and not after they reach the breaking point.
I think the key point she raises there is that it is not just the key support for the individual with the disability but, importantly, it is the support for the families, as well, who are often desperately trying to do their absolute best to care for their loved one. I am often told by older parents: ‘I am not going to be around forever, and my son or daughter I am caring for will probably outlive us. Who is going to look out for our child after that?’ It is a very important question for them and one that they are greatly concerned about.
We need a new system of support that is based on need rather than rationing, with the entitlement for support going to the individual. The individual needs to be at the centre and in charge, able to pick the supports, aids, equipment and service providers of their choice. This is the vision of the Productivity Commission’s landmark report into long-term care and support for people with disability, and this is the vision of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It is a vision that the coalition strongly supports.
The bill in front of us does not itself deliver the vision of a national disability insurance scheme as outlined in the Productivity Commission report. I think it is important to state this clearly, because I sometimes fear that expectations are being set by the government that cannot be met in the near future. I think that is not a desirable thing to do. We need to be very clear about what we are doing, what we can achieve and the pace at which we can achieve it.
The bill establishes the framework for the NDIS and for the NDIS Launch Transition Agency. This will enable the scheme to be properly launched and the agency to operate the launch in five trial sites across Australia, from July 2013. The first stage of the scheme hopefully will benefit 20,000 people with a disability, and their families and carers, living in South Australia, the ACT, Tasmania, the Hunter in NSW and in the Barwon area, near Geelong, in Victoria.
The trials will provide funding to individuals or organisations to help people with disability participate more fully in economic or social life through provision of an entitlement, enabling things such as aids, equipment, supported accommodation or personal attendant care. An initial $1 billion has been set aside for these trials.
While there is very strong support across the chamber for the desirability and concept of the NDIS, the complexities of the scheme arise in the detail. For example, the core mechanics of the scheme will be outlined in what are called the NDIS Rules, and these rules will specify and establish things such as the eligibility and assessment criteria. The NDIS Rules consultation paper was released late on Friday, 1 February, this year and feedback closes on 1 March. I am concerned that this is a remarkably short time period to discuss what is a critical feature of the entire NDIS—that is, the eligibility and assessment criteria for who will be able to access the scheme. The bill itself is very broad, defining eligibility as someone with a permanent impairment which results in substantially reduced functional capacity. How this is specifically defined will determine whether people can access the scheme, and the rules consultation paper asks questions but does not at this stage make any suggestions.
The second challenge lies in marrying the existing state schemes with the new federal schemes. Most disability support, as you would be aware, currently operates through state schemes, and so it is critically important to have state governments working cooperatively with the federal government as the details are worked out—and that just adds an additional complexity when you, in essence, have nine governments having to work collectively and cooperatively together to get this national scheme in place.
The third complexity is the cost. The government has allocated $1 billion over the forward estimates for these initial trials, but the Productivity Commission says that $3.9 billion is required initially. So there is a shortfall financially, and we are assuming that, following the passage of this bill, the government will at least appropriate the additional funds in the upcoming May budget. The full implementation of the scheme, though, is likely to cost closer to about $10 billion per annum and, given the state of the budget presently—in large deficit and with a huge debt to pay off—funding this becomes so much more difficult. But we need to do it. The fourth challenge is implementation, and we need to ensure that we have a rigorous implementation process so that mistakes are not made along the way.
In the last few minutes, let me touch on the third area that I wanted to speak on—and that was some quibbles which I have with the government in terms of how it has approached the debate in relation to the NDIS. I understand that the government is proud to initiate the Productivity Commission report and to put this bill forward—and I commend Minister Shorten for the work that he has done to get to this stage. But I think it is a disservice to the disabilities community, and reflects poorly on the government, when it seeks to politicise the scheme. Quite often we hear Labor members, including the Prime Minister and the minister, say that this is ‘all about Labor values’. Well, with due respect, this is all about human values and I do not think that anybody in this chamber can claim jurisdiction over compassion and care for those who are less fortunate than us. This scheme will probably take three to four terms to fully implement, and so we have a strong interest in ensuring that there is great bipartisan support—not only at the federal level, but also at the state and territory levels. To that end, the coalition has suggested that, in order to maintain that spirit of bipartisanship and get the cooperation of both the opposition and the government at the same time and into the future—regardless of who is in government and who is in opposition—we should establish an NDIS implementation committee, chaired by one person from the Labor Party and one person from the coalition. In that way, both sides will always be engaged in the process over what will probably be a decade-long implementation process. I must say, I am disappointed that the government has sought to not take up what I thought was a very constructive offer and an offer which would see us through the terms of parliament in front of us, when there may well be a different government in power.
Can I finally just congratulate a few people for getting to the position we are now with this scheme: firstly, all of those people who suffer from a disability, or who have a loved one who suffers from a disability, who have been such strong advocates over the last two years in pushing for this and getting it onto the agenda. Certainly the Every Australian Counts campaign, I think, has been very effective. There have been many individuals in this parliament who have been ardent supporters of it. I mentioned Bill Shorten. I should also mention the shadow minister, Mitch Fifield, who I think has also, like Bill, done very good work in this area in working with the disabilities community to ensure that we take their concerns on board.
The NDIS is an idea whose time has come. This is the first stage with this bill and there is still a lot of work in front of us. We still have to find considerable funds to make it happen, but this bill represents a very good first step.