Issue #1559 8 August 2012
COAG disability wrangle – Coalition ugliness on display
Horse-trading at the recent Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting turned uglier than usual when the issue of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was tabled. The Prime Minister was keen to get state government agreement to part-fund trials of the much-vaunted scheme but at first only South Australia, the ACT and Tasmania would agree. Premiers from Queensland, NSW and WA stood by the current Coalition line that the scheme is too lavish given Australia’s delicately poised economic position and that their state coffers were empty. The blast they got from public opinion was richly deserved and forced NSW and Victoria into a partial backdown.
Council of Australian Governments meeting turned uglier than usual.
In the end, Premiers O’Farrell and Baillieu offered roughly half what was requested for the funding of trials at selected locations across the country. The Coalition is giving lots of notice that it will pursue a more stridently right-wing agenda than federal Labor. It will not, for example, consider funding increases for public education of the order recommended in the Gonski report handed down last December. Shadow education minister Christopher Pyne likened the idea of such increases to tailoring the household budget on the basis of a possible Powerball lottery win. The government is remaining coy on the issue. In truth both “sides” of parliament are happy with the continued drift of enrolments away from under-funded public schools into private ones.
Part of the Coalition’s attack on the NDIS is that the issue of ongoing funding is not officially sorted. The Coalition and Labor are both committed to one of the main articles of the neo-liberal faith – low corporate and personal income taxes. Funding from those sources is, presumably, taboo. A Medicare-style levy has been raised and neither the Liberals nor Labor have ruled it out. The thinking appears to be that a tax by another name for something that is popular with the public would not provoke an electoral backlash.
The reason the NDIS has been well received by the community is that the current situation is so obviously dysfunctional. “It’s under-funded and it’s fragmented … and access to services is a very cruel lottery: it depends on where you live; it depends on the kind of disability you have; and it depends on how you got that disability – a very cruel lottery with too many Australians missing out on the basic services that they need,” as Julia Gillard pointed out last year.
Too much also depends on the personal wealth of the individual, the availability of family members for the provision of care and the generosity of volunteers and charities.
The trials will mark a significant lift in funding to people with disabilities. In NSW the government currently provides $17,000 a year for each person with a disability. Under the proposal this will be raised to $21,700 each with the federal government lifting the total spend to $35,000. There is ongoing debate about who should cover any cost blow-out. The federal government says it should be shared 50-50. NSW says the Commonwealth should wear it.
Funding is only one of the mysteries regarding the proposed NDIS. The concept came to light with the release of a report from the federal government’s Productivity Commission (PC) last year. It recommended a market-based model with greater emphasis on competition between providers and the possible winding back of the role of governments from providing services.
“The NDIS is not the brainchild of the PC but has its origins within the finance sector,” The Guardian noted in a two-part feature last September. (September 7 & 14, 2011) “The political process has been driven by Bill Shorten, [then] assistant treasurer and minister for superannuation and financial services. On his initiative, in 2008 when he was parliamentary secretary for disability services, the Labor government appointed a committee, the Disability Investment Group (DIG), to make recommendations for a new disability policy framework for Australia.
“The seven members of the Group came from the big end of town, mostly from the finance sector. The companies they held positions in included AustralianSuper, Philanthropy Australia, Kathleen Townsend Executive Solutions, ANZ Trustees, MossCapital, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Allen Consulting Group. The Group also included Allan Fels, former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
“The government’s terms of references centred on identifying ‘opportunities to increase private sector involvement and investment in the funding of disability services and related infrastructure… .’ And that is what the Group did.”
And while the bean counting and scheming go on, desperation at the ongoing neglect of people with disabilities continues to grow.
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