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Disability reform shows Labor has a heart


WheelchairAt a press conference announcing support for the recommendations of the Productivity Commission's report into disability care and support this week, Julia Gillard described current access to disability services as 'a very cruel lottery'.

That the Prime Minister affirmed the Government's commitment amid ongoing criticism of her 'no carbon tax' statement is testament to its significance. And the Government's response demonstrates compassion and goodwill during a time when many citizens have expressed disgust at the Government's treatment of unaccompanied asylum seeker youths.

It is a sweet result for Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten, whose vision and drive to reform the fragmented and under-resourced disability sector has finally paid dividends. Shorten's work in this area was largely unnoticed by the broader public, as it was understated and without media fanfare.

As Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities in the previous Government, he visited a specialist school last year in Canberra. Parents of students with disabilities expected a media presence, but Shorten's role was purely about information gathering in the pursuit of better policy and better outcomes.

It was to Shorten's credit that the Productivity Commission's inquiry was initiated: in his first junior ministry he became well aware that the current system was 'not delivering the kind of care and support Australians expect for people with disability'.

The final report's recommendations differ little from those in the draft document. The pleasant surprise was the Government's response, which supports the Productivity Commission's vision for the disability sector — to provide individuals 'with the support they need over the course of their lifetime', and financially sustainable reform of disability services.

The main recommendation is for a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which will provide all Australians with insurance for the costs of individual care and support if they or a family member acquire a disability. An adjunct National Injury Insurance Scheme will provide no fault insurance for anyone who suffers a catastrophic injury.

The schemes will provide peace of mind that if something goes wrong, there will be a 'safety net'. In the Government's words, 'care and support should be based on people's needs, not a lottery of what kind of disability they have, how they acquired it or where they live'.

Of course, it's only 'in-principle' agreement — but it's exactly the beginning that people with disabilities, their families and carers, and disability advocates were seeking.

The Government will immediately commence working with states and territories to start building the scheme, and has allocated $10 million towards the technical policy work required. A COAG Select Council of Ministers will be established next month, and an expert advisory group will advise it on establishing foundations for reform and preparation for the scheme's launch.

There is significant work required to build the capacity of disability services and, by extension, the profile of careers in the disability sector. Currently there are two universities offering degrees in disability, and continued professionalisation of disability work will result not only in greater support for people with disabilities, but in greater expertise and innovation in other areas of the sector.

More importantly, the proposed reforms will improve the lives of many Australians. Gillard stated that the Government 'was informed by our Labor values ... giving people the opportunity to get ahead, [and] ... making sure nobody gets left behind.' Certainly, John Della Bosca's involvement in Every Australian Counts helped build support for the proposed scheme.

Cynics who suggest the beneficiaries of these reforms comprise a significant block in Labor's base, forget that disability is not a partisan issue. Besides which, the Liberal Party also backs the reforms.

Those affected by disability tried not to hope too much for an NDIS. The costings in the draft report led some commentators to wonder whether the Government would adopt such recommendations.

Thankfully the Government has not used the budget to kybosh or postpone the scheme, though it noted that 'future reform of disability services will require investment from all levels of Government' and that 'reforms will be delivered in a way that is consistent with the Government's fiscal strategy'.

Tellingly, there is very little online commentary decrying the NDIS, which suggests there is broad support for these proposals.

The only downside to the scheme is that it won't be established for a long time, because the Commission found that to transform the disability sector would take 'at least seven years'. But that's alright. If we wait a little longer it will be done properly.

Moira Byrne GartonMoira Byrne Garton is completing a PhD in politics at ANU and works as a policy analyst in the Australian Government (not in the area of disability policy). One of four children experiences severe physical and intellectual disabilities. Views expressed in this article are her own. 

Topic tags: Moira Byrne Garton, national disability insurance scheme, Bill Shorten, carbon tax, John Della Bosca



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Existing comments

This is indeed good news and a good thing for the Labor government to undertake. There are unfortunately many whose opposition to distribution economics and safety nets would never have let such a scheme see the light of day.

Stephen Kellett | 12 August 2011  

Having been strongly involved in the quality of life of a person with dissability for over fifty years I have seen taxpayer support steadily increase and his lifestyle steadily improve over this time ,and clearly if the taxpayers have more to give his lifestyle will continue to improve .

This new proposal however is just another tax increase ,move the cost out of the current budget where it has always been and move it to a new tax ,like the medicare levy .I am sure they will means test it so the labor voters are not effected ,a few will pay for all . very difficult when people like Shorten are involved not to be cynicle ,they are all politicions trying to be re elected at our expence ,they get the credit and we pay the bills .

john crew | 12 August 2011  

Great article, thanks. I do have a concern that most of the money / choices go to the person with the disability and that safeguards are put in place that curtails expansion of the "disability industry". care/support/advocacy experts are needed but just as important are payment to people with heart and compassion to journey/care with them.

Trish Broderick | 12 August 2011  

It will take several years to implement and hopefully the momentum is sustained by all.

rhonda | 12 August 2011  

I was disabled by an unforseen accident at a doctor's surgery and have been bed bound for 11 years in chronic acute pain. Not only have I suffered but also my wife and 5 children lost an active young husband and father and have not being able to live a normal happy and active family life.

Economically we now have to live on an income well below the poverty line and we struggle to pay for our very basic needs to live, which puts ua all under far greater stress.

I would like the government to adjust our inadequate pension to take away the great financial stress we are under. As the cost of living goes up, the amount of our pensions does not reflect the real cost of goods and services, the new extreme cost of electricity in our state, and we seem to slip further back into poverty while the government uses a cost of living index that never reflects truthfully the higher cost of living for us.

i can't see how any new policy will actually benefit us and other people like us living with a disability and entirely dependant on such a small disablity pension.

The best thing the government can do for most of us who have a disability, can never work again and live in povertly is to increase the disability support pension, remove the goods and service tax for disabled persons as to allow a dignifrd standard of living. I can't see that happening with either major political party.

Trent | 12 August 2011  

As John Crew points out this is an insurance scheme just as Medicare is an insurance scheme, not a health scheme. And we have all seen the erosion of quality health services that has come in the wake of Medicare, this great Labor Party disaster. Heart-warming to see that M/s Garton has found a "heart" hidden away somewhere in the patent heartlessness of Gillard and her government.Such a find,while difficult to achieve, was no doubt a much easier task than finding a brain or integrity.

John Frawley | 12 August 2011  

After a generation of teaching doctors, using their services and investigating the profession for governments, I can say - not being an LQMP!- that John Frawley's views on quality of service and accessibility of care bear minimal relation to the evidence, taken as a whole.

endee | 12 August 2011  

I don't think anyone could seriously dispute that "Labour has a heart" to the extent that most of those in the party try to do the right thing. The problem is they can only work through the bureaucracy, and government departments are notorious for trying to maximise the size of their budget allocations while giving away as little of "their" money as possible. As a full-time carer until three years ago, I discovered the miriad of "catches" that made my late wife, a bilateral amputee, ineligble for anything but a weekly pittance - barely enough to pay for a cup of coffee at the hospital and certainly not enough to pay for the parking. Now if the labour party can learn how to reign in the fat cats in the mega departments, they will be getting somewhere. The other lot seem to be much better at controlling the public service and getting value for taxpayer's (i.e. OUR) money. And getting more distributed to those who really need it. REAL heart, not just good intentions.

Ian | 14 August 2011  

Endee says that he/she is not a LQMP (legally qualified medical practitioner)and yet has taught a generation of doctors and investigated the medical profession on behalf of Government. God help us! Oddly enough I am a LQMP, have taught medical students in five universities, specialists in two learned Colleges of surgery and am appalled by the constant reports in the media of medical disasters that are attributed to the health system in this country, the parlous state of the hospital system, the increasing un-affordability of quality health care and the erosion of nursing and medical training. You don't have to be a genius to realise this. You simply have to read the papers. Perhaps Endee seeks personal medical advise and treatment in the private rather than the public sector where the patient is insulated from the disaster that is Medicare in this country

John Frawley | 14 August 2011  

As the father of a child with mainly intellectual impairments, I have seen governments come and governments go; policies and promises come and go, and I must say that in this sense I am a doubting Thomas - I will believe it when I see it. It sounds wonderful. I pray that it will actually eventuate.

Frank S | 15 August 2011  

I could hardly believe it when the Federal Government announced its support for a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS. Finally, funding will be given directly to individuals with a disability to be used for services they need, rather than the current system where people frequently jump through endless eligibility hoops only to find that the narrow range of services they are eligible for are largely useless to them.

A friend who lost her sight as a child, and as an adult, due to her sight impairment, fell under a train and lost both legs, said: "All I want is someone who can take me swimming once a week, but I can't have that. They can send someone to vacuum my floor." Under the new system, (even though it will take seven years to be operational) she will be able to pay for the services she really needs, rather than the services she is told she is allowed to have from the narrow repertoire available.

Moira, thank you for writing this article.

My full comment on this issue is at http://melitasmilovic.blogspot.com

Melita | 23 August 2011  

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