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Disability reform shows Labor has a heart

  • 12 August 2011

At 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'