ADDRESS TO NATIONAL DISABILITY SERVICES CEO’S CONFERENCE
“The view from the Opposition”
Rydges Lakeside, Canberra
7 December 2010
Could I acknowledge,
– Tim Walton, President, National Disability Services
– Ken Baker, CEO, National Disability Services
The last time I spoke at an NDS function was 3 months ago in Melbourne. We were in the twilight zone, still waiting to know the outcome of the election. A couple of days later, I sat in front of a TV with the rest of the nation as the rural independents announced their decision with Rob Oakeshott playing the role of FIFA boss Sepp Blatter. I have to say, I have a lot of sympathy for Frank Lowy and the Australian World Cup bid team, because I know what it’s like to sit there and hear the opponent’s name read out!
Despite having more votes, and more seats in both houses of Parliament, we were unable to form a government. That’s an observation, not a complaint. Such is the nature and majesty of the Westminster parliamentary system. So all of us in Tony Abbott’s team have re-dedicated to the task of being an effective opposition and an alternative government.
After the election result became clear and after the Prime Minister announced her front bench, I asked Tony Abbott for two things. Firstly, I mounted the case to Tony to elevate the portfolio to ministerial rank. Secondly, I asked Tony to allow me to continue in the portfolio. Tony quite readily agreed with the first request but the second was met with a little surprise. It seems wanting to stay in this portfolio is not a common political ambition. However I am pleased that I am able to continue working in this area. I enjoy it. And I’m motivated by the desire to achieve some serious reform. I also think that this is an area where a lack of continuity has been an ongoing problem in such an important portfolio.
It was a good and widely welcomed move by Tony to elevate the portfolio to ministerial rank. But I must confess I was disappointed that the Government did not follow suit despite assurances from the previous portfolio holder that he would lobby for it to happen. But I do welcome Senator McLucas to the portfolio and acknowledge her history and long standing interest in this area.
The limits to bipartisanship
The other reason I wanted to remain in the portfolio was to continue raising the profile of disabilities. In the last term of Parliament there was a strong cross-party effort to do just that. Bill Shorten, Rachel Siewert and I worked well together, which was appropriate. We were striving to focus the attention of the public and the political class on an area which has been neglected for so long.
But I think it’s important to recognise that bipartisanship is not and should not be an end in itself. Bipartisanship at its best helps achieve important reform. At its worst, bipartisanship is the chloroform governments use to render oppositions passive and inert. Bipartisanship should only be embraced if it serves a policy purpose. Bipartisanship should only continue if it advances the cause of Australians with disability. And if, in my assessment, I think a more traditional approach to opposition is required to get results, then I won’t hesitate to do so.
Make no mistake, I am happy to continue to work cooperatively with other political parties, but it is appropriate for the opposition to take a more vigorous approach to a government in its second term. So you should expect to see a more robust approach from the opposition in the disabilities portfolio.
A new paradigm?
There have already been indications that this robust approach will be required more often, with a number of administrative failures by the government in this term.
The initial failure was the Prime Minister forgetting to appoint a dedicated member of her executive to the portfolio. This was a poor start by the Government and signalled a diminished profile for disabilities in the Government. This omission was one of ten changes to frontbench roles and titles in the days that followed, with Senator McLucas ultimately announced as a Parliamentary Secretary.
Next was the failure to deliver on supported accommodation and respite. Over two years ago, the Government promised 313 additional supported accommodation and respite places. So far only 142 of those have been delivered, less than half the original promise. This situation arose, in part, because the Government delivered funding for the places to the states through a memorandum of understanding that was so deficient that it failed to include basic reporting requirements. As a result, the Commonwealth has no idea where the places are, when they were let, who was contracted to build them nor when the full compliment of places will be delivered. There needs to be some basic accountability when the Commonwealth hands money to the states and territories. This performance to date means the Opposition will be carefully monitoring the Government’s 2010 election commitment to fund a further 150 places. And it’s why one of the Coalition’s commitments during the election was to establish a Commonwealth Disability and Carer Ombudsman whose first task would be to undertake a national audit of supported accommodation.
Thirdly, the Government has badly mismanaged their legislative agenda to the detriment of people with a disability, which I am also aware of in my other role as Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate. As a result, reforms to special disability trusts and the closing of a disability support pension loophole have now been delayed until some time next year. The legislation to deliver these reforms had already passed the House of Representatives without opposition. It was listed on the Senate’s agenda for the last week of sittings, but then suddenly disappeared. I’d like to take a moment to explain this issue. It’s not in itself a big issue. But it’s because it is a relatively small matter that it is so instructive about the Government’s attitude to the parliament and its role.
The Opposition was seeking to amend this legislation in the Senate to address the case of carers in the situation of Mr Hugh Borrowman. To give you some brief background, Mr Borrowman and his partner care for their adult son who has a severe intellectual disability. Mr Borrowman is a senior diplomat and was nominated as Australia’s Ambassador to Germany, only to have this appointment vetoed by then Prime Minister Rudd. Mr Borrowman was then appointed as Ambassador to Sweden, but turned it down as Australia’s lack of a social security treaty with Sweden meant that his son, who must travel with him due to the nature of his disability and guardianship arrangements, would lose his disability support pension entitlement after residing overseas for more than 13 weeks. It seems unreasonable to strip DSP recipients like Hugh Borrowman’s son of their entitlement by treating them as having made a decision to leave Australia to reside overseas, when in fact they have made no such choice. It also seems unfair that carers be limited in their career opportunities due to their caring role.
The Opposition proposed an amendment which would have resolved this issue and made life a little easier for DSP recipients and carers in this situation. Our amendment had the support of the Australian Greens and was likely to gain further crossbench support. It also had the support of key stakeholders such as Carers Australia. Furthermore, it would not have delayed the passage of the legislation beyond this year. But the Government, no doubt fearing the success of a non-government amendment, decided instead to pull the legislation entirely and then sought to blame the Opposition for the Bill’s delay. But there’s a pretty basic fact that’s inescapable, which is that it’s impossible to pass legislation if it’s not listed on the parliamentary agenda for debate. And only the Government can do that.
This issue is a relatively small one. But if the Government’s so called new paradigm can’t even apply to a minor amendment, which I might add the Government itself concedes is necessary, then the new paradigm means nothing. The result – the situation of families like the Borrowman’s remains unaddressed and needed changes to Special Disability Trusts due to take effect on 1 January cannot.
But perhaps the strangest decision by this government in disability was the appointment by the Government of former Age columnist, Catherine Deveny, as a Disability Ambassador. Ms Deveny is best known for having been sacked from The Age after making offensive comments on the social networking site Twitter.
These included tweets on comedian Rove McManus’ wife Tasma Walton whom he married after his first wife died of cancer. Quote,
“Rove and Tasma look so cute…hope she doesn’t die too”.
And there were her comments on Anzac Day,
“Anzac Day IS a glorification of war. They didn’t die for us, but because they were risk taking testosterone fuelled men with a pack mentality.”
Blogger Tim Blair has discovered further insensitive remarks by Ms Deveny. For example, in a collection of her columns, Deveny wrote about why residents in an outer Melbourne suburb shouldn’t breed,
“The reality is that it is impossible to watch these brainless retards belt the crap out of each other without enjoying it just a little.”
And from her column “Carols By Candlelight”,
“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, because Mum was chucking her annual Christmas spastic.”
Now I understand that Ms Deveny has dyslexia and has two children with dyslexia. But the sort of deeply offensive behaviour she has displayed in the recent past in my view makes her unfit to perform the role of a Disability Ambassador. An Ambassador’s role is to promote awareness and understanding, to acknowledge sensitivities and to find ways to bring people together. What was this Government thinking when it appointed someone better known for insults than inclusion? I have called for Ms Deveny’s appointment to be terminated. But it should never have been made in the first place.
These administrative failures by the Government are a real worry not only of themselves, but also because they are failures on basics. If the Government can’t even get these things right, how are they going to deliver a generational reform such as a national long term care and support scheme.
In this term of Parliament, the Opposition will continue to prosecute any administrative failures. After all, that’s our job. To hold the Government to account and ensure that Australian taxpayers are getting value for money and real, practical solutions to problems. But we will also continue to outline a positive policy agenda for the nation’s future.
Education for students with disability
Today I want to primarily talk about two elements of the Opposition’s disabilities agenda – education and workforce participation.
For a great number of Australians with disability, education is the great enabler. A good education can mean the difference between a fulfilling life of work or a lifetime struggling on the disability support pension. We know that people with disability face significant barriers to entry when it comes to seeking employment. Governments have expended much energy and resources on trying to move disability support pensioners into work. But doesn’t it make far more sense to put our focus on ensuring that people with disability who have the capacity to work don’t end up on the DSP in the first place?
One way to stem the flow of people seeking income support is to do everything we can to give them the best possible chance of finding a job and keeping it. We must start by ensuring that every child with disability has a solid educational foundation. Australia’s schools education sector on the whole is pretty good. There no doubt are areas for improvement, but there are few, if any, nations in the world where you would prefer your child to be educated. One of the reasons for that strength is the presence of two parallel, thriving sectors – government and independent. And within these sectors there are a variety of different school environments on offer.
The Coalition has always believed that parents are best placed to choose the best educational setting for their child. And in Australia, parents have a wide variety of choices of schools for their child, all of which receive an appropriate level of government support. That is, unless of course, your child has a disability. Because with such disparate levels of disability support between the government and non-government sectors, parents of children with disability have far fewer choices. The numbers vary wildly between states, but in some cases a child with disability at a non-government school is only eligible to receive around a tenth of the support of a child at a government school. Not only are the levels of support inadequate, but there is little choice for parents when it comes to what sort of support their child receives. It is basically a case of you take what you can get. This is not the stuff of a first world education and it’s not good enough. More support is needed, but more control must be handed directly to parents.
This was the thinking behind the Coalition’s Education Card policy that we took to the last election. Our policy proposed that, initially, 6,000 students with disability would receive an entitlement of up to $20,000 per annum, on top of any existing funding. Crucially, the entitlement would follow the student. For the first time, parents of children with disability would have a funding entitlement that they could take to any school and use for whatever purposes they saw fit. They could, for example, purchase some aids and equipment, or engage a speech pathologist. For many students with disability, an adequate level of support is all they need to overcome their impairment and achieve literacy and numeracy levels on par with their peers. We are doing these children and the nation a lifetime of disservice if we deny them the opportunity to succeed. The Education Card was our key policy to support education of students with special needs, but we also had a couple of other commitments that would assist. Our increased and expanded Education Tax Rebate allowed for parents to claim the costs of education for children with special needs.
We also committed to the capital funding for the Insight Education Centre for the Blind and Vision impaired. I congratulate the new Coalition Minister for Education in Victoria, Martin Dixon, who during the Victorian election campaign committed to the project. As a result of their election victory, this funding will now be delivered. I am aware that this was a somewhat controversial policy in the disability sector. Some interpreted it as a signal that the Coalition would pursue a shift back to separate institutionalised education for children with disability. Let me set the record straight.
I agree that the trend towards educating children with disability in mainstream schools is a positive one. None of us want to see a return to separation. But we mustn’t let ourselves become wedded to an ideology at the expense of choice and flexibility. There is no one approach that will suit everyone. In the case of the Insight Education Centre, there is a group of committed parents who feel that their children are not receiving the support they need in the mainstream system and believe they would benefit from a more intensive environment. The idea is that the Centre will equip blind and vision impaired students with the basic skills they will need to succeed in a mainstream environment.
Mainstreaming is good but we shouldn’t make the mistaken assumption that placing all children with disability into a mainstream school means we can all relax and say “inclusion achieved, job done”. For some children, a mainstream environment can be just as isolating as a specialist one. In the quest to make progress away from the institutional practices of the past, we must make sure we don’t let a pendulum swing determine our approach. There must be balance and there must be respect for parental choice. There is an intense debate around mainstreaming versus specialist schools, and strong arguments on both sides. For policymakers though, I am firmly of the view that the best approach is to facilitate choice and let parents decide what’s best for their child.
And for those of you who may be wondering why we committed to fund one school in one state for one type of disability, the answer is because there was an organised group of parents, a well developed proposal and a need to be addressed. But to ensure we didn’t neglect other students across Australia, we also committed to have our newly established Commonwealth Disability and Carer Ombudsman undertake an audit of special education needs at schools across Australia.
Recently the new Minister for Schools, Peter Garrett, announced a working group to advise him on strategies to assist students with disability. Whilst I am pleased that this issue appears to be on the Government’s radar, there has been enough talk and not enough action in this area. It is also concerning that within the eleven member group, there are six education representatives, two union representatives and two state education departmental representatives. Yet on a group dedicated to students with disability, there is just one disability representative. This needs to be fixed. We will wait and see what action the Government takes as a result of this consultation.
Disability Support Pension
Whilst we are pursuing better outcomes in education, there is an alarming trend developing when it comes to people with a disability and work. We want every Australian who can work to be able to find it. For those with a disability unable to work, we rightly have a system of income support known as the disability support pension.
The growth in DSP recipients has been reasonably modest, but over the past three years something has shifted. The number of DSP recipients is suddenly growing much faster. From June 2004 to June 2007, the number of Disability Support Pension recipients grew by 2.5%. But over the last three years, from June 2007 to June 2010, the number of disability support pension recipients has grown by just under 11%, over four times as fast as the previous three years. There are now almost 800,000 people receiving the disability support pension, up by around 80,000 in just three years. In the recently released Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the Government updated their disability support pension expenditure forecasts to show that an additional $892 million will be required over the next four years, over and above what was forecast in the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
Certainly the additional cost to the budget is worrying, but this is more than just a base argument about cost to the taxpayer. If more and more people with disability are going onto income support in a time of falling unemployment, then something is wrong. We are failing Australians with disability. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that is poured into disability employment services, we are seeing no reversal in the above-trend growth in DSP recipients. Certainly there is a perception that there are a number of people receiving the DSP who shouldn’t be. These people are taking up valuable and scarce resources that ought to be going to people who genuinely need them. We must do more to identify these recipients. But we also need to work out why we are failing to place people with disability into employment in sufficient numbers. It may be a case of inadequate support, or inadequate incentives, or both. There will be no quick fix.
But helping move disability support pensioners off the payment and into work will be a key focus of a Coalition Government. This is certainly an economic argument, but it is much more than that. It’s about enabling people to enjoy the dignity and greater social participation that comes with employment. There are those who put disability support pension reform in the too-hard basket because of its inherent political sensitivity. But it’s just too important to neglect. We want more people in work and we want taxpayer’s support for people with disability to go to those who need it most.
Whilst we are very focused on those DSP recipients who, with some assistance, have the capacity to work, we ought to recognise that there is a class of recipient who will never be able to work in open employment. The nature of their disability is such that they simply will not ever be able to perform work tasks and their condition is not going to improve. In these cases, we ought to consider whether it is appropriate to continue to subject these people to ongoing re-assessments to establish whether they continue to qualify for DSP. These processes are stressful and sometimes traumatic for carers, family members and the person with disability too. In those cases where a person’s disability can be firmly established to mean they will never be able to work in open employment, perhaps ongoing re-assessments are unnecessary. The Coalition’s work in developing future reforms in this area will be ongoing.
This morning I haven’t spoken specifically about the need for improved long term care and support for Australians with a disability or the good work that the Productivity Commission is doing. That will be a big focus for us all this year. But I want to sound a couple of warnings. Crunch time is coming.
Firstly, up to this point we have all been able to project our own personal visions onto the acronym NDIS. There will be disagreements within in the sector and between State and Federal governments about the coverage, eligibility, funding and governance of any long term care scheme. Secondly, governments need to avoid using an impending NDIS as an excuse to not do anything in the meantime. The response of State and Federal governments to the Productivity Commission work needs to be in two parts. What the new model of long term care will look like. And as that implementation will take time, what is proposed in the interim. It’s going to be a big year.
I want to acknowledge the work of everyone here today to improve the lives of Australians with a disability and their carers. I hope you all enjoy a well-earned break over the festive season.