2011: A big year for disability reform
In his article published on Ramp Up last week, Todd Winther expressed the understandable frustration and disappointment many people with disability and their carers feel towards government inaction on disability policy. It’s true, no government in Australia has covered itself in glory when it comes to disability policy. And the challenge before the current government is to take action to match its fine words.
However, I cannot agree with Mr Winther’s contention that “no politician in Federal parliament has a genuine interest in disability policy.” I acknowledge his frustration, but many of my parliamentary colleagues have a strong interest in disability policy and recognise the need for urgent and wide-reaching reform.
My Liberal colleague Senator Sue Boyce has a strong interest and family experience of disability and a vast knowledge of the area. Senator Jan McLucas, the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers has a long standing interest in the portfolio as does Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.
As for myself, I not only have a genuine interest in disability policy, I am motivated by the desire to achieve serious reform. That is why, after the election last year, I asked Tony Abbott for two things. Firstly, I asked Tony to elevate the portfolio to ministerial rank. Secondly, I asked him to allow me to continue in the portfolio. Some are surprised when I say this. It seems that Mr Winther is right when he states that wanting to stay in the disabilities and carers portfolio is not traditionally equated with political ambition. However, I believe that there are serious gaps in Australia’s system of support for people with disability and their families, and that some continuity is needed.
Two areas in which I am determined to make a difference are education and workforce participation. For many Australians, including those with disability, education is a great enabler. A good education can mean the difference between a fulfilling life of work or a lifetime struggling on the disability support pension. But not only are the levels of support for students with disability in Australia inadequate, choice is sparse for parents when it comes to the support their child receives.
In order to boost support and hand control back to parents, the Coalition took an Education Card policy to the last election, in which, initially, 6,000 students with disability would receive an entitlement of up to $20,000 per annum.
Parents of children with disability could take this entitlement to any school and use it for whatever purposes they saw fit. For example, they could purchase equipment or engage an aid. For many students with disability, the right support is all that is needed to achieve their full potential.
Workforce participation of people with disability also needs attention. Anyone who wants to work, including those with disability, should be able to. And Australians with disability who cannot work are entitled to the disability support pension. But the number of DSP recipients has grown rapidly over the last few years. If more and more people with disability need income support whilst unemployment levels are falling, then government policy is failing Australians with disability.
Helping move disability support pensioners into work will be a key focus of a Coalition Government. It isn’t just about economics – it’s about enabling people to enjoy the dignity and greater social participation that comes with employment.
Yet we also recognise that there are some DSP recipients who, due to the nature of their disability, will never be able to work. In these cases, we ought to consider whether it is necessary to subject these people to the stressful process of ongoing re-assessments to establish whether they continue to qualify for DSP.
2011 will be a big year for disability reform, with the Productivity Commission due to make recommendations on a National Disability Insurance Scheme in six months time. This will mean a higher profile for the disability sector and a call to action for governments. Crunch time is coming.
But I want to sound a note of caution.
Up to this point, we have all been able to project our own ideas and visions onto the acronym NDIS. When the Productivity Commission makes its recommendations, there are bound to be disagreements within the sector and between governments. Coverage, eligibility, structure, governance and funding will be up for debate.
Mr Winther stated there are no votes in disability policy. He may be right. I don’t know. But there are no votes in much of what the Parliament does, nor should there be. We must act on disability because it is needed and it is the right thing to do. I, like many others in the disability community, hope that the Gillard government rises to meet this call to action, and that 2011 is the year when talk becomes action and real reform is implemented.