With Marius Benson
11 August 2011
E & OE
Mitch Fifield, Julia Gillard says the existing system for providing care for the disabled is unfair, under-funded and fragmented, and it seems you agree?
Absolutely. It can’t be denied that the system of support for Australians with a disability is inequitable, that it is broken. There’s been years of neglect. The Productivity Commission has made a case for change which is compelling. The status quo is no longer an option.
The Productivity Commission says it will take seven years to introduce the scheme in full, and you said the Government should accelerate that. Is that practical?
The time frame that the Government are talking about is the one that the Productivity Commission has outlined. But the point that I make is that the Government is keen to push the envelope when it comes to implementing something like a carbon tax, but they seem a little less keen to push the envelope in terms of time for the introduction of disability reform.
But in broad terms, everyone thinks this is a great idea the difficulty is that it is a very expensive idea; $13.5 billion when fully in operation. Where do you think that money should come from?
It’s a big number – $6.5 billion of unmet need. But the unmet need is the unmet need it’s of that magnitude because of years of neglect. The Productivity Commission have made a number of observations about possible funding options, but ultimately it will have to be a contribution from both the Commonwealth and the state jurisdictions. That’s something that will have to be nutted out between the states and the Commonwealth.
The Opposition’s general line of attack on the Labor Government’s economic administration is that it is always big-taxing, big-government, big-spending. This is a very big spend, but you’re in favour of this one?
Absolutely. This is something which is chronic. If government is to have any sort of role in our community, then surely it is to help people who are in challenging circumstances for reasons beyond their control. But I guess the thing that frustrates me is, when you look at the size of this, $6.5 billion, it’s about the size of what the current Federal Government currently spends on its debt interest cost on the Commonwealth debt. So if this Government hadn’t wasted money on school halls and pink batts and green loans schemes, this would be well within the means of Government at the moment.
You’re sounding a little more partisan there, but there has been a very broad, bipartisan acceptance of this, with the exception of Colin Barnett, the West Australian premier. Is the view that you’re expressing in support of this scheme your personal view, or is it the Opposition’s position?
The view of the Opposition is that the system is bust, that there does need to be a new national arrangement. What that looks like is something that needs to be nutted out between the Commonwealth and the states. We have been very keen to bring a non-partisan approach to the area of disability, because people with disability and their families understandably have a pretty low threshold when it comes to political point-scoring.
But I do think it’s fair in this context to observe that this is a Government that hasn’t been a good steward of the taxpayer dollar. That does have costs. That does mean that there are opportunities foregone for doing things like helping people with disability earlier. I think the states have a lot of goodwill towards coming up with a better deal for people with disabilities. But I can understand why they’re a little wary about the current Government’s capacity to deliver complex change, given they often struggle with simple programs.
You say you are adopting a non-partisan approach in this narrow area of disabilities, but what about the politics of it? This is a huge reform, the Government will claim it as one of the great reforms since Medicare, and here’s Labor delivering. Does the politics worry you?
The politics doesn’t worry me. I think this is something that’s got to be above politics. But, this Government haven’t yet delivered. This Government is talking about a new national deal, and that’s a good thing. And we want to be constructive and positive in that. I’ve got my fingers crossed that this will be one area of reform where the Government surprises us.
Mitch Fifield, thanks very much.
The Opposition spokesman on disabilities, Mitch Fifield. And indeed, a bit of bipartisan support for that plan. We’ll see what happens next.