Address to the National Disability Services CEO’s Conference
“The view from the Opposition”Rydges Lakeside, Canberra
6 December 2011
E & OE
Tim Walton, President of NDS. Ken Baker, Chief Executive Officer of NDS. Ladies and gentlemen.
I, like you, have become captivated by this portfolio. Captivated by the people. Captivated by the need for change. Captivated by the potential to improve the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Australians.
And that’s why I love my job. That’s why I want to stay in this portfolio. That’s why I often say that this portfolio is probably the most important public office I will hold.
The needs are great. The stakes are high. And to that end I have sought to bring an essentially non-partisan approach to this portfolio and to the cause for an NDIS. My reasoning has been that this is the best way to achieve a better outcome for people with disability.
Those who know me and those who have worked with me know that I have been at pains not to take gratuitous shots at the Government in this portfolio. And that I have worked across the aisle, as the Americans say, with Labor and Green portfolio colleagues alike. And rest assured that is not about to change.
But I do want to point out that bipartisanship is not and should not be viewed as an end in itself. Bipartisanship at its best helps achieve important reforms like an NDIS. At its worst, however, bipartisanship can be the chloroform that renders oppositions passive and inert. Bipartisanship in my portfolio should continue for so long as it advances the cause of Australians with disability.
Now I am not suggesting that this should no longer the case. But what I am saying is that the time has come to sharpen up the critique of the Government in the disability portfolio. Not in a partisan sense, but in the best Westminster tradition. Where the parliamentary opposition questions and critiques, with the objective of improving policy and helping the Government of the day to do and to be its best.
But first I want to focus on the positives.
The release of the Productivity Commission’s Final Report into Disability Care and Support was an important step towards improving the lives of people with disability. It provides a blueprint and a glimpse at what a better future might be like. It was a great project and a profound body of work which the Opposition strongly supports.
And it was also encouraging that the concept of an NDIS was endorsed at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in August by governments of all persuasions.
Further, the commitment at the time of the release of the Productivity Commission report of $10 million by the Federal Government for technical work was welcome as was the appointment of the advisory body and the COAG select committee.
It was also promising to see that the Commonwealth, states and territories agreed to lay the foundations for an NDIS by mid-2013 with a launch to follow a year ahead of the recommended timetable set out by the Productivity Commission.
And the Government’s weekend announcement of $10 million for an agency to help design the launch of an NDIS was also welcome.
And the Opposition was also pleased to see a motion of support for an NDIS passed at the ALP National Conference on the weekend which matched motions passed by the Liberal Party at its Federal Council on 25-26 June and by the Nationals at their National Conference on 27-28 August.
But I want to put some of these developments and announcements in context.
Firstly, I’ll be honest. I don’t know what the announcement by Minister Macklin to lay the foundations a year early actually means given there is no Government timeline for an NDIS as a whole and much of the preparatory work was essentially already happening.
Secondly, the remit of the agency announced at the weekend is not clear. It certainly isn’t the National Disability Insurance Agency envisaged by the Productivity Commission. Its role looks to be to that of a grant making body.
Thirdly, the $10 million to support the technical work announced with the release of the Productivity Commission work in August is not new money. It is coming from existing departmental spending.
Fourthly, we don’t know where the additional $10 million announced for the agency at the weekend is coming from. Presumably this also comes from departmental funds rather than new money.
Fifthly, the Government’s Mid-Year Fiscal and Economic outlook the MYEFO mini-budget released last week did not contain any money for an NDIS.
So when you look at the $20 million announced to date, which doesn’t appear to be new money, it is just a statement of fact that not a dollar has been committed by the Government to an NDIS.
So I regret to say that the detail required to conclusively demonstrate a commitment to an NDIS is still missing. The Government has yet to identify a funding envelope for the scheme. The Government has yet to identify a timeline for the scheme as a whole.
I was hoping for, and indeed called for, the mini-budget to contain serious funding for an NDIS. Without that commitment in the mini-budget, the danger is that other things will crowd out an NDIS.
When examining the capacity and priorities of the Government it is important to look at the state of the budget.
We found out last week at the announcement of the MYEFO mini-budget that the Government’s financial situation has deteriorated substantially since the Budget was announced in May.
The budget deficit this year has increased by $15 billion and tripled in size from what was originally forecast. The Government has delivered four consecutive budget deficits totalling $167 billion. And peak debt is set to go beyond $136 billion.
Despite this expenditure. Despite this spending. Despite the debt. Despite the deficits. The Government has still, so far, failed to make a substantial commitment towards a National Disability Insurance Scheme.
As I mentioned earlier, the only mention of an NDIS in the mini-budget is the $9.7 million for technical work the Government has stated it will re-direct from existing departmental programs and activities.
The MYEFO mini-budget provided the Government with the opportunity to confirm how and when they plan to fund an NDIS. They did not do so.
I remember flagging a concern at the NDS meeting in Melbourne, just after the last election. Flagging that it would be extremely disappointing if the billions the government had, in my opinion, sub optimally spent on school halls, home insulation, and other schemes compromised the Government’s ability to deliver an NDIS.
My point is that the Government’s continued deficit budgeting does pose a challenge to an NDIS. The difficulty with this continued deficit budgeting is that it is funded through borrowing and borrowing must be repaid and repaid with interest. The interest paid on the debt represents the opportunity cost.
To put this in perspective, the current Government’s annual interest bill on its debt is projected to be $6.8 billion next financial year. That is $6.8 billion each year spent on debt interest costs alone. That is $6.8 billion going towards nothing not a school, not a bridge, not a hospital bed, not an additional supported accommodation place, not a single aid or piece of equipment.
Each dollar on interest represents an opportunity foregone.
I know I don’t need to point out that the $6.8 billion annual interest bill payment is very similar to the $6.5 billion figure for unmet need quantified by the Productivity Commission.
If the current Government had not spent $16 billion on school halls, several billion dollars on the home insulation scheme and billions in other programs, there would be adequate resources for an NDIS today.
The more government wastes money, the more they potentially compromise their own ability, and that of future governments, to deliver for people with disability and their carers.
But back to the positives.
Both the Government and the Opposition have given in-principle support to an NDIS.
And as I mentioned, the Federal Councils of the Liberal Party and the Nationals have passed motions in support of an NDIS as did the ALP National Conference.
So the Liberal Party organisation, the National Party organisation, the ALP organisation, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Kevin Andrews, Jenny Macklin, Jan McLucas and myself all agree that the current system is broken and that there needs to be a new national deal for people with disability.
But the important point here is that the main support oppositions can give to a programme or policy is in-principle. Oppositions don’t deliver annual budgets or run programmes. Only governments can allocate real money. Only governments can go further than in-principle support and appropriate real funds. Despite the announcements of advisory groups, select committees, a new agency and the delivery of a mini-budget, the Government has not yet done so.
What I am saying is, the Government is approaching a “Jerry Maguire moment”. You are entitled to say, “Show me the money”.
I have called on the Government to outline a clear funding envelope and a clear timetable for the funding and implementation of an NDIS. The Government should have done so in the MYEFO. They did not.
The Federal Budget in May is crunch time. You. Me. Everyone. We need to ramp up the focus on the next budget.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doubting the resolve of the NDIS champions in the Government, but they need our help. They need your help. And they need the help of a positive opposition. So they can mount the argument internally. So disability doesn’t get crowded out.
Now let’s be positive and assume all is well in the Budget for an NDIS. Assuming that, there is one other issue I would like to quickly address in relation to laying the foundations of an NDIS.
The Productivity Commission’s vision for an NDIS is for a system of support based on insurance principles, run by a commercial board rather than a new public sector style bureaucracy.
The Commission found, based on the experience of the Victorian Transport Accident Commission and the NSW Lifetime Care and Support Authority, that there are significant efficiencies from adopting insurance principles.
An efficient system of support, based on insurance principles, is crucial to ensuring that the Australian economy reaps the benefits from an NDIS while ensuring that people with disability get the support they need. That’s one of the main reasons why the Commission emphasised the importance of early establishment of appropriate governance arrangements.
I’m concerned that the early structures put in place to plan the NDIS may not be well placed to give effect to the Productivity Commission’s vision. I worry that establishing the COAG select committee might not have been the best approach to lay the foundations for an NDIS.
Rather than a conclave of ministers supported by a bureaucratic process. I do wonder if it might not have been better to appoint an interim Chair, a board and a Chief Executive Officer to a fledgling National Disability Insurance Agency as the first step. A Chair and a board overseeing the initial development of an NDIS. Allowing the people who would be charged with running an NDIS to help design it. To help build it.
It may have been better to start with funding arrangements and governance arrangements rather than focussing initially on things like the development of assessments tools.
I just flag this as a concern and as something to consider.
My take out for today is that there has certainly been a lot of activity.
Now I like the National Disability Strategy as much as the next person. I’m partial to the Carers Strategy. I have no problem with Carer recognition legislation or the National Volunteer Strategy released last week.
Having said that, I’m still not clear what these documents actually do.
Now I thought the Shut Out report was a worthwhile exercise. And I’m all for motions in support of an NDIS passed by political parties at their conferences. And I don’t mind a COAG select committee or even the announcement of a new unnamed agency.
But I do ask what concrete changes have any of these worthy documents or announcements led to?
My message to the Government in the nicest possible way is “C’mon guys. Get on with it.”
We are now in the situation where people in the sector study the words, announcements and behaviour of ministers like the Kremlinologists of old. Trying to divine if the latest statement or pronouncement is an advance on the NDIS or signifies a greater commitment. Whether an expression conveys some new and deeper meaning.
The time is here for a timeline for the NDIS. The time is here for a funding envelope for an NDIS. This is the challenge for the Government in the next budget. And if they meet it, no one will be cheering more loudly than me.