Address to the National Disability Services Conference
Preparing for the New World
Hilton Hotel, Adelaide
4 May 2012
E & OE
Well thank you very much Andrew. Can I say after your presentation this morning I feel like I’m at revival meeting. Let me just say Amen! And preach it brother.
We’ve got 600 delegates here which is fantastic. It’s just sensational to see so many people here. I know it’s always a danger to address the second day of an NDS conference but it doesn’t look like Patrick has led too many astray last night. It’s good to be here.
Could I acknowledge Tim Walton, the President of NDS and Dr Ken Baker, CEO of NDS. I see Jeff Harmer, the Chair of the NDIS Advisory Group good to see you Jeff. And also Kirsten Deane, the Deputy Chair of the Every Australian Counts campaign. Great to see you as well.
How unusual it was on Monday night if you switched on the evening news to see disability actually rating a mention on primetime evening news. Obviously that was on the back of the ‘Make It Real’ rallies around Australia. It was unusual but it was a great thing. The fact that the situation of Australians with disability now rates on primetime evening news coverage is a testament to the work of everyone in this room, in getting these issues on the agenda, in seeing an NDIS on the cusp of becoming a reality. I also think it’s a testament to the great campaign efforts of John Della Bosca and Kirsten Deane, who have done a magnificent job in maintaining momentum and in also making sure that on no side of politics is there any back-sliding at all.
It was a fantastic sight for me at Federation Square in Melbourne when I was addressing the rally there. Seeing thousands of Australians together in common cause. I think the statement that was being made by the gatherings around Australia on Monday was pretty clear and unequivocal. That people with disability and their families have had to wait far too long for the support they deserve.
But I think there was another significance to the rallies on Monday. What we were witnessing was a collective commitment by Australia’s politicians to a new covenant with Australians with disability. To a new deal. To make sure that people with disability are at the centre and in charge of their lives. A new deal to make sure that we end the waiting lists, we end the rationing, we end that lottery. And most importantly, that proper support for people with disability does become what it should be and what it isn’t at the moment and that is core government business.
Now I quite deliberately use the language of a new covenant because I believe if we get an NDIS right, it will be nothing short of a new covenant. We witnessed the pledge to that new covenant being made by Julia Gillard in Sydney, and by Tony Abbott in Perth. I don’t know if you saw the coverage of how Tony made his pledge in Perth, but he did it in a very Tony way. He said that he had often been accused of being Doctor No but that when it comes to an NDIS, he is Doctor Yes.
I want to be unequivocal this morning. I am personally committed to an NDIS. The policy of the Federal Coalition is to not only support, but also to implement an NDIS. The Federal Council of the Liberal Party has passed a motion calling for an NDIS. The Federal Council of the National Party has passed a motion calling for an NDIS. And at the weekend just passed I was at the Victorian Liberal State Council in Melbourne. The very first item on the agenda was a motion calling for an NDIS and calling for a trial to be in Melbourne. And in the afternoon at our state conference we had a policy workshop on the NDIS. So I just want to be crystal clear. The Liberal Party and the Federal Coalition want an NDIS. It’s a priority for me. It’s a priority for Tony Abbott. And it will be a priority for a Coalition government.
Now at a previous NDS conference in Canberra I commented that people in the sector, Australians with disability, had been forced to become kind of like Kremlinologists of old, studying every new statement by a politician in relation to an NDIS. Seeing if in the language there was some new and greater commitment to an NDIS, or if there was a weakening of commitment or if the body language conveyed something. And at Tony Abbott’s Press Club speech earlier in the year, I think he and the speech were subject to that sort of forensic analysis. So I wanted to take the opportunity this morning to clear up some confusion once and for all on this particular subject and that is the Coalition’s support for both an NDIS and a budget surplus.
In that Press Club speech of Tony’s at the start of the year he signalled what would be Coalition priorities, and priorities for a Coalition government. And one of those priorities was an NDIS. Tony said that an NDIS was an important and necessary reform. He’s also often said that an NDIS is an idea whose time has come. But he also said something else to the Press Club which it would be fair to say got a little bit lost in translation. He said that an NDIS couldn’t be fully implemented until the budget is in strong surplus. I’ll just repeat that: he said that an NDIS couldn’t be fully implemented until the budget was in strong surplus. Now this was taken by some to mean that no work would be undertaken, no funding supported, and no roll out to commence until the budget was in strong surplus. Can I just say: wrong. It’s not what he said and it’s not what he meant. I think there were many who might not have heard the word ‘fully’ before the word ‘implemented’.
Because you can work towards both a budget surplus and implementation of an NDIS at the same time. Anyway, if we take at face value the current government’s forecasts for budget surpluses as far as the eye can see, then it’s all academic anyway. If you don’t, on the other hand, believe those forecasts for budget surpluses, there is still no cause for concern because we aim to get the budget back into surplus quickly. The last time we were in office and inherited a deficit we got the budget back into surplus in around a year. I repeat again, you can work towards a budget surplus and an NDIS at the same time. Tony’s point was that good budget management is necessary to bring any major reform to completion. That was the point. You need to manage the nation’s finances well if you want to achieve the good things that we want to achieve. And I don’t think that the current government would quibble with that.
So my point is that delivering an NDIS and a budget surplus are not mutually exclusive aims. An NDIS is not the enemy of a budget surplus and a budget surplus is not the enemy of an NDIS. A budget surplus isn’t an impediment to an NDIS. It’s what will ensure an NDIS happens. We aim to, let me put it this way, walk and chew gum at the same time, which is what I think people want us to do.
To make our support for an NDIS absolutely crystal clear, Tony and I held a joint press conference in Canberra a couple of weeks ago. We said at that press conference that we expected and would welcome funding in the budget next week for an NDIS and that if it’s there, we will support it. I can’t immediately bring to mind another portfolio area where we have specifically called for funding in this budget. I think that that’s significant.
Another indication of Tony Abbott’s personal commitment to delivering an NDIS as soon as possible was his participation in the annual Pollie Pedal fundraiser. For ten years Tony has cycled a thousand kilometres for a different cause, stopping in towns along the way and talking to people. This year the Pollie Pedal raised $500,000 for Carers Australia and at each point along the route Tony stopped with and met carers, people with disability, their families, and service providers for people with disability. I think he wanted to physically demonstrate his commitment to achieving an NDIS in a very practical way.
The other point which I think people with disability and their families and service providers should take comfort from is the approach which I’ve brought to the portfolio. It has been, as far as possible, a non partisan one. I have often said to NDS conferences that people with disabilities and their families have an understandably low threshold for partisan point scoring in this policy area for the simple reason that they want things fixed. I’ve also taken the view, just pragmatically, this approach is the best way to try and realise a better deal for people with disabilities.
In that vein, I think it’s absolutely critical that an NDIS be above partisan politics. And to try and ensure a non partisan approach, Tony Abbott and I have proposed a joint committee of the parliament to be co-chaired by the disability frontbenchers from both sides of politics to provide bipartisan support and oversight for the implementation of the NDIS.
The implementation of the NDIS will span several elections and several parliaments. And there may well be changes of government during the implementation of the NDIS. We need a mechanism that can ensure that the implementation of an NDIS is not thwarted or delayed or side-tracked by changes of government or by changes of political fortune. In our view, an NDIS should be owned by the whole Parliament. It shouldn’t be the creature or property of any side of politics. It should be owned by the whole Parliament and through that it should be owned by the whole nation. We have been talking about bipartisanship and we do need to take that bipartisanship I think, to the next level.
I’ll be honest; I have been a bit disappointed that the proposition by Tony and by me hasn’t yet been taken up by the Government. I’m disappointed for a number of reasons and I’ll take you through a few of those. Let’s take for instance, the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday that in the budget she will provide details of funding for bringing launch sites forward by a year. Now I think that’s a good thing. We want to get the launch sites up as early as possible. We want to roll out the NDIS as soon as we possibly can. That means that there’s a heck of a lot of work to do in fourteen months. I know everyone in this room is eager, willing and has already started on that work. But I honestly don’t know whether that timeframe is achievable or not. It may be. And I hope it is. But the honest truth is I don’t know.
I think if we had a parliamentary oversight committee of the nature that I’m talking about, not only would members of parliament across the political spectrum be better informed about the proposal for the implementation, we would also be in a position to ask further questions and be in the position to say yes this is achievable and yes we can do this. I just think it would be a more constructive approach to the sort of announcement that was made the other day. As I say, I hope it can be achieved, and if it can then that’s great. We want to make sure that we get this right and that we aren’t looking at arbitrary timetables. I hope the mechanism we’ve proposed is picked up so that we can be a part of that decision-making and so that we can put our shoulders to the wheel as well.
I also think it’s important that we have a parliamentary oversight committee of the nature that we’ve proposed, so that there is a forum in which legitimate questions can be asked, but asked in a way that isn’t seen to be nit-picking, point scoring or partisan. There are questions that I have. I know there are questions that people who represent other parties in Parliament have. We need a forum where the sorts of legitimate questions which need to be asked, many of which will be questions that you yourselves have, can be asked in way that isn’t seen to be undermining cross-party support for an NDIS. I think that that would be an appropriate safeguard.
It’s also important that politicians, the members of parliament that you elect, across the spectrum, are involved at a much earlier stage. If things go off the tracks or aren’t rolled out as you might like, ultimately people will come to members of parliament and say what are you going to do about it. It’s much better if we’re involved earlier, so that if there are things that don’t go perfectly according to plan, we’ve all got a sense of ownership of that. Again, if questions are raised and asked at that time then they won’t be seen to be of a partisan nature. I think that would be a positive thing.
I also think it’s important we have this parliamentary oversight committee to make sure that the appropriate consultations are happening. I know the Government have announced their stakeholder engagement strategy and that’s a good thing. If there had been this sort of committee in place, I wouldn’t be surprised if the stakeholder engagement strategy had come out a little earlier. As it is, there’s even more work to take place over the next fourteen months. This consultation isn’t going to be a one-off exercise. It’s something that will be ongoing and a parliamentary oversight committee would help to make sure that the appropriate consultations do happen on an ongoing basis, not just with service providers but also with people with disabilities and with advocates in the sector. If people don’t feel like they’re being consulted, they can come to the parliamentary oversight committee and again, we could address that in a way that wasn’t seen to be partisan.
I just want to touch very briefly on a few other things in the sector. The government have released, as you’ll all be aware a little while ago, a National Disability Strategy which was a good and a worthy document. They released a National Carers Strategy, again which was a good and worthy document. In another part of my portfolio they released a volunteers’ strategy, which is a good idea. You know that we now have Carer Recognition legislation. All of these things are good, but I do think that we need to be careful and we need to be on guard. This isn’t something just for this government but is something for governments of all persuasions to keep in mind that there can be a tendency once you’ve released a strategy, once you’ve released a document to have a bit of a feeling, a bit of a sense of achievement that you’ve done something by producing those documents. We need to make sure that there are mechanisms to give life to these documents. The ultimate measure of the value of such publications is really the effect they have on people, the real life change of quality of life and standard of living for the people it was designed to support. I just think that that’s something for the current government to be aware of, and it’s something for us if we are to be the next government to also be aware of.
In that vein, I just pass on a little bit of a warning in a positive and constructive way. We have a Minister for Social Inclusion, a Social Inclusion portfolio and a Social Inclusion unit in the Prime Minister’s department. Again I think governments have got to be careful that they don’t think that they’ve addressed an issue like social inclusion by virtue of having a minister and portfolio with that title. What really matters is the real world impact on quality of life of people. And that ultimately is and should be the only measure. I just offer that as a positive and constructive opposition who have the role from time to time, to ginger the government in order to help them to govern the best that they can.
There is a lot of work to do over the next fourteen months. I pledge that I will do everything in my power to continually reinforce the bipartisan and cross-party nature of support for an NDIS. It will be one of the great social reforms of Australia. We don’t need to look to Europe for our inspiration. We don’t need to look to Asia for our inspiration. We’re very good in Australia at coming up with policy responses. We’re very good at coming up with answers to social issues that are uniquely Australian. I look forward to the NDIS being a reality and to people pointing to the NDIS as a uniquely Australian solution.
Thanks very much.