Address to the National Disability Summit
Novotel Hotel, Melbourne
28 June 2012
E & OE
You’re probably aware that there’s a matter of some contention which is being debated in the Senate today. There are many issues of great contention in federal politics at the moment. In a parliamentary democracy it’s important to get the balance right between areas of agreement and areas of controversy. If you have too much agreement then you don’t provide choice to the public and you don’t provide scrutiny of the government of the day. If you don’t have enough agreement then you don’t get things done and you also don’t have major reforms locked in for the long term knowing that all sides of politics support them.
Something like seventy or eighty per cent of what goes through the parliament actually passes with the support of all parties, but much of that is what you might call “housekeeping” legislation. But on big reform, on real reform and reform is a word that is bandied around very loosely these days but with real reform you want to have broad support. In some cases, like Medicare for example, one side of politics will be on board and it will take another side of politics, in this case ours, a bit longer to get there. But eventually both sides of politics are fully on board. In reverse, the Goods and Services Tax and the new tax system, on our side of politics we were there first, and the other side took longer to get on board. But with the NDIS we have a reform where both sides of politics were there at its inception.
The Opposition, we were there and supportive with the initial reference to the Productivity Commission to look at long-term disability and care support. In fact, the Shadow Cabinet record will show that we actually had the same idea a couple of weeks before. I had put to Shadow Cabinet the idea of giving the Productivity Commission a referral.
The Opposition was also there with the Government in support when the Productivity Commission released their draft report on the NDIS. We were there with the Government in support when they released the final report on the NDIS. We were also there when we had the ‘Make It Real’ rallies around Australia a couple of months back, which the NDIS campaign had organised.
For me, it was just fantastic being at Federation Square and seeing thousands of people gathered in common purpose, calling for a better deal for Australians with disability. We saw the Prime Minister in Sydney declaring her support. We saw Tony Abbott in Perth declaring his support. Tony put it in a particularly Tony-sort-of way. He said ‘I’m known on many issues as Doctor No, but when it comes to an NDIS, I’m Doctor Yes’.
I think the importance of those rallies was that we witnessed Australia’s politicians entering a new covenant with Australians with disability. I use that word “covenant” quite deliberately because it has been a commitment to a fundamentally new relationship between government and people with disabilities and their families. I think that there is absolutely no turning back from that.
You would have seen as well, in the Budget just past, that the Government allocated $1 billion towards the NDIS. Again, the Opposition are fully supportive of that $1 billion. What I want to do at the outset of this morning is be absolutely unequivocal that the Federal Opposition supports an NDIS. I want an NDIS. Tony Abbott wants an NDIS. It’s a priority for me. It’s a priority for him. To underline that commitment the Federal Council of the Liberal Party has passed a motion in support of an NDIS. The Federal Council of the National Party has passed a motion in support of an NDIS. And at the Liberal Federal Council in Melbourne this weekend, we will again be reiterating our support for an NDIS. So we do have a great common cause and a great common purpose amongst Australia’s political parties for an NDIS.
I think the fact that we have got to this point isn’t a tribute to Australian political parties. It is a tribute to Australians with disability, to their families, to their carers, to those who advocate for them, and to those organisations who provide support to them. It’s because of their collective ceaselessness, it’s because they have combined to speak with one voice over the last few years that we are today at the point that we are at.
I want to take the opportunity this morning also, to pay tribute to John Della Bosca, who I think spoke earlier at this conference, and also to Kirsten Deane the Chair and Deputy Chair of the NDIS campaign. They have done a terrific job at keeping the pressure on all political parties. Just in acknowledging John Della Bosca, he is someone who has been a practitioner in the past of partisan politics, which is a noble profession. But I think it’s very important that people, after they’ve left the partisan political life, continue to make a contribution. I think John has demonstrated that and I think he has been completely even-handed and professional, and I think he deserves great credit for that.
It’s been a long wait for people with disability to get to this point. It’s a good point to be at, but as of this moment, not a thing has changed in terms of support for people with disability. We need to recognise that, but it’s good that we’ve got where we are. But because it’s been such a long wait, it’s understandable that people with disability have had to become a little bit like Kremlinologists of old having to pour over every word of utterance of politicians, seeing if with each speech by a senior figure on either side of politics, there’s some new commitment or a lessening of commitment to an NDIS. Whether it is a gesture or an off-hand comment at a doorstop, there should be some great meaning read into that. I can understand why people with disability have found themselves in that situation.
Tony Abbott gave a speech at the start of this year to the National Press Club which was subject to that sort of forensic examination. Tony outlined in that speech his priorities for the year and what the priorities would be for a Coalition government. One of the priorities that Tony made reference to was his commitment to a National Disability Insurance Scheme. He said that it was an idea whose time had come. He said that it was an important and necessary reform. But he also said something else that 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 was strongly in surplus. Now that was taken by many people to mean that a Coalition government would do nothing on an NDIS until the budget was in surplus. But that’s not what he said and that’s not what he meant. He said it couldn’t be fully implemented until the budget was strongly in surplus.
You can actually work towards a surplus and an NDIS at the same time. Tony’s point was that no major reform can be fully implemented unless the budget is in good nick. That was his point. So we want to work towards both an NDIS being implemented and a budget surplus at the same time. The budget surplus shouldn’t be seen as an impediment to an NDIS, it should be seen as what will actually deliver and sustain an NDIS in the long term. An NDIS isn’t the enemy of a budget surplus, and a budget surplus isn’t the enemy of an NDIS.
I’ve always seen the split between social policy and economic policy as a false dichotomy. I’ve always seen that as a false choice. Good social policy and good economic policy really are two sides of the one coin. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a bit like breathing in and breathing out. Breathing in is good economic policy. Breathing out is good social policy. You’ve got to have one with the other. You can’t have a good social policy without good economic policy. Some of our near neighbours would like a good social policy. It’s not that they’re against them; it’s just that they don’t have the economic situation or budget that can sustain it.
Sadly, the government have sought on some occasions to make a little bit of mischief on some of the things the opposition has said. Tony Abbott’s speech to the press club was an example of that, which I find a little bit disappointing because we want to be on the same page and working together as political parties towards an NDIS. But because there has been a little bit of mischief at the margins about where the opposition really stands on an NDIS, I want to take a little bit of time to explain to you the meaning of Tony’s comments at the National Press Club.
But to further underline Tony’s personal commitment to an NDIS I want to point to an event that Tony has been taking part in and organising for at least part of a decade, and that’s the annual Pollie Pedal, where Tony and colleagues get sponsorship and ride a thousand kilometres each year for a different cause. This year, Tony rode from Melbourne or Geelong I should say to Canberra and the organisation which benefited from this was Carers Australia. Through that venture, Tony raised $500,000 for Carers Australia. He stopped at each point along the route to meet with carer groups and people with disabilities to hear about their situation. At the end of the Pollie Pedal, Tony committed that the next two annual Pollie Pedal funds will go to Carers Australia. His commitment is real and he has practically demonstrated that.
The other reason for, or the other area where people with disabilities should draw some comfort from the opposition, is the approach that I’m taking to the portfolio. I have sought to bring very much a non-partisan approach to the portfolio for the simple reason that people with disability aren’t terribly interested in petty partisan point-scoring in this portfolio. They just want things fixed. I’ve also bought a fundamentally non-partisan approach because I think that’s the best way to try and get results. That’s the best way to try and get real reform happening. To that end, to try and ensure that an NDIS remains above partisanship, Tony Abbott has proposed to the Prime Minister a mechanism to do just that: that we establish a joint House-Senate parliamentary committee to oversight the implementation of the NDIS. And that committee should be chaired by a senior person from both sides of politics. The implementation of an NDIS is going to span several parliaments, a few elections, and possibly some changes of government, so we need a mechanism that can lock in that support from all the parties, and to ensure that there is a mechanism that provides oversight and that sort of continuity.
Another reason why it’s important to have that sort of parliamentary oversight committee is that the NDIS shouldn’t be owned by any one political party. The NDIS should be owned by the parliament as a whole and on behalf of Australians as a whole. Another reason why I think it’s important that we have this mechanism is so that there can be a forum that legitimate questions about the NDIS implementation, about the NDIS consultation, about eligibility and other issues, that there’s a forum where those questions can be asked in a way that they’re not seen to be partisan. Whenever an opposition asks questions in any portfolio area, they’re seen to be partisan, they’re seen to be point scoring. We need a forum where legitimate issues can be raised on behalf of Australians with disability in a way that’s not seen to be partisan.
I’m sure many of you know that a real concern for people with disability and organisations that represent them is the degree of consultation that is happening. Take people who have sensory impairment. There is a lot of concern among people who are deaf or hearing impaired that an NDIS may not cover them. There’s a lot of concern among people who are blind or vision impaired that an NDIS may not cover them. At the moment there is a vacuum of information. Information isn’t coming out to those people and because of that, they don’t know how they should be framing their questions, and they also don’t know the mechanism by which they should be asking them. If we had a parliamentary oversight committee of the nature that I’ve been describing, that would be an avenue for people, for organisations to say ‘hey we’re concerned about this, we’re not sure that this has been considered’. An oversight committee could make sure that those things are taken into consideration.
It may well be that if we had such a committee earlier that the initial phases of the NDIS may have been handled differently. From my personal point of view, I think it might have been better if the government had appointed a chair and a board for the National Disability Insurance Agency earlier in the piece, so that people who were actually going to be running the NDIS were involved in the building of it. So that people who were actually going to be running the NDIS were involved in the consultation. We have a number of bodies and organisations at the moment who are part of the NDIS process. We have the COAG Select Council on Disability Reform. We have a number of stakeholder consultation groups. There is an oversight body in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. If you look at all of the elements, all of the consultative bodies, all of the organisations that are involved at the moment it looks like a mud map or a bowl of spaghetti. We need to be clear as to who is responsible for what and how people should have input.
Now to try and bring this oversight committee together, Tony Abbott wrote twice to the Prime Minister. The PM wrote back a few weeks ago and she said no. I’ll be honest with you, the tone of the letter was dismissive. To sum it up, she said get nicked. That’s her reply. Tony wrote again, replying. Last night in the Senate, with a colleague from Queensland Senator Sue Boyce, I moved a motion to establish this committee. The Greens and the Labor Party combined to vote against a cross-party, non-partisan, oversight committee for the NDIS.
To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I was bitterly disappointed. The Government is quite prepared to mouth the words of bipartisanship, they are quite prepared to mouth the words that there should be cooperation and we should work together. But when it comes to giving bipartisanship meaning, when it comes to giving cooperation meaning and expression, the government has said no.
The Greens have proposed as an alternative that the Government provide periodic briefings to Parliamentary Friends of Disability, which is just an informal gathering of members of parliament. I don’t think that it’s an adequate substitute for parliamentary scrutiny. I don’t think that it’s an adequate substitute for getting a cross-party, non-partisan parliamentary oversight. So I will certainly continue to pursue that. I want there to be more than just the mouthing of bipartisanship. I actually want to see it be a reality for the NDIS, because the NDIS is too important to be owned by any political party. As I said before, it needs to be owned by the parliament as a whole. Australians need to feel that the parliament as a whole owns it, is committed to it, and that it is above and beyond politics. That’s what I will continue to work towards.
If I could just turn for a moment to the budget just passed, which I think also provides another example as to how this parliamentary oversight committee would have been useful. In the budget there was $1 billion over the forward estimates. That’s a good thing. The Coalition welcomes that and we support that $1 billion. The forward estimates is four years. The Productivity Commission, in their work, recommended that there be $3.9 billion spent over that four-year period. The Government hasn’t as yet given an explanation as to why there’s a difference of $2.9 billion, and how that shortfall will be made up. The parliamentary oversight committee could be a forum where that question could be posed.
The Government also announced in the budget that the launch sites for the NDIS would be brought forward by a year, or the commencement of them brought forward by a year to 2013. That would give the impression, and I think has given the impression to people, that if you start an NDIS a year earlier, the whole scheme will be finished a year earlier. But it looks as though although the government is starting the launch sites earlier, they will be rolled out over a longer period of time to fewer people. They are going lower and slower, if you like, in relation to the launch sites.
I don’t know if that will mean that the NDIS Productivity Commission target date of 2018-19 will now not be met. I don’t know if that means there will be a target date achieved before 2018-19 or whether 2018-19 will indeed be met. When I asked the government at senate estimates, they didn’t have an answer for me. They can’t answer that. If we had a parliamentary oversight committee, people like me would actually have the information and we would actually be in a position to know whether that trial does compromise the aim of an NDIS by 2018-19 or not. But I honestly don’t know.
If we had that parliamentary oversight committee, I would know if it’s possible to have those trial sites up and running by the middle of 2013. As of this coming weekend, it will be a year before those trial sites are due to be up and running. I don’t know if that’s achievable. I hope it is, but the simple answer is I don’t know. If we had this parliamentary oversight committee, we would be in a position to have a better idea about that. These are some of the questions which I have and which I think should be answered.
The NDIS is one of the great social reforms. There is sometimes a debate as to whether Australia should be looking towards a European model for social policy, or whether we should be looking more to Asia for our social policy. In Europe you have high taxation and you have massive government expenditure. In parts of Asia you have lower taxation, which is nice, but you don’t have the sort of social safety net which we would want in Australia. In my view we don’t need to look to either Europe or Asia for our inspiration. We have what I think is a uniquely Australian way, which is that we have lower taxation than Europe, we still have tax rates that are competitive with our Asian neighbours, but we have a social safety net which falls somewhere between Europe and Asia. I don’t think we need to look at either Europe or Asia. I think we’re very good in Australia at coming up with our own solutions to social policy challenges. We have crafted something pretty unique, what I like to call the Australian model, in terms of social policy.
The NDIS is another example of a uniquely Australian solution. I want to see it delivered. I want to see it become a reality. And as I hope that I’ve indicated to you today, I’m determined to see that, but I want to see that it’s owned by the entire parliament and that it delivers for all Australians. This can be one area of policy where the Australian public are proud of their parliament.