Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (12:48): I rise to speak on this package of 13 bills, the first of which is a bill to give effect to an increase in the Medicare levy from 1.5 per cent to two per cent from 1 July next year. There are 10 consequential tax bills. There is also the bill to establish the DisabilityCare Australia Fund, into which the levy proceeds will go. The 13th bill is essentially a housekeeping bill to make a number of amendments to the primary NDIS Act, which was passed in March.
I am pleased to indicate that the opposition was very happy to facilitate yesterday, in quick time, the passage of this legislation through the House of Representatives-courtesy of conversations between Mr Abbott’s office and Ms Gillard’s office. For the opposition’s part, we will ensure that this legislation is passed in quick time through this place. We have already agreed to exempt this legislation from the cut-off and to see it placed in the noncontroversial section of the chamber’s agenda for today. We do so because this parliament does have a shared commitment to a better deal for Australians with disability. In the words of Mr Abbott, the ‘NDIS is an idea whose time has come’.
Every senator in this chamber knows very well that the system of support for Australians with disability is broken. When we had the debate on the primary NDIS legislation and when we had the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs look at that legislation, I think all of us had reinforced the arbitrary nature of disability support around Australia.
There is consensus that we do need and will be getting a new system of support that is based on need rather than on rationing, where the entitlement will go to the individual, where the individual will be at the centre and in charge and where they will be able to pick their service provider for aids, equipment and other supports that they may receive. This was the vision of the Productivity Commission and it is the vision of the NDIS. I did see Mr David Bowen last night at the Carers Australia 20th anniversary function. I was hoping that he would leave and make it an early night because he needs all the energy he can possibly muster for the great adventure of which he is at this time the chief steward. I know all senators wish him well in the task that he and his staff have.
It is important to note that the NDIS is also a shared vision not just of the parliament but of every government in Australia and of every opposition in Australia. For its part, the federal coalition has enthusiastically supported each milestone on the road to the NDIS that has reflected the work of the Productivity Commission. We strongly support the six launch sites. We welcome the agreements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories for full jurisdiction-wide rollouts. We supported, as did all colleagues in this place, the NDIS act passed in March.
Mr Abbott demonstrated his personal commitment to Australians with disability and their carers by raising over $1.2 million through the 2012 and 2013 Pollie Pedal charity bike rides. Each year, along the 1,000 kilometre routes, Mr Abbott has met with people with disabilities and with carers, and with the organisations that support them. The next Pollie Pedal will also be in partnership with and raise funds for Carers Australia. For Mr Abbott, his commitment is not just professional; it is certainly personal.
All comments, questions and suggestions by the opposition in relation to the NDIS have been offered in a constructive spirit and in an endeavour to help make the NDIS be the best that it possibly can be. The coalition has stood ready at all times to work with the government and other parties to see the NDIS delivered as soon as possible. The coalition is strongly of the view that with full implementation of an NDIS, it would be nothing short of a new deal for people with disabilities and their carers. We do have to get this right. Because the NDIS is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver a better deal for Australians with disability, because it will unfold over the lives of several parliaments, we think it is important that the NDIS is seen as the property of the parliament as a whole rather than of any individual political party. When I say ‘property of the parliament as a whole’, that is on behalf of the Australian people.
To get this right will require a high level of consultation and attention to detail, not just now but over the full implementation period-not just in the launch sites but over the period of full jurisdiction and live rollout. That is why the coalition has called for the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee to be chaired by both sides of politics to oversee the establishment and implementation of the NDIS. I am very much of the view that a parliamentary oversight committee would serve as a symbol to the Australian community that all parties were locked in to support the NDIS and that it would provide a non-partisan environment in which issues of design and eligibility could be worked through constructively. I have not hidden my disappointment in the past on the three occasions when the parliament has declined the opportunity to support the establishment of this committee. In fact, I think the parliamentary oversight committee is even more important given the advent of a new tax base in the form of the Medicare levy increase that is before us and given the establishment of the DisabilityCare Australia fund into which the levy proceeds will be put. But I am very pleased that the government has now agreed to the establishment of a parliamentary committee that will operate on a bipartisan basis, and that has come about as a result of the interactions between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition over the last day or so. So, that is indeed good news. The terms of reference are not as extensive as envisaged in our initial proposition. But, should we form government, that is something that we would certainly address.
Let me reiterate that the coalition has supported the establishment of the NDIS every step of the way. We want it to be a success. We do not want it to be a political football. We want it to be a reality as soon as possible. We want to see it on a secure footing. And the best guarantee for the NDIS in the long term is good economic management, good budget management and a government that prioritises within its means. Economic policy and social policy are sometimes presented as alternatives or as being in competition, but they are not. You need a good economic policy in order to afford a good social policy. The Productivity Commission, for its part, recommended that the NDIS be funded from consolidated revenue. I think their view was that core government business should be funded from core government revenue.
Our view has long been that the problem under the current administration was not that Australians did not pay enough tax but rather that the current administration has not been a good steward of the ample taxes paid. We have long predicted that the government’s wrong priorities and waste and excessive spending would in fact compromise their ability to fund the NDIS from consolidated revenue. Until a few weeks ago the Prime Minister was also of the view that the NDIS should be funded from consolidated revenue. In fact, she categorically ruled out a levy, or the need for one, as recently as December. Instead, the government found a range of things to spend money on, and there was not adequate provision for the NDIS; hence the government’s levy proposition. Our view in relation to the levy is straightforward. We did not propose a levy. There should not be the need for a levy, and the government is only proposing a levy because they have blown the bank and have failed to prioritise. We on this side do not like tax increases, but we do not think Australians with disability should miss out on the better deal they deserve due to poor decisions by this government. I do not think that would pass the fair go test. This legislation that is before us, all 13 pieces of it, will pass with our support, but we do see the Medicare levy increase as being only a temporary measure until the budget has been repaired and is in strong surplus.
I will put our decision into a broader context. We know that the Productivity Commission did not recommend funding the NDIS through a new tax. We understand that many families are doing it tough and that tax increases are an impost on household budgets. That is why, rather than responding immediately, we took our time and soberly considered the government’s proposition to increase the Medicare levy. We do know that the current government’s management of the economy and its fiscal approach, and the state of the budget as a result of the decisions they have taken, do not currently allow the NDIS to be funded from consolidated revenue without further borrowings. Australians with a disability and their carers want the confidence that the NDIS means a permanent change in the way our country supports people with a disability. People with a disability should not have to wait any longer than is necessary for the support they need. For these reasons the coalition is prepared to support the government’s proposed increase to the Medicare levy.
It is also important to recognise that the Medicare levy increase does not cover the full cost of an NDIS. The levy does not cover the difference between what governments currently spend on disability and the full cost of an NDIS. When you take into account the 25 per cent of levy proceeds that the government will give to the states and territories for 10 years you will note that the levy covers perhaps 40 per cent of the Commonwealth’s required contribution to an NDIS in the period after the launch. We continue to call on the government to outline how the remaining 60 per cent of funding will be provisioned. Despite promising before the budget to do so, on the night of the budget the government has as yet failed to outline where the balance of the funds will come from. We will certainly be taking the opportunity of Senate estimates to further explore, unpack and disaggregate some of the funding information which the government provided on budget night.
I do not need to tell anyone that the NDIS is a huge venture of great proportions. According to the Australian Government Actuary, it will have a gross cost of $22 billion in complete form and will require additional contributions from all governments of more than $10½ billion dollars beyond 2018-19. When such a big call is being made on taxpayers they are entitled to know exactly what the NDIS will achieve and who it will support. The government needs to provide greater clarity on that.
The 460,000 Australians who will be supported by the NDIS are entitled to have a full appreciation of the gateway to the scheme. The gateway to the NDIS has a number of elements. There are the eligibility criteria in the act, there are the regulations, known as the NDIS rules, some of which have been released in draft form, and the NDIS national assessment tools, which have not as yet been publicly released.
When looking at the issue of gateways it is important to recognise that the Productivity Commission report has been in the government’s hands for two years, that this is a $22 billion scheme and that there is a new tax base being created in the form of the Medicare levy increase that will part fund the scheme. It is important also to consider it against the backdrop that NDIS launch sites go live in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania in six weeks time.
When the opposition indicated we would consider the increase to the Medicare levy we said that the government needed to introduce legislation to establish a fund in which the levy proceeds would be held; the government has done that. We said that the government also needed to legislate to the Future Fund as guardians of the fund, and the government has done that. We also said that the government needed to release the final NDIS rules and the national assessment tool, which has not happened as yet.
When the opposition has raised the issue of the tools and the rules there have been some who have said that the opposition is getting down into the weeds, but I think it is important to recognise that, for Australians with significant disability, the assessment tools and the NDIS rules are not a theoretical mechanism. They are elements which will combine to underpin the opportunities and quality of life for these individuals.
It has also been suggested that people who want to know the eligibility arrangements for the scheme should grab a copy of the act. I do not believe that the Prime Minister, in saying that, seriously contended that Australians with disability should grab a copy of the act, grab a set of the draft rules, hunt down the national assessment tool and try to work it out themselves. I have said before and I will reiterate that I think it would be extremely helpful to potential scheme participants if a series of cameos or worked examples were released so that people with physical, sensory, intellectual, cognitive or neurological impairments could have a handle on their likely eligibility under the scheme. The same goes for people with psychiatric conditions. I do not think it is unreasonable to expect this sort of detail for a $22-billion scheme that is due to commence in about six weeks time.
I will draw a contrast with a another significant reform. When the Howard-Costello government was preparing for the new tax system, the GST, the government of the day produced over 1,000 fact sheets and dozens of cameos and worked examples as to the effects of the tax on every type of household and business. This was done more than a year before the legislation came into the parliament and more than two years before the legislation took effect. I cannot imagine that, when Peter Costello was fielding questions about the new tax system, he ever responded that people should grab themselves a copy of the legislation and work it out for themselves. I think there is a need for some accessible cameos and worked examples in addition to the release of the rules and the national assessment tools. In the absence of some of that sort of information it is difficult to develop a complete picture as to how the scheme will work. I want to be clear: this is in no way a criticism of the staff of FaHCSIA or the transition agency. I think they are working as hard as they can. But that information would be helpful.
The opposition will be supporting this legislation. We look forward to working with all parties to see the NDIS become a reality.