Disability Scheme Shows the Best in Us

DisabilityCare Australia may be Julia Gillard’s enduring legacy.

In a budget week of deficits and billion-dollar figures, of cuts and thrusts across the body politic, there was a moment of unifying commendation. Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard rose to give the second reading of the Medicare Levy Amendment (DisabilityCare Australia) Bill 2013.

It was the day after the federal budget and its attendant clamour. It was, however, the eve of momentous change in how we tend to those less fortunate in our society. It drew a rare bipartisan approach, and a pause in the election war.

If the polling trends prove correct and Australia has a new prime minister come mid-September, Ms Gillard can at least look back at the establishment of the national disability insurance scheme as one of her government’s crowning achievements.

The worth of a government can be measured in several ways: its management of the economy, its defence of its borders, and its provision of services to its citizens. Yet it is at the last point that the service can fall far below what is required. This had been the case in the care of the disabled. DisabilityCare Australia brings their plight out of the shadows. Wherever their position lies on the political spectrum, all must agree this is an unarguably decent and compassionate change. It will improve lives. It will become part of life, just as Medicare has.

The disability scheme had its genesis in a Productivity Commission report from 2011. Three years earlier, Bill Shorten, as parliamentary secretary for disabilities, set up a group to examine funding for the disabled. It was from the group’s recommendations that the commission then reviewed disability care and support. Its finding? In short, something had to be done. Doing nothing was not an option. Last week, Canberra showed that it could do something.

In July, the scheme will be introduced in the Hunter Valley, where 10,000 people will benefit, and in Victoria’s Barwon region, with an expected 5000 beneficiaries. It then will be introduced in stages: the ACT (2016), NSW and South Australia (2018), and Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland (2019). Western Australia has yet to agree to the scheme.

The scheme’s first year of full operation will be 2019-20. It is expected to cost $22.2 billion to cover 460,000 Australians. Canberra will supply just over half of this, the remainder coming from the states and territories. Up until 2019, the government has committed $14.3 billion. From July 2014, funds will be generated from a half a percentage point increase in the Medicare levy to 2 per cent (which is expected to provide $20 billion up to that first full year), and other measures such as private health insurance changes.

The long-term funding of the scheme is, of course, the foundation on which the vision and the promises had to be built. Voters, already deeply cynical about politicians’ motives, would have been rightly outraged if DisabilityCare had been constructed as anything but a permanent part of society. Worse, it would have taken from those who are disabled and their families the belief that their lives are the equal of others. This would have been unforgivable.

In her speech to Parliament last week, Ms Gillard said that ”in this bill, we see Australia at its very best”. The Prime Minister was right. Cynics might see in this statement a little self-congratulation; for ”Australia”, read ”Labor”. But we also saw that rare thing when the lives of the vulnerable can visit the heart of the political beast and move it to action. Ms Gillard was clearly affected when she spoke in Parliament of her meetings with two young disabled people. There would be no turning back, she said, from this point. Her voice cracked with emotion.

If after September 14, she is no longer prime minister, then she should take comfort in this past week. It may well be her enduring legacy.

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Funding and Data, NDIS


The Age